Video Games: How Hard is Too Hard?

How hard should video games be?

The 1980s: the birth era of the computer game industry for consumer: a time when games were few, and those games were hard!

I grew up in an age where actually winning a video game (those that could be won) was a rarity. Learning an individual game required honing reflexes, skill, and learning *that* game. Like Pac Man. Or Tempest. Or even Mario. (No, I never was able to beat Mario, but I did, after months of perseverance, finish Metroid 1). My first computer rpg, Bard’s Tale, was another game that I never saw the end of. In Bard’s Tale II, I think I got 4 of the 7 pieces of the destiny wand assembled before it too escaped my focus. (As I write this, I start to think maybe I’m just bad at games.)

In recent gaming, I know what I like: games like Diablo, Mass Effect, World of Warcraft, Dragon Age, Borderlands, Left for Dead, Rock Band, the Bioshock series, and Skyrim.

Games I’m angry at: Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto, and Assassins Creed (I’ve not played the latest of either GTA or Assassins Creed).

Games I tend to pass on: twitch games. (I love One-Finger Death Punch, but quickly reached my peak on that… unless I practice more.)

…Practice.  Yeah, that’s pretty much they key. I got to a point where when I’m gaming, if it feels like practice to improve a skill for that game, then I start to wonder if it’s a productive use of my time. How much effort is involved to unlock the fun?

Sure, some of you might be saying, “You’re afflicted by the gnat’s-attention span of the ‘me generation’. You want instant gratification”.

Well… maybe. But then again, maybe not. The thing is, if a game becomes a grind to progress and unlock the story (the candy), I have better things to do with my time. I’m all for practice, and work to develop and hone skills. If I’m going to spend time working on reflexes and muscle memory, I’m going to go spend some hours on the guitar. Or the piano. Or the Irish tin whistle. Or if I’m honing a skill, I’m going to spend more time writing, or drawing. (If I were into sports, I’m sure I could come up with some things there too).

The skill one learns in a video game has the shelf-life of the video game. I could master all ins and outs of Red Dead Redemption, but what happens when I’m finished with the game and move on to something else?

I’m not saying that every fun activity has to have productive value. But if I’m doing a fun activity, there’s going to be a work/reward analysis at some point, especially as I grow older. Time just becomes more valuable, balancing between career, home life, and an ever increasing pile of hobbies and interests. Video gaming becomes relegated to the same bin as movies and reading. I love a long, interactive story… I don’t like games that make you repeat the same events over and over.

Specifically, it came to a head with Red Dead Redemption. We’d talked about GTA5, and considered both of our failed attempts at GTA4: getting so far before the save mechanic frustrated us. I don’t want to do a 10 minute car chase only to die in the gun fight, and then have to repeat the entire narrative sequence, the 10 minute car chase again, and then try the gun fight again. I want to get right back into the gun fight… I shouldn’t have to repeat things I’ve already successfully completed. (I’m okay with this to a certain degree, but there’s a point where fun drains away). We’d had Red Dead Redemption for some time and hadn’t gotten far into it, so I decided to pick it up again and give it another whirl. I knew the mechanics were clumsy, but I was going to slog through it for the story.  And the story is great! I love the western ambiance, and the acting/writing, etc.  But there I was, on a mission to save some folks from a shootout, and I crept up the side of the canyon… only to be 1-shot killed by a random mountain lion.  Next thing… reload at last checkpoint. Far away from the mission location. Red Dead Redemption, I’m done with you.

I put in Assassins Creed. Another beautiful game, and maybe not quite so egregious as Rock Star Games (RDR and GTA). I was going through Rome (yes, I know it’s an older Assassin’s Creed), looking forward to unlocking and climbing all the areas in the city.  Same thing. Fail at a point in the mission, restart the entire mission.

So at some point, I start to think maybe the flaw is me, and not the game. But then I came to the realization: I don’t care. I have plenty of games where “the grind” itself is fun, whether that’s World of Warcraft, Diablo, or any other others I’ve mentioned above. (Another pet peeve: Japanese RPG grinds. Not fun. Curse you Persona 4 Golden!)

I’ve started to bin video games into two categories: the interactive story with minimal work, that guides you through (with golden breadcrumbs al la Fable). Or those that have a learning curve and take some practice to get down.

Sure, there are games in both categories that I’ve enjoyed. Rock Band comes to mind. The difference, however, is that in Rock Band, the practice itself is the fun of it.  (Plus, not only was Rock Band the reason I started to learn electric guitar, there was a real-world skill gained from the game that was portable: not the button mashing on the fretboard, but the synchronizing of pressing the fret board while picking at the same time. When I picked up the real guitar, the muscle memory and timing between the two hands was already there, so learning the blues scale was a breeze).

So, game developers: I want a game that is challenging enough to remind me I’m not just watching a movie. There should be some sense of accomplishment (even if it’s a simulated sense of accomplishment). There should be a sense of freedom and escape in the gaming experience. But, don’t fall into the 1980s trap that seeing your end-game sequence is a privilege that needs to be earned. Very few video game stories are worth of being earned when compared to reading good books or watching good movies.

Exceptions: games worth the gaming learning curve, either for story or fun factor (based on nothing more than my subjective experience compared against other games I have played). Some of these might be easier than others, but these are the ones I’d press through a grind, because the story competes well with stories in other mediums.

That seems to be the shift in the gaming experience between the 80s and now. There used to be a more pervasive “you must earn my endgame content through lots of effort”. Beating a game was an achievement. Now, that’s what “hard mode” is for, and “easy mode” should be just that.

  1. Bioshock Infinite
  2. Mass Effect trilogy
  3. Catherine (except I couldn’t finish it! Got to the last night of puzzles and just… stopped. Yeargh, so frustrating. Yet the story really did make the puzzling payoff worth it).
  4. Dragon Age 2 (Yes. The second one.)
  5. Dragon Age 1
  6. Fable 2
  7. Rock Band series
  8. Saints Row 4
  9. Mirror’s Edge
  10. I’m sure there are others.

Games that are really fun and worth playing, but if they were more difficult I’m not sure they’d be worth it:

  1. World of Warcraft
  2. Diablo 3
  3. Skyrim
  4. Borderlands 1 and 2
  5. Left for Dead 1 and 2
  6. Halo 2-4 (we beat all of them on the hardest mode, so I guess that meant the grind was fun enough that it never felt like “toiling”).
  7. Saints Row 4 (yeah… not sure if this one is on the above list, or should be down here)
  8. Kingdoms of Amalur: the Reckoning
  9. I’m sure there are others.

Games I really wanted to like, enjoyed the story, but just were too… ugh. Or I just couldn’t get captured enough to work through the repetitive actions.

  1. Red Dead Redemption
  2. Grand Theft Auto 4
  3. Assassins Creed 1, 2, 2.1, 2.2
  4. Starcraft 2 (I’m surprised as hell at this… this is the most likely candidate to go up to my first list: go back and work through it for the story, because Blizzard games usually have great stories).
  5. I’m sure there are others.

I realize I’m one person, and there are others out there that like the challenge. Great. More power to you.

I’ve just gotten to a point now where I want my game content to be more fun than work, and spend my grinding time on hobbies that don’t have a shelf life subject to next year’s new video game content.

Hopefully I’m now back on the weekly blogging train, now that the Tides of Artalon has been published. So, until next week!
~Kyle

We OWE You Good Art

I owe you.

I had a bit of a paradigm shift recently. Since I aspire to make a living doing what I enjoy—writing stories—then I must make good stories. Obvious, right? Well, I’m not talking about the practical aspects: if they’re not good, no one will give me money and I won’t be able to live off of my art. What I’m talking about is a moral aspect: I owe it to you.

This might seem a little backwards. You might say, “Wait, I haven’t even paid you yet. You don’t owe me anything.” And yes, I want your money for my time… if I’m to eventually live off of my art alone. But, there’s something else going on here, a moral dimension in parallel to the economic one.

I owe you. All of us who aspire to live on art alone owe it to you to make good art.

Why? Glad you asked.

I saw this magic water resistant spray called Neverwet, that blew my mind:

My first thought was, “Wow. Things get more awesome every day.” Then: “I have no practical value to add to the technological world of today and tomorrow.” And finally: “I’m glad that there are people who understand this stuff, and are excited about this stuff to become people who understand this stuff.”

At that point I felt gratitude and humility towards those people, from mechanics and electricians, to farmers and engineers. The people who make stuff work for all of us.

I’m reminded of the book Guns, Germs, and Steel. In the recent past (recent in the evolutionary sense), we were all hunter-gatherers.  All of us were fully employed in the business of survival. It wasn’t until the discovery/invention of agriculture, when one person could produce food for many, that some of us were freed up to do other things… such as priests, kings, soldiers, artisans, poets, carpenters, metalworkers, or anything else that’s not directly related to the production of food.

And that’s where it all started: any invention or idea that can produce value for many, whether it’s food, or something that makes life easier (the wheel, the sewing machine, the computer, food processor, etc.), buys us time… more time that doesn’t have to be spent on survival (food and shelter). In this context, time is virtually more life.

Our entire way of life, the world over (every country and every people that is even a smidgen above wandering hunter gatherers), is supported by scientists, engineers, and the people who produce: whether it’s food, or minerals and resources from the ground. Without these production chains, we wouldn’t have had enough time to develop and refine art, music, philosophy, law, etc.

To bring this idea forward today. In hobby arts and crafts, how much goes into putting something like Hobby Lobby within easy reach? Keeping the shelves stocked? Keeping the supplies available? For the professional artist, how much is done now on the computer, in digital art? All of that is owed to the pioneering computer scientists and computer engineers who make that capability possible.

To make it personal for me, consider the independent writer using things like the Kindle, Amazon.com, and print-on-demand to make books available directly to readers? Without these companies, and without the people who invented these items (and the entire manufacturing industry behind them that produces them), such a thing would be impossible.

Producers (agriculture and industry) make the rest of our lives possible, and the more efficient the producers, the less of them there has to be. They improve our quality of life by facilitating the time for education and other endeavors beyond survival. The existence of people such as artists and musicians, entertainers of all sorts, is one of the fruits of this production.

This is not to say that art has no intrinsic value. Production buys us time to enrich our lives, and art enriches us, providing joy in return for the investment of invention.

So, if some of us aspire to make a living by  art alone (musicians, writers, artists, etc.), and not produce anything that contributes to the survival of your fellow person (such as growing food, or inventing warp drive), then we owe it to everyone else to make *good* art. We owe society a return on investment for supporting a world in which we spend our time creating, rather than hunting for our meat and looking for nuts and berries.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t get paid or compensated for the value of your art (not necessarily the effort of your art). You should. Without compensation, this whole argument falls apart. Specifically, I’m grateful for living in a society where compensation for art is enough to survive, prosper, and enjoy wealth (however you define that). That such a playing field exists earns gratitude towards the people who make it possible.

The interesting effect of money and economics is that if your art doesn’t enrich enough people, then you probably won’t survive on that alone. From this point of view, the money received is society’s recognition of return on investment in supporting an environment that artists can “do art” full time.

(Oh.  And before anyone gets offended: No, I don’t believe that people with day jobs can’t or don’t make good art–I know there are other factors, like connections, marketing, access, just starting out and not yet known, etc. I’m speaking theoretically here. And, I also don’t believe that monetary compensation is the defining metric on what makes good art. It might better be a measure on what makes popular art. Whether those are the same or not is up for discussion.)

What I’m driving at is a bit of a mental shift. While I fully believe that people should be compensated (paid) for the fruits of their efforts—artists and creatives earn what their fans pay—when we aspire to live by art alone, instead of creating art for the sake of money, it’s an interesting change of perspective to create art as an act of gratitude. That its even possible to live through art alone is a privilege owed to so many others.

So, thank you founding fathers and the Enlightenment that birthed them: they set the stage. Thank you farmers and food producers in the agricultural industry. I don’t have to spend the majority of my day growing, gathering, or hunting food to survive.  Thank you textile and home industry. Otherwise I’d have to figure out that too. Thank you mathematicians and scientists who discover what’s possible, engineers who bring possibility to actuality, and industry that makes magic, from mining to transportation to production. Otherwise I’d be writing this blog in the sand with a stick. Thank you police, firefighters, emergency responders, and doctors who keep the home front safe. Thank you military men and women for preserving our way of life and freedoms to be who we are… and our freedom to create.

For you, I will always strive to make good art, because I should earn the privilege of being able to live on what I enjoy most: writing. Because I owe you.

Until next week,
Kyle