Tobold's Blog
Monday, October 10, 2016
 
Malicious difficulty

With a few exceptions, playing a computer game requires at least some degree of skill. The skill required might be very low, but to be actually a *game* and not an interactive story there has to be some sort of decision-making or timing of button-presses involved that makes some sort of difference to the outcome. Whether a game is difficult or easy depends on the details: How precisely do you need to aim to hit your target? How much time do you have to hit the right button? How many moves do you have to solve that puzzle?

And because that difficulty is variable, it is very common to find games that start out easy and get more and more difficult by varying those parameters: Your responses need to be more precise, you get less time, you get less moves, there are more obstacles. So far, so good. But it is easy to realize that this difficulty is somewhat arbitrary: The basic process of playing Tetris remains the same regardless of how fast the pieces fall, but the speed of the falling pieces compared to the player's reaction time determines how difficult a particular level is. That is even more evident if you look at role-playing games or games that use the role-playing element of characters having gear and statistics: Whether a fight against a particular monster is easy or difficult depends on your gear and stats, often far more than it depends on your ability to press the right button quick enough.

In an age of Free2Play games, that difficulty can be used by the developers in malicious ways: The game starts out easy enough, but quickly becomes more and more difficult to a point where it becomes nearly impossible. And then you get an offer to pay real money for virtual power, which would make the game easier again. That is pretty much regardless of the type of game: Role-playing games sell you epic gear that makes fights easier, while puzzle games sell you bonus moves and other gadgets that solve the puzzle faster.

Most people only complain if these games are PvP, and paying for power is considered to be Pay2Win. But frankly the problem can be even worse in some PvE games, which after a short time become nearly unplayable if you didn't pay for some added power. Because the pay wall is somewhat flexible and at least to some degree depends on player skill, it is somewhat less evident; and players don't complain because others might respond to their complaint by telling them that they suck at that game. That doesn't mean that this isn't a problem. Because in PvE games the developers have a much higher control about the difficulty, it is easier to constantly make the game more and more difficult until the players either give up or pay up. The in-app purchases of bonuses that are described as optional quickly become mandatory, and in some cases skill plays such a small role in determining outcome that even the most skillful need to pay to play.

I much prefer the greater honesty of having a very visible paywall in a game. Hey, you can play until level X for free, but then you need to pay to unlock the rest of the game. Trying to achieve the same by maliciously increasing the difficulty beyond what is justified by game design is just dirty tricks.

Comments:
Well, yes.

But the 'dirty' approach to monetization is also tons more profitable, because unless the developers get too greedy too quickly, by the time you are asked to pay for power you will most likely be too inested in the game to give it up. And after the first payment, the next one comes easier since you are even more invested now. This is also how lockboxes work in F2P games as well. You want reward X, spend 50$ in boxes to get it, get zilch, continue to spend because if you'd quit now those initial 50$ would be wasted.

Cutting you loses and quiting is something not a lot of people are willing to do, even outside of gaming. Just look at how many business owners go into deep debt because they were unable to admit early on that their venture was a bust.
 
For me this look like a good deal. THis is quite similar to WoW token or Eve, where the most hardcore player can play for free while the others shall pay. You has the right to test the game before buying access, and see if the game is worth the price.

The only tricky part is that you do not know how much to spend to have access to the rest of the game. And how much playtime a fix amount of money it buy.

 
Hmm.

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/shortcuts/2013/mar/26/apples-in-app-game-charges-kids-bills

This article is about kids, but I wonder how many people are stuck paying for the mobile game addictions of the spouse / etc?

F2P is legal crack and "no return gambling" all wrapped into one. If the human race were an "enlightened species" we would have no part of it! But we're not, so we fall for these all too apparent marketing ploys.

In a different category are the "penny auction" sites like beezid that you see advertised. It's not shopping! It's gambling! And it's almost certainly a rigged game. It astounds me that people don't see right through this ploy.

I avoid anything that says it's "free" like the plague... because if your product is so bad that you can't say how much it costs up front, there must be a sinister reason.
 
Did you try the new Legion Mythic+ dungeons? They are brutal. I can't understand how some players manage to clear Mythic 15. Now... that is some serious dedication, awareness and skill.
 
This is why the real future of true mass-market online entertainment is in interactive storytelling not "games".
 
Rugus said...

"Did you try the new Legion Mythic+ dungeons? They are brutal. I can't understand how some players manage to clear Mythic 15. Now... that is some serious dedication, awareness and skill."

But is it skill or is it perfect gearing? Damage and healing done, hence... survivability, increase exponentially as gear goes up in iLevel and stat optimization. That required mindless grinding of lesser dungeons to get the perfect Titanforged items.

This is bad design. It holds no life grinders as the "pinnacle of skill" when in reality, "skill" contains a preset factor of diminishing returns.

"Challenge" and "multiplayer content" are not co-trackable terms. "Challenge" is solipsistic (In that it's you against the gestalt of other players and environment.) while "Multiplayer content" needs a compressed skill-response curve to more average the results. (A baseball team with Superman on it will generally win. Raiding is set up with "supermen" compensated by punishing mechanics that, when not done by the lesser players on the team, remove the advantage of the superman.) As such: Single player content for challenge but no other reward than achievements, and multi player content to get tiny gear upgrades beyond what you gain in single player content.

I probably could have worded that better, but I don't have time to write a book here.

Bhagpuss said...

"This is why the real future of true mass-market online entertainment is in interactive storytelling not "games" "

Yup. This is the logical conclusion.
 
"But is it skill or is it perfect gearing? Damage and healing done, hence... survivability, increase exponentially as gear goes up in iLevel and stat optimization. That required mindless grinding of lesser dungeons to get the perfect Titanforged items."

Skill in mythics is something you need to acquire once, since higher levels don't add new mechanics, just mob buffs. And in the majority of the dungeon (i.e. trash), the skill part falls squarely on the shoulders of the tank (knowing what to pull) and healer (knowing what your healing checks are, as well as how to DPS while healing). Perfect gearing is somewhat irrelevant, assuming you are at least somewhat geared for the content (doing +10 in ilevel 840 will suck hard).

What metters the most is group composition (specs) and builds (talents), which will slightly vary as you progress through the ranks. If you ignore this, your clearing times will literally double, meaning you will be missing a lot of timers, killing your progression.
 
I think the problem is that most people have become too mean to pay for games in the ordinary way, except maybe if it's a heavily advertised AAA game. So they have to be 'tricked' into paying. The predictable end result of the Free To Play race to the bottom.
 
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