Player Appeasement: good or bad for game design?

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Most games now are built around the concept of player appeasement, regardless of whether the phrase itself is ever mentioned.

Some examples:

  • little or no penalty for failing (eg infinite retries)
  • no game over state at all (eg Facebook MMOs)
  • eventual gamebreak abilities for the player (eg upgrade systems that let you become unstoppable)

Without these changes to the structure of games, many modern games would be far harder than games in the past, while the ‘retro’ games many people remember as being brutally difficult would be incredibly easy. Contra with infinite lives, checkpoints after every wave of enemies, and upgrades for regenerating health and a jetpack would be a breeze. Sonic is far easier to complete if you don’t have to play the entire game in one go, with a limited number of retries. And Call of Duty would be incredibly difficult if getting shot twice meant you had to restart the entire game.

One approach gives us an unending stream of entertainment, which most people will continue with until they get bored of it – like watching a video, but with more interaction. This is the current preference of game designers, on the basis that relatively few people finish games anyway, and they play to be entertained rather than challenged.

On the other hand, games with genuine difficulty provided something that’s missing from modern gaming. The feeling of accomplishment when you finally beat a game after countless attempts didn’t come from unlocking an achievement, and it wasn’t something that could be achieved solely by playing long enough. It was actual accomplishment, a point where your skill level finally exceeded everything the designers could throw at you. But this was what kept gaming niche, the fact that you had to be good at it to get much real enjoyment out of it.

Which do you prefer? Which is ‘better’? Why?

PS: obviously there are exceptions. Please don’t just pick out the one game out of thousands that defies the conventions :P

 
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Personally, endless-retry games have a harder (though not impossible) time to be appealing to me… but then I grew up with “real” video games, where Pacmen were Pacmen and hedgehogs were sonic.

The “problem” (from a developer’s standpoint) of limited lives is that everyone comes to the games with different levels of ability, interest in the game/genre, and desire to persevere through the game in question (all three of which corrolate with each other: e.g., someone with low interest in the genre is unlikely to have a high perseverence for it, while someone with low ability is more likely to get frustrated and thus also have a low perseverence factor). Also, balancing difficulty is far harder when you have to worry equally about both sides of the blade, rather than just being able to focus on whether or not it is too easy: with unlimited lives, anything but a literally completely impossible game can be completed (with enough perseverence and/or luck). It is much easier to answer the question “can it be done at all” than it is to answer “can it be done in 3 tries for the average player”.

Way back when, you had to pay out of pocket to play (either quarters at the arcade, or dollars for a console or PC game), so “casual players” weren’t really a thing for developers/distributors to be concerned with. Now, with internet play, one has easy access to the casual players (a large segment, particularly since just about everyone is a “casual player” of some genre, if they play games at all outside of their preferred type). Giving the game a virtual guarantee of being able to win is aimed at these players.

So, as much as I hate to say it, from an audience appeal standpoint, player appeasement is the winner.

That being said, the reason I prefer limited-life games isn’t that it gives me sense of accomplishment when I finish so much as that it usually feels pointless to me if I’ve got an infinite number of tries: of course I can do it, eventually — if only by blind luck.

 
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I am big fan of letting the players adjust the difficulty themselves. For instance, you cite infinite retries, but every game has infinite retries, the only question is where you retry from. And I say let the player choose, which is why I like saved games and hate checkpoints.

If you let the player save the state of the game any time they want, then they will decide how often they wish to save. After every jump in a platformer, or every kill in an FPS, if they so wish. Heck, why not? That’s how I played through Half life I back in the day, by the way, crossbow and save scumming. I had a blast, and I don’t give a damn if I didn’t play it “the right way” by some stranger’s metric. When the designer only allows saves at checkpoints (or worse: forces saves at every checkpoint!) what they are saying is that the players cannot be trusted to choose when and where to save their game, that the players are too dumb to set their own difficulty. (Possibly they are saying instead that the programmer was too incompetent to save the state of the game properly, but that’s beside the point.) That’s bad design. As a rule, if it’s only in the game as a way to annoy the players, take it out; if it’s something most players would want, put it in.

OK, but what about MMOs? I’m still waiting for an MMO to implement multiple difficulties and do it right. For instance, an MMORPG could have classes that are voluntarily made weaker than others. Playing a weak class would be more difficult, and at equivalent level they would get beaten in PvP by the stronger classes with almost certainty. When playing alone, ‘level appropriate’ quests would actually be very hard, systematically. Make it so that fighting enemies way above or below one’s level yields very little advancement (XP, or whatever) and you have a recipe for struggle. The payoff could come in the form of a higher level cap so that, eventually, those weak classes dominate the end game, rewarding the players who chose the hard way up. I believe that the type of player who plays difficult games because they are known for being difficult would be drawn to the harder classes like moths to a flame, while the more casual gamers would be perfectly happy playing the kid glove classes and enjoying their walk in the park all the way to the level cap.

The way I picture it, the class system would have to be redundant, each normal class declined into two to four versions of increasing difficulty (preferably with suitably inspiring names for the higher difficulties). One could conceive of a class system that allows players to switch to a less difficult class at any time, but only allows switching to a harder class with an enormous penalty (I’m talking 80% of your levels or more!) to prevent people from raising a character to the cap on the lower difficulty and switching then. I could even see forbidding difficulty increases entirely, if the player is not limited to a single character on their account.

The reason for these restrictions is simply that people who go after difficulty take succeeding as a badge of honor. They want it to be difficult, so that they can feel comfortable taking every shortcut they find, and so they can feel that rush of adrenalin when they finally succeed, knowing that they have achieved something that very few people have. That feeling is what motivates those among the gamers who call themselves ‘hardcore’. If there is any obvious shortcut to bypass the difficulty, then it’s not really hard, is it? Anyone and their kid sister can do it, and therefore it’s no longer worth achieving. If you can’t distinguish between those who made it and those who made it the hard way, what’s the point of taking the hard way?

 
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Originally posted by Ace_Blue:
OK, but what about MMOs? I’m still waiting for an MMO to implement multiple difficulties and do it right. For instance, an MMORPG could have classes that are voluntarily made weaker than others. Playing a weak class would be more difficult, and at equivalent level they would get beaten in PvP by the stronger classes with almost certainty. When playing alone, ‘level appropriate’ quests would actually be very hard, systematically. Make it so that fighting enemies way above or below one’s level yields very little advancement (XP, or whatever) and you have a recipe for struggle. The payoff could come in the form of a higher level cap so that, eventually, those weak classes dominate the end game, rewarding the players who chose the hard way up. I believe that the type of player who plays difficult games because they are known for being difficult would be drawn to the harder classes like moths to a flame, while the more casual gamers would be perfectly happy playing the kid glove classes and enjoying their walk in the park all the way to the level cap.

I’m gonna reply to the rest of your post later, because I think you brought up a bunch of interesting points. But as far as the MMO idea goes, I don’t think it sounds fun at all.

You have two groups of players. One set wins everything til the endgame, the other wins nothing til the endgame. The first group reaches the endgame and then quits because they get beaten constantly, the second group probably doesn’t even bother to play to the endgame because they’re constantly being beaten. It isn’t fun for either group.

An MMO is especially bad for that type of design, because the limitations and the difficulty you set is based on stats and ability points, not the player’s own skill level. That isn’t “good” difficulty, because players can’t overcome it. If you have one player using the pro class and one player using the easy-mode class, and both players are equally good at the game, the winner is based on things they have no control over.

“Good” difficulty (I can’t think of a better phrase for it) comes from giving the players things that they can overcome with enough practice or skill. If it’s simply a question of who has the better character class for PVP at any particular level, why would the pro level players bother PVPing until the endgame, and why would the beginner-level classes keep PVPing once the pro level players are all but guaranteed a win no matter how much they practice?

Making a win extremely unlikely in a given situation isn’t the same as making it challenging. You can spin a slot machine as many times as you like, but you’ll never get better at it because the outcome isn’t determined by your ability. On the other hand, replaying a Mario level hundreds of times will make you better at it, because the outcome is entirely decided by your skill at platform games.

Anyone who does want the level of difficulty posed by your MMO can join any existing MMO and try to PVP against players 15 levels higher than them. That’s basically the same thing as what you’re suggesting.

 
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Originally posted by saybox:

You have two groups of players. One set wins everything til the endgame, the other wins nothing til the endgame.

Dang, that does sound boring. Good thing it has nothing to do with what I was suggesting, but have fun blowing up that strawman.

Originally posted by saybox:
The first group reaches the endgame and then quits because they get beaten constantly, the second group probably doesn’t even bother to play to the endgame because they’re constantly being beaten.

Er… wait, who’s beating the guys in the first group at the endgame if all the guys in the second group quit before they reached it? Your argument, it doesn’t make sense.

Strawman 1 – Saybox 0. I’m not worried for my actual arguments since you can’t even take down your own misrepresentation of them.

Originally posted by saybox:

Anyone who does want the level of difficulty posed by your MMO can join any existing MMO and try to PVP against players 15 levels higher than them. That’s basically the same thing as what you’re suggesting.

Except it’s absolutely not. I’m not going into a rant about the four types of players, the importance of status and the balance of power, but let me just say that playing at a disadvantage and broadcasting exactly at how much of a disadvantage you’re playing are not at all the same thing. When two amateur golfers meet, the first question asked is usually: “What’s your handicap?” There’s a reason for that.

Maybe you misunderstood this sentence:“If you can’t distinguish between those who made it and those who made it the hard way, what’s the point of taking the hard way?” It is not advocating for the removal of ‘the hard way’, but on the contrary for the hard way to be clearly marked, so that those who walk it can be recognized for it.

 
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Well, that was a surprisingly defensive reply xD If I’ve misinterpreted your post, perhaps you could explain it better instead of just being condescending and accusing me of strawmans.

Originally posted by Ace_Blue:

For instance, an MMORPG could have classes that are voluntarily made weaker than others. Playing a weak class would be more difficult, and at equivalent level they would get beaten in PvP by the stronger classes with almost certainty.

Originally posted by Ace_Blue:
eventually, those weak classes dominate the end game

As I understand it, the game has one class that “almost certainly” wins PVP duels early on in the game, and one class that “dominates the endgame”. What is the motivation of either set of players to take part in PVP duels at the point in the game where their character is nearly guaranteed to be beaten?

 
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First we have to take for granted that, for an MMO that has a large enough player base, it is possible for players of any skill and character level to find PvP of appropriate difficulty, appropriate being defined as resulting in a 50% win chance on any given match. Note that I talked about PvP matchups between players of different classes but of the same level as an illustration of relative power at the same level, not as an example of a PvP system. I strongly believe that MMOs should rank their player base in PvP based on how successful they are at PvP, not on the character level. Sure there is a correlation between level and PvP ability, but not a one-to-one mapping. If you rank players on a ladder based on their PvP performance and not their level/class, then a well-designed system will tend to sort the ladder.

And from there it follows that if PvP matchups are selected based on the PvP rankings of each player, and each player does enough PvP that their ranking is accurate, then it doesn’t matter whether or not the classes are of equivalent power in PvE. What happens usually when classes aren’t balanced well is that the distribution of players according to their class will not be homogeneous throughout the ladder, but when the system is creating matchups that have obvious outcomes there is a problem with the matchup system, not the class system.

In other words, if the power difference between the weakest class of a given archetype and the strongest class of that same archetype is N levels, then:
Two players of equivalent skill playing each a different instance of each class would likely get matched up in PvP when the character of the weaker class is about N levels higher than the character of the stronger class, all other variables being the same.
If the level cap for the weaker class is more than N levels higher than that of the stronger class then the top of the PvP ladder is likely to be occupied by characters of the weaker class, again all other factors being the same. Those players who are at or near the top of the ladder would therefore be matched mostly against people playing the weaker class, since they happen to occupy the top of the rankings.

Again, I do not see how the class system is detrimental to PvP.

Edit: I do realize that the term ‘weak class’ is a misnomer. I should really have typed ‘more difficult class to play’ instead. Consider it a laziness on my part.

 
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Originally posted by Ace_Blue:

In other words, if the power difference between the weakest class of a given archetype and the strongest class of that same archetype is N levels, then:
Two players of equivalent skill playing each a different instance of each class would likely get matched up in PvP when the character of the weaker class is about N levels higher than the character of the stronger class, all other variables being the same.

This is equivalent to an unskilled player being matched up with a skilled player that’s N levels lower, in a current MMO. But your ladder prevents anyone in the easy class of players from being able to reach the top steps of it, ever, because the pro class players will always dominate at max level.

Additionally, using a ladder / ranking system to give players fair matches means there’s no added difficulty for the pro class players anyway – they’ll be playing matches against lower level opponents, to make it a fair fight, so they’re not at a disadvantage.

It would make PvE more difficult, but it has the same effect there as scaling the enemy levels up (as many MMOs allow). However, it also comes with the drawback that pro class players wouldn’t be welcome in most groups, because they’d be underpowered compared to the others on the team.

 
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OP clearly hasn’t played Captain Barblesnarf and the Wumblytumblers, or else he’d see how stupid his argument is. Just sayin’.


And now the not-stupid part of my post. I’ll leave you two to discussing the MMO thing. It’s interesting to watch, and I don’t have much to contribute. Back the OP though, I don’t think one can say either is good or bad. They’re both situationally applicable. For a lunch-break flash game, the “appeasement” strategy might be for the best. I just want to sit down and move my mouse around and watch myself explode planets as I eat my sandwich with the other hand. For a hardcore 80+ hour RPG or something, a more subtle balance with some actual challenge (YMMV as to whether this is “real” or “fake” challenge, it being an RPG, but that’s beside the point) is likely more appropriate. I personally tend to think of more challenging games as “better”, but both types have their place.

the players cannot be trusted

the players are too dumb

If you let the player save the state of the game any time they want, then they will decide how often they wish to save.

Profound wisdom, aptly misquoted. A wise man once said “a gamer does not play to have fun, he plays to win”. And though you may want to deny it, this is an enduring fact. It’s true for everyone to some extent. For casual and hardcore players, for me and for you. If you give a player something to abuse, the fact is that a good portion of people WILL abuse it, even to their own detriment. If you’ve ever played a game on an emulator, you’re probably familiar with “save states”, and maybe even the “throttle” button. Even for me, it’s hard to avoid their temptation, even though I know in the end it will make the game feel less satisfying for me. And let’s not forget all the love-hate stories about WoW. Essentially, by this argument, every player should just be given an unbounded hack-box for any single player game. Can’t beat that boss? That’s no fun! Just set his HP to zero and move on.

I personally consider the job of a game developer to be to force the player to have fun whether he wants to or not. Relevant Video.

 
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The MMO debate has become completely tangential to the original topic of the thread, so I guess it’s best if we leave it at that.

Originally posted by truefire:

Profound wisdom, aptly misquoted.

And I say disingenuous use of quotes, and bunch of hooey. Nobody knows better than the player what the appropriate difficulty is for them. Not you, nor I nor anyone else. If you let the player save the game whenever they want, they will save at exactly the right frequency to maximize their enjoyment of the game. And if, in doing so, they beat your game faster than you had anticipated and desert it as a result, well, sucks to be you.

I guess I’m more extreme than David Sirlin in that, contrary to him, I am “suggesting that the player should be able to take a step, save, fire a shot, save” if they so wish. As I mentioned in a different thread, I played Half-Life I pretty much that way back in the day and I had a blast, thankyouverymuch.

A save function is not “something to abuse”, it is a basic convenience that every game of marginal length should offer. We have the technology, there is no reason not to provide it. The “save point” and “checkpoint” systems are throwbacks of the 8-bit console era, and should remain there.

 
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Originally posted by Ace_Blue:
If you let the player save the game whenever they want, they will save at exactly the right frequency to maximize their enjoyment of the game.

I’m not so sure. Would a game of tennis be more enjoyable in real life if you were allowed to cancel any point your opponent won? You’d win every trophy there is, but I think you’d quickly start to see the game itself as a chore to rush through for your next reward, rather than being a fun game in its own right.

 
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Actually you’d never finish a single game since the optimal strategy for both players is to cancel any point their opponent won. I’m trying to give you all the benefit of the doubt I can, but admit that taking an argument about single player games and pointing out it doesn’t apply to two-player games is silly, don’t you think?

Edit: Here. I finally found the article I was looking for earlier, about saving the game and Ernest Adams wrote it more eloquently years ago than I can express it today, so please have a look. In fact, the entire Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie database is worth a read. It’s really, really good. Think of it as TvTropes for game design mistakes.

 
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Originally posted by Ace_Blue:

Actually you’d never finish a single game since the optimal strategy for both players is to cancel any point their opponent won. I’m trying to give you all the benefit of the doubt I can, but admit that taking an argument about single player games and pointing out it doesn’t apply to two-player games is silly, don’t you think?

I didn’t say both players had that option. Only you. Any mistake you make or shot you miss, you can cancel out immediately and continue the game as it it didn’t happen. Is the tennis game itself still fun, or is it a chore that needs to be done between trophies?

 
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It looks to me that his argument about the on-demand save game is more of a RL convenience issue. For example, maybe I have to go to work, and I don’t want to leave my xbox on all day. For this, I advocate “quicksaves” – saves that disappear when you load them back up. This way you can’t abuse them as a safety net.

If you let the player save the game whenever they want, they will save at exactly the right frequency to maximize their enjoyment of the game.

I can verify from personal experience and the testimony of plenty of people that this is not true. They will save at exactly the right frequency to maximize their efficiency in playing the game.

 
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Originally posted by truefire:

I can verify from personal experience and the testimony of plenty of people that this is not true. They will save at exactly the right frequency to maximize their efficiency in playing the game.

Right, that’s what I did in Unreal. I thought it was kind of odd how it gave you so many save slots. When I wasn’t sure I was going in the right direction, I would just save and leave that slot alone as a checkpoint. There was one part of one level that was really hard, it was an annoying broken staircase you had to climb up without falling down. I would save on each step.

 
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Originally posted by GameBuilder15:
Originally posted by truefire:

I can verify from personal experience and the testimony of plenty of people that this is not true. They will save at exactly the right frequency to maximize their efficiency in playing the game.

Right, that’s what I did in Unreal. I thought it was kind of odd how it gave you so many save slots. When I wasn’t sure I was going in the right direction, I would just save and leave that slot alone as a checkpoint. There was one part of one level that was really hard, it was an annoying broken staircase you had to climb up without falling down. I would save on each step.

But… but… that’s terrible! You dodged all the frustration and the pain and the distress the designers had so lovingly crafted for you! You desecrated their beautiful creation with your shameful, vile tactics. How dare you exploit the convenience of saved games to lessen your rightful suffering? Sinner!

I bet you even enjoyed yourself.

(Note to readers: In case you can’t tell, I was being sarcastic. Good on you GameBuilder15.)

 
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Of course, you might wonder what the point of the designers including the staircase, enemies, jumping, or anything else in their game was in the first place if you take the attitude that the player shouldn’t ever be challenged by any of it. Why would you make any segment of your game difficult if it’s preferable for players to waltz straight through it with minimal effort?

 
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Originally posted by saybox:

Of course, you might wonder what the point of the designers including the staircase […] was in the first place

Bad design? Not enough time factored in to make proper controls? An idea that looked good on paper, played terribly in practice, but couldn’t be cut out anymore because the product had to be shipped? Who knows. Point is, a staircase shouldn’t be a deadly hazard unless the game has you play as a toddler.

Some difficulty in a game is necessary. There have to be obstacles for the player to overcome. But that doesn’t mean anything that is difficult goes. Please do go read the Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie columns I linked above. You will learn a lot about game design, I promise.

 
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You didn’t suggest any alternative sources for challenge in a game after ruling out the risk of not winning for the player. I tried to think of a few instead and ironically it seems like games have to be made more difficult in order to allow for the reduced challenge from quicksaves. Toughen up the enemies so that fighting them takes longer, make the jumps more difficult so that individual jumps are the challenge (as opposed to longer series of platforming), etc. Otherwise, where are you suggesting the difficulty comes from?

 
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Originally posted by Ace_Blue:

I am big fan of letting the players adjust the difficulty themselves. For instance, you cite infinite retries, but every game has infinite retries, the only question is where you retry from.

Cue the next generation of rogue-likes: where in-game death means you never get to play, ever again. ;)

 
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Originally posted by Ace_Blue:

a staircase shouldn’t be a deadly hazard unless the game has you play as a toddler.

This was no ordinary staircase.

 
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I would like to see this staircase, if you can find a video of it to post.

I also took a look through the No Twinkie database and I feel like it’s mostly things in games that the writer doesn’t like, with a heavy bias against JRPG tropes. I’m not saying everything he’s posted there is invalid, but some of his complaints include random battles, heroes saving the world, and a ton of complaints about loot that don’t really take into account how players tend to play a game where there is loot to be collected. In other words, while he may agree on the save point discussion, and you both make some good points about it, I don’t think his list is something you can point to as a definitive list of things that shouldn’t be done in games.

Also, I found it ironic that he complained about designers being “ignorant” of technical limitations, and then went on to demand real world water physics simulation in games.

 
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It’s not exactly a staircase but I believe the game called it that.

Video

Just remembered I was playing on my old Windows 98 laptop with a trackpad, so I’m sure that made it much harder.