Category Archives: ease of play

Opinion – Super Mario Odyssey Does Difficulty Right

I remember playing the original Super Mario Bros. on the NES.  Six year old me was delighted by the bright colors, the neat challenges, and the whole newness of it all.  To the shock of no one, a young child playing his first video game wasn’t very good at it.  I’d constantly play, getting a little further each time until I ran into one level that I just couldn’t beat.

And that was it.

Game over.

SMB’s approach to difficulty was static and linear.  The game gave the player no options to modulate the challenge (static) and forced the player to face each challenge in a specific order (warp pipes excluded).  This mean that, when players faced a level they couldn’t surmount, it was game over.  The rest of the game’s content was locked behind a challenge the player would never beat.  SMB had nothing left for them.

Some games still operate to this way and to good effect.  Plenty of players love to test their mettle against a seemingly impossible challenge until they finally figure it out.  The challenge is the point rather than the obstacle to fun.  Other games use linear modeling to lay out sequential story beats or achieve a particular thematic progression.  It’s worth noting that these games generally have lower difficulty curves to ensure most players can get to the end.

Both styles have their virtues, but neither fits the Mario games particularly well.  Mario is historically family friendly making the hardcore approach contrary to the fun and accessible ethos of the series.  Alternatively, dumbing down the challenge would rob Mario of its entire reason for being.  More than any other series on the market, Mario sets its focus on pure fun through game mechanics.  The fun comes from figuring out a puzzle, executing a tough jump, or beating a boss. Making the puzzle easier, the jump shorter, or the boss slower reduces the feeling of accomplishment.  The challenge for Nintendo is always trying to include enough difficulty to make the player feel like they’ve overcome a real hurdle, but not to the point where it becomes frustrating or simplistic.  Given the wide variety of player skills, this seemed like an impossible task.

At least, until Super Mario Odyssey.

The genius of SMO’s difficulty is that it effectively allows the player to set the difficulty by choosing which challenges they want to face.  Players must collect a certain amount of “Power Moons” on each level, but which Power Moons are largely left up to them.  SMO’s level contain a plethora of levels to complete ranging from the dead simple (butt stomp this hill) to the fiendishly complex (jump from rotating platform to rotating platform while dodging enemies).  Low skill players can pick up the simple Power Moons while their more skilled counterparts can grab the more challenging ones.  Even better, the hard levels can get even harder by putting additional collectables in even harder to reach places giving the more committed players something to reach for.  One game can meet all needs without sacrificing any part of their audience.

And that is the true genius of SMO.  Nintendo has finally figured out how to appeal to a broader audience without alienating another chunk.  As an added bonus, SMO is now a game that can grow with its players giving new challenges that 9 year old me or his 12 year old successor would have loved.  Well done.

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Filed under ease of play, Opinion, Uncategorized, video games

Opinion – Ease of Play vs. Fun

Press lever, get pellet.

I recently completed a simple, little game called Game Corp DX. The basic idea is that the player controls a nascent video game development studio and must lead it to success and triple A gaming. I can’t say I had a lot of fun with this game, yet I invested a couple of otherwise productive hours into it. I did this because of the systems inherent in the game that make it easy to play, even if it’s not fun. Game Corp DX makes clear the distinction between a game that smoothly works the player through its systems (easy to play) and one that gives the player joy through its systems (fun).

The game begins by starting the player off with a small office and a few resources. By providing a helpful hints and obvious goals, Game Corp DX leads the player towards success in bit sized chunks. This prevents the player from being overwhelmed by the introduction of new mechanics and provides a clear metric by which the player can measure their progress. Game Corp DX doles out challenge in a way that clearly marks the path to success and so short circuits the frustration of not knowing what to do next. It also gives the player a non-stop succession of quickly achievable missions to always push them forward. In short, the game is designed to weed out all of the natural stopping points that cause most players to move on to something else. At no point has the player accomplished a major task or run up against an insurmountable wall that would encourage them to stop. There is always an easily achievable task waiting for the player joined with a tiny boost of success. Game Corp DX is easy to play because it is designed to be a smooth walk to inevitable victory.

Yet the game is totally unsatisfying. When the missions stopped, so did I. If something had caused me quit the game earlier, I doubt I would have picked it up again. The same traits that made the game so easy to play also undermined the joy that I might have derived from it.

Fun from a game often comes from the return on what the player invests into the game. The nature of the investment varies substantially. Sometimes it’s an emotional investment into the characters and their stories. Sometimes the player invests time and effort into improving their skills to overcome challenges and figure out puzzles. Investment may even come in the form of simply walking around and enjoying the sights. Regardless of what type of investment the player makes, the have to make one if the rewards created by the game are to have meaning. Game Corp DX never asks much from the player, including the all-important investment. There is no story to explore, no environment to discover, and little challenge to overcome. Every victory in the game is a tiny mote of success that is only slightly more than the small amount of effort invested in achieving it. Player investment is little more than the time it would take to go do something else. When the player overcomes that hump, they have no reason to return.

I beat Game Corp DX in a couple of hours while seeing all the game had to offer. I have few memories of the game and no desire to return to it. It was never fun for me because my investment never exceeded its convenience. That being said, it has much to teach about ease of play. Game Corp DX has a smooth difficulty curve and deftly teaches its mechanics. I just wish it had something more.

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Filed under ease of play, Fun, Game Corp DX, Opinion, reviewish, video games