When it comes to developing any game experience, the player is at the heart of it. In most games, developers make the game give you a good roll if your past few rolls were bad, we make your computer enemies always miss the first shot so you have time to respond, and we will count a jump a frame or five or six too late as a jump anyway. Our goal is for you to have an engaging time, and it’s more important to us that it feels fair than it is that it is fair. We’ll pretend things are harder than you believe just so you feel like you’re better at it. We’ll make the game less fair if that makes it feel more fair to the average player. Almost all games – whether its an obstacle-less experience or a masocore unfairly difficult platformer – are secretly rooting for you.
Rami Ismail on video game difficulty.
This is from what is probably the best essay I’ve ever read on “difficulty” versus player experience. It’s specifically about video games, but if you’ve ever run, say, a tabletop RPG some of the challenges will seem very familiar.1
I’ve mentioned before that I am a consummate video game cheater. I have a lifetime sub to a trainer download site, and have literally never played a (single player) game without cheat codes, guides, rampant min-maxing, playing on casual, walkthroughs, save scumming, hex editing, or some combination of all of the above. There is a type of gamer that finds this attitude sacrilege, but Ismail’s essay is so compelling to me because the reason I cheat in games is due to the fact I’m never not aware that the game itself is—in any situation, on any difficulty—letting me win. Video games are like the dad who jogs backwards so his very young children can “beat” him when they’re racing. Players are always the toddler to Game Engine Dad; no matter how fast you run, Game Engine Dad is just one pace in front or behind you, but only by his choice, and a “victory” over Game Engine Dad is always on Game Engine Dad’s terms, never because you legitimately outran him.
Maybe it’s just me, but I never found being “allowed to win” particularly compelling.2 So “challenge” in games was never my thing; I’m an Explorer/Achiever, so everything from engaging with the plot to enjoying the art of different models and environments was always more compelling to me than whether I could “beat” a boss or solve a puzzle.
But, y’know. It’s all subjective; some people are really into the challenge, and more power to them. Enjoy the game the way you wanna enjoy it. Just, like. Don’t get your ego tied too much up in being Good At Games™ while you’re at it…
- Or, for that matter, played against an aggressive, kill-’em-all DM. My First D&D DM was like that, and as someone who’d come from the more collaborative-storytelling-orientated Word of Darkness lines, the attitude always baffled me. Of course the DM can obliterate the party at any time! The DM is the game’s God; they can make arbitrary changes to the world on a whim, including smiting the shit out of all the players. But so what? This, incidentally, is the main line I think separates good DMs from bad ones; a good DM knows the world isn’t “fair”, but that that’s not the point. The point is that the players have fun. If that means fudging rolls and giving monsters “bad AI” so a party doesn’t get wiped out by random encounters on the way to the main action, then so be it. DM screens exist for a reason. ^
- There’s probably some kind of gender analysis in here, too. The narrative of a man “letting the girl win” for his own benefit is as universal as it is patronizing. As a “girl”, the only way to win this game is to not to play at all, and it’s possible that attitude carries over. ^