July 1, 2009 (essay)
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Let's discuss video game difficulty.
Anyone who's spent enough time on YouTube must know by now that people like to record themselves playing video games and post them for the enjoyment of others. Sometimes they do this to show off how good they are at the game, sometimes they add amusing commentary either because they love or hate it, and sometimes they want to show how to fully complete all the optional sidequests and find all the hidden items. I usually watch them to vicariously experience a game I never got to play, or to see what I might have missed in some of my favorites. What I've discovered from watching a number of these "Let's Play!" videos is that a lot of these guys aren't actually very good at the game they're playing.
Granted, they can find every single hidden item, beat every optional quest, navigate mazes flawlessly, and tear apart the level bosses with seeming ease, but this isn't really a measure of skill at the game. What I've noticed is that during the standard portions of the game, they tend to get beaten around a lot, take a lot of damage, fight awkwardly, waste ammunition, chug health potions like water, and rely heavily on the game's equivalent of the BFG9000. It's the parts that can be beaten by rote memorization that they breeze through.
I think what's going on here is that they've come to rely on the massive influx of power-ups, extra health, and bonuses hidden throughout the game just to get through it at all. Paradoxically, a player who doesn't know where these things are faces a tougher challenge due to weaker weapons, less health, and additional enemy encounters from wandering around lost in mazes — it's a lot harder to get through.
Does that make any sense? Why does the game get easier when the player gets better at it? That makes the game exponentially easier, because not only is the player more skilled but he's also getting more bonuses to further reduce the challenge as a reward for his skills. This is the most backwards thing about the video game industry, but it's considered to be the normal and accepted practice in game design to the point where nobody even questions it.
What people actually want when they get good at these games is a bigger challenge to keep them coming back. To get this, however, they frequently need to resort to artificial means to increase the challenge, for example the famous "three-heart challenge" in The Legend of Zelda series (in which the player intentionally passes over all the health upgrades). The way I see it, games should be increasing the challenge as the player gets closer to 100% completion, not reducing it. This could serve as a built-in method of setting the game's difficulty, rather than selecting easy, medium, or hard at the menu screen when beginning a new game, the player could choose his skill level based on how many hidden items he's found. Playing such a game to 100% completion would be a much more impressive feat if doing so also meant you were playing the hardest version of the game, rather than the easiest due to collecting all the bonuses. This would massively increase the replay value of the game as well, since finding the hidden areas and increasing the challenge would be combined into a single goal.