Hard Modes

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Friday
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Hard Modes

Postby Friday » Fri Dec 28, 2018 8:39 am

Hello I am Friday, age 7, and I have been a game designer for 20 years or more.

Some of you may or may not have played some of the games I've made. Vampires vs Werewolves, Guild vs The Boards, The Thing.

I like designing games and having people play them and enjoy them! I do this as a DM in my incredibly homebrew Dnd campaign too, and it's been successful enough to keep my players coming back for over 15 years.

But what's that you say? My ek2 and ek3 zones were fucking garbage?!

FUCK YOU

Nah, you're right. They actually are pretty bad. I'm not gonna overly shit talk myself (and I did release patches/easytype to help) but they had serious problems. And those problems were entirely about how fucking hard they were.

In ek3, even working with the backlash I got over ek2 in mind, I still made my sections too hard.

But I learned from my mistakes and have applied them to my newer works. Hopefully, I can move forward without ever torturing anyone ever again.

But this thread isn't about me and my sadistic urges. It's about difficulty in videogames in general.

CHAPTER ONE: THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

DARK SOULS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!111111111111111111111111

CHAPTER TWO: EVERYONE HAS SEEN TWENTY VIDEOS/ESSAYS/RANDOM FANS GOING ON ABOUT DARK SOULS, SO LETS SKIP IT

CHAPTER THREE: Are games "supposed" to be challenging?

Nope!

They certainly can be! That's a valid way to make a game! But most people don't want to be challenged by a game! they just want to have fun and relax! Games like Stardew Valley have no real challenge but are amazingly popular (including with me) with almost everyone. You don't need to murder your player. You just... don't! You can make games that don't even have fail states!

The original design of games was the Arcade. Games were designed to eat quarters, so they were designed to be extremely hard, bordering on impossible, in order to get you to put in more money.

Then the Atari came out and exploded and is in a landfill or something. I don't care about it. There's probably an interesting conversation to be had about early game design/difficulty on the Atari and other super weirdo proto-computer game shit, but I know jack-all about any of that so yeah.

Then the NES came out and everyone was like wellllllllllll I guess we'll copy the model of the Arcade? Cause those were popular? And hey, our games are short as fuck so actually by making them ball-breakingly hard people will feel like they got more length than they actually did. And thus, games like Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania, Gradius, Contra, etc were born. Even the original Super Mario Bros was pretty fucking hard. Especially for the intended market of 7 year olds.

Nowadays every game is riddled with difficulty sliders, customizable bars, mods you can download, whatever. But back then what did we have?

We had fucking cheat codes and Game Genie.

Let's first talk about the greatest game and code of all time.

CHAPTER FOUR: Contra and the Konami Code

Contra is hard. It's NES hard and it's one of the first games people think of and mention when you say "NES hard" out loud. It's not Silver Surfer (a game that's harder more due to shoddy programming than actual intended design) or Battletoads hard, but it's up there. You have to rote memorize most of the shit in that game to stand a chance.

A first time player with very little video game experience sitting down to Contra will probably game over several times in the first stage alone. But eventually, they'll make it to level 2 or 3. And then run out of lives and continues and have to start the whole game over.

Fuck that shit, by the way. I'm okay with Lives in modern game design (after all, Mega Man 11 has them and it's still fine) but unless you're a permadeath roguelike fuck off with limited continues.

But again, this was because the game was modeled off of the Arcade design (in this specific case, the actual Contra Arcade game) and it made the game seem longer because you had to fucking start over so many times.

Slogging through the first couple of levels a million times as you learn the later ones is terrible design. Luckily, Contra very cleverly solved this problem by including the most famous cheat code in history.

Contra has no difficulty selection. There are no sliders. Putting in the Konami Code doesn't make you do more damage, or reduce enemy HP, or remove certain enemy spawns, or make the bosses have less phases, or include more save points, or any of the shit that modern games do when you tell them to be easier. It simply allowed you a lot more mistakes.

Your starting stock of lives went from 3 to 30. Now, suddenly, instead of every mistake you make being incredibly punishing, you had a ton of breathing room. You could die five times in one pit, no big. Can't avoid that boss attack pattern? Eh, just facetank it.

This basically removed all tension from the game. Even if you ran out of lives in, say, level 5, you'd simply continue from the start of 5 with 30 more lives. More than enough to finish the game. The game's intended difficulty was obliterated.

But this was actually a great thing. Because now, the player could play and learn the games later levels without having to do that slog I was talking about earlier. And, when they felt ready, try the game without the code. Or not, of course. A lot of people beat Contra using the code and simply moved on, and that's fine too. But I doubt there were a lot of people back then (or now, if anyone new to Contra would try) whose first victory over the game was without ever using the code. Most people, I feel, who have beaten Contra without cheating first beat it by cheating. Probably a few times.

So, what does this mean?

Well, using the Code is like getting a tour of the game. You can't really "lose", so you just brute force your way through the game. But the experience is the same. The game is still hard and punishing. The bosses are still just as huge. You're not getting a reduced experience.

And then, after you've seen the game and everything it has to offer, if you want to, you can try to surmount the challenge it offers without using the code.

Ikaruga does this too. You can literally go into the options and turn on infinite lives. This is basically required for finishing the game as a neophyte. Later, if you want, you can set however many lives you want to have and see if you can turn that tour the game gave you into a personal challenge that YOU decided on.

And this is what makes people really enjoy difficulty.

CHAPTER FIVE: Optional Difficulty

Picking between Easy, Medium and Hard on the title screen is stupid, because the player has no fucking idea what the game even is at that point, and anyway, every single person in history is just going to pick Medium/Normal. So that kind of slider is, at best, crude and not suited for a first time playthrough.

Players hate it when you task them with something hard in order to just continue on with the game. People like to win and they hate to lose, AND they want to see the rest of the game. They might be more into the story, they might just not want to grind until they get lucky enough to make it through my fifty evil fires, whatever.

But here's the thing. Make the challenge optional instead of required, and people will generally love it.

It's not a magic trick. You still have to do it right. Including a "skip this boss" option is not going to make people happy. They don't want their hand held. They want to feel like they beat the game on their own terms. So tuck your hard sections away to the side, or better yet, just include a code or a mode for infinite lives. The player sets the terms, but you set the experience. Instead of taking content away with less enemies/phases in an easy mode, just remove the tension by making the enemies not kill you, or not matter if they kill you.

It's fine to not do this, as well. Dark Souls Cuphead is hard as balls and successful. But it turned a lot of people off from it by being so hard. You can make hard games, with no compromises, but keep in mind you ARE going to alienate a percentage of your userbase. Especially now, when a large portion of gamers are dads, moms, or tired, or just don't want to put up with your bullshit and want to have a good time.

And also keep in mind as a dev that you're always going to have that one person who just sucks so fucking bad that it won't matter how easy you make your game, they're still gonna complain about it. And really the only way to get that guy to shut the fuck up is to give him infinite lives so it doesn't matter how many times he fails to perform basic motor functions.

Nobody complained about how hard Death (a superboss) in ek2 was, because I tucked him away in a little side area and said "you can just not do this. The only person torturing yourself is you." So for those few who actually persisted and beat him, they felt great. They had set a challenge on their own terms (but my experience) to meet and overcome. I didn't throw him up in the middle of the main game and make everyone quit in frustration. (Instead my final zone did that)

tl;dr: Optional challenges tucked off to the side, infinite life tours, let the players set the terms of how they engage into your experience

or ignore all of that and make Dark Souls ek4
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zaratustra
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Re: Hard Modes

Postby zaratustra » Fri Dec 28, 2018 9:33 am

i'm not good at hard games anymore

i played like half of The End Is Nigh and just ... couldn't feel it

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mharr
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Re: Hard Modes

Postby mharr » Fri Dec 28, 2018 10:35 am

For the assistance of any other newbies, the Exquisite Knorpse worlds for Nifflas' Knytt Stories.

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nosimpleway
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Re: Hard Modes

Postby nosimpleway » Fri Dec 28, 2018 11:05 am

I think it's telling that even the arcade mode of Contra had limited continues. At some point the game just up and tells you "I don't give a shit if you have another quarter, you're going back to level 1. Fuck you."

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Re: Hard Modes

Postby Niku » Fri Dec 28, 2018 1:22 pm

related to this is achievement and trophy design in the modern era

the gears of war games on 360 had like some stupid fucking "kill 10,000 people in multiplayer" achievement. a lot of games did (and some do) have achievements for beating the game like five damn times on every difficulty level. many are now actually impossible due to server shit. considering that those have become kind of a weird soft difficulty curve in the way that some people will now see the achievements as "the game" itself and feel done when they 100% them (and many others will just not give a shit about them at all) it's been nice to see more designers embrace the path of making that 100% achievement goal something like 60-70% of the challenge. God of War 2018 doesn't require you to touch the in-game difficulty up or down at all to get the platinum. Spider-Man doesn't asks you to get silver in every challenge, but not gold. Smash Bros. Ultimate doesn't have a challenge panel for "Get Every Spirit" or "Beat Every Classic Mode" and even gives you little limited unlockable hammers to use and get the achievements that you don't feel like doing.

[sidebar: it also then makes a few of those panels unbreakable with the items specifically used to break through the things you would rather not do, because they're still nintendo]

celeste definitely has the single best difficult slider in video games via its assist mode. it already has infinite lives, but the granularity of it letting you solve what is personally causing you problems is genius. it lets you slow down the game speed entirely if you can pull off the motions, but just don't have the reflex time. if you need room to make one or two more mistakes in a long sequence, you can give yourself another air dash. if pits don't bother you, but spikes and enemies do, you can turn on invincibility. you can chain all of them together to tour your way through the entire game, or use none of them at all. and i don't think the note that opens the menu is exactly perfect because it does have a tiny whiff of "real gamers won't use these!!" but also i think it's entirely fair for the designer to say that we made the game in mind without these boosts and that challenging the player was part of what they wanted to invoke and it's MORE important that they both recognize and let the player know they understand that everyone should be able to play the game however they want

tetris effect has a mode where you can't get a game over, the well just resets and you keep going. when the lady played that one, it didn't fucking matter that you can't get a game over, because the game still plays exactly as normal: by the time she'd finished like 20 of the 30 required lines or whatever it was asking for, the game was so fast that she could only manage to make a line or two before her well was a mess all over again, and the sheer speed of it combined with the "wiping it all clean" solution to not having a game over was just as frustrating and anxiety-inducing as an actual game over because you didn't have that come down of "at least everything is nice and slow again" from starting over. as someone who has managed to get like an A or S rank in the master mode (and will probably never get SS) in that game, i didn't even consider that the chill mode would be just as nightmarish to someone who doesn't want to fuck around with difficulty in tetris as the normal non-chill modes, so i'd definitively rank tetris effect's easy mode as Sucks Ass (but i still love you, cool tetris).

anyway it's lunch time, there's some words.
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mharr
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Re: Hard Modes

Postby mharr » Fri Dec 28, 2018 2:31 pm

The Celeste style built-in game genie options reminds me of Tom Francis discussing the design of his games. He also found his way to the 'make challenge all kinds of optional' design space, but notes that you do need to speed-bump it with some kind of 'this is the cheat mode' signpost because a surprising number of players will dick themselves out of rewarding experiences and joylessly grind easy mode to the end game without some pressure to turn up the dials. You also don't want things to be so optional that you're effectively asking your customers to design the game so you don't have to.

I find that all I need to get through absurd challenges is the knowledge that there is a 'fuck this' button. I'll probably never press it, but knowing I have the option to declare a boss bullshit and skip it without consequence completely defangs the ragequit monster. The eternal appeal of PC gaming (and emulators) is that if the devs don't include one, the players will add it after the fact.

Dumb example, Stollenmayer's Bacon. I refuse to skip levels, yet if the option wasn't there I'd have hit uninstall after ten minutes.

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Re: Hard Modes

Postby Mongrel » Fri Dec 28, 2018 3:37 pm

I have TERRIBLE reflexes and this has always been the case.

When I was a kid, I never did finish the original Starfox (which was a game I so adored that it was literally the reason I ever got into console gaming at all), because while I could make it Venom on the hard path (and had even unlocked all the secret worlds) it was nearly impossible for me to learn to beat hard Andross when I only actually made it to Venom once every twenty or so times.

I usually used up all my lives slamming my head against the ball-bustingly hard wall that was Macbeth (and I was always stocking up and hoarding lives whenever I could), and even then I only made it through Venom itself a handful of times out of what must've been hundreds of attempts. That's not even talking about the times I would run out of lives in Sector Z or something because I fucked up along the way (yes, you could warp to Sector Z from the black hole, but that didn't really make much difference), or the fact that half the times I made it to hard Venom I was crippled as shit after taking a beating (that whole mechanic of completely taking away your powerups was infuriating on harder levels).

Sometimes I even just checked out early, taking off to Out Of This World to fart around, because I knew I wasn't going to make it on that run. It's funny hearing people complain that the slot machine is "the hardest boss in the game" because THAT was a goddamn cakewalk and I have no idea how anyone would get that idea.

Yet, when I was in university I finally had the chance to right this "wrong" (even though my reflexes were probably worse by then), because when I got ahold of ZSNES, I could finally just save-state at the beginning of MacBeth (and then at the beginning of Venom).

Beating Andross 3 wasn't THAT hard once I had a few consecutive runs to practice. It turned out that it was never the case that the game was completely unbeatable for me, it was just that I was never consistent enough, even with rote memorization, to survive the fucking gauntlet marathon required to reach and learn the most difficult levels.

(the CONCEPT of Macbeth was pretty danged cool tho)
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Re: Hard Modes

Postby Esperath » Sat Dec 29, 2018 4:21 am

Friday wrote:tl;dr: ek4
pisa katto

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pisa katto

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Friday
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Re: Hard Modes

Postby Friday » Sat Dec 29, 2018 8:06 am

I 100% agree that the best difficulty sliders are signposted as either "cheats" or "this is not the intended experience." I also 100% agree that making the main character wear a bow in his hair if you pick easy is stupid. Don't mock the 45 year old dad, or the 88 year old grandma, or the 6 year old girl, or the guy with motor impairments, for not having the reflexes of a 20 year old frat boy, please.

(Unless you're IWTBG. My favorite thing is how if you pick easy mode it just redirects you to Barbie.com or whatever.)

I should play Celeste, it seems like a thing I would enjoy. Didn't know about the sliders in that game. Slowing the game speed down is a fantastic idea. I've long maintained that all ranks under Diamond in Starcraft and Starcraft 2 should use a slower in-game speed.
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Re: Hard Modes

Postby Lottel » Sun Dec 30, 2018 4:06 pm

I would play so many more games if "Easy Mode" was less of a constant reaction test instead of just being "these mooks have less HP or almost no AI"

I'm just not super great at twitch reactions needed for accuracy (check how much I played medic and pyro in TF2 and how many hours I put in Splatoon) but I like video games.
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Re: Hard Modes

Postby Mongrel » Sun Dec 30, 2018 6:13 pm

That's why I play so much Tanks. Since the overall slower speed of combat and fewer (and non-respawning) players has had me refer to it as "an FPS for old men".

You still need to react quickly now and then, but mastery is more about positional play, map reading, and anticipation of opponents.

One of the things I noticed about TF2 in the years since is that, even though it was a fast-paced game that did require periods of intense, quick reactions, it had plenty of downtime when you could think about the match or even just recover after an intense firefight.
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Re: Hard Modes

Postby Büge » Sun Dec 30, 2018 10:34 pm

Or swear loudly about the ineptitude of your teammates.
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Re: Hard Modes

Postby Mongrel » Sun Dec 30, 2018 11:16 pm

Nah, you do that after they you do something idiotic and get killed.
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Re: Hard Modes

Postby Friday » Thu Jan 03, 2019 3:08 pm

Alright, I'd like to talk about the game with greatest difficulty implementation ever made:

Giraffe Blowjob Resident Evil 4.

Some of you might not even know about this, because they didn't fucking tell anyone they did it. It wasn't in any of the promotional material for the game, and it's not told to you directly by the game itself. I didn't know about it on my first playthrough. I'm not talking about "Professional Mode" or anything like that. I'm talking about Dynamic Difficulty.

"Oh, you mean how the player can determine how hard the game is by what style/loadout they choose to use/be, like in Dark Souls?"

No, that's not quite it. What I'm talking about is the game, itself, becoming easier or harder as a direct result of your actions.

Here, I'll explain it using tabletop gaming.

As a DM, I've been using Dynamic Difficulty for decades. It's pretty simple. When the party is doing well in an encounter, I'll add in (on the fly) a new wrench. Suddenly, whatever tactics they were using no longer work, because the Boss can now fly, or summoned some adds, or whatever. And vice versa, of course. If the Boss is really giving the players a hard time, I might intentionally give them a break by causing the boss to miss, or perform tactical errors, or just simply lower his HP, or whatever.

The (extremely) key thing is, I do this all behind the scenes and I never ever tell the players I'm doing it.

Now, I'm not trying to claim I invented this kind of thing. The fucking DMG actually recommends that you do this. Good GMs have been doing this shit since forever.

The reason you do this is simple: You want to create what could be called "flow."

"Flow" is what the players want. They want to constantly be on that edge of challenge but fun. Too much challenge, and it becomes stressful and not fun, even if victory is still achieved. Too easy and players will start wondering what the point is. So you dynamically raise or lower the challenge as the player(s) are engaging with it in order to find that edge.

So what does this mean for Resident Evil 4?

Yes, most people notice that if you're low on ammo, the enemies will start dropping more ammo of the type(s) you're low on. Same goes for health items. That's part of it, but RE4 goes beyond that.

If you're mowing down everyone and hardly taking any damage, RE4 will increase enemy spawns. They're move smarter and faster and be better armed. This will continue to increase (up to a point) until you start to feel it and that edge comes back. On the other hand, if you're taking a ton of damage (or dying a lot) the game will actually dynamically remove enemies from encounters and make them slower and dumber. In this manner, the game adjusts, on the fly, to whatever your personal skill level is to get you that edge, that flow, and it never ever tells you it's doing it, so you don't feel it's unfair or that the game is holding your hand.

Rule Number 1 about being a good DM is to never let the players look behind the screen. That screen exists for a reason. You roll your dice behind that screen for a reason. You maintain that level of control because at any time you can make the game harder or easier. And as long as the players don't know exactly what's going on there (even if they know that it might be happening) they are forced to assume that the encounter is just going as planned. You don't reveal your hand, not because you're on a power trip, but because doing so would demonstrably reduce the enjoyment that the players are having.

Telling the players that their tactics are garbage so you're making the boss easier is not going to make anyone happy. And the other side, telling the players that your boss just wasn't as hard as you intended him to be so you're upping his damage and hp by 30% is just going to make everyone groan. But if you never ever tell the players you're doing that kind of thing, well. Then all the sudden they're winning on their own merits, they're having fun, they're overcoming a challenge but they're not stressed out.

This may seem somewhat dishonest for a GM or a game to do. It kind of is, I guess. But it's lying to you for a reason, and that reason is to your benefit. Especially in a tabletop where a TPK is possible (and is the essential driving force behind all tension) you need to be able to control the difficulty. You don't want the party to wipe because whoops, I accidentally used a monster way to strong for them to deal with, or whatever. And you don't want players becoming frustrated and quitting when they die to my sadistic laser mazes in ek3 a million times.

Static challenge is okay. I even prefer it, personally, in games. I like that feeling of grinding against a wall until I eventually overcome it. But that's me, and that's not most people. Most people want to succeed on the first or second try, but they don't want to feel like it's not demanding anything from them. And because skill levels vary so widely from person to person, that really can ONLY be truly achieved by having your system adjust to the individual.

Would RE4 have been as massively popular without this dynamic invisible difficulty slider? Probably, yeah. It's a very solid game with a brand new take on the genre (and it basically invented the massively popular and useful "over the shoulder" camera) that was a blast to play.

But I think that if it didn't have that invisible hand helping you out so that you always were on that "feel good edge" of difficulty, there would have been a lot more negative reviews from the skillful complaining it was just too easy and the unskilled asking for a break from all those god damn crossbow cultists in that fucking water room.

Oh, and my party would have wiped like eight fucking years ago.
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Re: Hard Modes

Postby Friday » Thu Jan 03, 2019 3:15 pm

Hell, in multiplayer games, ELO (your invisible or visible "rating") is literally a dynamic difficulty slider. Win more games and your opponents get more skilled. Lose more and they become less skilled. What RE4 did is just applying that to a single player experience.
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Re: Hard Modes

Postby beatbandito » Thu Jan 03, 2019 3:48 pm

RE4 actually spawned more chainsaw guys every ten minutes since your last visit to the merchant.
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Re: Hard Modes

Postby Brentai » Thu Jan 03, 2019 5:26 pm

My first playthrough of RE4 came to a standstill because my natural stinginess about ammo led it to not give me the resources I needed to make it through the cabin encounter. My second playthrough ended up a bit simplistic because I specifically avoided using melee attacks to prevent that from happening. So A for intention, but I've got some gripes about that specific execution.
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Re: Hard Modes

Postby MarsDragon » Fri Jan 04, 2019 1:39 am

I remember once attending a panel by Jerry Lawson where he bragged about working dynamic difficulty out on the Fairchild Channel F. I think it was for a helicopter game? The player shoots down a lot of enemy helicopters and the enemies get faster, they get shot down a lot and the enemies slow down.

There are probably more old arcade games that use a similar system, but I can't think of any right now.

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