Tobold's Blog
Sunday, January 17, 2016
Hunting aliens

I very much like most games of the UFO / XCOM franchise, especially those that remained true to the original MicroProse concept of the game. So while I generally don't pre-order games nor buy them at release, I did pre-order Firaxis' XCOM 2. So I was reading a number of previews like this one, all of which mentioned the extreme difficulty level of the game, and how much it hurts to lose characters you spent much time customizing and building up. That, and some discussion on my blog this week, made me think about difficulty in PvE games.

For me a game is first and foremost an area of liberty, where I can experiment with different things without having to fear serious consequences like in real life. Especially in strategy and tactical games much of the fun of the game to me is to try out different strategies and tactics, and see which ones work better and which ones don't work so good. A game where building up power is very slow, and any minor mistake or even just random bad luck can set you back by a lot or even make continuing the game impossible to me is simply not much fun. "High difficulty" in such a game means either following exactly the one best strategy and tactics and then praying for luck. If there are 20 ways to approach a problem and 19 of them don't work and punish you severely, trying out things becomes a rather painful exercise. You end up searching the internet for a guide or YouTube video telling you the one and only way that works. Which is pretty much why I gave up raiding in World of Warcraft.

I am pretty sure that when I get XCOM 2, I will start playing at the lowest possible difficulty level to try things out. Then I can only hope that the release version has options which make the easiest difficulty not as punishing as the preview versions that some journalists got to play. But if the easy mode then turns out to be actually easy, I'll dial it up for the next game until I reach a good balance between challenge and frustration. I don't like Telltale "you always win and just follow the story" games either. I want a game where I can use my creativity to develop clever strategies and tactics, and where severe punishment is reserved for stupid mistakes. A strategy that is just sub-optimal should result in slower progress and encourage you to keep trying; it shouldn't result in a loss of hours of gameplay or force you to completely restart from scratch.

I do think that "one single difficulty" games are a design mistake. Different players enjoy different degrees of challenge. And in a game where the player is not up against other players, but only against the script and the AI, "difficulty" becomes a completely arbitrary concept. There *are* people buying and enjoying those Telltale games, because they really just want a sort of mildly interactive story with very little challenge. And there are others who like extremely punishing rogue-like games where even perfect tactics only give you a low chance of getting to the end of the game. The thing is that in a game like XCOM you can easily have both of those, by just fiddling with some numerical parameters. I especially liked version of the game where you could separately set the difficulty level of the strategy / economic base management game and the tactical combat against aliens game, because again different players have different preferences here. There really is no reason why people shouldn't be able to tune the difficulty level of a single-player game to their liking.

Telltale games should not be sold as "games" but interactive movies. The story telling is really well done and they got the main actors from Game of Thrones to voice their characters in the game. Confronting Ramsay or being bitched at by Cersei is intense.

The ethical dilemmas Telltale presents you with are not easy to answer, but unfortunately you only have a couple seconds for the decision where I'd like to think a bit. But then again... sadly the choices you make have little to no impact on the story itself. Just watch Telltale games as if they are episodes of the show and you'll have a great time.

Regarding game difficulty: the older I get the more games I play on lower difficulties. While I played the original Doom and Quake games at least on Ultra Violence and sometimes Nightmare I'm not twitchy anymore and get my satisfaction living the story instead of beating difficult monsters. Basically if I have to think about the solution it can be hard, but shooters don't have to anymore.
"I do think that "one single difficulty" games are a design mistake."

Honestly, this is one of several different ways a lot of developers behave like spoiled children saying, "No! You can't play YOUR way! YOUR way is wrong! Only play MY way!"
That is one reason, why i did not install the "Long War" Mod for X-Com.
I enjoyed the "Enemy Within" very much and did not need more challende.

I'm hoping for the exact same thing, for the exact same reasons. One person I know who previewed it noted that the game design was pushing them towards a certain (more agile, reactive) playstyle with more moving parts, with more severe penalties for not adapting as rapidly, and that bothered me a little. It falls very much in that whole category of dictating the 'one right way to play' attitude that so many devs seem to have.

I will still probably pre-order, but I'm really hoping that the difficulty has been overstated.
The more a 'game' is about liberty, the less it's a game and the more it's just a toy.

Further, saying you should fail only on 'stupid mistakes' would mean only on the mistakes you'd never make anyway. Again, making it not about being a game.
The eternal problem of "consequences".... If you die in an MMO, should you lose everything (so that's really hardcore) or just receive a slap on the wrist?

As much as the "real consequence" for your actions is nice, it has the unfortunate side effect of ensuring that people mostly play it safe, which is pretty much the opposite of what I'm looking for in a game.
So by all means add difficulty levels, this way I can choose then one which allows me to try idiotic stuff without wasting time replaying endlessly parts of the game.
The more a 'game' is about liberty, the less it's a game and the more it's just a toy.

So you are saying that chess is not a game because the rules do not force me to burn the board and the chess pieces every time I lose, but give me the liberty to try again with no penalty?
Losing game pieces are not real life consequences. The chess example is bad: if you make a mistake in chess against a competent opponent, you usually get a "you lost" screen and lose all your progress in the game, having to start it from a clean set.

I agree with you that many game developers are lazy or incompetent in creating challenging games and replace it with "you can do it one and only one way and it's unintuitive".

But the elephant in the room is "severe punishment is reserved for stupid mistakes", because "stupid" is a very arbitrary concept. You and me might agree that any reasonable person, even with zero gaming experiment would not put a wizzard hat and a robe on a barbarian with two axes. But we both saw cloth-wearing fury warriors. The thing is that:
- "Impossible" is something YOU can't do
- "Hard" is something you can do with focus but still mess up sometimes
- "Trivial" is something that you would very rarely mess up
For example e^0*sin(pi/2) is something that you can solve without effort, while 99% of the population could not solve in an hour without looking up.

Perhaps the better chess analogy is that you can use a chess board to play checkers. Does that somehow make chess less of a game?

No one is saying more challenging difficulties shouldn't exist, just that there should ALSO be other options.
As Gevlon says, yes, you hit 'you lose' and certainly the current board configuration does burn and reset. If losing isn't a penalty/something to avoid, you weren't playing to begin with.

It's a really misplaced comparison to make between a number of discrete, separate games and one really long one.

Your soldier died - it's the same as losing your knight.

It's just that chess will finish in about an hour - and the game with the soldier is going to go for maybe 40 hours or even more.

Perhaps instead of more liberty, the game could just go for a shorter time?
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