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GameCritics.com Podcast Episode 22: Scribblenauts, Muramasa, and Are games too hard?

Tim Spaeth's picture

Do games need to be easier to attract a wider audience? Or are games too easy as it is? Where did all the hard games go? What role does culture play? Will "Autoplay" features reduce frustration or just make gamers lazier than ever? With your help, we attack these questions from all directions. Also: quick hits on Scribblenauts and Muramasa: The Demon Blade. With Chi Kong Lui, Brad Gallaway, and Tim "If You Lose at Candy Land You're Banished to the Woods" Spaeth.

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Platform(s): Xbox 360   Wii   PS3   Nintendo DS  
Developer(s): Vanillaware   5th Cell  
Articles: Podcasts  
Topic(s): Business   Game Design & Dev  

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GrimGrimoire, Game Difficulty and Accessibility

I'd generally agree with Brad's assessment of Vanillaware, well, at least in that they are overrated. I don't quite bear the same naked hatred for them as he does. However, I definitely felt GrimGrimoire was the exception to the Vanillaware rule, in that it was actually pretty solid. It would never set the RTS world on fire, but I found it to be a very competent consolization of the genre. What made you think it was such a bust, Brad?

As for the Gamasutra article, I think Chi (or was it Tim?) was right in saying that games have already been moving in this direction for a long time. More and more "core" gamers are complaining that their favorite franchises are being "dumbed down" for new gamers. Even back on the GameCube, Wind Waker was very easy, with even "strong" enemies rarely doing more than a half heart worth of damage. The Paper Mario series, if charted on a graph, would look like a cross between a ski-slope and a sheer cliff face with regards to declining difficulty over a series.

Chi was again right in saying that the problem is not difficulty, but accessibility. To use Paper Mario as an example again, Paper Mario 2 was much easier than the first game, and even added a new dodge command that completely negated all damage if timed correctly. Still, it was chock full of inane, constant babbling from the characters, and buzzkilling stretches of aimless wandering to find the right person to talk to etc. and those are things only core gamers are going to bother to trudge through. Non-core gamers are going to drop it and do something more interesting. Super Paper Mario took this to greater extremes, being simultaneously even easier, and filled with even more time-wasting dialogue and backtracking.

Wii Sports on the other hand is literally pick up and play. There are no extended tutorials or dialogue sequences, yet the game can actually be pretty hard. So there's an example of a game that is not free of failure, but IS accessible, and as a result is amazingly popular.

I'd also take issue with Eaps suggestion that selectable difficulty is a solution to this issue, primarily because (with the exception of Halo, I guess) game's are typically designed to be played on the default difficulty, and other difficulty levels, both easier and harder, are usually just a simple scaling of enemy HP/damage output, without consideration for actual gameflow. Bionic Commando (2009) is a good example of this, where instead of feeling like a more challenging version of the same game on it's highest difficulty, the basic mechanics fall apart due to the enemies high damage output.

Also Matthew Perry was recently in 17 again alongside Zac Efron, just FYI.

“Making the most challenging parts of video games less like work

It's remarkable how many different interpretations exist of this article. People bring a lot to it that I don't think I put into it.

I agree that games aren't like movies, my intention was to refer to a much more widely "consumed", and more widely respected, entertainment than games, not to compare games to movies.

Why do games "need to be more popular"? Money. And Gamasutra is about money, make no mistake, it's for people who make games for a living.

The trick is to get a grip on reality. "Everyone plays games" is a phrase I've seen lately (e.g. in Escapist Magazine), but it is FAR from the truth. And most people who play games are not "serious" about it, not willing to "work" at it. The number of people who are "really gaming" now is still a very small percentage of the population. Most people cannot succeed with the "hard core" games even on "easy" settings, primarily because they'll hit a place that's too much like work, too much drudgery, and they'll quit. I'm afraid that people who are "really gamers" to the point of doing a gamer podcast are likely to have lost sight of how few people are willing to suffer in/for their entertainment.

The oddest thing, compared to so many interpretations of the article, is that I *don't* think games should be made easier. Much of your discussion is about making games easier, but that's NOT what I advocate. I advocate providing an alternative to "dumbing down" games. Those of you who love challenging games should DEMAND an autopilot/demo play feature in future games so that they won't be "dumbed down" to the point that you won't enjoy playing even on the hardest difficulty setting. If "autopilot/demo play" does not become common, then we'll see games continue to be "dumbed down" to give them broader appeal, and the hard-core players will suffer for it. With "autopilot" the hard core can continue to enjoy their challenging games. Otherwise those fiendishly hard games won't exist. (And autopilot only applies to single-player games, not games against other people.)

As a designer I'd love to be able to make a game that has something for everyone. But that's impossible. In non-electronic games you can have several different versions, from simpler to more complex, but that has distinct limits. In video games you can have difficulty levels from easy to very hard, but that too has its limits. Yet thanks to the power of the modern computer, in video games we can now do both: provide a highly challenging game, yet let people who may not want to take on heavy challenges still play the game. What a great situation! Let the computer play the game when necessary so that players can get past the parts they find most challenging (parts that will vary from player to player: some like puzzles, some hate them, some like "twitch", some just can't twitch fast enough (or don't want to bother).

What makes games games, is not challenge or accomplishment, it's entertainment. Yet different people are entertained in different ways. Some like the provided-by-designer and implemented-by-computer challenges; some like the challenges of playing against other people, a very different situation. Some like to "see what happens". And so forth. Yet some people seem to think that games are "intended" to be only what they enjoy (e.g., challenging interactive puzzles that we call video games).

I agree that a willingness to compete is very important. But it isn't important to most people in this century in their *entertainment.* We've taken most of competition out of school, which is training for life, and that's a disaster; but games are not training for life, they're entertainment.

Good point Lewis

Regarding the autoplay feature. I guess it was a knee jerk reaction, but now that I read it from your point of view, it makes sense. A game can remain difficult, and the auto-play is only going to be activated if the user requests it. It may even bring about games that harken back to the NES era of difficulty. I suppose I'd prefer a game without difficulty levels instead of wondering if I am picking the intended level.

About the podcast itself, always fun. Thanks guys. I keep thinking though how fun it would be to call into the show, though that would open the doors for any would-be fanboy to want to be in. Better to have an accomplishment and a reason to be on rather than just to chit-chat.

Prince of Persia and death

This hits something I talked about in the review I wrote, and while I think I enjoyed it far more than Brad did, I probably would've given it a lower score than the 8 I gave it since it does have some significant problems, and I wasn't aware of the GC rating scale at the time.

However, Brad nails it when he mentions the notion of death streamlining. When I die, I'm going to reload my save game and start over, so why not cut out the middleman? I thought that aspect was really well done and it saved the game for me-no pun intended.

The new Ninja Gaidens both gave me the sense that if I was 10 years younger (when I had entire Summers to waste on this stuff), I would be obsessed with beating it on the hardest level and getting all the extra stuff. Whereas now I played them both on normal, marveled at how ridiculously hard they were, then put them away. Now success means I finished the damn game, while 10 years ago success meant finishing it on hard and getting every last little thing possible. That the game allows for both paths is great, even though 'accessible' isn't a word I'd use to describe Ninja Gaiden.

Game Difficulty


I appreciate your ideas about selectable difficulty ratings. I like the idea because, even if a developer really only does adjust the HP/Damage models, they are still keeping the framework of the game in place and people will be having a similar experience of the game. I haven't yet played Bionic Commander, but it sounds like there is was a significant design issue going on there when it came to ramping up the challenge at higher levels. Would you think it would be better that different levels provided some sort of different story/gaming experience? Was there a game that implemented scalability successfully for you?

I think that a very good example of a scalable system would be The World Ends with You. The system there never seemed to break (having solved it on normal and hard) as the levels went up. Also, there was that interesting mechanic where, if one creature or boss was giving you a tough time, you could attack at a lower level and pass a little more easily. Your payout was usually significantly less, but it was a way to give people who were more casual players (me, on my first go) a chance to make it through the game. By the end, I was so hooked that I went back and played it again trying to be as much of a completionist as I could possibly be. I fought some insanely hard battles and really took the time to try to master the two screen simultaneous combat.

I think that the larger issue here for me is that with the advent of an auto-play or super-easy level, that it strips away what is essential to gaming as a form of entertainment. That is a stark difference from streamlining death (Brad's example of Prince of Persia and Batman's L-trigger fall recovery system).

I have no doubts that adding auto-play/super-easy level would increase the watercooler status of videogaming, but in essence, people would be experiencing something passive and they would be talking more about the graphics/art style or the themes or the writing. They would not be talking about the different ways to approach a challenge in Deus Ex.

I agree wholeheartedly with your comments on Wii Sports. It's a great example of accessible gaming for the masses with failure built in.

In closing, I'm quietly crushed that Mr. Perry didn't get that Oscar nod for The Whole Ten Yards.

RE: Game difficulty

Eaps wrote:

Would you think it would be better that different levels provided some sort of different story/gaming experience? Was there a game that implemented scalability successfully for you?

Well one example would be the original Devil May Cry. While that game is a favorite target for those who dislike hard games, it actually had very clever difficulty scaling.

Easy Automatic Mode was unlocked once you died once (or was it twice?) in the main mode, and in Easy Automatic, a lot of the fancy combos were done for the player. You still had to be an active participant by actively avoiding enemy hits but the more complicated aspects of actually fighting were simplified.

On the flip side, the harder modes actually added newer enemies, and the hardest mode gave them the same devil trigger ability that Dante had.

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