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Archive for May 23rd, 2007

There is a mis-conception that a lot of designers and players have about difficulty in games. Here’s the logical flaw in their thinking (and it is very common):

Something that is very difficult often takes a long time to do. It’s very rare that hard things can be done quickly. Therefore, people equate hard with time-consuming, and make the following incorrect logical deduction:

  1. All hard things take a long time to accomplish.
  2. X takes a long time to accomplish
  3. Therefore, X is hard.

That, of course, is not correct at all… because while almost all things hard to do take a long time, not everything that takes a long while, is hard. It takes an awful long time to sit there watching paint dry but I can’t imagine most people would call that “difficult.” In fact this logical fallacy would be similar to constructing one like this (just as obviously incorrect):

  1. Anything made of wood is brown.
  2. My hair is brown.
  3. Therefore my hair is made of wood.

Again this is clearly not right. What we have done in both cases is incorrectly generalize from a more specific case. And sadly, many people make this mistake with regard to difficulty.

Specifically, what happens in game design, is that the designers think that by making something take a long time, they have made it hard. It takes an hour to walk from point A to point B? Then that journey is considered “harder” than the journey from B to C, which only takes half an hour. Now, if you consider that between A and B are no hostile enemies, but the B to C zone is full of hostile things with long-range aggro and lots of special nasty abilities, suddenly the journey from B to C sounds much harder (at least to me)… even though the physical trip takes half as long.

You might ask, “So why do people use time as their estimate of difficulty then?” Well the first reason is the false syllogism I listed above (that if something takes a long time it “must” be hard). But the second reason is that it’s a seemingly-objective way to measure difficulty. A fight with a monster might be hard for me and easy for you because you’re better at clicking buttons, but 10 minutes is 10 minutes, period. So if something takes 10 minutes instead of 5, I can use that to “guesstimate” that it’s “twice as hard” and that’s pretty handy. The problem is that it is also an incorrect deduction. There are lots of activities that take a long time but are not difficult in the sense of being “challenging.” After all you probably sleep more hours than you play an MMORPG, but is sleeping “harder”? It takes longer, doesn’t it? So doesn’t that make it “harder?” Well, no… it’ just takes longer.

The other reason people use time to approximate “difficulty” is because time is a “weed out” device. Say something requires you to put 20 hours of game play into the game a week for several months, and doing less than that would not lead to success. Well, that weeds out the huge portion of the player base that doesn’t have 20 hours a week to devote to it. And so people with the item, flag, badge, skill, whatever, can use that as a badge of honor, “I was ‘good’ enough to get this.” Which in MMORPGs usually means, “I have less life than you and thus had more time to kill on gaming than you do.” And that’s because “difficulty” again is equated with “time spent doing a thing.”

I think the only true way to measure difficulty is not “how many people do a thing?” but rather, “how many people who try a thing succeed at it?” See when “time spent” is your only way to make something difficult, then, quite literally, even if only 10% of the player base has the time to devote to X, it’s essentially guaranteed that anyone who has the time to devote to it, will attain X. The succes rate of obtaining X is going to be 99% or something. To me, that makes X easy — everyone who attempts this dungeon and puts 3 hours into it succeeds and gets the loot does not make this a hard dungeon, just a long one. On the other hand, a dungeon that takes 20 minutes, but 3/4 of people attempting it can’t even succeed — that would be “hard”.

The equating of time to difficulty in this sense has very strong implications for game design. Gamers have come to expect that if they “put enough time into” a thing that gives them the “right” to have it. “I spent 10 hours in this dungeon therefore I deserve the loot drop.” This leads to, unfortunately, the design of, “If you can put the time into it you succeed.” This makes the challenge being “finding the time to put into it” rather than actually a challenge within the game of, say, a maze or a puzzle or a riddle or a hard fight that is hard because you have to think your way through it not just stand there spamming the same key for 45 minutes.

In the end this makes MMORPGs of today more challenging to the ass (for the ability to sit in a chair), and the eye (for the ability to remain open into the wee hours of the morning), than challenging to the brain, reflexes, or knowledge of the player.

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