Monday, May 24, 2010

Looking at challenge, part 1.

Most people who know me well know that I consider challenge to be the most important part of the game. A good game has to be challenging. By definition, a game that is not challenging is not good. I don't care if it has the best story, graphics, characters, and whatever other garbage people considered to be hallmarks of a good game (e.g., fun...). If it's easy, the best it can be is mediocre.

As such, I've decided to write a little bit about challenge. First, let me jot off a few basic challenges that may be present in a game. I'm going to try to break them down into their most basic constituents.

Enemy pattern.

This challenge is to recognize what the enemy does, and use it to counter, avoid, damage, ect, it.

Reaction challenge.
You have to react quickly to something, or suffer the consequences.

Timing challenge.
You have to time your action properly to have maximum effect.

Platform challenge.
Have to make an accurate jump.

Hard hitter
Enemy hits so hard it behooves you to avoid blows altogether. Contrast with:

One hit death.
Different from "Hard Hitter", but is a pretty fine line. I'd say the former usually involves some sort of lifebar or HP (e.g., PunchOut!!), whereas the latter is just an instant kill (e.g., Contra).

Timed challenge.
You have a limited amount of time to do something.

Exploit weakness.
For massive damage.

Resource management.
You have a finite amount of resources to use with which to accomplish a task. The resource can be something like life or mana as well as a more traditional resource.

Strategic challenge.
Assign roles/units/etc properly.

Find the weakness.
Enemy seems invincible until you find out how to attack it correctly.

That's enough to work with for now.

A big part of making a game with a good challenge is how the designer combines these, both within and across the encounters of a game. Take Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! for instance; a game that I consider to have one of the best designed challenges of all time.

As you progress through the game, the designers combine several of these constituent parts to create uniquely challenging fights, each of which stand out in one way or another. The farther you get in the game, the more challenges you have to deal with at once.

Glass Joe: Well, here's a freebie.
Von Kaiser: Enemy Pattern
Piston Honda: Enemy Pattern + Reaction Challenge

By the time you get to the end of the World Circuit, you're being hit with a ton of these challenges at once, and the challenges that you started seeing early on start becoming less forgiving (e.g., reaction challenge requires much faster reactions)

Super Macho Man: Enemy pattern + Reaction Challenge + Timed Challenge + Hard Hitter
Mike Tyson: Enemy pattern + Reaction Challenge + Timed Challenge + Hard Hitter + One Hit Death

I think videogame designers had more of a knack for combining these types of challenges better a couple decades ago than today. Heck, I've seen a couple games that not only fail to combine types of challenge in a meaningful way, but that don't incorporate ANY of them in good chunks of a game (e.g., Bloodrayne.).

Another way these challenges can be misused is, instead of combining them in an optimal way, just shooting to have one (maybe two) types of challenge, but make them stiff. The most recently released game I've played, God of War III, tended to go this route. There were a few tough parts in this game, but unfortunately, they tended to be one dimensional (e.g., Cerberus hit hard, the stupid tube tunnels were simple reaction challenges).

I'm not sure why this is. Perhaps because the focus of modern games is more heavily focused on story, or visual art. Not that gamers these days care either way. I think lots of gamers say they like a challenge, but as I like to say, for most gamers, "I beat the boss on the first try, but just barely" is an acceptable level of challenge.

Some ideas for upcoming posts:

-The relationship between challenge, difficulty, and frustration.
-Difficulty settings.

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