Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
Why Easy Games Fail Yahtzee's Game Theory

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 17 Apr 2012 12:00
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So with that in mind, allow me to repeat a sentence from earlier in this article. "Challenge without fun [or indeed gratification] is frustration". That should be a straightforward enough sentiment, but the interesting thing about frustration is that it doesn't necessarily preclude fun. I've said before that I'm fond of deliberately hard games like Super Meat Boy, Cave Story and I Wanna Be The Guy, because as frustrating as replaying the same section over and over again can get, no one will remember that frustration once they've actually gotten past it, and their satisfaction with their achievement increases the more attempts it took. The more frustration one builds up the more pleasing it is to all drain away, it's like putting off having a wank for a day or two.

In my recent freeware release Poacher (hosted here on The Escapist download now) I was trying to recreate the same kind of retro-style fail-frustration-success gratification. Whether or not I succeeded I leave to the history books, but channelling frustration in any game's challenge aspect can be a treacherous mistress. There's a fine line. You only get the benefit of that frustration release if the player actually does eventually get past the challenging section. You have to give them just enough encouragement to keep at it, don't dwell on their failures and keep things fun on some level (this is where the visceral gratification third leg comes in handy). The very worst thing that your player can do is ragequit. Give up and stop playing without releasing the frustration you've been building up in them. Because that feeling is what they're left with and will associate with your game. They'll probably be in a bad mood for the rest of the afternoon and you'll indirectly increase the domestic violence rate.

I always try to avoid ending a gaming session while I'm still trying to get past a challenge, because it'll make it harder to start the next session. I'll probably end up procrastinating and waste half an hour constantly updating my Twitter feed hoping someone will praise me or propose marriage. And if I end up stopping playing altogether, the game will go on to occupy a very low step of my critical ziggurat, as happened with Demon/Dark Souls.

But challenge is a balance. The other mistake is to go too far the other way. Ninja Gaiden 3 is too easy. But that in itself needn't necessarily be a problem, the nature of the three-legged milking stool theory of game design is that deficiency in one leg can be shored up by strength in either of the other two. If there's very little challenge and you're just holding the player's hand through set pieces and cutscenes - you know, if you're pretty much any triple-A game these days - then you can still save yourself with a strong showing in either of the other two legs, context and gratification.

And that's where Ninja Gaiden 3 ultimately tucks itself nice and cozy into a lovely warm coffin and the gravediggers get to work filling it in. Whatever gratification you can glean from hacking up cockney arseholes dribbles away after the first ninety-seven times you executed the same overblown sommersault attack. And the less said about the story the better. Ninja Gaiden's never had more than an atrophied stumpy leg for its context aspect and things really don't improve much here. When the tiny adorable mute girl passed the still-blood-caked ninja murderer a text message reading "Will you be my new daddy?" an involuntary scoff escaped from my mouth, followed by my last few meals in one long yellow-brown half-digested stream.

Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn't talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.

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