This week BioWare announced that the upcoming MMO The Old Republic would have a fairly merciful, non-punishing death system. This was met with objections from players who are looking for more challenge in their online games. So let's talk about this.
First off, I don't know that we should be surprised. Developer BioWare isn't exactly your go-to company for challenging skill-based gameplay. They're in the business of making character-driven experiences that are dense with story and dialogue. It would be a major shift of focus for them to suddenly attempt to make a game focused around skill-based progression. Online games are already fairly gentle as a rule, so it would be quite a risk for BioWare to break from conventional wisdom and their own strengths as a developer. It's not easy to make a properly challenging game, and it would be reckless for them to attempt it on a project that's already overdue, overbudget, and out of their area of single-player expertise.
But the main thing I want to talk about is this idea that punishing gameplay equals "challenging" gameplay. I understand where these challenge-driven players are coming from. There aren't a lot of games these days that offer that old-school Nintendo hard experience. A few games like Super Meat Boy, Prinny, Demon's Souls, and the legendary I Wanna Be the Guy do offer that sort of experience, but the vast majority of games are designed to be beatable by nearly everyone. If you're one of these hardcore challenge hounds and you're looking for a game that will push back and make you work for your victory, you don't have a lot of titles to choose from. But what these players are asking for in The Old Republic isn't a game with more challenge. They're just asking for a game with more punishment.
Think about a largely skill-based game like Force Unleashed. While individual tastes vary, I don't think it was considered a particularly hard or easy game. It was fairly middle-of-the-road. Now imagine the game without the checkpoints, so that if you die you have to start the entire chapter over from the very beginning. The combat and gameplay mechanics are otherwise identical, it just sets you back more when you fail. If you think about it, this doesn't make the game any more difficult to beat. It takes the same level of skill to reach the end of the game. The game isn't hard, it's just hard to enjoy.
An interesting discussion is to find out what challenge hunters are really looking for in a game. Is more punishment really what they want, or are they looking for a game that actually demands a higher level of skill. Or are they looking for a deeper game?