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Heya there space fans.

Sorry for the lack of a post last weekend. My internet was gone for the entirety of it, and I felt that it was also a good opportunity not to have the same number of reviews and developer diaries. Something about them being the same number bugged me.

The delay today, however, was entirely my bad. But hey, I fixed a graphical problem with our old Instruction Manual for Delve Deeper! Go download yourself a copy and learn what all those crazy menus are saying. I’ll make this one a double-long to give you a bit more info to chew on.

This week I feel like talking about designing games for meaningful difficulty. Let’s talk specifically about some larger concepts of meaningful challenges and why some hard things or dangerous things or lethal things are still not meaningful things. This applies to tabletop role-playing games or 3D first person shooters, so all you game makers pull up a chair. If you want a specific article about designing meaningful encounters in games like D&D or video games or whatever, gimmie a yell down there in the comments.

I had talked a bit about this back during my review of X-COM. One of the things X-COM did well, I said, was provide a meaningful form of difficulty. Recently I read a Gamasutra article that tested the concepts of scariness in games that reinforced a lot of the things I said. One of the things that stuck out to me, which I coulda’ told ‘em straight off, is this:

Repeat failure prevents scenes from retaining any initial scariness they may have had before. Whenever players repeatedly die or spend too long struggling with navigation, frustration replaces fear. If major usability issues exist/occur, then players will be far less scared.

Another important element was this next bit:

Large numbers of enemies makes games less scary. Once players are asked to dispatch more than two or three enemies at a time, they become less scared. Familiarity with enemies renders them less scary.

One of the easy takeaways is that when people are repeatedly exposed to the same kind of threat, be they zombies or scary situations, they get familiar and less scared. No surprise there. The other was the topic I wanted to get right into. Meaningful difficulty, the type that really feels great, is not the result of repeatedly dying, suffering through no progress, or slogging through a horde of threats—no matter how threatening those hordes are.

When a threat becomes so mechanical or so large that it ceases to be personal, it stops being meaningful. One obvious and cliché example is the giant, invincible enemy with the one weak spot that you hit for massive damage.

Because the threat is huge, like a giant crab or a walking colossus, it can be hard to take personally. If you were just told to smash away at it until it dies you’d possibly trivialize the enemy or possibly frustrate and annoy the player. By giving them an obvious weak point you make THAT the focal moment. You make the whole feeling of going after that ONE THING your biggest challenge. Suddenly a big dumb object becomes a challenge that is a lot more meaningful. Sometimes that’s just one part of it, but it’s the part you really remember. The Death Star trench run is a good example.

There’s other ways to destroy the meaningful nature of a threat. While it’s on my mind, I’ll pick some low-hanging fruit here and say that the flashier lightsaber battles in the Star Wars prequels were nowhere near as personal and meaningful, with all their flashy CGI and green-screen duels against foes the actors can’t emote against, than the quiet, brooding atmosphere that Vader posed to Luke in their Empire Strikes Back fight.

Making it a Mano e Mano fight makes everything more meaningful. Add in that the fight itself is a more symbolic struggle between yadda yadda it’s a better fight scene. It’s slower, sure, and the fighting is wooden, granted. But it’s personal, and that makes it meaningful. Let’s bring up a few weeks ago again and say that you have more ownership here. You care what happens.

For example, natural disasters are anything but personal. But you can make these problems feel personal by demonstrating it in a way that almost feels like an individual hurdle. A man on a beach facing a tidal wave isn’t facing a meaningful threat. A man running up the stairs as an incoming flood swallows each floor under him… that’s much better. Throw in some dramatic moments where he’s hanging off rails, and you might even make that wave feel like a diabolical, sentient enemy.

Now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way, let’s talk about how death figures into this. The game that was voted the Scariest by the experiment I referenced was Dead Space 2. Eloquently, Penny Arcade made a gag on this just very subject already.

When you die, you feel bad, and you come back again and usually face the exact same challenge as before. And if you die again, you quickly stop being scared and start being annoyed. You start to notice how dumb the monsters look, you stop being worried about being surprised, and you start remembering that it’s just a game. You break the immersion, you break the whole feeling of risk, and it’s not scary or a reasonable threat anymore. Killing the player is not a big deal if the player just comes back.

And when was the last time you ran out of lives or continues in a game?

If you see progress each time, you can replace the fear and excitement of the encounter with a hard-nosed desire to finally beat it. This works best when the fight isn’t really a frustrating setback. The worst are ones where you suffer through the cutscene before the fight, aren’t they? If you die you gotta watch it all over again!

So how do we make challenges meaningful?

First, give failure a bit of continuity. Make it permanent. If you fail now, make that fail register somewhere along the line later. The best kinds of permanent failures aren’t the ones that take away content (losing a sword, losing a party member) but burn up an expendable resource. Ammo and money are perfect for this because they’re meant to be expended, but blowing through some of this resource will sting later without slowing the player down. Short-term threats are valuable as motivators too.

X-COM doubled down on this by letting you permanently lose your little soldier men, which is like losing ammo and money and pets all at once. You never got stuck or stopped. Sometimes you’d reach a fail state where you’ve failed so much and so often that you lose, but it wasn’t one challenge that did this to you—it was lots of challenges.

Second, don’t make failure stop progress. If you can’t ever progress after a failure, then all progress is upwards. The threat of downward progress is more meaningful than the threat of being stuck. This is why death is rarely meaningful as a failure threat. Unless you burn through lives like in a Mario game, deaths just make you replay sections. That can be frustrating, but it’s not meaningful.

This is partially why things like ammo or money or replaceable conscripts are so good. Doing well will let you get that back, so the challenge is always to do better. It’s more of a marathon, so you make every little struggle matter more. Death just makes section X more of an annoyance to past.

Third and most importantly, make the challenge easily grappled with. Nothing is worse than dying to something you didn’t know could kill you, or dying repeatedly without knowing what to do. Here’s another bit of information from the study we can reinterpret:

Actual combat is not as scary as the implied threat of combat. The biggest scares result from moments devoid of any physical combat; instances in which players anticipate or fear they are about to fight, but do not actually end up doing so.

In other words, telegraphing a threat is more of a scare than actually waving a threat around in front of them, especially since the anticipation of having to deal with a problem exceeds actually dealing with it. Similarly, you can make a challenge much more meaningful if people have the ability to comprehend it and get what it implies.

This sounds like a no-brainer but it can be important to remember. Glowing weakpoints and obvious things like “Make the minotaur slam into the spiked wall” are a bit silly but they keep a threat coherent to the player. If you face the enemy with an unkillable foe, but do not make it clear they’re supposed to RUN, they may be foolish enough to keep fighting it and failing. We’ve all seen it happen, right?

There are lots of flavors of this rule. You’ve got the horde of foes you don’t know to beat, you’ve got the puzzle room you don’t understand, and you’ve got the whole “run around pressing A until you find it” kind of thing that we’ve thankfully seen so little anymore. That used to be a real problem in adventure games.

In a video game it’s not hard to flash a prompt. In role-playing games it’s helpful to let players know what they’re supposed to do, or at least what they can’t do. An invincible monster is actually better than a killable but nearly impossible to kill one. At least an invincible monster is obviously something to run from!

Lastly, if you can, make sure the player feels in control the whole time. You want them to know what they did, why that was wrong, and that they failed. When you let them progress with the game, let them feel guilty about their humiliating, embarrassing failure. That’s just a tiny rule, and I won’t bother getting too far into it, but please guys—no more arbitrary challenges and arbitrary penalties.

The How and Why

How:  Focus on keeping challenges surmountable through personal effort. Make the threat understandable and the solution intuitive. Make the risk for failure something other than absolute death and restart, and make there be ways to continue on even if you suffer a failure. Don’t turn your game into an un-fun punishment by forcing them to replay it over and over or taking away their fun toys. Make failure stick with them over a long term, make it sting because they’ve lost something they could have used later, and again, don’t make it all or nothing. A three-strike rule is better than one and done.

Why: Players may be scared by the things they don’t understand, but dying repeatedly to something unintelligible just makes the game a chore. As a developer, you should be more interested in making players enjoy themselves than in creating the hardest game ever. Players love hard, but they want the hardness to be obvious. Megaman’s disappearing/reappearing blocks at least had the decency to obvious, fair, and rarely killed you for the first failure.

Spacelab Signing Out

I hope you had some fun with this one. It’s fun to talk about theory and make it into a bit of an educational trip, and if that’s the sort of thing you like, remember, lemme know. Next week we’re going to be back on schedule I think, and that means a game analysis of some other old favorite of mine. Which one though? I’ve not got a clue just yet.