Experience Point 1/3: Difficulty Does Not Imply Quality

There is one fallacy that I tend to hear once in a while. It goes something along the lines of “It’s not that bad; it’s actually pretty difficult.”  The problem that we have here is that this argument assumes that a game’s difficulty is always proportional to fun (including fear or rage-inducing, for horror or rage games, respectively), and that the relationship is causal (not casual) where difficulty always increases fun.  That isn’t always true.  In fact, all combinations of difficulty and fun are possible.

An example can be found here.  YouTube channel Rerez has an interesting series that looks at the bad parts of good games, and the good parts of bad games.  It’s also, mercifully, not one of those channels with token contrarian viewpoints held for the sole purpose of being controversial, a quality I find valuable.  Desert Bus is a terrible game, but one of the positives that he finds is that “This game can be very, very challenging.”  It also uses the “realism = good” fallacy, but that’s not for this article to debate.

While fun is a function of many variables, including difficulty, it is not true that increased difficulty always increases fun.  In fact, the effect of difficulty on fun seems to be more parabolic, where the first coefficient is negative (see this, section “Player Satisfaction vs. Game Difficulty”).  It is further influenced by the genre of the game, e.g. sandbox tends to do well with relatively low difficulty, but rage warrants greater difficulty; as well as the player’s preference, skill level of the player, and the nuances of the game itself.  This article is dedicated to looking at – or more accurately, acknowledging – the downward slope after the peak.

In the case of Desert Bus, the difficulty is not caused by the game requiring high skill, or from resources being scarce, but by the incredible patience required of the player, and the harsh consequences for doing anything wrong.  That, coupled with the game being boring as sin from the beginning, actually makes the game even less likeable.  A stronger example might be Takeshi’s Challenge, where it’s primary criticism is it’s overly difficult trial-and-error based gameplay.  One could argue that it was technologically impressive for the Famicom, but that doesn’t change the fact that, as a game, it is difficult to the point of abusive.

So, if you are defending your favorite game from a friend who doesn’t like it, arguing its difficulty is probably not the best idea. After all, that might be the very reason your friend doesn’t like it (and then if you say “well, it’s not that hard,” you’re lying.)  The ideal game difficulty for anyone is however difficult they like it; not as difficult as can be.

Next week’s featured experience point focuses on a specific kind of bad difficulty, that we all know and hate – artificial difficulty.

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