Why would you make a Hard Game Easier???October 3rd, 2023
So Lies of P had patch that adjusted difficulty and I haven't played it, but I have played though AC6 who had the same thing happen and the discourse seems to be... about the same and it really just got to me how poor the nuance around difficulty discussion can be. Maybe it's more accurate when talking about Lies of P, maybe it's the same crud, but whatever.
Now, I'm very much on record saying the AC6 patch stuff is massively overblown. Only one thing really seems like a significant nerf and that was probably warranted but like... whether any of these changes are good is definitely something you could talk about. The changes, for example, (especially including the weapon based changes) seems very much designed to make more builds viable in more situations. You could easily make the case that "Even if the changes are kinda small, this is a game about building mechs, sometimes a build shouldn't viable for a situation to encourage you to use more options and explore the game" and I wouldn't agree with you (I think you're still rewarded plenty of tweaking a build for a mission you always could beat AC6 with one design anyways) but like... that's a discussion, right? Where do you draw the line? My line isn't right and talking about our lines is a great way to build perspective.
... But most conversations aren't going like that. It's a lot of ARGGGGHHH BABY MODE!!! PEOPLE CAN'T HANDLE HARD GAMES!! THEY NERFED IT!! NERFED IT TO THE GROUND!!! They have to sell more copies so they RUINED IT!!! People will only be able to play the BABY version!
... like come on, how many more copies do you think they sold because they made Balteus's missiles track a little less?
There is a lot to unpack here. How people mythologize their own experiences as The One True Way, how any backward slide gets exaggerated by communities and repeated so often they become almost permanent lore. Instead, we're going to talk about people not understanding the many reasons why a designer might change their game to be easier. Why they might make these changes for reasons besides public pressure.
I think a thing a lot of gamer brained players don't realize is that Making is hard game is actually really really easy. It's so easy, that if you're making your first game, there is a good chance it's going to be way harder for other people than you think it is. It's so easy you'll do it on accident!
Making a hard game people want to actually play is the hard part.
I think it's hard for some people to realize that there is, almost certainly, a harder version of their favorite hard game that the devs had in testing and never released. That they are, by their own logic, even immediately from release, receiving the ""baby mode"". That outside of shitty as old LJN 8 and 16 bit games, that devs, even when they were making balls to the walls hard games, were... focusing on trying to give you an enjoyable experience. That the released game isn't some pure artistic expression that exists naturally, only to be corrupted against the devs wishes by player feedback.
Games are, largely, unnatural experiences. A lot of us designers try and make the unnatural feel as natural as possible. Some people hunt for really obscure, poorly made games, enjoying the weird emergent "natural" challenge that comes accidentally from naive design. But they are still, largely, an unnatural construct.
These constructs are, for the most part, made for our enrichment. We can argue the value of changing something, but we have to remember, even with the most Hardcore no normies, skill only!!!! games that these are constructed experiences. There is no true difficulty, no "real version" of the game. There is just the what we ultimately play.
I saw someone ask "Why would you make a hard game easier?" and I think if you're a gamer, looking for challenging experiences, that... makes sense. It's naive, but like, yeah why WOULD YOU? Well, here are are a few that have been stewing in my head!
It's Hard but it Sucks
This is the simplest. Pre-Patch Lost Izalith. A rushed area, filled with reused, rare mobs. "Hey this dragon butt only got used one other place so why not, we're in a hurry."
Pre-Patch Izalith has the player basically playing a poorly made stealth game to not get gang stomped by a dozen giant dragon legs. Later patches decided instead to turn this early Izalith section into a bit of a non area. It's not that bad, there are still things to kill you if you go exploring but the Dragon Butts are so hard to aggro.
If something sucks there usually isn't much of a pushback, but I've actually seen people defend pre-patch Izalith BECAUSE of the weird "stealth" gameplay.
... It seems to largely come from the same place as other difficulty arguments. "I had this happen to me so if other people don't, this means they were denied a complete experience"
Real proof that any changes, no matter how stupid the original behavior was, will be decried by someone as giving into babies.
The Curve is Wrong
A lot of dragging peoples asses through a hard game is tricking them to get in and into the game before tightening your grip... then releasing... and repeating. I Wanna be the Guy tried to have different, but reliable pulses of actual difficulty to keep things feeling fun in between the sections that made you want to die.
It's basically fixing a pacing problem. Usually people don't complain too much about these because their minor. I feel the AC6 weapon buffs hit this, giving better and more varied options early game. This certainly made the game easier, but no one talks about that aspect of the "difficulty nerf" because... well okay it's because people are bad at talking about difficulty as a holistic thing.
Anyways most games usually don't have that much of a mis-step here. When the first boss is way too hard that's usually not an unexpected bump in the curve, that's usually an intentional crest. That said, sometimes that difficulty spike doesn't quite work out how you wanted it to and...
The Wrong Thing is Hard
I feel like Balteus's missiles fit this. Watching my friend (hi Miko!!!), a hardcore AC vet, 1-shot Balteus pre-patch on her first playthrough, could kinda trick you into thinking the missiles were never that big of a problem to begin with. It seems the type of thing where, when you know how to play and move, it's not that big of a deal, but when you're new, it's a monstrous hurdle and that hurdle existing can be easy to miss.
"Oh we wanted to teach about pulse armor and want to encourage movement so this isn't just a slugfest but whoooops for some players and builds, this might as well be touhou."
This is one of one of the most common reasons for things to be hard, by the way. The designers, or testers, or whoever get too good at their game and underestimate certain elements because they're so much better at fundamental things like movement. Blind testers help but you're still trying to extrapolate a lot of data. For indie games, this can get super stupid. There is a 1-frame jump in IWBTG that's optional, but exists because I tested it once and got it the first try. Can't be THAT hard...
By reducing the difficulty in one area, you can allow the player to focus on the enemies you were meaning to highlight.
You Don't Want Them to Google it!
AC6 works great here again. Sea Spider was made vulnerable to more weapon types and while you can make the argument that the game is about builds!!, that type of attitude is what leads to someone going on reddit for help, realizing Double Zimms, Double Songbirds are strong, murdering the boss, and then never really switching.
Fighting a boss and not doing enough damage is generally a sign to a lot of players that they're doing something wrong and the response to that is often to look some stuff up. Easing certain parts of a fight, or making more builds viable can actually, in a weird reverse way, encourage to explore more, or use off the beaten path builds. You increase the likelihood of a player just endures and actually tries to learn on their own. That applies well to situations like Sea Spider where the biggest barrier was a knowledge check that... wasn't even a very good knowledge check (varied weapon type defense isn't well established in a game, and a lot of people are going to get to the fight with a build that already passes the check and not realize they were checked at all).
You Want to Make it Easier to Learn
Sometimes an early attack is too strong, or a boss does too much damage, or a checkpoint is too far. All these things are things that can be fine, or lead to a great experience, but other times you're like... Oh god wait no, it's taking people way too many attempts to get to phase 2, or to this hard jump or whatever, so you make that easier. I Wanna be the Guy had a lot of difficulty tweaks in both boss behavior and is save placement to try and help this along.
Brave Earth Prologue used to have lives, a feature I really wanted and defended to a lot of people who tested early versions of the game. Whenever the game is released though, it won't have them and part of the reason was because "While the repetition created by lives creates a novel learning experience in modern gaming... if I wanna have cool complicated bosses, I need to give people permission to fail". Making that area easier allowed me to make other areas harder because it gave players more chances to learn hard things.
To go back to AC6, I think this is where the IBIS damage nerf comes in. I feel less certain about this one, but I feel like, at least personally, when I finally beat Ibis, it wasn't by an inch, it was a mile. Her damage wasn't relevant for my eventual victory. Where it was relevant is... each attempt allowed me to get more information and to experiment more. The boss felt like she was going to murder you unless you learned her patterns anyways, so easing up on damage just seemed to encourage learning them more.
Inconsistency is Beautiful: In Defense of Fighting Game JankSeptember 7th, 2023
This is a repost of an article from my cohost, posted on august 23rd, 2023. People seemed to like it a lot though, so I'm reposting it on my blog.
Gonna babble for a bit and hope this is coherent:
I was weirdly saddened today reading Strive's patch notes. A removal of the character weight system. A younger version of me would be SO RELIEVED by this. "Oh god I don't have to memorize a million different combos"! Yet now, an older me, is oddly sad?
Now, I'm not gonna hate on or argue about Strive, or any other game. Plenty of games I like have equal character weights and consistent hurt boxes. I'd rather game designers do what they want to do, rather than pander to me.
(Granted, I do wish more people were pandering to me, but that's a me problem.)
... Instead I want to be more positive about the stuff. So much of this conversation gets caught up in arguments about gatekeeping and "git gud" "Baby Game" BS but not a lot of people really go into why they might like some of these arcane systems.
A nice and polite twitter follower, immediately after I tweeted my disappointment, asked...
Why would you want combos to fail randomly per character performed on
... which like lol, when you put it like that, it sounds super silly. But it's that framing -- a framing I've seen many times. I remember being on a forum... very appropriately, it was David Sirlin's forum
(thank god you can't name search on cohost)(edit: uh oh). Being the Sirlin forums, you expect a... certain type of person and player. Very big anti-execution crowd and I was like the only real execution defender (at least who was a semi respected member of the community and not a random SRK troll). I remember one exchange talking about GG combos and the comment "Well what's fun about just doing the same rote thing over and over again?"
"Well you're not? Like I'm adjusting my combos as we go, depending on how high they are and stuff"
"I don't believe you."
Now, this is mid 2000s. I don't think anyone now would deny that's a thing that players do... but I think it still highlights a way a lot of people still feel. Combos as this discrete thing, these bits of work you get through to get to the Real Game (that forum LOVED talking about the "Real Game"). You learn your combos, so you get to play brain chess.
But instead the whole thing is very fluid, especially in a system rich game like the older Guilty Gears. You never stop learning, and that combo you learn isn't a discrete unit. It's a lot of different smaller parts and that perfect hit you need to do your idealized BnB is actually kinda hard to land. You need to learn how to put these things together in different ways. Combos are less raw memorization, and more a matter of a little memorization, but a lot of developed intuition.
This is no surprise to anyone whose played a lot of really nutty fighting games. But the important thing is more the mentality of "Combos are a thing that you need to have, and you fucked up if you weren't optimal" vs looking then as an extra and not taking them for granted.
"... Wait, can I convert to this route off this hit?"
Often in games with open ended combo, you'll get a hit and you won't actually know what you can get off it. I recognized the situation 3 hits in.. what's the gravity scaling like? What's their character weight? This route doesn't work on her hitboxes usually, but I think it might because of the weird height I hit at??
From there you gotta bet on yourself. Take the easy knockdown? Try to extend to a damaging route? What are the stakes of the match? How much life do you have? Is it worth maybe eating shit just to find out? Those sorts of situational, high speed valuation processes, for some people like me, are extremely fun and with games like +R or Rev2, I'm still, after thousands of hours, guessing and developing my intuition. Every matchup has new things to teach me not only in neutral, but on what to do when I even hit someone.
I don't like character weight because I like dropping my BnBs, or because I want to make the game harder for new players, but because they always keep me on my toes and give me great moments where I am rewarded for my intuition. I like it because I can do cooler combos.
... What if input buffers made games harder?
I was playing one day with Lofo, a really incredible +R Dizzy player and a former (lol, recovered?) Sirlin forum poster who ended up a huge execution lover. One day we're talking about Rev2 vs +R and hit me with something that has been in my head for like 2 years. Something to the extent of...
"Yeah, I don't like Rev2's input buffer. I feel like it makes the game harder, because everything is more consistent... I... don't think I like input buffers?"
Which to me at the moment felt like an insane position. Like there was a lot of simplifications made to fighting games I didn't like, but that one seemed like a clear win. That just makes games better, right?
But Lofo kept talking, about things that are borderline impossible in +R that would be consistent in Xrd and how one of the things that keeps +R reasonable is that everyone drops stuff all the time. Not just in combos, but in pressure. There is always wiggle room... and then talking about mashing to tech.
Mashing to tech feels like a vestigial part of Xrd. It doesn't bother me much (I come from X2), but if you're trying to tech and there's a gap, you're gonna get it. +R, much less so. It's almost an analog skill check between you and your opponent. Your ability to mash, vs their timing during the hardest parts of their combo. Defender can piano, so there is a bit of an advantage
Then that got me thinking about ST. "It's fucked up that you need to do a 1f reversal to beat tick throws in that game."
... But you don't. You need to have better timing than your opponent to beat tick throws. Can they time to 1f input? If you're playing someone great, probably, but when you watch mid level play, most DPed tick throw attempts aren't usually reversals. That analog sense of timing is part of the game's skill expression.
This goes into why people didn't care about exact frame data back in the day or players playing "by feel". A move being +1 really didn't matter unless both of you have sick timing. We HAD the frame data. We had Yoga Book Hyper for ST. It did help. But it's influence was different because the play conditions are were different.
In modern games, a +1 situation is often pretty rigidly defined. We have buffers. Our responses will come out on he fastest frame. If my opponent is slow and my suboptimal option keeps winning, people will call that fake... because it is. The expectation is that verse most players, even low ranked players, people will get their moves out as soon as possible. Meanwhile in older games, you can't take that as a certainty even with the best players. They'll hit a lot of frame perfect inputs, but not all of them. Finding where your opponent is being sloppy helps a ton. No one is clean all the time even in modern games, but it's so SO much harder in old games.
I even think a lot about setplay characters. In older games 'perfect knockdown into oki that grants an auto timed safe jump' is actually super hard (or really lucky happenstance). Heck, this is also where GG's variable wake up timing stuff also comes in. You could do it, but it would be so hard that it can never be the expectation. Now safe jumps are so easy once labbbed that if you whiff a normal before doing your oki people will just assume it's a safe jump even if it isn't. You get stronger setplay because frame perfect repeatability, while not at all trivial, is extremely practical.
Buffers help turn is into robots and, depending on your taste, that can be a good or bad thing.
ALRIGHT THE TAKE AWAY
One thing that I've also thought a lot about is... new players seem to have an easier time getting into +R than Rev2? Part of this might also be the lobby system and speed to matches, but part of it is, in Rev2, even a mid level player can be pretty scarily consistent, but +R... Welcome to the scramble zone, lol. And like granted you can run into cryptids with 10,000+ hours of play time who will Burst Safe Sidewinder Loop you into the negaverse, but even THEY fuck up or get wilded out by weird interactions. And I say this maybe liking Rev2 more than +R.
In a weird way, making games easier, also makes them harder, because you make them more consistent for everyone... and when everything is more consistent, the game is more rigid and unyielding. You're not making an old experience accessible to new people, you're making something new, with it's own pros and cons.
Again, this isn't a judgment zone. I'm okay with Strive. I'm actively loving SF6. But a rigid games forces players to play it how it was intended. This can help new players learn a lot faster. Hell, such design has lead to games that have even taught me lots of stuff! I don't hate these games.
... But I miss that looseness. I miss how you can have a combo so hard that only like 2 people can do it reliably and just this really hazy, unclear idea of what's even possible. Infinite weird, crufty interactions between interactions. Feeling like I wasn't just playing my opponent, but exploring a rich, emergent design space.
Fighting games as a genre increasingly feel like they're (metaphorically) moving from "analog" to "digital".. and like most of those changes, there are usually more advantages and disadvantages, but, even with the new advantages... there are always gonna be people who miss how the old analog models used to feel.
Mechanical Irony and the Suspension of DisbeliefApril 2nd, 2014
This kills me. This is right by the Shrine of Winter in Dark Souls 2. This tiny bit of rubble — one that would take two big steps to clear — is responsible for half of your epic journey. You spend hours tracking down powerful souls and risking your life, rather than just finding a stool.
I call this mechanical irony. Mechanical irony is when the limitations in control we have over our character become all too real. “If only I could climb over that” or “if only I could jump off this ladder” or “if only I could step over this gap”. or whatever. When the sensible, real life to a video game problem becomes obvious, it becomes difficult to sustain immersion and the suspension of disbelief. To an extent this is unavoidable. We’re making games and not simulations. We don’t want to give the players the ability to do all these things, we want to convince them to think in the verbs we’ve given them. We want the player to trust us and give we get that, they will give us a lot of leeway.
Bionic Commando for the NES is very good at this. The game requires a large conceit (.. can you even use that word like that?when talking about mechanics?) from the player. You can’t jump. You have to move around with your bionic arm. You’d think the game would be litered with moments of “if only I could jump, I wouldn’t have to go through all this hassle”, but it’s surprisingly not. Every situation where you wish you could jump is quickly solvable with the mechanics the game provide. The game doesn’t want to remind you that you can’t jump, it wants you to focus on swinging around. To a degree, new players still get frustrated with the inability to jump, but when you consider what a huge concession that is, the game does an amazing job of making the player think about it’s core mechanics.
The Shrine of Winter in Dark Souls 2 does not do that. It’s downright taunting. It could possibly be ignored as a dead end, except for the item on the other end. While many areas of souls games could be destroyed with climbing skills, you generally don’t think about it (though probably also in Belfry Sol!). Here, it’s preposterous. Here it looks like, without invisible walls, you could possibly even jump over it with the mechanics given to you in the game. It could even get you to think about other things. Like, what is that shrine even for if it would be so easy to walk around in real life? Little stuff exists like this every where (welp, fell down, time to walk all the way back to the stair case instead of pulling my self up from the edge) but usually those are so minor, people don’t notice. Here? It’s HALF THE GAME and totally avoidable. No one looks at the Lordvessel door and goes Well you know, if I had some TNT or a hammer…”. People just go with it. If the Shrine of Winter blocked a bridge, most people wouldn’t think about “simply getting rope”. That’s because they’re not having their face rubbed in it. They’re not being taunted. The players want to be immersed. Not everyone is going to fall down little thought-holes like this, but they’re best to avoid when possible, especially when trying to construct games with structurally sound worlds.
Now, taunting isn’t always bad. Dark Souls taunts all the time (though usually not in ways that damage the integrity of the world). A good example of this is Vini Vidi Vici in VVVVVV, where the character, who can’t “jump” is forced to reverse gravity and fall through several screens of spikes to get around an ankle high block. VVVVVV has little “immersion” to speak of and it serves as an excellent gag for an excellent challenge. You could even argue for this in more serious games. Again, the Belfry Sol is an annoying taunt, but it’s repercussions are mild. Is it a good gag? I personally wouldn’t do it, but I could fancy an argument for it. In most cases though, if you’re making a game with any kind of “world” you want to avoid bringing attention to aspects like this.