Artificial difficulty: Why is this even a thing?

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Oh I went there. And I’m right.

Some games are truly challenging. They may require quick reflexes, swift logic, or knowing when to make the right move. They offer a great sense of accomplishment to gamers who can succeed in beating them.

Then there are games whose main challenges stem from their numerous technical problems, cheating artificial intelligence, or trial-and-error sequences. And these are some games I hate.

You should too.

Camera Control Issues

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For its time, this game had decent camera control. Some games have improved while others can’t even match it.

So you need to get from Point A to Point B. Point A begins on the ground and Point B sits atop a spiral staircase. Enemies are milling about on the staircase. You need to make a big jump over a pit before you even get to the staircase itself. In a 3D platforming game, this scenario could be a nightmare. Perhaps the camera is fixed, restricting you from controlling it yourself. All you can do is hope the game does a good enough job changing the angle when necessary. Or perhaps you can control the camera. Now all you can do is hope it isn’t too fidgety.

Making the jump is hard enough when the default angle may not allow you to judge the length of the pit. What if you jump too early and come up short? If you’re a veteran gamer, especially when it comes to this genre, you’ll know that was the game’s fault. How can you possibly judge the correct distance when the game is doing its best to ensure doing so is difficult?

Let’s say you make it to the spiral staircase. If the camera stays fixed behind the character and refuses to change its angle, you may not see the enemies you’re about to bump into. Enjoy your Game Over then. This is when the game needs to adjust the angle itself or give you free reign over the camera controls. That way, the only difficulty is defeating or avoiding the enemies as you make your way up to Point B.

There are far too many games, nearly all of them 3D platforming games like Super Mario 64 or Banjo-Kazooie or any entry in the Lego series, that require dynamic and changing camera angles for precise actions like jumping, taking on enemies, or fighting giant boss characters. Some of these games do much better than others, allowing players to use a control stick or face buttons to move the camera. Sometimes the camera control is extremely smooth, allowing the player to focus on the actual task at hand instead of fighting the camera.

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Well this looks fun: jumping TOWARDS the camera as the floor falls beneath you.

Then other games give nearly no control to the player while still requiring great skill in making jumps or fighting enemies. The Lego games are notorious for that, though more recent ones have partially amended the issue. Early games in the series, however, are absolutely ruthless in their choice of viewing angles. Offscreen enemies will suddenly appear and attack your character, giving you no time to react. Jumps don’t look as dangerous as they are. And other times players will be required to fall down to a lower level, yet the player assumes doing so will result in death because the camera angle does nothing to indicate the safe drop.

And did I mention these games are for little kids? If older gamers nearly suffer PTSD dealing with terrible fixed camera angles, what do toddlers do? Perhaps they’re smarter for it, though. While we sit and curse they simply turn off the system and take a nap.

This facet of artificial difficulty should be long gone. The Super Mario Galaxy games had near-perfect camera controls. While the player had less choice than in Super Mario 64, the game did most of the hard work, meaning the focus was on collecting coins and rescuing Princess Peach. Any mistake was the player’s fault and not the game’s. That game came out in 2007. Aside from its sequel, not many games have offered a camera that never got in the way of the player. So many lives are still lost in platforming games because the camera screwed with the player.

It’s not real difficulty if the camera angle makes things difficult.

The AI Cheats… A Lot

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I hate this game. Know why? Mario’s about to get wrecked by a blue shell, two red shells, a random green shell, slip on a banana peel, and finally get hit by a player with a star.

So you’re in the grand championship race, winner take all. There are 11 other racers, each one controlled by the game’s artificial intelligence. It’s a kart racing game, meaning real life has no place in this world. Offensive and defensive items are strewn about the fantasy course, allowing you to attack opponents or protect you from their inevitable attacks.

Then you notice something isn’t quite right. No matter which position you’re in, the items you get aren’t quite as good as theirs. You’re constantly bombarded by various attacks, knocking you back a position or two each time you’re hit. You rarely get boosts of speed from the randomized item boxes, meaning you have to rely on your skills. You make it to first place in the second lap and hold that position for a bit, drifting past tight corners and taking every shortcut you know. But the AI racers are right behind you.

How can this be? They appear to be going faster than you. Odd, considering you chose the fastest vehicle. Oh, wait, that’s right. They cheat. A lot.

Most commonly seen in racing games, but certainly no stranger to fighting games and party games, the AI have access to abilities some consider to be unnatural. They can drive faster than you, they can perform fighting techniques and combos without the necessary conditions, and they always get the best luck-based rewards. That’s all there is to it: they don’t have to play by the rules.

Games like Mario Kart and F-Zero are only difficult through the sheer absurdity of what the AI is capable of. They employ a technique known as rubberbanding. When the player is doing well, the AI racers are absolutely ruthless: they catch up easily and they get better items. There is a flip side to all this, however: when the player is doing poorly, the AI racers slow down and drive more sloppily, giving the player a chance to make a comeback. In these scenarios, it’s better to do mediocre and take the lead near the end of the race to ensure you don’t get destroyed by the game’s “difficulty” that kicks in when you’re doing well.

Games like Street Fighter and Tekken can be notorious for their use of cheating AI as well. Changing the difficulty of the game merely reduces the amount of rules the AI has to follow. There are cases where they can perform certain techniques that would normally require them to crouch yet they don’t crouch. Then there are multi-fighter games like Super Smash Bros. where the multiple computer-controlled players will team up against the lone human-controlled player despite the match being a free-for-all.

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Imagine you’re playing as Daisy. If you just threw a rage fit, you did the right thing.

Let’s not forget the most beloved and most hated game series of all time, Mario Party. This game can ruin friendships if all four players are controlled by you and your friends, but the situation can get much worse if you’re playing against the computer. During board game play, the AI can make fairly dumb decisions but will get the luckiest of breaks. When they visit an item shop they may be able to purchase a certain item that wasn’t available when you last visited and won’t be available when you next visit. Or they’ll land on a space with a hidden star, yet the luck never seems to come your way. During the minigames, they can range from infuriatingly dumb if you have to team up with them to infuriatingly smart if you’re against them. While you begin playing this game already knowing a lot of the game-winning moments are determined by luck, it doesn’t help when all that good luck is biased towards non-human players.

The only difficulty this category of games provides is using the cheapest tactics you can to “outsmart” the AI that is hellbent on making you mad. On lower difficulties players may not even encounter this kind of cheating. But as soon as things get tough, you realize they got tough because the game can tell the rules to screw off while you must still abide by them. Have fun.

It’s not real difficulty if the AI’s cheating ways make it difficult.

You Have to Grind and You’re Not Playing Tony Hawk

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Those floating words mean all the difference between beating a boss and hating your very existence.

So you’re fighting a long boss battle in a Japanese role-playing game. It’s been 15 minutes and you’ve lost four of your five party members and you’ve whittled down the boss to maybe half its health. The boss casts the game’s insta-death spell and it finally defeats you. Never mind the fact the insta-death spell never works when you use it (the AI cheats). What really sucks in this scenario is that you wasted a quarter of an hour to reach the conclusion you weren’t ready.

You decide to hang around the area outside the boss chamber where powerful monsters roam, allowing you to continuously slay them for loads of experience. That experience will be good for your characters, allowing them to gain the precious levels they need to boost their capabilities and learn new attacks, but that experience will be bad for you as it forces you to do the same actions over and over.

It’s called grinding for a reason. It’s mind-numbingly boring, provides little challenge to the player, and only serves to lengthen the game with repetitive and simple tasks. In JRPGS, the genre of games in which grinding is most prevalent, players may spend hours fighting the same enemies and gaining measly amounts of experience. All this is done to fight the boss they weren’t previously ready for.

The boss itself isn’t even that difficult. Unless you’ve spent hours grinding before facing it, the only challenge comes from the fact the boss has bigger numbers. The numbers you must deplete are bigger and the numbers it uses to attack you are bigger. That’s what nearly every JRPG boils down to. There’s no real gameplay or even legitimate strategy.

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At least other games have… “distractions” between the dull combat.

There’s not much else to it. This is an entire game genre based on making sure your numbers are bigger than your enemy’s. The story is generally linear and dialogue is pre-determined. At least Western RPGs allow players the experience of crafting conversations and participating in activities other than the numbers game.

The real difficulty in JRPGs is not getting too bored as you spend a long time roaming the same area, fighting the same enemies, and watching the same attack animations as you grind for the necessary experience. It’s a shame a lot of JRPGs have interesting stories. You want to beat the boss and see what happens next. You want exploration after some exposition. You want to meet new characters and say bye to old ones. But there’s a little obstacle called monotony in the way.

It’s not real difficulty if spending hours doing the same mindless task makes it difficult.

Final Thoughts

This whole article looks like a giant complaint. That’s okay because that’s what it is. It’s a complaint to video game developers using these methods to make games difficult. It’s a complaint to developers who can’t program a camera and who refuse to give control to the player, to developers who let their artificial intelligence cheat, and to developers who force the player to waste time doing boring and repetitive tasks in order to get to the real gameplay.

It’s 2013. We’re about to begin the so-called “next generation” of games with the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One. With these consoles closer resembling computers in terms of their power, there won’t be need to cut corners in game development. The resources to create good camera control, dynamic and adaptive AI, and gameplay with variety exist for nearly every device.

It’s time to do away with artificial difficulty and allow gamers who want real difficulty to experience that. It’s about time.



Filed under Opinion

2 responses to “Artificial difficulty: Why is this even a thing?

  1. xtg120

    Reblogged this on My New PlayStation.

  2. Pingback: Platformer Animating Motion Tips | For Devs By Devs

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