“How Hard?” More Like “Hard How?” – A Response to The Meta

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So I found these super cool guys at Kill Screen who run a column called The Meta. It’s the way they talk about games that caught my attention. Just look at the opening to a conversation they had about animation canceling in games:

“All animation cancels should be destroyed.”

Woah. I can count the people I know who make statements like that on one hand. I love that it’s such a strong position, because even if someone disagrees, the conversation that follows is bound to be interesting. You should definitely check it out.

The fundamental question of the conversation is this: “Is it okay for a game to have unintuitive, unexplained aspects of its technique in the name of skill?” Animation canceling, can of worms that it is, is only one aspect of the issue. And if you’re reading this and saying “WTF is animation canceling?” consider yourself a perfect demonstration of the problem.

But there’s one quote in particular that I want to talk about. It’s a quote that subtly colored the entire conversation, and it exposes some of the biases that we have about how to make games.

Justin Groot: “Aren’t mechanics that make things arbitrarily more difficult essentially the definition of any competitive game though?”

What a question. There’s a lot of baggage implied there, and I want to unpack it. It seems obvious that competitive games need skill, but it really matters what he means by “skill.” Not all skills are compatible with each other, and using conventional skills like dexterity and reflexes has a way of limiting a designer’s imagination, of cutting off all kinds of depth that other skills have to offer. Above all, designers should be purposeful and shrewd about which skills they put into their games instead of relying on whatever skills accidentally made it in. Continue reading

Casual vs. Hardcore – Settling the Score

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There’s an idea that’s been haunting video games for years now. It permeates every corner of gaming culture: you can see it on news sites, reviews, conventions big and small, community forums, design discussions, and of course in the games themselves. It’s a specter that silently and insidiously manipulates the way we make games, the way we play games, and the way we think about games. Sometimes it even makes people go crazy and storm forums with internet torches and pitchforks. And worst of all, it creates artificial divisions between people who could otherwise coexist and enjoy themselves.

The ghost? The hardcore vs. casual narrative.

There’s this idea that on one side you have unskilled, nonchalant players who don’t care at all about winning, and on the other side you have these elite warriors who thrill at the thought of dominating their opponents. There’s a spectrum that’s implied, but don’t let that fool you – there’s a war going on between the two factions of gaming, and everything done to appease the casual comes at the expense of the hardcore. Lines have been drawn, and games are either for one or the other.

But the good news is the narrative is a lie! Games don’t have to cater to one of the two camps, and neither games nor people need to carry either of the labels. If a designer doesn’t put himself into a box, he doesn’t have to put his game or his players into a box either. So don’t believe in the narrative. Don’t do it! Even as a player, such thinking can warp your view of a game system and make you believe strange things about it. Take, for example, a self-identified “casual” who took one look at the ranking system in Auro and assumed it meant the game was for “hardcore” players, that he was an outsider, and that the game was for someone else. I mean, games with ranks in them are for hardcore people, right? To prove how tough and badass they are?

The hardcore vs. casual narrative is not a truism. It’s merely a perspective, and it’s a poisonous one that can bring out our worst ideas. Because actually no, ranks aren’t just for hardcore players. In fact, they help to make the play experience better for everyone, “casual” and “hardcore” alike. Continue reading

Dark Souls 2: Difficulty Dissected

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You may have heard that the Souls franchise is hard. You may have even heard that it can make you into some sort of bizarre double-man. The director and supervisor of the series often talked about his desire to use difficulty to facilitate a sense of achievement (as opposed to collecting cheevos). I often hear gamers wearing the Souls series like a suit of armor, as though it were proof of their gaming prowess, and staunchly defending it from any attempts to improve “accessibility,” a word that seems to translate as “easier.” In fact, there was quite the kerfuffle back in 2012 when the internet suspected director Hidetaka Miyazaki of wanting to make an easy mode for Dark Souls 2, a comment that was speedily retracted. And in true PR form, Namco Bandai assured everyone in 2013 that the sequel would be “viciously hard.”

So isn’t it funny that just last month, the video series Extra Credits put out a video detailing how the true genius of Dark Souls 2 is… its easy mode! The producers detail out exactly how to make Dark Souls 2 a much easier experience, and go to great lengths to convince everyone why that’s such a great thing. It’s actually the sort of thing that EpicNameBro spoke out against during the 2012 controversy: he argued that having the option to lessen the difficulty robs the game of its tension and sense of achievement. Now, I disagree with Extra Credits (as I often do), but they’re definitely correct that Dark Souls 2 has what amounts to a “soft” easy mode, and that’s probably the reason why it slipped by so many gamers including EpicNameBro. But I think the important question here isn’t how hard the game is or isn’t. The important question is what kind of difficulty the game has.

In other words, what does it mean to be a truly “hard” game? Continue reading