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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

I'm Not Having Fun Anymore: Difficulty and Accessibility in Modern Games

I Kind of Sort of Hate This Game That I Like...

I complained recently about my difficulty playing SF4 - the control issues and the learning curve caused me to perhaps whine like a little girl with a skinned knee. I've put in a few more hours with the game and finally beaten it once (with Ken, on Very Easy, thanks for asking).

The arduous process of climbing the ladder and beating Seth brought me back to the hateful experience of being so incredibly bad at a game that you don't want to play it any longer.

The Sirlin article I linked to yesterday has opened up conversations about difficulty in the game and how accessible it is to the casual player. I'm by no means a casual player, but I'm also not one of the core Street Fighter devotees. Was this game made for me? More importantly, how can game developers ensure that their game is accessible for a wide audience while still delivering the values of a hardcore experience?

Throwing the Controller

Sometimes a game is tough due to the complexity and sometimes a game is just broken. I think SF4 falls into the former category: it requires some history with both the genre and this particular franchise to make any headway. There's a great observation in the GiantBomb review about the lack of a comprehensive training mode that teaches newcomers how to play the game beyond simply teaching the moves.

As Stephen Totilo noted, there's something approximating a training mode, buried in the Challenges which teaches the players the rudiments of each character's moves. What it doesn't teach is practical strategy - the theory of playing the game. When should I block? At what point in the Shoryuken can I snatch Ken out of his move and execute a throw or an EX move? What's an EX move?

Going into the game and learning these things has been an uphill process, even on the simplest modes of the game.

Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance from a couple of years ago had a more compelling and functional training mode that had many of the practical features I'm talking about here. Each tier of the practice mode would challenge the player to match not only commands but learn blocking skills and transitions between the different forms.

Apples and Oranges and Grenades

The modern shooter seems to have gotten this, with hit titles like Gears 2 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare including tutorial segments that are at once cohesive with the overall game experience. Both are unabashedly games for the core - the former being a shooter requiring strategic movement around the battlefield and the latter having a more frantic combat environment.

The tutorials of each game reflect this. COD4's training mode even has a speed run mode, emphasizing the main feature of the game - navigating the battlefield swiftly and eyeing target placement. Gears has a more laid-back attitude with fewer targets and an emphasis on using the environment to engage the enemy.

Fallout 3 has one of the more interesting and compelling tutorials of recent memory, couching the core mechanics in the player character's growth from infancy to young adulthood. Beyond the narrative tie-in, the game also carves out moments to highlight the given mechanic that the player needs to learn for the overall game.

However, these games are broader experiences, lacking the minute details of a fighter like SF4. There are literally thousands of variables in any given SF match - the characters being used, the Super and Revenge bars, range and hit detection. How can anyone coming into this franchise fresh come to grips with the mechanics of the game?

The Arcade mode could potentially fill this need but the difficulty curve is very steep with characters laying the smack down on even the lowest levels. Learning your character's move priority becomes a frustrating, hateful chore, making the gamer (at least this one) wonder if the game is even worth learning.

This Game Hates You

SF4 puts me in the mind of Ninja Gaiden 2, a game which combined bruising difficulty with little to no tutorial.

The hack and slashfest is geared towards the core and actually revels in this (check the Achievements of the game - they all speak to the alpha players in the audience). The punishing difficulty of the game and the twitch experience it presents are for a certain segment of the audience who seeks out a level of frustration in their gameplay.

This is very present in SF4 - there's actually a "tax" (as described by Sirlin) to open up all of the characters in the game. Only by overcoming some ridiculous in-game hurdles can players open up the full gameplay experience. Locking characters behind such prohibitive barriers is not conducive to accessibility - it's telling the audience that the game, in actuality, is for the core.

The Last Thing I'll Say About SF4 for A While

I'm going to stick with the game - as I've said before there are things I do like about it. But I don't think I'll ever really gain any sort of profiency with it as I have some of the other titles mentioned above.

Which is a shame, because I really had high hopes for causing some trouble online.

1 comment:

  1. I agree, COD4 was chock full of the awesome, and Fallout 3 did have a very interesting training mode, the game didn't start sucking until training mode was over. However, the most important points in this review were that: 1) you were very bad at the game, 2) wanted to throw the controller, and 3) whined like a little girl. :)