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Make Your Game Easy, Then Make It Easier (jeff-vogel.blogspot.com)
68 points by angelbob on Jan 4, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 41 comments

As a counterexample, take Nethack. Probably largely reserved for more of the hard-core gamer type, but I don't consider myself to be a hard-core gamer any more. In fact, difficult games that force me to repeat a failure over and over I will push to the side due to lack of time. Nethack, however, has continued to fascinate me over the years. Its randomly generated content and creative ways of killing you (usually) keep you from dying repeatedly in the same exact circumstances, and you come out of it feeling that you learned something and are developing a worthwhile skill in terms of the game. Dying in Nethack is practically positive reinforcement rather than pointless repetition.

And despite the pervasive RNG skewing every outcome, death is always the player's fault, and the player knows it.

Sometimes it's bad luck. "You fall into a pit! The spikes were poisoned! The poison was deadly! You die..." before you could get poison resistance, for example. The classic example is the early-game gnome that gets generated with wand of death, which you have no defense against at that stage.

Over the course of many hundreds of deaths, I've had that happen to me maybe a couple times, like a falling rock trap on turn 5. Occasionally epic shit like this happens: http://alt.org/nethack/player-all.php?player=Ascension -- but more common is early unavoidable pet deaths.

But as you pass the first few hundred turns, the probability that your death is going to be entirely the fault of something you decided to do in the last few turns rapidly approaches one. You can acquire resistances and detection mechanisms quite early, plus your pet is so very useful in that period too.

Once you know what you're doing, every decision is an explicit trade, especially in hindsight.

The number of times I put an unidentified amulet on in that game...

I think Vogel's advice loses something in the phrasing. Having multiple difficulties is important, but making the "default" mode the easy one encourages the developers to design with the easy version of the game in mind. this is important in strategy/RPG/puzzle games, where the difficulty corresponds directly to how much thinking is involved. If you start with the easy mode and then tack on the hard mode after the actual game mechanics and content are set, the hard mode will usually just end up as a set of statistical skews and extra "hard quests" that are quantitatively more demanding, but don't leave you with any qualitative feeling of added difficulty, only of frustration. For examples, think of the speed increases in Tetris, or the Weapons in FF7.

By comparison, if you design in difficulty from the start, the difficulty will be interwoven with the game design. You can always make the game easier later, but you'll still have the areas that require Advanced Thinking to surmount—you'll just have a shortcut available as well, if you wish. For one example, the Mario series is designed such that every stage can be beaten as "small" Mario. Every power-up is, in ways, a shortcut—if you want to experience the game at its cleverest, play without them.

One of the best things I've read in past relating to this topic dealt with the playtesting that Valve held for (I think) Half Life 2. If anyone could supply me with my lost source, it would be greatly appreciated.

They would sit a wide range of users down in front of a new level or scene, and silently watch them play, with no help, and with analytics running in the background. If they noticed players taking too long on certain puzzles, dying too often from certain monsters, or just not grasping the expected flow of events, there was further work to be done; likewise, if players blew through a level or puzzle too quickly, didn't have any troubles with a "boss", there was also work to be done.

I'm pretty sure you mean this article: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3408/the_cabal_valves_...

It's about the unusual design process Valve went through to produce the original Half-Life, and I too found it a fascinating read.

The Director's Commentary in Portal and Episode 2 is particularly revealing. One major lesson: it's impossible to teach players to look up.

Bungie had a laboratory for testing players playing Halo 3. I remember seeing heat maps of where players died the most frequently.

One particularly interesting idea Valve used was a "Gate" where a player had to demonstrate that they had learned a new skill or acquired an item to proceed. For example, breaking boards with the crowbar, using the gravity gun to remove sheet metal or using your new lightning power in Bioshock to short out a switch.

From that moment on, the designers could be confident that the player understood their new ability and only required some repetition to cement that knowledge.

People often confuse "making a game easy" with "making a game rewarding". The worst thing you can do is make your game too easy, the best thing you can do is reinforce every single correct user action with positive feedback and a reward.

The almighty example: Peggle.

People often confuse "making a game easy" with "making a game rewarding". The worst thing you can do is make your game too easy

Maybe I misread, but what you wrote is exactly the opposite of the point Jeff makes. Jeff is respected in the indie games community, and has created shareware games since 1994, while you just graduated college this year. I bring that up because he wrote a whole article explaining his point, while you simply wrote a statement saying it is the worst thing. Why?

the best thing you can do is reinforce every single correct user action with positive feedback and a reward.

Rewarding as many user actions as possible is known to be an important tactic and is not something the author disagreed with (and is likely something he believes as well.) Why was it used as a counter point?

Also, why do you believe that reinforcing every "correct" user action is on the opposite end of the spectrum of making games easy?

Rewarding user actions with points and spiffy effects is actually a part of making the game very easy. People want to feel successful for doing anything at all in casual games, and giving rewards and accolades for easy-to-accomplish tasks (as seen in games like Peggle) is part of making the game easy.

And what you call "correct" user actions in casual games such as Peggle would be better called "rewarded" actions. As players click around the screen, they are rewarded for coming closer to a goal, often having no idea why they got those points. Additionally, many successful casual games are designed so that even user actions that are completely ineffective are rewarded with points to the point that this is an inside joke between casual game developers. That is what I mean when I say that making games easy is correlated, not the opposite of, rewarding players often, and also why games are not necessarily about rewarding user behaviors as much as keeping them feeling confident and playing. Finally, this is also what I believe Jeff is talking about.

Sure, you can try to discredit me because I just graduated from grad school this spring, but I have been making games for a while. To be honest I have never heard of Jeff Vogel before nor have I heard of Spiderweb Software, therefore I have not played any of his games. This is not an attack on him, he seems to be a successful indie game developer.

I realize he wrote a whole article, I did not read it all, just the bold stuff. This sort of idea about difficulty has been sprouting up since casual games hit the main stream a few years ago. Most people seem to think casual games got so popular because they are so easy, I totally disagree. That is what my comment was based on.

As for making the game "too easy" (notice I said "too easy") being the worst thing, how much fun is it to play an 8 year old in basketball? How fun is it to play chess against someone that has never played before? How many games have you been bored with because they are too easy. Making a game too easy is bad, it will just make players stop playing. The key is finding the balance between difficulty and skill (go ahead and graph it based on your playtesting surveys) and riding that curve up and to the right the entire way.

The reward can be independent of difficulty. The reward is juicy feedback. It is empowering. The problem is most people assume the reward must be something relevant to the game mechanics, like a bigger sword, but that is not true. The reason I used Peggle as an example is because user feedback basically has nothing to do with the actual game. The fireworks, soundtrack, bling-y graphics, all of that is what puts the game over the top. You think that the extravaganza that happens at the end of each level has any impact on the difficulty of the game? No, it just makes the player feel awesome. Sure, it is not as tough as Ikaruga, but have you tried the Master Levels? They are not easy. The feedback is not part of the difficulty.

As for the actual bold parts of that article:

"People will forgive a game for being too easy. They will never forgive it for being too hard." (I switched it since he disagrees with the opposite)

Eh, I guess. But there have been times when I have died while playing the game and I did not blame the game, I blamed my skill. It was not the game's fault. It is bad to make a game too difficult, just as bad as it is to make a game too easy.

"People will happily forgive a game for being too easy, because it makes them feel badass. If a game is too hard, they will get angry, ragequit, hold a grudge, and never buy your games again."

My whole argument is that you do not need to make the game easy to make the player feel badass. Even then, if the game is too easy players will think it is pedestrian and not play it.

"When a player is on the default difficult level, has built his or her characters poorly, and is playing straight through the main storyline with mediocre tactics, that player should almost never be killed."

I would think this is a problem with the tutorial or how complicated the game is. It should be straight forward to see progression of most players and know roughly at what point they would be at throughout the game. If they do not know how to play (have mediocre tactics) that is probably not a difficulty problem. I would look at what made the player think those choices were good, and then try to figure out how you can reinforce the right ones with juicy feedback.

TOO LONG DID NOT READ VERSION: Your game might not be too difficult, it might just need more/better feedback for the user to make them feel awesome. If your game is too easy it will fail, probably the same way if it is too hard.

He writes RPG's. I've never played his games, but I just finished Dragon Age:Origins (great game btw). The game wasn't skill based - it was story based. Sure I can ramp up the difficulty now and try and solo it - but the main reason for playing it is to explore the world and to follow the story. In some ways it's more of an interactive movie than a game (albeit a 60 hour movie). The reward in a game like this is not the playing - it's the world/story/vibe. Making it really really easy (as the default) is good. (Even better is a good explanation of the difficulty levels..)

Thinking of it, this is a genius statement, because it also captures why I like really hard games which allow me to fail and die in horrible, hilarious ways. Thinking of it, this is a reward in itself a reward for me, the player (I just recall max payne 2. "Oh my lord, look at this, those sneaky ba^W gangsters camped in that room with grenades and shotguns and they are like 10 people, and I just opened the door and WOOSH I was gone, and look at that ragdoll physics! Haha!", followed by the reward of actually getting through such a room after like the 8th time).

Wrong on both counts: A game should have a difficulty curve that guides the player through the course of the game, but presents them with enjoyable challenges that they must escalate their skill to as they progress.

It's no good having a game that's too easy, because then it is boring. Conversely, if the game is too hard with no way to provide the player feedback necessary for them to improve their capacity, then there is no purpose in playing.

When Jeff is talking about games that are easy or games that are hard that are still satisfying, he's referring to the fact that both types of games provide adequate feedback to the player. The easy games that are good will still quickly defeat the player if he does not interact in an appropriate and effective manner even though the player still knows exactly how to engage in those interactions. A hard game that is good is fair about its difficulty and the skill challenges provide the player a way to attune their play to the required interaction with coherent and consistent feedback.

I doubt I'm the only one, but I completely disagree. I hold grudges against games being too easy, because they're not enjoyable. If I want a leisurely stroll through a dungeon, I pick up a game more designed for such a thing - a casual game. If I want a challenge, something to get my adrenaline going, to make me WANT to win, difficulty is where it's at. Difficulty is addictive, ease isn't.

In its defense, it's saying that you shouldn't kill your player too much on the default difficulty. That's good advice, but it's missing what I believe to be the real kernel of truth: death shouldn't be excessively costly. Having to play through a long-ass level to fight the 99%-indestructible boss just because he got a lucky shot in will definitely turn people off.

I'm torn.

I'm a very competitive person. I tend to be a little bit of a completionist. But, in an RPG like the ones he makes, I'm very likely to play through it once on the easiest difficulty level, do no sidequests, and just power through the story, so I can enjoy it. Then I'll go back and make a 'real' character the second time through, make it much harder, and go off on side quests.

So I think there's a balance to be struck here.

What Jeff Vogel says (in the comments, I think) to this point is that there are harder difficulty levels if you want to do this. His games do tend to have them.

Another commenter replies that the difficulty levels should probably be better documented in this case, so you can tell who they're intended for. Fair enough.

A good example of this was Torchlight which I picked up this weekend. I was all set to play it on Normal but the tooltip said that this was a good setting for people new to Action Adventures (or soemthing like that - not 100% sure how the makers categorized it). I proceeded to Hard mode which was described as being good for people with some experience with these kinds of games. My next run through I'll probably give Very Hard mode a try.

The idea though is that you want to make things accessible. If you start out with ANY product targeting the top 1% you're going to either have to charge ALOT or just not expect to make much money. Having the default mode be not very challenging for newcomers lets them get their feet wet while providing a way to challenge themselves down the road, should they be looking for a challenge.

I think the article is oversimplifying the issue, but it's still an important and relevant view that a lot of gamers don't want to believe. Most people don't play games for the challenge, we play it for the fun. Overcoming obstacles is one way, of several, to achieve this.

Ninja Gaiden is fine. It's a good game. It's hard, but it's not hard just for hardness' sake, it's not a jackass about it (usually). Ninja Gaiden was the best example I've seen of a game that makes the player rise to the challenge and become better at the game. There are a lot of games I've seen that are simply cheap and frustrating, losing sight of the 'fun & games' aspect of gaming just to raise the difficulty bar. These games shoot themselves in the foot by severely restricting their appeal. For example, the Medal of Honor series never interested me because too often, it uses the 'challenge' of making the player memorize with millimeter-precision a route through the level, with no way to find the path without getting shot in the face a statistically significant number of times.

However, the issue isn't really about how hard or easy the game is. The issue is appealing to different audiences. How do you appeal to the hardcore and casual audiences at the same time? One way is by offering difficulty levels (another is auto-adjusting the difficulty, like Max Payne), although some absurd fraction of people just choose "medium" and be done with it. Another way is having a more continuous range of success available, with different difficulties. This is why achievement systems are such a good idea. They let the user cherry-pick how much challenge they want to deal with, as well as when and which types.

This is not to say that hardcore tough-as-nail games shouldn't exist. They have a right to exist. However, they should be made with the awareness that they're niche products, and that the majority of the game-buying public (now that the majority of the public buys games) is looking for some entertainment and not a lifestyle.

There's also a lot that can be done to make difficult games more palatable, and even appealing. As as said above, Ninja Gaiden does a good job of making the player better at the game. Giving the appearance of progress is important, even if the player is nominally failing, they'll feel better if they're getting closer to succeeding. The most important quality is simply the appearance of fairness, which varies wildly and is totally subjective. Quite simply, if the player blames the game for being hard he'll quit, but if he thinks do better and beat it he'll most likely continue.

Another reasonable option is to avoid making the player pick an inappropriate level by picking for them. Off the top of my head, one example is Quake Live, which puts every new player in a little test area; first, it challenges them to see if they can jump accurately; then, it challenges them to rocket jump; then, it challenges them to strafe jump. Finally, it puts them in an first-to-15 deathmatch against a bot opponent with adaptive difficulty (so if you start out pwning the bot, it will rapidly get better until it starts evening the score.) By doing so, it forms a good picture of the player's skills so that it can match them evenly against other players immediately. The process takes about 15 minutes, but it certainly saves people a lot of poorly-balanced games.

It would be hard to do the same thing in an RPG without a longer test period, but it would be really easy to do so in a more action-oriented game, or a platformer. Of course, one would want to be able to override the "autodetected" difficulty level, but it would simultaneously address the problem of casual gamers getting frustrated because the default is too hard, and the problem of tough-as-nails gamers getting frustrated because they picked one that turned out to be too easy.

with that, sometimes you get better players pretending that they're not as good, so they can prey on weaker players when they're categorized as a bad player when they're really not.

A game should be difficult. It should even be hella difficult. But the game should be so crafted such that the player should feel in complete control at all times, and if he loses it's always his fault and not the game's. Mega Man series games did this brilliantly.

See also: nethack

It's an object lesson in humility! In every death after the first few hundred turns, you instantly realize the entire chain of totally avoidable bad decisions based on bravado.

I think "deceitful design" is the best way to phrase this. When the player starts the game they have zero knowledge of what kind of fun, immersive experiences the game holds, and they have no reason to expend effort into seeking out those experiences for themselves; "beat the game" is usually all they're out to do when they start playing. Therefore, they have zero tolerance for a learning curve that forces them to "sink or swim," because it will feel arbitrary and pointless - an elitist barrier to "beating the game" that is likely to make them unhappy and stop playing immediately. Games which are built to a preexisting genre and mechanics can cheat and be hard from the very first instant on the expectation of an existing player base knowing - more or less - how things are going to work. But games with substantial original ideas can't rely on this, and it isn't a good idea in any case.

So the problem for the game designer is not to make the game easy so much as it is to make the player feel confident - even overconfident - so that they are willing to see all of the game's features, and then to gradually slip in the challenging elements to disrupt those confident feelings without completely shattering them.

Reward-focused design happens to be the best way to go about this - "you can't fail but you can always do better," where the game puts a lot of emphasis on achievements of skill without making them a barrier to game progression, or at least makes it so that even if skill limits progression(as in most arcade games, or games like Nethack), opportunities are presented to polish up play at earlier points and reap rewards for it later. Resource bonuses like powerups or extra lives are particularly good for this, but even measurements like combo counts or accuracy can serve this purpose if the feedback is immediate and given regularly.

Designing all the game content around the introduction and tutorialization of mechanics, which Portal did, is another strategy, and it can work in tandem with reward-focused design.

I really think it's best to have a good variety of easy and difficult challenges in a game (and you need challenges). People will never forgive a game for being too easy, or for being too hard. A nice middle ground needs to be found.

This reminds me of the "Iwata Asks" article recently on HN, and I think they have a better take on the issue. http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=970566 A couple quotes:

Iwata: So you wanted to know what it was that made players insert another 100 yen coin once the game was over and have another go?

Miyamoto: Right. And basically, I concluded that this was born of the players being mad at themselves.


Miyamoto: Well, since you've purchased it, it's surely better to be able to see the ending.

Call of duty. This was one of the easiest games I've played. You could literally just let your computer ai beat the game for you on normal difficulty. Grand theft auto is similar. It was easy as long as you didn't do the missions. These two games also happen to be the most popular games ever. I've been dying for gamemakers to recognize the fact that easy is good. If I wanted to get frustrated by difficulty I'd go do some work, but a game should be an enjoyable pasttime, not a placeholder for work. If it's hard, then it should at least reward adequately. Knowing you wasted 5 hours dominating real people online is rewarding. But knowing you wasted 5 hours beating a computer is a waste of time.

I'd like to point out that the Call of Duty series is not famous for its single-player campaign (especially the critically-acclaimed versions).

Its call to fame is the multi-player aspect where the level of difficulty can be as hard if not harder than what's available at the hardest difficulty setting for the single-player campaign (veteran difficulty).

Call of Duty's campaign's are extremely short. They don't do much repetition.

For me personally Call of Duty is one of the few games I actually went through the campaign. It felt satisfying.

But like I said, if there must be a challenge, it should be against other players, and Call of Duty got that right too.

I'm actually trying this now with a Facebook game... a game for people who find Mafia Wars and Farmville too challenging. The gameplay for those games is already almost-non existent, so why not abstract away the meaningless clicking?

You should take inspiration from Progress Quest: http://www.progressquest.com/ They've masterfully abstracted away every part of your standard MMORPG that doesn't require thinking.

:) Definitely, cloning Progress Quest was my original idea. Since then the design has gotten a bit more ambitious, but I still think a mostly straight clone of Idle RPG or Progress Quest could work as a Facebook App. I wouldn't be offended if someone else takes that idea.

Counterexample: http://www.notdoppler.com/theunfairplatformer.php

This is a game which is totally built around the concept of being impossibly hard, but still succeeds.

How does that succeed? It's not on their top 10 list, and I found it to be personally a giant pain in the ass. I quit after a few minutes.

http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=the+unfair+platform... 2 million hits on google, hundreds of thousands of hits on websites like armorgames and kongregate. Pretty good for a flash game.

Maybe it turns into impossibly hard later on, but the first couple of screens are just a series of surprise traps that kill you on the first time but are reasonably easy to avoid once you've learned them properly (compared to this type of impossibly hard: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nscP9QpXoFM). If you look at this with Raph Koster's Theory of Fun (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Theory_of_Fun_for_Game_Design), it's basically brain candy constantly telling you you've gained valuable skills by learning about new trap patterns in the environment, so I can see why it's compelling.

Now my hand hurts from playing it :/

This is why games suck now.

'Make a game easy' is what you do when you can't design good gameplay mechanics that work at multiple skill levels. If your game can only work at one skill level, you have to make that skill level really easy if you want to keep as many people as you can playing it after their first try.

The downside is that there is no reward for improving at the game. You play it a few times, and you do not improve. There's no newer corners of the game to explore, no new approaches to playing it.

Some games are so good that you can re-release them over and over for years with just a few changes and maybe some new content, and people will keep buying and playing it. Tetris. Puyo-puyo. Super Mario. Those are the games you should try to idolize, not games like Gears of War or Halo or random-indie-game-that-wishes-it-were-Braid #455321.

You can brute-force a game that sells a lot by playtesting it with countless focus groups, paying Hollywood-level for game assets, and marketing it to death on Gamespot and whatever, but that's the equivalent of hiring a giant workforce and grinding out your web app in some old Java enterprise WebPortletComponentModelerFactory thing.

Be agile, try small fun stuff and wander around until you get something that's fun to play, and then think up a way to make a full game out of it. Don't start the other way around, with the desire for 'some game' but no way to fill it out with the fun part.

Addendum: Don't be afraid to let the player die. That's why there are multiple lives (if your game works like that, I mean.) Most games I see today go as far as possible to prevent a player from dying during normal gameplay, to the point where you can clear many games on your first try without any sort of negative feedback -- Assassin's Creed 2, for example.

To learn to play Super Mario Bros., you had to die or watch someone else die. If you're setting out from the beginning in your design with "I never want the player to die", then just don't have lives and death at all, like Braid. It's ridiculous when you have a lives system in a game but contort your game mechanics to never use it. You end up creating an environment where a player never really gets negative feedback on when to not do something, and you have to constantly push them in the right direction with obvious and uncouth hints in order to prevent them from making an 'accident'. You're preventing your player from learning. Stop it!

A good game should be comparable to a good book or movie. Nearly all modern games are like Dan Brown pieces.

I'm 29 and get off my lawn!

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