Difficulty in Games

you-died-dsThe subject of difficulty in video games was discussed extensively a few months ago when Cuphead was released, but I think it is an interesting topic and worth speaking about. I have yet to play Cuphead, but I have played and loved the Dark Souls series, which is always brought up when discussing difficulty. My opinion on the subject, in its simplest form, is that difficult games are fine, easy games are fine, and games with multiple difficulty options are fine. Not every game has to appeal to every player. There are so many games, enough that every gamer can find plenty that appeal to their tastes.

When it comes to difficulty, I think that there is a fine line between frustrating and challenging. A challenging task is one that requires you to exercise your skills and strategy in a way that you normally don’t. When you overcome the task, you are filled with excitement and pride. A frustrating task is one where you aren’t forced to change your tactics, but you are simply required to be perfect or have more stamina. These tasks don’t make you exhilarated or proud(except maybe the satisfaction that others don’t have the skill to accomplish the same task), just a mounting sense of unfairness and bitterness.

Many shooter games err on the side of frustrating. On harder difficulties, enemies take more bullets to kill and you take fewer bullets to die so it becomes about staying alive long enough to shoot enough bullets into the enemies. The difficulty relies on taking longer and punishing mistakes. The Last of Us is an interesting case because not only does it make you die almost instantly, it starts to remove or change features. You have no UI(no health bar, no ammo indicator, it removes the ability to listen(see through walls) entirely, and it makes ammo and materials far less common. You really have to conserve ammo, choose which encounters are necessary to engage in rather than sneak past, and which upgrades or skills you want since there are not enough to upgrade everything. The way you play changes drastically. Nier Automata, while not a shooter game, does this poorly. On the hardest difficulty, you die in one hit, so you have to play perfectly. It often forces you to fight enemies by keeping distance and shooting enemies with your pod, which takes forever.

When it comes to Dark Souls, I think that its reputation does it a disservice. The series is challenging, but only until you learn it. Most players struggle through a game for 50 or more hours the first time, then complete a second playthrough in 10 hours. Dark Souls is fairly easy if you’re willing to learn its systems. Each boss will be difficult at first, until you learn their attack patterns and weaknesses. When you kill a boss, you feel proud because, even though you fail over and over again, you learn to progress further each time until you finally succeed. Dark Souls is challenging, but not frustrating (at least not usually…I’m looking at you Bed of Chaos…). Difficult games are good because they make beating them a true accomplishment.

The Dark Souls series also has several bosses that are known for being very easy. Examples of these are The Fool’s Idol from Demons’ Souls, Pinwheel from Dark Souls, The Covetous Demon from Dark Souls 2, Micolash from Bloodborne, and The Deacons of the Deep from Dark Souls 3. These are arguably the least popular bosses from each game because they offer no challenge. Personally, I love them because they usually have a new mechanic or story element that is interesting and unique. The Fool’s Idol has an NPC guardian who lies to you and makes the boss invincible until you kill him. Pinwheel has a heartbreaking backstory and amazing music. The Covetous Demon has an attack where he literally swallows you and spits you out naked after un-equipping all of your gear and armor. How goofy and amazing is that? Micolash is a huge troll. He immediately runs away from you while laughing like maniac until you can corner him. Yakety Sax would be perfect music for it. Deacons of the Deep is a giant crowd of pushover enemies where only one affects the health bar and they keep passing the boss health bar back and forth, like a game of keep away.

Another one of my favorite games is Journey. Journey takes a few hours to complete, there is no fail condition, and the puzzles are simple. The game is a masterpiece of environmental and emotional storytelling. The scenery, music and animations are beautiful and draw the emotion out of you. Journey is not hard, but it is unique and evocative. Life is Strange is another good example of a game that is easy but doesn’t suffer because of it. These illustrate why I think that not every game needs to be difficult. If a game, or part of a game, is interesting, entertaining, and evocative, then it doesn’t need to be challenging to be fun. Not every game is about overcoming challenge, nor do they need to be. Some games give you satisfaction from succeeding challenging tasks, some from an emotional release, and some from intellectual engagement.

The amazing thing about gaming is that the primary purpose is entertainment. If a game is fun or satisfying to play, then it is successful as a game. Not every person is going to like every game and that’s OK. There will be plenty geared towards them. Any time a game tries to appeal to every audience, it usually fails to succeed with any of them. Final Fantasy XV is an example of this.

To return to Cuphead and the controversy surrounding it, the situation all started with Dean Takahashi’s infamous poor gameplay of the demo. The subject of games journalism and the fiasco around Dean Takahashi requires its own post, but the fallout from that event spawned several articles talking about how games should not be hard, or that they should have a “Skip Boss” button. I disagree with this idea on many levels. Hard games are not bad, they just are not for everyone. It’s fine to dislike a game, but it’s not fine to claim it is a bad game simply because it wasn’t for you. As for the skip boss button. My immediate reaction is that it is a ridiculous overreaction. If you are frustrated with a game to a point where you want to skip content (especially in Cuphead, where the entire point of the game is to fight bosses) then you should just stop playing it. If a game is not fun, don’t play it. Simple as that.

Loadouts in Multiplayer Games

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Until around a year ago, I wasn’t much of an online multiplayer person. I played some here and there. Uncharted 2, Call of Duty Black Ops, classic Star Wars Battlefront and Battlefront 2. I did love local multiplayer. Modern Warfare 2, Battlefront, and Halo 3 I would play for hours on split screen with my friends. I also played some Warcraft 3 and Starcraft online as well. In the spring of 2016, a friend of mine sat me down and made me play Overwatch for a few hours. I almost instantly fell in love with it. The art style, the eccentric characters, the gun play all felt amazing. I was converted to multiplayer games and bought Overwatch for myself the next day. Since then, I have put some time into several games I never would have touched before: Lawbreakers and Ghost in the Shell betas, Paladins, Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, and Fortnite Battle Royale.

I found that I preferred the games where everyone enters the battlefield equal. I liked Uncharted 2 multiplayer more than Call of Duty partially because Call of Duty had loadouts and Uncharted did not. In CoD, each player selects which guns, attachments, explosives, etc their character would start the match with. In Uncharted 2, every player would start with an AK47 and a grenade, but better weapons would spawn in specific locations around each map. The beginning of the game was a rush to get to the weapon you wanted before anyone else. It was simple, but equal. The only things that distinguished one player from another were skill and map awareness. In CoD, I never knew what kind of loadout a player I would encounter would have. Maybe they had been grinding for hours and have unlocked amazing weapons and would have an advantage over me in gear. I would gladly sacrifice gear customization for balance.

I do want to quickly mention how much I appreciate Modern Warfare 2 and its merit based progression. Instead of earning credits to buy gun upgrades and such, you have to play with a gun and accomplish tasks to earn the right to upgrade it. I just would prefer it to be in a single player game(Wolfenstein does this well) rather than a competitive multiplayer game.

One of my absolute favorite things about Overwatch is that every Genji is the same. I know exactly how much health he has, how much damage I can risk from him, what his abilities and cool downs are. There is no advantage one Genji might have over another except skill. I feel similarly about Fortnite BR and PUBG. Every player starts off equal and only skill, map awareness and luck will lead to victory.

I quite liked Paladins, and will talk about it more at a later time, but I don’t like the loadout system, especially because you have to get the loadout items in loot boxes. I think the mid-match upgrades you can purchase are interesting, but it makes it difficult to know what I’m going up against when I see a Kinessa. She could have different health, damage, etc than a Kinessa in a different game.

I understand that this is a matter of personal opinion and it’s a pretty minor issue, but I like to analyze the games I play. I know that many people like loadouts because they are a clear representation of game progression, but the only progression in multiplayer games that I care about is personal skill.

Loot Boxes: Gambling or Nah?

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Similarly to the Battlefront 2 situation, the subject of the ethics of loot boxes has been discussed a lot lately. Are they gambling, should you be able to buy them with money, what contents should they contain, what kind of games should be allowed to have them, etc. My view on this is mixed.

Simple Answer? Yes, loot boxes are gambling. You are expending a resource for the chance to gain something of greater personal value. Some people argue that in cases where you can earn loot boxes without buying them invalidates the gambling argument. I disagree. I think that time is also a valuable resource. “Time is money” as the saying goes. If I spend time grinding a game to earn loot boxes or the credits to purchase loot boxes, I am taking time out of other activities to earn the chance to gain something I want. I am gambling time for in game items.

Recently the ESRB ruled that loot boxes are not gambling because you are guaranteed something, even if it’s not what you want, unlike a slot machine where you may come away with nothing. I also think this is a bad argument because if you take it to its logical conclusion, I could create a slot machine that guarantees at least a penny every time you insert a token and place them in locations where gambling is illegal. This is obviously ridiculous.

I also want to briefly mention some similarities between something like a slot machine and a loot box. Every loot box system I have seen is colorful, has exciting sound effects, shiny color coding, etc. You press the button, the box shakes for a moment then explodes into a pile of loot. Often, they don’t even show you what you have immediately until you click on each item to reveal it. When you pull a lever on a slot machine, it plays exciting sound effects as the moving parts spin and flash. They reveal one by one so the anticipation builds with each revelation. Each of these elements come together to trigger dopamine centers and can easily be addicting.

If you agree with me so far, what is the solution? Should randomized reward systems be outlawed in games? Personally, I don’t think that is necessarily the only solution. I think the real problem is that most people don’t see loot boxes as gambling and so don’t know what they’re getting into with them. At the least, any game that has a system like this should declare it on the cover inside the ESRB rating. For example: T for Teen, Violence, Language, Gambling. Then people should be aware of what they are getting. Especially parents who might not want their kids to be engaging in a gambling system.

Some argue that because people can get addicted and self destructive, the system should not be allowed in any game. I can understand this, but I also believe in personal responsibility. As long as an individual knows what they are getting, they should be trusted to make their own decisions. Developers shouldn’t have to treat every member of their audience like a child that needs protecting.

The next question is whether players should be able purchase loot boxes with money or just through in-game actions. This also ties into the question of the loot box contents. In my opinion, purchasable loot boxes can only contain cosmetic items without becoming pay-to-win. If loot boxes can only be earned through in game actions, then it is tolerable that they contain gameplay-altering items, though I, personally, believe that gameplay advantages should only be awarded based on merit and nothing else. I have said before that gaming should be the ultimate meritocracy where every player enters equal and only skill can give you victory.

I think that an important thing to consider when looking at microtransactions in games is why a game might include them. I will use three games to illustrate my view of this: Overwatch, Battlefront 2, and Fortnite Battle Royale.

Fortnite BR is free to play, doesn’t contain advertisements, and all new content that has been added has been free. In late October, Epic Games added a microtransaction system where you purchase V-bucks and use V-bucks to purchase cosmetics. At the moment, this is the only way the game can make money. While it is true that this system is not a loot box system, but instead paying money for currency to buy items directly. It should also be noted that you can earn V-bucks by grinding in the paid PvE mode Save the World, but most players only have the free Battle Royale mode.  I think this system is fine because the microtransactions can only lead to cosmetic items and I believe that developers should be able to profit from games they make.

Battlefront 2 is more complicated at the moment since the future of their microtransaction system is uncertain. Currently it is not enabled, so players can only get loot boxes through in game actions. This was not originally true. Previously players could purchase crystals which can be spent for loot boxes. Furthermore, loot boxes in Battlefront 2 contain not just cosmetics, but also gameplay-affecting items. The system, as it was before, was not tolerable. Since players could purchase loot boxes with money which contain gameplay progression items, it was a pay-to-win system on top of a fully priced AAA game.

Overwatch is one of my favorite games, so I will try to be as objective as possible. Overwatch is $60 on Console and $40 on PC. The game includes a loot box system that you can either earn in game or by buying them with money. The boxes only contain cosmetic items but some consider having a microtransaction system in a pay-to-play AAA game is unnecessary and greedy. I can understand that, but since the Overwatch devs are consistently adding content every few months which is free for everyone. I would prefer cosmetic loot boxes that people spend money on to paying for new maps and heroes. Ultimately, I am fine with this system as long as Blizzard continues to support the game.

My thoughts boil down to pay-to-win is never acceptable, but cosmetic purchases are tolerable in games that are either free or are continually supported without paid dlc.

The Battlefront Situation

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Everyone has been talking about the Battlefront 2 drama and I thought I would share my two cents on the issue. For the sake of transparency, I haven’t played the game, so I won’t be speaking about the details of the gameplay, just the business practices and ethics.

When I was growing up, I was a huge Star Wars fan. I love the movies, yes even the prequels, and Star Wars Battlefront and its sequel were my some of my favorite games. I would play for hours at my friend’s house. I was following the possibility for Battlefront 3 for years and was extremely disappointed when the project was canceled.

Years later when EA bought the rights to Star Wars Battlefront and announced the 2015 reboot, I was excited. When it came out, I felt a little let down. It felt lackluster and unfinished. I was disappointed that they removed the prequel content entirely, had almost no single player and the game generally just felt more like a re-skinned Call of Duty game than a Star Wars game. I only ended up playing a few hours before returning to games I enjoyed more.

Initially the marketing for Battlefront 2 had me hopeful. Space battles, original canon single player campaign, prequel content. It was everything I had wanted in the first game. I was planning on buying the game until I saw some beta reviews/gameplay. The game itself, looked like a lot of fun, but I also saw loot boxes, microtransactions, and a very concerning pay-to-win model.

Lootboxes are tolerable if they either contain only cosmetics or they can only be gained through in-game actions. If you can use money to purchase any kind of bonus that affects gameplay, or even the chance of a bonus, the game becomes pay-to-win. I see people trying to defend the game’s loot crate system by saying that you earn crates in game frequently and that the loot crates you can purchase only have minor star cards, so the difference is negligible and therefor not pay-to-win. I disagree. My logic is this: if two players of equal skill and the same loadout meet on the battlefield, one player purchased a loot crate with a 2% damage reduction star card and the other hasn’t. The player with the star card will win. This makes it pay-to-win.

Video games should be the ultimate meritocracy. The only thing to give you an advantage over others is your skill. Being able to buy advantages with real world money, gives those with more disposable income an edge they didn’t earn. More than this, however; I have seen the progression system in the game. You have different classes, each class has a level and star card slots. You don’t have access to all of the slots for each class. These are unlocked as you level up that class. You level up each class with contents of loot crates. So even though the contents of loot boxes don’t contain star cards that give you an instant, significant advantage, they do allow you to level up your classes quicker and equip more star cards than someone who would not buy crates. I also want to quickly mention that anyone who preordered the Deluxe Edition of the game received some amount of rare star cards, which is another case of some players paying extra money for advantages.

The other major issue that has been circulating is the amount of grinding involved in unlocking heroes, and other content. Originally, it took something in the neighborhood of 40 hours of grinding to unlock one of the top tier heroes, Darth Vader, for example. EA/Dice has since decreased the cost of these heroes by 75% to something more reasonable. This is good, but apparently they also decreased the currency you receive from campaign rewards by the same amount. So you also earn these credits slower, even though the hero is cheaper. Regardless, since you could purchase the currency with real world money, some players will have Darth Vader on day 1 and some will not. To be fair, I don’t know if Darth Vader is significantly more powerful than the other heroes, but I don’t think it matters. It is gameplay content that some people have an unequal advantage to attaining. As an aside, and this is a subject worthy of being talked about on its own, I don’t think that necessary or even encouraged grinding is ever a good thing to have in a game. If players cannot experience the full content without grinding, then there is a problem.

The last thing I want to mention here is the recent (yesterday as of this post) announcement by the devs that they are turning off all in-purchases. This sounded excellent. Had we finally been heard? Did big bad EA finally cave in to the demands of their audience? Well no. Hidden in the middle of the post was a line that said that the ability to purchase currency will be re-enabled at a later date. So basically, they are turning off microtransactions temporarily. The cynic in me sees this as a ploy to get those who were angry and canceled their preorders and decided not to buy the game, to change their minds and enjoy the positive press of doing the right thing, then as soon as the refund period is over, and they have all the money from preorders and such, they will re-enable microtransactions and nothing will have changed.

Is it possible that things will change for the better? Absolutely. But until it is confirmed that players can no longer purchase in-game advantages, I will not buy this game. I refuse to support companies that utilize anti-consumer and anti-gamer business practices, even if their games are ultimately very enjoyable. We need to stop this trend here, before it takes hold and becomes a normal practice.