Tobold's Blog
Sunday, July 07, 2013
Punishing games don't sell

Just a quick weekend-link to an Extra Credits YouTube video explaining the difference between a game that is difficult and fun versus one that is punishing and frustrating.

They contradict themselves by talking up Dark Souls as difficulty done well - the game is built on the premise that you are excessively punished for dying by having to trudge back to the point where you died.

I've been playing the so called "perfect" (10/10) The Last Of Us and that like many stealth games suffers from trial and error memory test gameplay. A number of sections lead to "no chance in hell" deaths until you learn the patterns/technique required for that section. At least it doesn't put you back too far from where you died though.
Forgot to add that I look forward to seeing the sales figures of the next Dark Souls game.

The previous games sold mostly on reviews (only PS3 owners knew what they were getting) and I suspect that the review writers are out of touch with the wider games buyers tastes. When the next version comes out we will be making purchasing decisions based on experience.

I'd love to see a full break down of sales figures for the previous releases and even better would be stats from Steam /Xbox Live showing how many buyers quit after an hour.

One assumes that publishers and devs have sight of those numbers and can make an informed decision as to whether the difficulty will sell it or hinder it. Puts them in a sticky position if they know it has to be easier to sell more copies but they put themselves at risk of a negative backlash from reviewers.
I think the situation is more complex that the Penny Arcade video suggests. It is true that Super Meatboy succeeds by having almost no iteration time. The player gets right into the action. Yet I can think of games that have long iteration times that work too.

FTL springs to mind. When you die in FTL it is game over and you have to start again from scratch. Yet the game works brilliantly and it is generally agreed that permadeath is part of it's attraction. I think that In FTL the knowledge of perma death increases immersion in the game. I will agree that the game is not however excessively punishing. FTL games typically only last half an hour so the loss isn't that excessive. Perhaps more importantly every game plays out differently so it is not like redoing the same stuff all over again.
I've been playing the so called "perfect" (10/10) The Last Of Us and that like many stealth games suffers from trial and error memory test gameplay.

I cannot think of any singleplayer/PvE game which does not suffer from this. As soon as you can "try again", the memorization is more or less a consequence.
Most PVE singleplayer games I play usually present you with a situation and give you enough time to use your common sense and intelligence to succeed. In other words you have a "chance" as opposed to no chance.

Yeah boss encounters can be different but I find encounters with regular enemies allow you to use your your wits to survive.

It is mostly a problem with the stealth genre in this day and age where without prior memorisation you are doomed to instant failure.

Games like Dishonoured get around this by giving you the "shoot your way out" option. Sure it can alter the story in some ways but that adds re-playability for those wanting to 100% stealth it as opposed to punishing those that don't.

In The Last Of Us you often just die instantly and on the occasions when you try to fight your way out you often lack the resources (bullets/shivs) or simply get overwhelmed.

Even worse is that some of the "clicker" sections result in instant death without prior memorisation and that is identical regardless of what difficulty mode you selected.
I am with Woody on this. I would give Dead Space 2 as another example of this, where you are killed every 10-20 minutes by something you could not possibly have known to avoid before it kills you the first time and you reload.

An example would be an area where a window is suddenly shot out and you are sucked out into space. If you are on one side of the room closer to the window, you cannot avoid it. I don't mean it is too difficult, I mean it literally removes player control and kills you in a cut scene.

The only way to pass it? Move far away from the window on your second try. There is no conceivable role playing reason why you would do this, except that you know from your recent death you have to. This isn't some challenge, it's just being a dick to your players.

Dark Souls is difficulty done well, because the game doesn't impose new rules and limitations every once and a while to "make you lose". With DS, what you see in the start is all you get.

If you can hit something, you can kill it, eventually.
If you have a view to a place or a monster, you are not penalized for trying to shoot at it from a "safe spot".
A specific trap that deals 50 damage (an example) in level one, will deal that same damage later on in the game when encountered again, and will not insta-kill you just to "ramp up the difficulty".

Dark Souls is very hard, but also very fair. Compare this to "The Last of Us", where trying to kill a clicker with the non-recommended way results to insta-death, then ... yeah... completely different issues.
But I never criticised Dark Souls for those factors you discuss. I never said that the deaths themselves are unfair. My criticism was in relation to the punishment for dying - forced repetition.

This is about the difference between being "hard" and being "punishing".

Contrary to the views of most mmorpg players, I don't believe that forced repetition time sinks = difficulty.

The video Tobold linked stated that this time/work required to recover from the failure made a game punishing as opposed to hard but then went on to say that the game was a good example of being difficult but not punishing!

You may enjoy that forced repetition in which case I can't argue with you, but I can argue that the video is contradictory!

The video does not state that "time/work required to recover from the failure made a game punishing as opposed to hard". It states "to make a game not punishing, lower its iteration time".

Examples in the video provided for iteration:

Meatboy, no downtime at all.
Fire emblem, 10 minutes of downtime.

As someone who has beaten Dark Souls multiple times, I can say it does not fall within either of these categories, it is somewhere in between, therefore it is not a contradiction to say that Dark Souls' difficulty was done well. For example, one could say that they reduced the iteration time by adding shortcuts/multiple bonfires per level to the game (which didn't necessarily need to be there at all, and in not being there, would have made the game punishing).

Another important thing to notice is that such downtime in Dark Souls is entirely dependent on the player - his analysis skills, exploration, timing, current gear and so forth. As such, these downtimes effectively encourage the player to try new things, another point praised by the video.
Ah another fanatical Dark Souls fan valiantly jumping to the defence of his game.

Defending it from what though? No one is criticising it per say. There is nothing wrong with it being punishing; the game is even marketed as such!

The punishing nature of the game has been its selling point. People play it as a badge of honour, for the epeen and for the special snowflake status.

That is all fine. The question, as per Tobolds topic, is whether punishing games sell. Of course they sell; the real question is how much? Not as much as a game without punishment.

As I said in a previous post, I suspect that sales of the upcoming sequel won’t be that high. A lot of people bought the original as it had review hype and looked like a decent fantasy RPG – a popular genre. I suspect that most of the buyers learned about its punishing nature the hard way and decided that they didn’t like it.

By the way, attacking the terminology I use only suggests that you lack a decent defence against my accusation of it being punishing. A lot of readers probably didn’t watch the video and those that did may not have remembered the term used in the video. They wouldn’t know what I meant if I said “iteration rate”.

I merely described the concept in layman’s terms – the iteration rate is determined by how much time/effort/repetition is required to get back and reattempt the part that got you killed. You know what I meant but sadly resorted to playing web forum games /sigh.

By using repetitive time-sinks Dark Souls effectively throttles the amount of practise you can have on a tough section or boss. Whilst slightly different it is still the same principle as Blizzards “limited attempts” or one hour window restrictions on some WoW bosses.

Artificially creating a fake and frustrating level of difficulty by punishing the player via a time penalty that restricts the rate at which you can have practise attempts.

By the way, whether it is more or less punishing than another game that has been labelled “punishing” is no defence.

Dark Souls “may” be less punishing than Fire Emblem but it is still a relatively punishing game compared to most titles. As someone that confesses to finishing it multiple times (with all that entails) you are not the best placed to make statements as to the iteration time for a typical new player – the vast majority that likely traded it in after an hour. I don’t think the iteration time for a vocal niche player is relevant to this discussion because players who got stung last time won’t buy the game again simply because a niche player who sunk their life into it found smart ways to reduce the death penalty.

With no modification will Dark Souls 2 sell to many of those mass market players who traded in the last one? I doubt it. Do the devs know/care? Well there was talk of an easier mode wasn’t there? If there isn’t, I am sure one will be forced upon them if the series is to expand and become more profitable. You can bet there is pressure from investors for that to happen. I see it either developing an easy mode and going mass market or retreating into a lower budget niche title. The original was technically shoddy in places and could have done with a bigger budget, but that budget and the polish it would bring requires a larger audience.

For the record I declined to buy Fire Emblem because of those iteration issues that were raised in reviews. Kind of daft game design given that it is on a handheld and will likely be played in short bursts.
Punishment is games is not just about faster iteration times.

Ridge Racer Revolution on the PS1 had punishment in the form of an announcer that would start constantly making fun of you every time you weren't in the lead.

As a kid, he would frustrate me to the point of wanting to throw my controller.

As for time based punishment, that is the cost of failure. Its fine if the game doesn't sucker punch you (as the Dead Space 2 example used earlier). But if the game is fun, and you could have avoided the death but messed up (as opposed to strange controller behavior), then the punishment is almost non-existant.

Not all replays are as punishing, regardless of having to do a boss fight or challenge again.
Taking your time aren't you? What's wrong? Engine trouble?!

You are confused. I was not defending the game, I was defending the video.

I only attack your terminology because it's factually incorrect. Your personal interpretations do not make something contradict, actual statements do.

In regards to the game, the whole "punishing" thing is really just a myth. It is neither hard, nor punishing. It can be hard if you make it hard for yourself by not paying attention and ignoring everything the game is telling you. All of the bosses can be defeated with the right set of equipment, blocking and healing, neither of which require some supreme skill or grind, mostly common sense. The amount of time it takes to return to any previous location you've been to from the closest bonfire hardly ever exceeds a minute, as long as you don't stop on the way to sightsee - I wouldn't blame you, it has some gorgeous views to behold. As someone who has beaten it employing the above skills, I can attest to this.

Will Dark Souls 2 sell a lot? I don't speculate. I don't know how the market looks, nor what it wants, and I surely do not pretend to, so I abstain from any statements regarding it. Maybe you are right, and DS2 will flop. Maybe you are wrong, and it will remain successful. The sales will tell. And then we can talk about it.

Finally, the reason my reply took so long was because I was participating in a very punishing and repetitive grind of Path of Exile levels, which has a relatively long iteration time. Many iterations were had, my boy, some may say, too many. Well, at least I am not dead on my hardcore character.
Actually I also watched that video and thought "They're missing the trees for the forest" in Dark Souls. I think I am one of many who bought that game and...after much time spent trying to master it...realized that the game is not my cup of tea. The top reason, of course,is that when I die I respawn back to find everything has regenerated, which forces me to go through ten and twenty minutes of additional material I've already beat, only to get insta-killed down the road again when I least expected it. Is it a game you can master through precisely measuring it's consistent rules as indicated int he video? Yes. Howaver, I don't have the energy or sense of reward necessary to invest the time to get to that point, and what the game does offer is not, ultimately, the sort of thing I'm looking for. I'm inclined to agree with Woody that we're going to see a lot of "no sale" decisions on #2, because of people like me who figured out after purchase that this style of game was not rewarding.

In a twist of course Dead Space 2 was mentioned earlier as "tough" with hidden kills. I found the game pretty easy, but concede with the sucked-into-space example, it only happened once for me; after the first time I cautiously avoided shooting explosives, aliens, or other stuff while near windows opening into space.
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