Game Design Analysis: Difficulty vs Punishment

Today we’ll be talking about the difference between making a game difficult and making it punishing and the mechanics involved with both. We’ll also be talking about whether making a game difficult and/or punishing is a good or bad thing.

First let’s talk about what it means to have a game be difficult or punishing. You’ve likely played a game that express one or both of these aspects. Difficulty in a game is a measure of the strength behind an obstacle in a game. In terms of failure, difficulty is what makes you fail in a game. The strength of an enemy, the reaction time a sequence requires, how small the window of timing a button press is. Punishment on the other hand is what comes after failure. Punishment is a measure of how far back you’re set by failure and what the cost may be. As obvious in difference they may sound, many people confuse punishment for difficulty including game designers.

Look back at some of the classic retro games and you’ll see them filled to brim with punishing design tactics. Death in retro games meant either losing one of a limited amount of lives, restarting a level from the beginning, or in some cases forcing you to restart the entire game. The reason for this was that designers back then were using the only other gaming experience they had as a reference which was arcade games. Arcade games are purposefully both difficult and punishing with the idea of forcing players to use extra quarters/tokens to brute force their way through a game with money. This, of course, turned out to translate poorly to home systems that required patience rather than money. In truth, heavily punishing games in general turned out to be a very unpopular design.

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Nowadays if you look at modern games, many have autosave features and several checkpoints placed throughout them. Modern platformers such as Mario Odyssey or Rayman Legends have opted to remove the limited life system that they’ve held onto for several years and instead replace them with punishing players by removing coins or setting them back to a nearby checkpoint after death respectively. As time has gone on, punishing mechanics in games have been slowly being removed, and for good reason. Even for people who like a good challenge, having to redo several portions of a game that have already been passed is an effort in frustration and often leads to rage-quitting and a negative overall feeling regarding the game, so it would seem that punishing mechanics in games are generally a bad idea, but not to the point where they should be limited too much. An example of overlimiting punishment can be found in Fable 2 and 3 as well as the very end of Undertale. In Fable 2 and 3, death has been removed as a mechanic entirely and instead you simply lose experience points, gain a scar, and continue the fight as it was left off. While making you lose experience points is still a form of punishment, the fact that you continue the fight where it left off somewhat dilutes the satisfaction of winning. The same can be said about the Pacifist Path final boss of Undertale in which letting your health drop to 0 causes a scene where you begin to die, but then still continue anyway. While this is meant as a plot point mechanic, it still holds the same true that it dilutes any feelings of victory when you realize that even death itself is no consequence to the outcome of the battle. In a way, you could get through both combat scenarios without attempting to avoid a single attack and still win. Because of that, punishment in games should be limited, but not removed in their entirety.

Now let’s talk more about difficulty. Does difficulty make a gaming experience better or worse? Well, that answer is complicated. The amount of difficulty in a game typically doesn’t make or break the experience, but instead just directs the game to a different target audience between casual gamers, veteran gamers, and those in between. Rather than viewing difficulty as feature or mechanic that can be good or bad, difficulty should be viewed similarly to genres. Walking simulators and visual novels aren’t bad simply because they don’t appeal to everyone, but rather they’re favorable to people who enjoy that genre. However, one of the big questions that still plagues designers is how to best implement difficulty in a way that casts the net as wide as possible in an effective way. Most games simply have several difficulty selections to choose from, but that’s not a perfect system considering there’s no basis of measurement on these difficulty selections. What might be considered normal or hard difficulty in one game, might be what’s considered easy in another game, so a new player will have no idea which level might be best suited to them. There’s also an issue of stigma surrounding playing a game on easy difficulty where many gamers would find it embarrassing even when playing alone. Some devs have taken to making games alter their difficulty dynamically as you play, which presents its own issues. If the game is transparent on this (take for instance recent Mario games offer a special powerup after a high amount of deaths), it can be even more demeaning than simply giving the player a difficulty choice. If they don’t make the player aware of dynamic difficulty changes, then you may disappoint the players who want to test themselves at the highest difficulty when they have no way of knowing if they’re playing the game at the max or not. If you’ve ever watched Extra Credits, you might’ve seen the episode below where they go into further detail about different difficulty mechanics implemented and how Dark Souls 2 does a decent job of implementing a new way.

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