Difficulty vs Playability: How Perfect Games Strike the Balance

Look. We’re gamers. We’ve all been there. We’ve all whispered bad words quietly enough that our parents couldn’t hear them. We’ve all done that weird thing where we squeeze a controller as if we were the Hulk trying to compress an anvil into a diamond. We’ve all screamed, cried, kicked things, bitten our siblings, burned down our neighbor Mark’s house in 4th grade, or even thrown our controllers across the room. Gamer rage is very real, ladies and gentlemen, and it touches the lives of us all. Especially Mark. Unless, y’know, you don’t commit arson after Donkey Kong blue-shells you on Rainbow Road. Weirdo. But this scream-like-my-eyes-are-being-stung-by-bees kind of mania only rears its ugly head under one condition: when a game is hard.

..oh, WHAT? You would’ve done the same thing!

I’ll never forget the day a few years ago when I was punching a baboon in the face that I kidnapped from the zoo after dying on the second to last level of Super Mario Bros. 2 when my parents came in and asked why I was so upset. I calmly explained that Mario made me mad enough to abuse a protected primate. Simple enough, I thought. But what really stood out on that day (besides several warrants for my arrest) was the question my parents asked me: “If it makes you so upset, then why do you play it?” This question really stuck with me (along with the baboon wounds that I have to do this day). Why do I play hard games? Why don’t I just sit around and play Nintendogs? Raising a cute little dachshund never upset me. I never put my brother in an armbar because my goldendoodle had to go potty. So why in the world am I wasting my time on a game that’s so frikkin’ hard? Aren’t video games supposed to be an escape from the drudgery and frustration of everyday life? Don’t I play games for fun? As I pensively nursed my baboon wounds, I wondered why video game reviewers often used the term “challenging” in a positive way. Isn’t lifting a boulder or proving Einstein wrong pretty challenging? Neither of those things seem fun at all! What, am I supposed to believe that gamers are just crazy? Nonsense. So I resolved to really figure this thing out. Why do gamers like hard games? When does a game get too hard? Well, there’s only one way to find out. Come with me as we discuss how perfect games balance difficulty and playability.

Why Gamers Like Hard Games

If you happen to be what people call an “average person,” and you like playing, say, Angry Birds or Wii Sports and also think of yourself as a gamer, then you may have heard dark beings in the shadows of GameStop hatefully hiss the word, “Casual.” If this frightens you, realize that they are just poorly conveying their frustration over someone adopting a title they think one has to earn. This is because an important element of “hardcore” gaming is difficulty. And this is because most of the best games of all time are, on some level, somewhat difficult.

Don’t be afraid. They’re just confused.

The number of people you know who have played the original Pac-Man or the original Super Mario Bros. is probably unaccountable. However, most of the the folks you know probably have never finished either game. The reason why gamers “beat” games rather than just complete them is because the first video games were hard. Like any game/sport/duel, the object of any video game is to win, and in order to win the game has to have a situation in which you can lose and in order to lose, you often need an opponent. Before video games, the opponent was usually another person or group of others persons. You played games so you could make your four-year-old cousin Eddy cry when you slammed dunk on your 5-foot tall basketball hoop in the backyard while screaming, “YOU SUCK!” at his tiny little face. But early video games set you up against a computer rather than another person. In other words, your opponent was typically the game itself.

Now you may be wondering, “Now, what’s the fun in that? You don’t even have the satisfaction of beating another person!” True, in single player games, you do not. But I posit that beating an especially difficult game is even more satisfying than defeating another person for this reason: a video game is basically a robot designed for the sole purpose of defeating you. In the original arcade classic Donkey Kong, DK only existed so that he could hurl barrels at Mario’s face and kill him. BARRELS! I don’t know if you’ve ever taken a BARREL to the teeth, but let me tell ya, it smarts. Smarts real hard. That’s why it’s satisfying to drop that woman-snatching monkey on his head and make out with a royal babe over his unconscious body. Beating a difficult game is rewarding because it requires tenacity and, frankly, practice. Though I got winded after throwing a Q-Tip in the trash this morning, I’ll try to muster  all my limited-sports knowledge to craft a sports analogy:

Imagine you’re on a, uh, baseball team. Your pitcher has a torn ligament (inside of his body. Not just, like, in his pocket or something. That would be wei-) and you guys are down by 11 points against a super good team, like the Chicago Bulls or something. It’s down to the last quarter and if your main player doesn’t score a triple-pointer, you’ll never make it to the Super Bowl. But before the horn blows, you guys finish with a 12 point catch and send the Bulls skating back to Chicago! That would be awesome, because you rose to the challenge and beating them expresses that your countless hours of practice have paid off. But imagine you’re up against a team that totally sucks like, I dunno, the Cincinnati Bengals. But each player is blindfolded, handed a sleeping baby that they must protect at all costs, and doped up on lots and lots of opium. You could definitely beat them, but it probably wouldn’t be as fun. The same goes for games. Games that a particularly dumb baby could beat on the first try simply are not that entertaining. That’s why the greatest retro games of all time (Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog, Mega Man, etc.) are such enduring classics. Partially.

Why Hard Games Have to Be Playable

If you’ve never played a game for the original Nintendo Entertainment System, I urge to go find one and play one random game. Just any old one. If you find that you can make it through the first level without dying at least twice, it is unusual. And I mean, bizarre. Because most NES games are more difficult than plucking a feral weasel out a vat of bacon grease with a pair of giant chopsticks. And, quite frankly, many of these games suck. And I mean really, really suck, and it’s usually because these games aren’t playable.

Admittedly, the term “playable” usually refers to games being easy enough to play. So judging a game by how easy it is may seem a little contradictory when “challenge” is held in high regard. But, as I said, perfect games balance both. Let’s go back to the sports analogy. The only thing worse than playing tag as Usain Bolt is playing tag with Usain Bolt. If the video game’s is so far beyond your normal human capabilities it ceases to be fun. To illustrate this point, let’s look at a game that is unplayable and a game that is great albeit its difficulty.

Case Study: Two Very Different NES Games

Mega Man is an enduring classic. Its art design, music, and most importantly, gameplay is arguably one of the best (if not the best) of any game on the NES. And while Mega Man is great, Mega Man 2 is usually perceived as even better. These games are quite a bit of fun, but they are not for the faint of heart. I’ve been playing through them myself recently, but I’m maintaining pretty much an Oregon Trail survival rate, except my death usually comes by Fire Man’s fireballs, not dysentery. Dysentery Man didn’t come around till Mega Man 8. Expecting someone to make it through any level of Mega Man on the first try is like expecting a coal miner with tuberculosis to get a perfect Dance Dance Revolution score on Heavy. It’s very tricky. However, I have beaten several levels in Mega Man at this point and, though some of it was frustrating along the way, I have thoroughly enjoyed it. If you’re not familiar with Mega Man, take a look the video below:

This is the Cut Man stage, the first stage of Mega Man that I’ve beaten. You’ll notice this player takes some damage, because there are great deal of projectiles and enemies in this game. But the object of the game is clear, the rules are set, and the game is strict about its parameters, but it can be beaten with practice. It’s difficult but it perfectly balances playability to the extent it was fun.

Now let’s move on to this notorious stinker of the NES: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Watch the video below if you’re not already familiar with it:

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is, without a doubt, exceedingly difficult. It would be easier to raise Robert Louis Stevenson from the dead with a Ouija board from Goodwill than to beat this terrible game. The game is unclear about which of the town’s people are threats and which are not, the protagonist of the game (despite being in an action video game) has no way to defend himself, and the graphics are bad enough to where certain portions of the game are confusing. The difficulty is not engineered to challenge your skill but to sneak up behind it and wail on it with a crowbar.


So, in the course of writing this, I have come to several realizations. First of all, even though some video games can frustrating, I should probably stop committing felonies in my anger. Secondly, gamers are not crazy or masochistic or pathetic because they spend so much time on games that upset them. Just as the baseball player strives for his 3-point goal or the soccer player must score super touchdowns, so too must the gamer master his discipline. Unless a game comes along and makes a mockery of your discipline by being too janky (technical term) to play. So the very best games manage to strike a balance of difficulty and, well, fun.

Written by Jesse Cupp

Jesse Cupp is a sophomore at Chapman University, double-majoring in Screenwriting and English. Outside of writing scripts and papers, he spends a great deal of time playing his PS3 and GameCube. He has a long and complicated relationship with Nintendo.

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