Amateur Musings #346052 - "challenge", player freedom, abstraction, etc

Just picking developers’ brains :) Hope this is interesting enough to get a discussion going.

I was on a forum the other day where people were lamenting the lack of “challenge” in a game, and it got me to thinking.

It seems to me that the more abstracted a game, the more challenge (and the more continuous challenge) is possible against the fairly dumb levels of AI we can have in home computers nowadays. Consider older games with simpler graphics (say an old platformer) - many of them were quite challenging, because, partly due to technical restrictions, it wasn’t possible to give a player a “realistic” (simmy) level of freedom, and the “game” aspect of the game could be quite board-gamey, with a high level of abstraction and simple rules leading to complex gameplay (a good modern example would be XCOM). Player degrees of freedom were restricted, and a click input or whatever, would mean only some simple, highly abstract action, usually with some kind of budgeting. AI responses could then be quite varied, and more varied behaviours introduced, which kept the game challenging even to high levels.

Contrast that with a game that has a more “realistic” representation, where you have lots of freedom to move anywhere, or fire off abilities at any time. AI responses then have to “cope” with a much, much wider variety of possible player input. The only thing that would present a challenge to a player with that kind of freedom would be human-level AI, AI as tricksy as a person. But (presumably) that’s just extremely hard to do still (maybe it will be easier as time goes on).

Now theoretically, you can introduce new mob behaviours. But that runs into another kind of problem. Essentially, a PvE game is only really challenging while you’re learning it - getting the game knowledge down, getting muscle memory ingrained. Any new mob behaviour introduced later on is going to be learnt and beaten in the same way, and then we’re back to square one, all dressed up and nowhere to go. But nevertheless, you can probably get quite far this way (e.g. Raids).

The other thing you can do is artificially and temporarily restrict player freedom - e.g. by scripted events, or moments when abilities are restricted or have less power than they would normally do.

But the former runs up against the desideratum that many players have that all that effort you put into a game should make you more powerful than the mobs, while the latter runs up against the possibility of losing out on the feeling of freedom and power, and really just being frustrating rather than fun.

Effectively, the former makes a player a perpetual beginner, while the latter neuters the sense of power and freedom. I think some players like to be perpetual beginners, and maybe even to have more challenge as the game goes on, but many other players seem to dislike that.

The real way out would be to introduce behaviours that aren’t simply novel and just have to be learnt (like say a complicated raid), but rather new behaviours that match up to and challenge the high level of control and knowledge an experienced player develops. But that seems to bump up against the sheer difficulty of making human-level, tricksy AI.

No particular conclusion to this, just some thoughts, and as always I’d be interested to hear what people who make games for a living have to think about these matters. I’m sure this is well-trodden ground, but I found it an interesting set of conundrums when it occurred to me.

Many games have dealt with these problems in different ways. Commonly fighting an individual mob with specific but limited behavior is one thing to learn, but fighting two of those mobs simultaneously is a completely different experience. Then fighting two of those mobs in a different location can be another completely different experience. Then fighting that mob alongside a mob with different abilities is a whole other experience. By combining things in different ways you get exponentially more variety. This cheapens the cost of making single player content and simultaneously serves as a better difficulty / mastery curve.

Roguelikes often do this with player abilities too. If you have item x and item y, fighting a group of enemies may be completely different then when you have item y and item z, maybe even more different if you happen to be fighting in a chokepoint. Maybe roguelikes method of starting you back at the beginning after every death is the “perpetual beginner” thing you’re talking about. But I think good games in the genre do make you feel like you gained something from the experience: a bit more knowledge on how to do better next time.

Fighting games (like the Devil May Cry series) score you based on how you fight. Once you’ve learned how to get through a fight, you can continue practicing it to master things like versatility, long combos, and ending fights quickly, which will be an entirely different challenge again based on the combination of opponents and the location of the fight.

I personally don’t think people really want dynamic human-like AI in most games (4x games and RTS games may be the most applicable place for them). It sounds cool in theory but in practice it’s going to completely mess with a players ability to flex pattern recognition learned over multiple sessions, which I think is where the majority of the feeling of mastery comes from in many single player games. There’d be a whole new gameplay aesthetic to a game where the behaviors of a mob are variable, but I don’t think it’s one that would replace the current model.

Good point about the different abilities. I do remember, when playing through CoH, playing the very same content as one Archetype actually could feel very different from playing through it with another. For some players, alt-itis was endgame.

Amusingly, when you look at it in the broad, essentially, the range of classes in a game just take more or less clicks/keypresses to do the same job (killing a mob), i.e. you have straightforward classes that kill things with a few clicks, then you have fiddly “difficult” classes that may take all sorts of involved and timed clicks to do the very same job! (I always tend to gravitate towards the latter - especially to classes that have to self-buff or mob-debuff before battle or whatever. Then at some point I try the easy class and find it refreshingly easy :) )

It’s only tangentially related, but can I complain about companies seeing Dark souls do well, and then start to insert player skill checks in cRPGs which have traditionally been more about character skills and progression?

Not really, because the reason is not Dark Souls, it comes from years before, companies trying to do rpgs more mainstream friendly crossing them with action games and first person games in general.

These are called “character action games,” as silly as that term might sound. Fighting games are a distinct and mostly unrelated genre, and one where the issue described in the OP only exists if you’re playing them wrong (i.e. single-player).

I am not a dev!

For me the best kind of challenge is when the terms of engagement are mixed up so that I have to keep adapting, actively engaging with, and figuring out the mechanics right till the very end, whether that’s through denial of freedom/power or adding new dynamics to the mix. It almost becomes like a puzzle when I’m given less things to work with or new elements are introduced. The former a lot of people don’t like because they love that sensation of power and freedom but I don’t really play games for that, I want to be challenged and forced to think and rethink. I find that denying a player freedom forces them to think outside the box and get creative – and constructive – with the game’s mechanics in a way that they may not have otherwise.

Take Guild Wars 2 for example, I started playing it with a buddy who tends to prefer stomping to being stomped and early on in the… Charr area? There’s a crypt that’s part of the tutorial. Anyway, if you return there afterwards there’s a pretty tough dungeon crawl that, at the time, was a few levels higher than us. We tried taking it on and it was hard work. We were having to co-ordinate our attacks and really focus on dodging and watching cooldown timers, status effects and what weapons and abilities we were using and when. Sure, we died occasionally but were able to revive each other and we were making progress. The problem was, the longer it took us to take out enemies, the greater the chances were of previous enemies respawning and joining the fray, so we had to keep the pace up. I was having a ball but my friend just didn’t like the intensity of the fighting so ran off, inevitably causing me to follow him. For me, that was better than the many hours I spent with him afterwards stomping around everywhere else and avoiding areas that were trickier (until we levelled up and got ahead of the power curve). I enjoyed being a little weaker than the mobs, not to mention the increased XP and loot.

The Wonderful 101 is a really great example of a game that held my interest because it unfolded at just the right pace and held enough of its cards close to tease me forwards. It’s also a difficult game with all sorts of tricks and unusual concepts to wrap your head around. There are different enemy types that have be dealt with in different ways, and often it’ll take numerous encounters before you work out exactly how best to deal with them. By the time you do however, new enemies are introduced and mixed in with familiar ones, in addition to new abilities and ‘custom blocks’ being unlocked to experiment with, so there’s this constant friction between discovery and mastery and it made sparks for me. There are also secret challenge areas which restrict your abilities and characters so you have to handle the enemies in ways you’d never tried before.

But some other recent games where the challenge is pitched perfectly are Sang-Froid and particularly Infested Planet which kicks back like a mule in the most satisfying ways. Sang-Froid I played through twice, once as Jo, the big guy who could hold his own in combat, and once as Jack, who had to rely more on cunning and strategy over brute force (so effectively, playing that character denied the player the ability to duke it out with wolves so easily). Man, that game was awesome with so many great systems to wrangle with and manipulate (or be the victim of!).

The whole ‘perpetual beginner’ thing, is that like the ‘numbers go up but relatively speaking, everything remains the same’?

That’s definitely another aspect of it.

I mean let’s face it, lots of videogames are just hamster wheels disguised by art and scaling numbers :) (Or, if it’s got an RPG element, disguised by the fact that you have less abilities in the early stages and more in the later.)

This also speaks to “grind”. If it’s something you enjoy doing, you can do it again and again and it’s fun, if you don’t enjoy doing it, it’s “grind”.

Another thing this bumps up against is, ok, you can have “constant friction between discovery and mastery”, but at some point ability inflation just gets ridiculous from a lore point of view. I mean, how exciting and varied can you make hitting things with bits of metal? (OTOH “mage” types obviously have more potential to do more and different things.)

But then you have icon/ability overload, and “what the hell do all these buttons do?” if you come back after a break.

I’m probably an aberration, but I don’t like a ‘challenge’. I like getting to make interesting choices and finding out the results of those choices. I suppose that’s why I enjoy party based rpgs. I enjoy tactics, and making choices that have consequences, but lose interest in reflex based or linear games.
On the other hand I like when a game builds to a challenge where exploring all those options you have learned, where you have to combine the lesions you learned into overcoming a challenge you can’t overcome otherwise,
As I’ve gotten older I find I also really enjoy shorter games 30 hours or so. Once I start hitting over 30 I get antsy, I still finish, but my enjoyment starts to wane, I have limited time, and spending 200+ hours on random mission generated missions loses all appeal to me. XCOM was perfect in that way, Ive played it 10+ times now. I’ve even bumped it up to impossible once, which I never normally go above normal difficulty in a game.

I also appreciate a game that has optional depth. I play once with the easy default config, but then in subsequent plays I dig into the depth of the game. Those min max options that allow me to stomp the game’s AI in the next playthrough. I suppose that’s something else, I don’t chase challenge, I love that the more i learn the easier the game gets, and I have to beat my old stomp of the AI (verse barely hang on against a uber challenging AI). I’m definitely not your typical gamer.

Actually this is extremely typical in my experience. There are tons of people who essentially want a gameified power fantasy.

It’s very addicting to play around with a system that is easily mastered in 10 hours or so. JRPGs are games that can produce feelings of satisfaction and mastery by over-leveling characters through a repetition of trivial battles. Everyone craves feelings of competence and mastery. Comp stomps are popular for a reason.

Note: I’m not passing judgement on this. I happen to enjoy a good power fantasy now and again.

I tend to look at a game like FORCED when these thoughts come up. That’s a game where you have four classes, each with 3 ability slots and 3 passive slots (so it never gets unwieldy), a relatively small pool of abilities and passives you can mix and match from (without cost), a simple but clever combat system which revolves around marks and ‘spenders’, and a gauntlet of arenas to take on.

These arenas naturally have enemies to fend off but they’re also usually strewn with traps and puzzles to solve before hitting some sort of objective. Throughout the game you’re accompanied by Balfus, a spirit mentor orb kind of thing that you have to move around manually to trigger switches, move blocks around, activate shrines and areas of effect, destroy spawners, recede deadly mists etc. He’s pivotal to the experience.

But what I really love about the game is that there are such damage values as 1 and 2. I know, right? 1 and 2. There’s no XP or levelling, there’s no loot or gear, there’s no climbing stats to give you an illusion of becoming more powerful. There’s just a very refreshing and reductionist base which the game is happy to stay at. This means it’s really focused on the arena designs and challenges which are ultimately the backbone of the game.

Now, each arena can award you with three crystals. The first crystal is simply for completing the level, the second is for doing it in an allotted time and the third is for accomplishing some special objective like “Only call the orb 10 times” or “Kill the boss in under 4 seconds” or “Don’t get poisoned”. They’re tough, but enticing, because you know you don’t need to be grinding for an XP/gear leg-up to accomplish them. But because crystals go towards unlocking your ability pool (across all classes), if a particular arena and challenge is giving you trouble, you can come back later with more abilities and hopefully have an easier time of it.

The whole game just feels really trim, smart and open, and knows how to be challenging without falling back on to the same sorts of encounters, only with bigger numbers. The fact that it offers local and online (or mixed) co-op and can be played on M&K or pad too just makes it something I can easily recommend to a lot of people. If you’re intrigued, I wrote about it some time ago.

I’m personally not a fan of the stat heavy dungeon crawlers (too much sifting through loot and poring over miniscule differences that seem to be scarcely noticeable), but the likes of Guild Wars 2 really ensnared me. I’m guessing because of the reduced skill pool and the openness/inclusiveness of the experience. I didn’t feel like I was ever grinding or not enjoying what I was doing. It was a nice mix that kept me interested and often was just challenging enough in the right areas. The last time I played GW2 I took on my first few dungeons and found it a horrible experience of people just following each other around (like in WvW) and stomping whatever was in their path. It just felt really messy and unsatisfying.

Hmm, I need to get that installed again and see what’s up.

Yeah, I like games where +1 and +2 matters, it’s one of the reasons why I liked XCOM.

But that’s on the “highly abstracted” side of things isn’t it? That’s what I mean, you can have that board-gamey aspect and because there are tight restrictions on what it’s possible to do as a player (and for the AI too) set by fairly tight rules, then you can have that challenge against AI.

But say with a game like Warframe, where you have full freedom of movement, and can fire off any abilities you want whenever you can (barring ammo and a pickup-refreshed power resource), that’s when I think presenting challenge gets difficult. That’s when “combinatorial explosion” kicks in (the AI can’t “prepare” for any of the numerous possibilities of things you could do so well). The most developers seem to be able to do is add escalating damage and HP to the mobs, and that’s ok for a bit, but it gets boring after a while.

Yet that is the trend - people do want more realism, not just photorealism, but as real-feeling as you can get given basic inputs (m/k, controller). So I think it’s going to be harder and harder to present challenge, unless AI design can up its game.

So it seems like there’s a kind of trade-off between simmy “realism”/feeling of power freedom, on the one hand, and “gamey” challenge, on the other. A trade-off that won’t be gotten over until AI improves to more of a human-level (not “unfair” as in the AI knowing what’s going on under the hood, but actually behaving as if it’s another entity in the world, with that level of knowledge, but an entity as clever and capable as the player).

That’s my basic thought on this, I suppose.

The call for “challenge” is perennial on forums, but I don’t think players quite understand that there’s this trade-off, and the more they want of one thing, the less they can have of another, at the current state of play re. AI.

As much as people bitched and whined about the AI in Brink, I found the bots as smart/dumb as real human players. Back when I played it I wrote: “[…] the Hard bots in Brink are perfectly imperfect: they do everything a human player is guilty of. They shoot accurately, flank enemies and sometimes fail to spot them altogether; they retreat and hide; they use all the equipment and abilities at their disposal; they patch-up and ply teammates with ammo and buffs; they complete objectives when they’re not getting distracted by other things; they reliably revive incapacitated teammates (more so than human players); they even melee attack incapacitated foes so they can’t be revived.” So… do people really want AI that behaves like a human? Warts and all? Because I think Brink’s AIs were terrific as human substitutes, especially given how much they had to juggle, but people just hated them. I mean, I remember one time grumbling about a player not using their head, then realising it was a bot. Of course it was a bot. Later, I looked at the scoreboard and noticed that the ‘bot’ had a ping so it wasn’t actually a bot, it was indeed a player. I was pretty impressed.

I will thrown a comment at the thread:

AI on Destiny mobs:

  • Mobs get scared after nearby sniper kills and find a place guarded from sniper fire. They seems to understand the environment enough to get good places that are protected from fire, they then proceed to fire from these places.
  • A type of “soft” enemy may decided to retreat if the player seems very powerful, like after using a empowering skill or other unknown triggers. They acknowledge that the player is a risk at the moment.
  • Mobs don’t always know where is the player. Is possible to find them unaware in idle animations. But they still don’t feel dumb or unaware. They can be active from a enemy, and ignore you exist until you fire to them… so is not just unactive state.

In fps games is very rare to see this level of quality of AI.