There is a big difference between a steep hill and a 90 degree cliff. For someone that likes taking on challenging tasks, it can be important for me to understand which hills are climbable and what tasks I’m simply not ready for yet.
This comes up a lot in gaming since there is a lot more choice around molding the difficulty however I want. From difficulty settings to personal challenges and scattered rare enemies to end game uber bosses there are more and more ways to pepper the virtual journey with the appropriate challenge. But with the power in the hands of the players, it is up to the players to make an enjoyable experience for themselves. Here are some interesting examples from my gaming experience of difficulty-molding with varied results.
At one point in my life I was one to start on medium difficulty, to build my skills and have “hard” waiting for me upon completion. However, at some point that changed. Maybe from lack of time or patience in conjunction with generally becoming a better gamer, I started playing games on the hardest difficulty.
Many times this worked as planned. Early stages present a hard barrier to entry but didn’t scare me off, and after the steep learning curve I am generally quite capable at progressing through the game at a reasonable pace. I remember getting stuck on one room for the longest time in the first level of Halo 2, and then just cruising through the rest of the game (with the exception of obnoxious snipers who just owned me repeatedly on occasion).
Similarly, the beginning of every Fire Emblem on hard is a pain in the neck. It is like 5 or so levels of a delicate chess match where your opponent has a 1-2% chance of saying ef this and flicking your king over. But then as the characters begin to level appropriately and more options unwind the game becomes much more manageable (assuming you level the stupidly low level guys who always end up becoming inexplicably awesome).
But then comes Devil May Cry 3. I had never played 1 or 2, nor did I own 3. I was playing the game one night at a good friend’s house and of course I started on the hardest difficulty. I precariously made my way through the first level, being super cautious with my life. At which point Mr. Badass Cerberus guy pops out. I take my deep breath. I’m ready. Feel the Dante… be one with the Dante. Smack dead. Between the dim lighting and speed at which I was killed, I couldn’t even tell you what happened.
That was the end of that. The screen opened up obnoxiously early in the level (don’t remember if it was a checkpoint or the beginning) and I instantly turned off the game and haven’t seen it since. Now, I realize that if I owned the game I would have come back to it, reformulated a strategy of sorts and either played through on normal or rinse lather and repeated instadeaths until I succeeded, but that experience was a game stopper for me in this instance. The speed at which I died in combination with the hefty set-back that came with the loss just created a barrier to entry beyond what I was looking for in that play experience.
The speed at which I died in combination with the hefty set-back that came with the loss just created a barrier to entry beyond what I was looking for in that play experience.
Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded is another example of how difficulty-crafting ultimately had a detrimental experience on my playthrough. In one of the more progressive systems out there, Re:Coded allows the player to alter difficulty in very specific ways. For example, one could decrease max life or increase the stats of the enemies on a sliding scale, each with specific benefits associated with them, such as better item drops.
I went through a good chunk of the game playing at 30% health for 11x items (that could be a lie, don’t fact check that… it was something along those lines though), and then I got hit by my first blizzard. I could just see this little Vivi (awww I love Vivi) wannabe giving me the finger as two useless enemies pounded my skull in, destroying any hope I had of getting a good score.
Take two… this time I will dodge the ice, right? Wrong. Literally wasted another 10 minutes to the exact same blizzard. So I smartened up, I put on a ring that made me immune to being frozen (best choice I have ever made), but sadly Mr. Uber Dog-Shield Teleporting Harbinger of Death appeared for the first time, as if to make sure I knew my place in this game.
After finally getting through that fairly insignificant level, I had some more smooth sailing. Until I got to Hercules’ world, where it took about an hour of getting owned to realize that my fractional health was even in effect. From that point on I gave the proverbial finger to the game and rolled through with my max health, feeling frustrated and defeated.
I am often “overpowered” for last bosses in games. This spawns from a couple of personal traits, but one of them is a challenge-now-not-later attitude I take with games. I hate leaving any kind of optional task behind, which often means fighting enemies that are much higher in levels than me earlier in the game.
For example, every time I beat the arena in The Last Story, the difficulty would go up and I would get more rewards. As long as that difficulty bar was going up, I wanted to push myself to take on the next challenge, curious if there was an eventual end. Similarly, after each dungeon I would go try to beat these random spirit cougar things in a completely optional area, just because I wanted to do it at the earliest possible time storyline wise.
As an offshoot effect, this often leads to being “overpowered” in games down the road. Again, this is about me bending that learning curve towards the front of the game. Similarly, there have been some amusing fails on this front, though none so crippling as either of the above anecdotes.
For example, I had a good sigh of discontent when I killed a bunch of little level one enemies in FFXII before somewhat stupidly enraging a giant t-rex who just hangs out in the first place of the game to make you feel small (I’m sure many others know the guy I’m talking about). Also, I remember when I was playing through the .hack games every so often teleporting into an area that was clearly going to obliterate me, and fooling myself into thinking I would last 10 seconds.
These interactions did not carve out and nestle into the dark places of my mind the way Re: Coded and DMC3 did. I cannot say for certain why but I just took these as minor hiccups in the journey. There are different elements that go into my mentality concerning each of these losses; for example how much time was wasted and how much I was able to learn from the demoralizing situation both matter, but the crux of the despair lies in that ability to craft my own difficulty.
In the first two anecdotes I set my difficulty purposefully abusively high with expectations of setbacks, but not cripplingly so. My inability to achieve to the level of my (arbitrary) expectations created an internal conflict; the only one I could blame was myself. On the other hand, if someone else has crafted this labyrinth of challenge, setbacks can be easier to accept; it becomes more of a chess match where my setbacks beckon a moment of respect to the opponent, and then consideration as to how that opponent can be bested.
My inability to achieve to the level of my (arbitrary) expectations created an internal conflict; the only one I could blame was myself.
So the takeaway here is that, for me, it has been important to truly evaluate the learning curve that I am setting up for myself. We do not always have the liberty of setting our own learning curve, but more often than not there are very manageable ways to tweak it.
For example, asking peers focused questions to address stumbling blocks is a very simple way to ease the curve. In most instances, many have taken a similar path before us and can be useful guides. It’s important to figure out which tasks should be inquired about and which tasks can be surmounted alone. Bringing in someone else can distract them from their own projects and overall you may learn less than personally climbing the hurdle without the inquiry. So it’s good to consider difficulty, length and ease of explanation before shooting off questions left and right.
Another way to consider easing the curve is to liken activities to past activities. The other day I had to make a macro in excel that I was getting pretty frustrated with. I realized that it was quite similar to a macro I had written for a class in college, so I stopped fumbling around at work with it and spent a little time at home figuring out what components could be translated to this new purpose, and was ultimately able to create the macro quite quickly. It’s all about understanding what are feasible tasks and what alternatives and aids are out there to tweak that learning curve to a manageable level.
Recreating the wheel can help solidify a process, but sometimes it is just a brutal waste of resources. It is important to visualize the learning curve you are projecting for yourself and consider your options in altering that curve in order to best meet your objectives for a given task. With those anecdotes in mind, I have a better understanding of the ramifications of misjudging a difficult objective and thus I try to keep a constant eye on the difficulty of tasks I am taking on.
Recreating the wheel can help solidify a process, but sometimes it is just a brutal waste of resources. It is important to visualize the learning curve you are projecting for yourself and consider your options in altering that curve in order to best meet your objectives for a given task.
Let me know what you think about these kinds of boundaries. Have you ever overloaded on difficulty and had a pretty negative repercussion? Do you find that you front load the learning curve as much as possible or perhaps take a more balanced come-what-may approach to given tasks?
Thanks for dropping by. As always game on and learn on!