Video Games: Challange vs Frustration

I’m not sure if you know this about me, but I have quit the GTA series forever around the time of San Andreas. Not that Sand Andreas was particularly different from all the other games in the series – it just made me realize that there is just no joy in playing these games for me. While the free roaming sandbox environments are neat, they get boring without some structure and some goals to keep you focused. That’s why the missions are there but, alas they are endlessly frustrating and unforgiving.

You see, I love video games but my eye hand coordination was never that great. What is worse, it is probably not going to get a hell of a lot better now that I reached that stage in my life when I am no longer allowed to say I’m “growing up” but must instead use the phrase “growing old”. I’m just not very good at reflex based timing puzzles, and jump sequences. But I can usually deal with them using the magic of the quick save button. Yes, I save creep through games. I’m a save creeper. And there is nothing shameful about it.

It is all about minimizing the amount of pain and frustration I’m experiencing while playing the game. People play video games for different reasons, but to me it is all about fun. I don’t play to be challenged, I don’t really care about achievements, awesome raid gear or bragging rights. I play because I want to unwind, and enjoy the fantasy of being say Batman, the Gray Warden, a Wasteland Wanderer or former specter agent Poopface Sheppard (what, if they didn’t want us renaming him, they wouldn’t give us that option). When I die a lot, and lose progress I get frustrated. When I get frustrated I usually stop having fun. And when I stop having fun, I stop playing the game. Of course making the game easier does not automatically make if tun. If it is too easy I just get bored and quit.

This is kinda how I ruined the first FarCry for myself. I was getting frustrated with the difficulty, so I switched on god-mode and started speed running through all the levels just to see how the damn thing ends. But I never finished, because after about an hour of this I was just sick of it.

So fun exists in this narrow Goldilocks zone between challenge and boredom (not to warm, not to cold, etc…):

Video Game Difficulty and Fun

The problem is that this fun zone has different boundaries for just about everyone. Some people can tolerate higher levels of challenge, while others are better at coping with the lack of it. It is all subjective. It is easy to see why game designers often choose to err on the side of difficulty. It is better to have your game known for being very challenging rather than boring. But when you ramp up the challenge, some folks like me will be left out. For us, your game will be just outside our comfort zone. But sometimes we will still be able to enjoy it if we are given tools to cope with the raw difficulty. One of such tools is the quick save button.

To me, including a quick save / save anywhere feature in your came is just a basic courtesy. It is a nod towards the players who perhaps are not motivated by raw, unmitigated challenge. After all, no one is forcing the hard-core, competitive players to use that feature. I on the other hand can mash it every 5 seconds in order to minimize the amount of progress I lose whenever I make mistake. I’m fine with re-playing last 2-3 minutes, but starting a 15-20 minute long mission from the very beginning seems excessive.

Let me give you an example using GTA San Andreas. The particular mission that frustrated me enough to quit the game was the National Guard Base raid. It involved driving across the city to pick up your friend, watching a cut scene, driving to the army base, breaking in, then using a forklift to load crates onto your truck, while your buddy “covered your back”. And by “covering your back” he of course meant standing in the open and getting shot – you know, standard escort NPC behavior. Then once you loaded the crates you had to escape the base with army in hot pursuit.

Now this mission wasn’t particularly difficult – at least not for the GTA series. But nevertheless I kept failing it. Most of the time, the buddy-npc would die on me because I was too busy struggling with the forklift to rescue him in time. The few times I did manage to keep him alive, I would flip and destroy the car during the escape sequence. But the worst part was that each time I failed I had to start the entire process from the very beginning. If I had been able to save, for example after loading the truck, and then just deal with the chase sequence on it’s own, I would probably stick around and continue playing. That would keep me interested and keep me focused, allowing me to learn how to beat each part of the sequence on it’s own. The first time I successfully loaded the crates without having my NPC escort killed should have been the last time I had to do it. I understand why they did not want to put a checkpoint there, but that’s why a lot of games have a quick-save button. To let us make our own checkpoints when we need them. It helps to break down the game into smaller, more manageable tasks. Making me repeat one challenge because I failed an entirely different one is just needless punishment.

Having realized that from that point on, the game would only get more difficult, I gave up. There was just no point in playing it or it’s sequels anymore. The sparse checkpoints, lack of save-anywhere feature, inflexible difficulty settings, and the sheer amount of twitch based challenges simply makes this game, and games similar to it, virtually inaccessible to me. In fact, it shows that the developers not only do not understand players like me, but have a clear disdain for us. They won’t put in quick-save feature because then people like me could save creep through the difficult parts, and this would be somehow horrible. I don’t get that.

I know that it is very difficult to make a game that has just the right amount of challenge for everyone. I know that it usually looks better to release a game that is too hard rather than too easy. But, can’t you just throw us, uncoordinated, twitch gameplay challanged players a bone sometimes? All you need to do is give us the ability to save anywhere, or maybe to lower the difficulty or to increase the frequency of checkpoints. That is usually enough to keep us playing. If you ruthlessly punish us for even the smallest mistakes, by making us repeat entire levels we will eventually get frustrated and quit. If you give us a crutch though, we likely will limp with it all the way to the finish line, and then come back for more next time you release a new game.

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10 Responses to Video Games: Challange vs Frustration

  1. icebrain PORTUGAL Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    I’m the complete opposite. For example, when I played Metal Slug 2 in an emulator – where I could save anywhere – I still purposely set myself a 3 lives limit (1 coin) and restarted the whole game when they ran out.

    But I agree they should add a quick save anywhere function. It’s not like it forces people like me to use it.

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  2. Alex UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    Let me say that I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’m ancient by gaming standards and I just don’t care enough to ‘master’ some game on expert and for what? At my age that kind of time expenditure on a video game would be kind of embarrassing. I buy games for one reason, well, two, to blow shit up or drive fast. In other words, things I can’t do in the real world w/o risking incarceration. I put it on ‘easy’ or ‘rookie’ and just enjoy myself. I have a stack of games that I have played half way or up to the final boss fight where I lost interest.
    On a related note, I worry about how many console games are emphasizing the online portion of the game and perhaps not paying enough attention to the single-player offline game. I’m not going online, I get my ass handed to me on the end of a spear immediately, I do only the offline portion or maybe some online if I can arrange it with fellow amateurs. If games are going in this direction, all online and mixing levels of expertise completely, it might be a deal breaker for me.

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  3. Steve Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    For me the killer was a Wii game – yup…seriously. Silent Hill:Shattered Memories. Brilliant, spooky, a lot of neat places to explore….and then, inexplicably, you have to run from these pale white ghouls or ghosts or something. So, with the Wii, I have to run, steer, and, when the ghouls grab me, I have to move my Wii (or the nunchuck) in a particular motion as indicated on the screen. I have about 1 nanosecond to get the correct motion. If not, they begin to pile on and I have to start the chase over. I got to the first chase sequence in the game, failed several times, chucked the remote, and promptly loaned the game to a friend who wanted to give it a try – and who also said “Fuck this”. Seriously – I just want to play a game, not become a hyperintensive game freak.

    And for sheer frustration, play any FPS (like Halo, Call of Duty, whatever) on a console. Seriously – people have fun using the wrong controls to play a game? You could be the uber-est gamer out there and I, incompetent as I am, would smoke your ass if you played the console version and I was on the PC with a mouse and keyboard. You would never even get a kill unless you got lucky – and before you ask how I know that, I did it. Halo – one xBox with controllers, one with mouse and keyboard. Too easy.

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  4. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    The part of San Andreas that killed it for me is the start of the flying missions. I truly hate that!

    But any GTA game is great to unwind too. Don’t do the missions. Start randomly killing people, pile on your stars and see how far you could take it without dying or getting captured. I find it’s a great way to de-stress, especially when the “FBI” and tanks start rolling out.

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  5. Jed AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    I’m the same, the main reason I play games is for the storyline, and interesting gameplay, almost as though its an interactive movie to be honest. So if I can’t pass an area, it’s as though someone is sitting next to me hitting rewind over and over, and I end up losing interest.

    Also, here’s another good reason to put save state into games:

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  6. MrPete GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Oh yeah, GTA…
    I had my time with that and in the end I mastered the story. Why? I got rather good at finding snipe points to fend off the opposition while exposing myself as little as possible.
    It was no way as funny as starting a gang war and then rushing head long into it, gun blazing out the side window…

    I’m a … well, hardcore casual gamer? I play games to get my mind of the daily routine but when the game gets to hard I usually quit and look for another one.
    Homeworld was great. It had an amazing story and a challenging difficulty without being way over the edge (for me, that is).

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  7. Adrian BELGIUM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Bethesda has a good mechanic for this.
    The difficulty can be adapted on the fly.

    Sometimes, I like to play a challenging game, so then I move the difficulty slider all the way to the right. But sometimes, I just like to roleplay a character that would never be able to make it on its own normally (hand-to-hand argonian monk for example).

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  8. Alex UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    @ Mart: Yes!! Red Faction: Guerrilla is also great for free-form mayhem. Just park somewhere, pick fights with passing soldiers, lead them on chases, sometimes I just collect their APCs as they come along until I have a parking lot full of them. Oddly relaxing to gun down those rude soldiers. Not sure what it says about me…

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  9. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    I had problem just like that recently. Mass Effect 2 hammerhead DLC doesn’t let to save during one of the missions and the vehicle is so fragile that it blows up if geth even look funny at it. I tried a few times, but then I thought, screw this I will search for fun elsewhere.

    Personally I liked how Hitman games solved this problem. Depending on the difficulty level you get fixed amount of saves. So you can choose how much saving you need.

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  10. CK INDIA Google Chrome Windows says:

    @ DICE 2012, Todd Howard spoke about this very thing. You should check that out because you know, me made Skyrim around this principle.

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