Playing easy, working hard: Making games difficult is fun

[This is my July entry to Corvus’ Blogs of the Round Table. This month’s topic is Hurts So Good, where we look at Difficulty in Games, why we sometimes set these games aside permanently, sometimes we forge ahead.]

The difficulty level in a game is inversely proportionate to the amount I enjoy it. I don’t play games for the challenge. I play for distraction, for relaxation and for entertainment. I do NOT play games to take on something akin to having a second job. I don’t want any additional frustrations in my life, I play games in order to escape from my problems.

When I started gaming, I didn’t really care about getting to the end or winning. Heck, most games back in those days were designed to be unbeatable! The furthest I got in Mario was as far as the secret warps would take me. I couldn’t actually play it through with any degree of skill. I didn’t really have any desire to do so either because I didn’t know of any winnable games.

Then with our first PC, adventure games burst into my life. I still love the genre to death! Even now, Day of the Tentacle leaves a lasting impression on me and Grim Fandango is currently installed on my PC. But to actually play them to completion? Ha! Playing DotT is how I discovered this amazing new thing called a walkthrough that I downloaded from a BBS. (You do what with the wet noodles?)

These days, I can’t imagine making my way through most games without one! At the slightest frustration, like not knowing which gym to hit next in Pokemon, forgetting how to blow out candles in Zelda, not figuring out you can hit the gimps back in No More Heroes, I can check quickly online and then get back to my relaxing pastime. Even for games like Bioshock, I’ll set everything on the easiest setting so I can blow through it, enjoying the story and having fun blowing shit away.

The funny part is that now I AM a game designer. I get to have my say in how these things are made. Currently, I work mostly on casual games, so games that are right up my alley. Games that are fun, distracting and easy. And yet frequently the feedback I’m getting about my games is that I’m making them too punishing and too hard! I’ve been amused to hear this, given my stance. But it’s frustrating. I’m trying to figure out why this is, why I want to make games that are more difficult than the kind that I personally enjoy.

Maybe I feel like I should enjoy the challenge more. There are a lot of gamers out there who play for the challenge, especially the old school hardcore gamers. I’m certainly old school, but my title as hardcore would depend on your definition of that term. So because I don’t like being overly challenged in games, I don’t feel like I fit into that crowd sometimes. And maybe by trying to make games that are outside my comfort level, I’m fixing my targets on the type of gamer I *think* I should be.

Or am I trying to assuage guilt over having more fun with simple repetitive tasks rather than solving intricate puzzles? Most casual games these days have a “zen” setting, where you can just immerse yourself into the gameplay without thinking at all about challenges. But really, as a designer, I think that might something rather boring to make. Balancing difficulty and creating variations is part of the fun of design!

I think that’s the really the reason why there’s a difference between what I like to play and what I like to make. I find certain types of games more fun to play because of the stories, the characters or the flow. However, designing games provides me with a different kind of fun, balancing difficulty, coming up with variations and that schadenfreude feeling from messing with the players. I think it’s ok to enjoy making different kinds of games so long as you’re willing to familiarize yourself with the type of game you want to make.

I guess that means I oughta start playing more punishing games, dammit. Stupid revelations, ruining my fun!