Monday, August 22, 2011

Fairness, Difficulty and Game Design

Real life has been intruding on my gaming and blogging time of late, so the next few weeks may be a little light and late on content.  But to wind down now and then I have been playing the 2008 Prince of Persia -- it's not really a reboot, nor is it a remake of Jordan Mechner's original, so the name gives the impression Ubisoft temporarily ran out of interesting sub-titles.

The game took some critical flak upon release for the fact that the player really can't fail.  That is, whenever the Prince (in this game, a bandit rogue who's not royalty in any official sense) is about to fall to his doom or get overtaken by an enemy, his female companion Elika (a genuine princess with magical powers) flies near and rescues him, returning him to the nearest safe ledge or throwing him back into battle.  It's sort of a frequent-checkpointing system, and the fact that there's never a true "game over" scenario was seen as a flaw in some quarters.

But after playing through the 2003 and 2010 Prince of Persia games, I'm finding this approach perfectly comfortable and not at all damaging to the experience.  The 2003/2010 games both featured a time-reversal mechanic, where the player could back out of a mistake as long as some of the "sands of time" remained in a magical dagger.  This "fail-safe" mechanic isn't really that different -- it provides an infinite number of retries, true, but it also forces the player to get through each stretch between checkpoints without the ability to do an immediate rewind.  This has the effect of breaking the game up into very small sections between checkpoints -- but each of these sections has its own challenges, and the difficulty still ramps up, especially in the area of combat.  In this game, instead of battling hundreds of random minions and the occasional bosses, most of the fights involve several colorful bosses who must be faced and defeated several times before a final showdown.

There are some visible automatic difficulty adjustments afoot -- I've noticed that the bosses regenerate health at a less dramatic rate as the battle drags on when I'm not doing well -- but there's also a joy in fighting a smooth, clean battle that gets muted and disrupted by Elika's magical rescues.  So while the player isn't punished for failure by dying and having to start the battle over from the very beginning, there's still an incentive to get the timing and moves down to deal with each boss as effectively as possible.  And the acrobatic platforming challenges at the core of the Prince of Persia franchise aren't weakened at all by this title's approach -- in fact, the lack of the ability to rewind a missed jump makes the small milestones more significant.

All this has gotten me thinking about how video game design has changed over time when it comes to balancing difficulty and challenge in a "fair" way.  Games are often perceived as being "easier" today than they used to be, and I think that they are.  But that's not necessarily a bad thing -- early gaming's idea of difficulty often amounted to sheer brick walls of challenge that turned away more players than managed to scale them.  So I think the Prince of Persia approach is valid -- it never allows the player to skip over a tough section, but it rarely forces the player to go back through a section already mastered just to get to, and fail at, the next difficult step.  Maybe I'm just getting older -- my arcade gaming skills are not what they were twenty years ago -- but I appreciate a game that lets me demonstrate I can handle a tricky bit once, and then allows me to move on to something new.

Don't get me wrong -- I enjoy a good challenge, and I don't want to feel like I've gotten through a difficult section based on dumb luck.  But when I sit down to play a game, I want to make some progress toward finishing it; while getting stuck and fighting through a hard section is classically Old School, having to do the same thing over and over to the point of frustration is very Institute of Quit and Play Something Else.

We know it's bad design when a game doesn't change itself up to offer new challenges, but becomes repetitive and simplistic and padded.  I can't think of any reason why a game's save/checkpoint system should impose the same kind of bad design on the experience, when there are other options available if designers are willing to rethink some long-standing expectations.

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