What is “Bad Difficulty” in a Game?

While things are happening behind the scenes with one of my clients and special announcements will be forthcoming in a few weeks – I thought it may be a good idea to make a blog post about something in particular. That something in particular will be a particular aspect of game mechanics; specifically I’m talking about “game difficulty” and the terrible ways some companies try to make their games challenging to their customers.

Difficulty is a good thing. Difficulty done right makes a game fun, it keeps you coming back for more in order to get past that one part you’re having trouble with. You’re presented with a predicament and despite how many times you’ve been stumped/killed/failed, you’re certain you can get past this part…there’s a little something that you’re missing; a pattern, a combo, an item, experience points…with enough exploration and trial, you’re certain you can move on AND feel rewarded for your actions.

Predicament, exploration, success, reward – this is difficulty done right.

Then there’s dumb shit like NHL 2015.

Can we compare a sports game to the typical criteria that I have in place for most games out there? I believe so – after all, you need to implement strategy in order to overcome your virtual opponent. If you’re playing the computer and it adapts to your playing style, you have to come up with a new way to win the game. This is where the difficulty comes in, attempting to outsmart the computer in order to come away with the W – will you dump-n-chase, regroup and criss-cross over the blueline, split the defense with your best player – just like a real hockey game.

Now we all know the sixth circle of hell that EA inhabits, and some of us are rabid Satanists who purchase at the trough of evil time and time again. There’s no choice for hockey fans, EA has an exclusive contract with the NHL and NHLPA to be the sole proprietor of their game. And so the same game with slight tweaks has been released over and over every…what maybe 5 years or more? More realistic skating, more faceoff control, more fights…

…crappy goaltending…

And there’s my gripe with this game – if you have the game at the hardest difficulty, and you happen to be owning it’s ass with a flurry assault of pucks at their net, the game will start to do two things.

  • 9 times out of 10 the goaltender you’re playing against will suddenly channel the combined powers of Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek and Jesus Christ to stop everything possible (and impossible) in order to keep his team in the game. This power extends to the backup goaltender as well, who will lose his power over time if you pepper the net with pucks, but still – a goaltender with a 70 rating shouldn’t look like a Vezina trophy candidate every time they play you.
  • Your goaltender – despite an elite rating – will turn into a drooling basketcase who is completely convinced that the puck is actually a magical device meant to steal his soul it if hits him.

In the end, that doesn’t sound too much like difficulty as described, does it? An example would be the current game I’m playing with my step-brother – we started a season and randomly ended up with the Columbus Blue Jackets…which we were cool with because we were trying to have our goaltender win the Vezina for the first time and Sergei Bobrovsky isn’t a bad elite stopper to have. Our first 10 games he played exactly like we hoped he would; .920 save percentage, 1 shutout, making 30 stops a game. By the trade deadline he had won 90% of his games but had a .875 save percentage and only that 1 shutout…on a number of occasions he’d go into a cold funk and allow 3-4 goals on 15 or less shots.

We decided to trade him away, unable to claim the Vezina now, to a bottom feeding team for another goaltender and their high first round draft pick. We chose Tampa Bay, the team tied for 3rd worst in the league, and got their draft pick and Ben Bishop in exchange for some of our prospects and Bobrovsky. By the start of the playoffs, Bobrovsky had suddenly gone hot on the new team, and went on an incredible run that had them almost make the playoffs.

Horseshit.

How does any video game company brag that this is “difficulty that adapts to the user”? I shouldn’t have to worry, if I’m scoring and my offense is on a hot streak, that suddenly for no reason my goaltender is struck like Superman on a kryptonite bender. This is absolutely poor game design – if you’re going to challenge me with difficulty, RAMP UP THE DIFFICULTY OF MY OPPONENT, don’t nerf one of the most important players on my team!

Bottom line – difficulty in a game can adapt based on your performance, sometimes it’s needed and welcomed. But if the difficulty affects the effectiveness of your own sprites, you’re DOING IT WRONG!