Whenever I’ve wanted to explain mechanics, play-style or challenge level about a video game, I usually start with the genre. “It’s a FPS (First Person Shooter) with many RPG (Role Playing Game) elements”, might be a really broad way to describe a game like Borderlands. “Post Apocalyptic Survival meets Crafting”, is a good way to describe 7 Days to Die and ‘Battle Royale’ works well to describe Fortnite, PUBG, Rust and others.
I then continue with the ‘how it is played’, which requires much more detail. What does someone actually do in a game like Borderlands? How does one win? When does the player know when they have beaten the game? When does playing the game become satisfying?
Here is where the specifics come in and the elements are explained. The main framework of the game is the ‘Quest System’ which progresses the story line as players complete tasks for the various NPC (Non-Playable Characters) in the world. Rewards are bestowed, upon completion, in the form of items, experience and money. Dispatching the enemies (usually in a violent manner) found throughout the game also grants smaller amounts of each. Experience (queue RPG elements) are applied to the character and, upon accumulating enough of them, the character will ‘Level Up’ allowing for better skills, weapons, abilities and sometimes, access to new areas within the game.
The ‘Level Up’ mechanic and ‘Quest System’ can easily tell a story and provide that oh-so-important feeling of accomplishment along the way. If done well, the player can tell when the game has granted ‘logical break points’, when it would be best to save your progress and come back to the game later. In RTS (Real Time Strategy) games, this is usually done in between missions and the completion of a mission is what grants the player the ‘good feels’ (previously mentioned sense of accomplishment).
We’ve so far covered the baseline of ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’, but we haven’t really covered the ease or challenge of the game. Ever since the inception of games, there have been ‘Difficulty Levels’. Is the game easy or hard to beat? Is the learning curve smooth and can a new player jump into a game quickly? These are the two things that I want to separate and discuss, specifically whether a game is ‘hard’ or a game is ‘difficult’.
For the sake of discussion, let’s spell out the definition of these words:
hard – adjective: hard; comparative adjective: harder; superlative adjective: hardest
Solid, firm, and rigid; not easily broken, bent, or pierced.
difficult – adjective: difficult
Needing much effort or skill to accomplish, deal with, or understand.”she had a difficult decision to make”
Here, there may be little difference, but there is an underlying element that I want to highlight. I can probably do it best with the following two statements:
“A ‘hard‘ game is one that provides a challenge to the player. The game can be classified as a ‘easy to learn, tough to master’ and requires some time from the player to learn, in order to become proficient.”
“A ‘difficult‘ game is one with either a very high learning curve, or doesn’t provide tools the make playing the game simpler. Imagine a UI (User Interface) that forces a placer to click way more times than necessary to accomplish a simple task. Over-complication of games is a good sign of a game being ‘difficult’.”
So, what are some examples of a games that fall into these categories?
I would say that notoriously hard games would be:
Blaster Master (NES), BattleToads (NES), Mega Man (Classic Series, NES), Civilization (PC), Command and Conquer (PC). These are classic games that, once you get the hang of it, get better over time.
Games that would fall under the difficult category, and reasons:
Dune II (PC) – For an RTS that requires the player to be in multiple places at once, the lack of a ‘multi-select’, control groups and heavy reliance on the keyboard makes this game a workout in its own right. the mini-map helped, provided by the Radar structure, but you are still forced to move your armies slower, ensuring they don’t get ambushed and taken out. Granted, Dune II is an absolute classic and paved the way for Command and Conquer, but I have some nightmare-level flashbacks of Dune II and how much micromanagement is required.
Europa Universalis (PC) – This Grand Strategy game definitely takes a certain sort of person to love it and play it often. I’m jealous of the person that can pick up this game and play it with any sort of skill. Oceans of menus, without a search ability, are what make this title particularly difficult. Want to accomplish a task, knowing what the screen is called, but not where to find it? Good luck, partner. I could be over simplifying this one, but the EU series (particularly IV) scares me more than the goriest FPS games I’ve played.
7th Saga (SNES) – Lagoon (SNES) – Crystalis (NES) – “No, I’m not going to tell you where to go, what to do or how to do it. Oh, I also won’t tell you how to clear a blocked path that is in your way, or tell you what item you are missing or where to find it.” Now this might be an exaggeration, but these RPG games in particular make it very hard to find the ‘accomplishment’ and ‘this game feels good’ sense. Even just a few changes, like an NPC instructing the player what they should be doing, would have really added to this game.
Just to clarify, I love some of these titles and I wouldn’t call them ‘bad’. ‘Poorly designed’ may be a better description for these more difficult titles, but I don’t believe that ‘bad design’ is a fair label. I would rather say that a developer should work more closely with the players/beta testers to see what elements of the game are more heavily used than others. Frustrating interfaces or unclear instructions can lead to a negative experience, rather than an ‘enjoyable time’ that the developer hoped for originally.
When developing a game or reviewing a game, I feel the above distinction is important. Though used interchangeably at times, I’m confident that players appreciate a hard game that is challenging, rather than a game with a wonkey UI that just comes off as difficult.