Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
Being invested in games

J3w3l is discussing being invested in games, and how it relates to difficulty. Quote: "the amount of difficulty that is acceptable to me really relates to my level of investment. The more I’m invested in a game the more I will go to extreme lengths in order to achieve something or complete it.". While I know the feeling, I couldn't help but think that there is a circular argument here somewhere. Because not only does the amount of difficulty that is acceptable to a player relate to his level of investment, the amount of investment in a game relates to whether he finds the game fun, which often depends on whether he finds it challenging.

Basically what you want from a game is a sweet spot of difficulty, where the game is neither trivial nor frustrating. Ideally there would be some sort of feedback from the game that told you that you are doing okay, but if you could just improve your performance a bit, you'd do better. Or that you failed by a tiny margin, and you could probably manage if you tried again. Unfortunately there are many game elements that get into the way of that:

  • Obvious "gotcha" traps, which are designed to make you fail and are nearly impossible to avoid without foreknowledge. Yes, you can beat that level if you try it again, but not because you somehow play better on the second attempt. You simply know where the stupid pitfall is.
  • Too much randomness. Typical example would be a game of Magic the Gathering where you lose because you never drew the second type of land, in spite of there being 12+ of them in the deck. Again, you'll probably do better on the second attempt, but again that isn't in any way related to you having gotten better at playing.
  • Fixed difficulty game design. Simple games like Tetris get difficulty right because you advance quickly to the level where you are challenged. Complicated games like Civilization or XCOM get difficulty right by letting you choose it at the start. Many MMORPGs get difficulty wrong because they neither have a natural smooth progression of difficulty, nor give you any choice about it. They force you to do stuff at trivial difficulty for hundreds of hours, and then have sudden steep steps up where with no prior training you are suddenly supposed to know how to play well in a team.
Some PvP game designs can get difficulty right if they have a good matchmaking and ladder system that succeeds in always finding you an opponent that is as good as you are. But then PvP games come with a host of social problems (which often lead to you hating your team more than you hate the enemy), and all kinds of cheating and ratings manipulation which negate all advantages of a matchmaking system.

One way out of all this is to play games in which you are invested not because they challenge you, but because they are fun in other ways. Some games simply tell a great story in an interesting way. A game can also just be a social platform, where the social interaction with other players becomes far more important than "winning". Pen & paper role-playing games manage both story-telling and social interaction well. But then they have a DM who can adjust challenge level to be always be at the sweet spot. Computer games aren't all that good at that.

Some games tell a good story in an interesting way -- and that's when you become invested in them and allow the game to have a higher difficulty. I finished Mass Effect 2 for the first time on insanity this week. Not because I am such a great player or like to be punished, but because I like the Mass Effect story and by now played the game so much that insanity has become the sweet spot for keeping me challenged.

But then they have a DM who can adjust challenge level to be always be at the sweet spot. Computer games aren't all that good at that.

But why can't they be? A computer records very well how good you are in the game. It knows how often you die, why you die, how good your reaction time is, if you can aim well, if your build sucks, etc. If a game has a more fine granular difficulty setting than "newb - standard player - masochist", then it could make adjustments based on your performance. A player dies 20 times within 30 seconds on this boss? So let the game slide the difficulty from 65/100 to 63/100, warn the player and allow him to reject that adjustment. Blast through your enemies in no time? Let the game raise the difficulty rating. Oh, and keep track of the difficulty adjustments as well.
Shouldn't be too difficult to implement.
I don't really agree that there is a single "sweet spot" of difficulty for each player that a game should always be at. I think it works better to have a range of difficulty each player faces, sometimes fairly easy and sometimes quite challenging. Most of my favorite games from the past have large portions that aren't really all that challenging, with parts that are quite challenging and may require multiple attempts.
For me the sweet spot in difficulty is when I feel challenged but win 80-90% of the time, anyway. Which is why matchmaking is the wrong system for me.

I want to win more often if I play better, not advance some arbitrary number called rank.

What worked really well for me was classic WoW that gave you the option to take less damage and thus have less downtime, or be more mana efficient and thus have less downtime, or to pull 2 or 3 enemies instead of one.
Or to make it through some mobs and thus see the end of the cave.
For me the sweet spot in difficulty is when I feel challenged but win 80-90% of the time, anyway. Which is why matchmaking is the wrong system for me.

PvP can never offer more than a 50% sustained win ratio to everybody. If you set up a system where some players win 90% of the time, another group of players would lose 90% of the time. Then the losers quit and the winners have to play against each other, reducing their win ratio.
PvP can never offer more than a 50% sustained win ratio to everybody

Agreed. I was talking about PvE.

In PvP I find that games which contain lots of mini games are most fun to me. Typical example that everybody knows: WoW battlegrounds. You may not win the game more often than some 50%+-5%. But you can actually have lots of wins inside the BG, be it in a duel or in capturing a flag.

What's also lots of fun to me is zerging, like classic Alterac Valley. Sure, you die every now and then, but you experience / participate in the death of many enemies before you die. It feels like winning often and losing (dying) rarely.
Gaming landscape has changed as well.

From my MMO perspective, I find that not only alts but *other* MMOs affect the difficulty I will tolerate.

When I raided with a pally and lock three nights a week in 2009, I was much more focused on my performance. When I now have multiple alts in multiple MMOs, I am not that interested and motivated in improving performance on alt#2 on MMO#3.
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