A Question of Difficulty

I have been watching the new HBO series, Westworld, with great interest. I am not a huge fan of the original book, but I like where the series seems to be headed so far. One of the ideas that they have flirted with in the show is the difficulty that people want with their gaming experiences. So far the show has not delved too deeply into it, but it is an interesting discussion, and worthy of our time.

How challenging should a piece of entertainment be?

This question applies to both gaming and writing. It is not a matter of quality in my mind; often a more accessible book or game is better polished and better made than one that is incredibly difficult or dense. Something too simple can lack any real depth.

The best answer that I can give is that it depends on the target audience of the work. An introductory or broad audience work is less difficult than one that is meant for experts.

What I see out there, however, especially in games and large publishing companies is very different from this view. The tendency not toward challenging the reader/player, but rather to create a work that appeals to as broad a base as possible. The idea behind this view is that a game or book that appeals to more people will sell more, just like any other product. This is largely born out over the short term, but questionable in building a long term audience for a property.

To illustrate my point I am going to talk about two games, Path of Exile and Diablo III. I have reviewed and discussed both at length on this blog, and I like using them because they both have similar pedigree in that they were made with the success of Diablo II in mind.

Diablo III is a commercial juggernaut. It might not be the top of Blizzard’s list, but it certainly rakes in a decent amount of money. It is far more accessible than Diablo II in many ways and is designed to appeal to newcomers and old players alike, but many veteran players found it too simplistic and repetitive and far, far too easy. Despite some glaring design flaws, I do like D3. It is not a difficult game at all, although Blizzard does offer some modes and endgame content that offer more challenge in an attempt to carve out as large a swath of players as possible.

Path of Exile is a more difficult game because it is aimed at a seasoned audience that is looking for a greater challenge. Death in POE is punishing at higher levels, even outside of hardcore modes. More interestingly, players are expected to make informed choices about how they advance their character: in POE it is possible to make characters that are sub-optimal and hard to fix them without substantial effort. The flip side to this is that a veteran can create very powerful characters and even search out unique/unusual builds.

In examining these two games it is obvious that Blizzard has come up with a winning sales strategy, but might have hurt the brand. I feel the same way about some elder scrolls games which lose nuance (I’m looking at you fallout 4 conversation system) as they are simplified for wider audiences. Path of Exile on the other hand has a smaller audience, but they are fanatically supportive of the game and the company that makes it.

Recently, difficulty has made something of a comeback, I think. As people have become more and more familiar with genre fiction and games their appetites have deepened. There will always be a need for introductory works with broad appeal, but those are likely to be dominated by companies with deep pockets. On the other hand a challenging work, if of sufficient quality, can help build loyal fans.

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