Skills to be Mastered: The Merits of Fixed Difficulty

Nov 30, 2011

The idea of scaling or increasing difficulty as a player gets better – either over the course of a game or adaptively based on a player’s level – seems obvious. We know from the now popular concept of flow (and common sense) that boredom occurs when someone’s skill exceeds the challenge, frustration occurs when challenge exceeds someone’s skill, and players feel “in the zone” when the challenge matches their ability.

That isn’t wrong of course. However nor does that single concept sum up the entirety of player experience with challenge.

When difficulty has depth and complexity to it, rather than simply being an absolute line to cross, the player can feel challenged by it immediately, good about it with a little practice, and ever better as more practice continues to refine their skills at the task. I am referring to the types of games in which losing is inevitable (so that in a way, by being so universal it hardly can really count as a loss), but winning well is very hard and a matter of degree.

Aside from operator adjustments inaccessible to players, pinball and early videoarcade machines exhibited fixed difficulty. Mechanical limits placed tight constraints on how much pinball machines could structurally reconfigure on-the-fly (i.e. no “level 2” – and changing scoring modes are slightly related but quite different), while memory and processor limitations imposed similar constraints on the design of games like Breakout, Night Driver, and Sea Wolf.

This was true as well, to a slightly lesser degree, in the generation of games that followed in the next few years, including Pac-Man, Asteroids, and Space Invaders, which responded to progress by adjustments to tuning variables. Games like Donkey Kong and Missile Command, though introducing cyclical layout changes or exposing more enemy types, were still largely similar in function and feel to their 1976 predecessors.

Such challenges present themselves as skills to be practiced toward mastery, rather than as a sequence of content to be consumed. These were high score games, several of which are still played as such, having not been replaced or joined for that purpose by very many newer styles of single-player arcade experiences.

Having no user accounts, the coin-op games had to start the same every time. There was no accounting for differences in player experience. So as to not bore the life out of practiced players (or to keep them from tying up the machine for too long at the start of each coin), the games started hard and stayed hard. This made them difficult for new players, however since time playing was usually a function of ability, at least bad rounds were over mercifully soon.

The upside to this fixed difficulty, in its unforgiving disregard for the player’s inexperience, is that as skills at the game improve, the player will immediately and permanently see the impact of that improvement. The progress is perceived not as trophies nor unlocks, but as an ability to more consistently achieve their intentions.

It has become convention, in the interest of maintaining player engagement for longer periods of time per session, to make a game harder in proportion to the player’s ability, but this only drowns out the hard-earned results of the player’s practice. Longer play sessions for the fixed difficulty games did not come from their quantity of content, but from leaving the player thinking, “I can do better next time, give me another shot at it,” and needing only a few minutes to take that shot.

High score played a role for those games which stored it (and Sea Wolf did), but mostly for the very top level players, who could quickly push the bar out of reach for nearly everyone else. Most people playing these games don’t have any expectations of getting a high score. Most people simply feel like they are not as good at it as they could be. It makes them feel clumsy, an unpleasant feeling regardless of context, like they are making errors they shouldn’t. They want to feel good at it, and they can see their improvement the more they play, because each time they play their skills are held up against exactly the same measuring stick.

I recognize and completely respect that this does not fit everyone’s tastes. There is nothing wrong with that. I like these kinds of games, but I like plenty of other very different kinds of games, too.

I call attention to it here because it’s a historical reminder of a play style especially conducive to several development constraints common among our hobby projects:

  • Shorter play sessions, such as type that players expect and find convenient for small web games
  • Getting the most overall play time out of the comparatively little content that we can churn out
  • Designing an experience in which the only information the player needs is either visually apparent or can be very quickly picked up – no tutorial, no manual, just ready to be played

For strategies along these lines, check out Doing More With Less: Short Videogame Design.

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