|Ahh, beautiful. The calm before the storm of soul-crushing difficulty.|
"I think that if a dev makes a conscious statement that the games are difficult there shouldn't have to be an argument to put an easy mode in."
When we speak about a challenging game, we are really talking about one of two ends of the spectrum as a consumer of the game's industry. You may be discussing them in a similar fashion. You had been cheated by the game or that something put before you seems utterly impossible. Damn this game, you say, but it isn't always the game, right? You may return to overcome it, or you may not, but in the end you may have been trumped by the design instead of impaired by it. One end is overcoming the challenge because you can, and more often than not, you had not done so because of the factor of player skill (a combo of knowledge and ability to do or perceive). Alternatively, you could not overcome the challenge due to faulty design patterns and practices, placing you in situations that find you suffering from making any progress regardless of your skill level.
When we speak about games and challenge, we often draw upon the era of the Arcade, or one of a select number of high risk/reward games. Dark Souls or Rogue-likes, usually, that stick to implicit narratives, leaving players to discover their own way, and experience moments where things were so tough and high-tension that merely landing a "final hit" became a memorable time-slowing moment worthy of a Let's Play. Games were built to be difficult to feed the machine more quarters in the Arcade days. Now, many indie games strive for a fair, but challenging design philosophy. One that gives players simple lessons with simple mechanics and throws their capabilities with those tools into question with various ramped-up scenarios.
Defeat the basic soldier. Then another. Now you have an archer in front of you with slow, direct, but powerful attacks. Now you face a soldier and an archer, so what do you know? The soldier may chase and use a simple attack, but that archer has slow heavy hitting arrows. What does this mean? The strategy inherently is influenced by more than one agent, but because of your previous experience you have knowledge. You are equipped to handle each one individually. Now the question is how you will juggle these two behaviors/agents in order to persevere. Slay the archer from a distance? Focus on the soldier first? Add another agent, or two, or multiply this in any way and you are severely escalating the challenge level of this scenario.
We're talking about two things now. Level Design. Enemy Design. Scenarios put in front of a player's PVE/single-player path that task them with stopping, evaluating, and acting while reacting based on their position in the environment in relation to the position and behavior of the enemy agents. There is a third thing related to challenge, however. Tools at the player's disposal.
Alex Preston of Heart Machine and Hyper Light Drifter was under fire a bit for a few updates made to the game that modified the player's toolset dramatically. Invincibility frames where there were none, less aftercast with melee attacks, and more changes brought a difficult game to a very different realm of difficulty. Since, another update has reversed and modified these changes to find the best of both worlds. Alex spoke of the Level and Enemy Design in the game with Bryant Francis, noting confidence in using the environment to teach players and allow the world to instruct and teach, instead of holding the player's hand with aggressive explicit narration or non-diegetic dialogue.
Andrew Stewart of Triplevision Games recently successfully kickstarted Mable & The Wood. Back in March he was interviewed by Lena LeRay for a Gamasutra article discussing the changes the game went through from Ludum Dare prototype to a full-fledged experience. There, he notes taking the gamespace from a single environment with randomly spawning enemies to a handcrafted and guided user experience with intended challenges and scenarios. Additionally, the largest change from the prototype is the addition of new forms the player can take to get through the game, potentially opening up challenging and optional content based on the mastery of these shapeshifting forms.
In Super Mario Bros., the tools were power-ups, giving you another layer of health or the ability to sneeze fireballs at enemies. Latter iterations of the franchise produces everything from Boots to Suits to variable character-specific abilities or modifications. Many of these are the backbone of Level Design for environments made in Mario Maker, which boasts a large community of level makers. Polygon has a series called Devs Make Mario, where well-known developers make and discuss their design methodologies.
I'm not trying to break down Joakim or Notch or say anyone was wrong. In fact, I'm glad they had this discussion and brought the contradiction to my attention. I was looking to clarify what my own beliefs were. It lead me to take a look at Axis Descending in a new light, especially after colleagues looked at some of the initial scenarios I've implemented and had things to say about the challenges they perceived. Joakim's statement caters to a user base looking for an experience about his game's world and characters. What happens? is the question that group wants to ask and the answer they want to discover. His statement was a design solution to this problem, meeting the needs and expectations of various players in one fell swoop. Maybe, of course, as it needs validation.
Does that not diminish the capabilities of the medium? If we dilute the experiential in order to attain only mere components of what was intended as a whole, is it still the same? Would a Let's Play suffice, or even a quick synopsis read of a wiki page be a satisfying result? I'm making a giant cake for someone to eat with layers of toppings, ingredients and unknown treats. If I remove some of those layers the cake is no longer what it once was. They won't be able to cherish those ingredients or the harmony of the entire concoction.
Of course, it is up to me as the designer and cook to ensure that cake's flavors, layers and content are all appropriate, but I feel as though that is another subject entirely.
Some games are difficult. Some of those difficult games aren't for everyone, regardless of the elements in addition to their challenges. Yet the tension of the moment, the curiosity of the player, and the reward become so much greater. This is a risk we can take as independent game developers, considering the amount of freedom we have afforded to us. It may seem obvious to reach a broader audience, but do you have to? What are you trying to do? What happens if you do or don't?
Derek's comments on challenge in games were grounded in the understanding that, as he puts it, "We can't be free from frustration and also be challenged. We can't go unchallenged and also feel satisfied with our accomplishments. Mystery, surprise, tension, challenge, and a real sense of accomplishment always come at the cost of feeling uncomfortable. Given the opportunity, many of us would rather take the easier road, but that's usually the less rewarding one."