Enjoyable Difficulty: Challenge, Depth & Complexity

Wrapping up my playthrough of God Eater 2, as someone who greatly enjoyed some of the more challenging titles in videogames in recent years such as Dark Souls, Monster Hunter, DOTA and many others, I once again wondered what made me like these games as much as I did, but that's not quite the right question. The answer to that one was plain to see,  there is something deeply rewarding in how a good challenge forces one to truly understand the underlying, iterate on ones play, and gain greater mastery. Now, what I really wanted to know is what makes these otherwise difficult games so enjoyable to play through, as compared to punishing and extremely execution-heavy titles such as Ninja Gaiden.

I think when I and many others say we enjoy challenge and that alot of modern games are a little too easy, most of us aren't looking to return to the days of truly hard games that took hours of practice and memorization to get through like Megaman 2. What we're really looking for is challenge based on depth, not those based on high-levels of execution (I have rhythm games for that). Put simply, depth is the amount of room a game allows its player to solve problems, and the number of meaningful choices that can be made for any given situation. Challenge based on depth is based on the players’ understanding and mastery of the mechanics, finding new ways to approach increasingly difficult problems. Depth from mechanics may come from the variety of enemies, equipment, moveset, and abilities allowed to a player, but all of that is meaningless if a player can’t utilize it. If a player is not allowed the opportunity or time to think and make informed dicisions, if the a game is imbalanced such that certain moves or weapons are blatantly easier or better than others and doesn't have to think about it, the player simply cannot make meaningful choices and depth just woudn’t be there.

The other thing that is commonly comes with depth is the complexity of the game. Complexity is mental burden placed on the player at any given time, taxing the player's ability to memorize rules and make the neccessary calculations, tactics or strategic decisions to solve problems. Some degree of complexity is definitely needed into order to create deep gameplay, but too much complexity can also limit the game's depth, as players will be unable to process the sheer data to make meaningful choices. In an ideal world, the best games would have the maximum amount of depth with the minimum amount of complexity. A good tutorial, great learning curve and smart user interfaces can help reduce the mental burden on a player, allowing the game to be more complex without feeling difficult to pick up.

Unfortunately, it is often the most complex titles that have the worst tutorials and least intuitive controls, just see Monster Hunter, DOTA or any MOBA for the matter. Monster Hunter is a great game, but nowhere near as popular or enjoyable to the masses as it could have been if the real meat of the game wasn't hampered by its inaccesability. Monster Hunter games have always had a problem with its poor user interfaces, layers upon layers of menus, lack of a proper tutorial, and the inability to find detailed in-game info about skills, weapon properties, monster weaknesses, or even how much damage you’re even doing. Monster hunter is a game with unbelievable depth and complexity, but to many the unnecessary obscurity of information would make much of that depth meaningless, as the lay man would have much little to work with, let alone make deep meaningful decisions. Sure, you may a player could learn what and where every piece of information is, but having the option to immediately bring up a help menu to see exactly (give us meaningful numbers and percentages too) what each and every skill and stat does like in Dark Souls and God Eater is such a huge boon to the user experience that it irks me when titles don’t have the decency to include even basic information in-game. There is no excuse for a counter-intuitive user interface,  and players shouldn't have to rely on outside guides, wikis and videos to learn the game. 

When I play a hard game, what I am looking for something that has enjoyably difficulty, as the goal of good games is to make the player feel great for overcoming the challenge, not to punish the player. Similar to how complexity does not equal depth, greater complexity does not make better difficulty. Since what we really want from challenging games is greater depth, the more the player can readily understand the tools at his disposal, the greater the number of solutions that can be found, and hence the greater the number and variety of interesting challenges the game can afford to include without bogging down the pace of play. Dark Souls 3 is a glorious example of an enjoyably difficult game with pretty minimal complexity. There is much that the Souls games do that showcases excellent game design that makes them fun despite their high challenge, from the consistency of their rules, tight controls, and always fair difficulty. When you fail in that game, you always know there is something you could have done better, done differently that will help you overcome the situation. The pace of play in these games are fine-tuned to near perfection, giving you juuust enough time to properly observe and react appropraiately to traps and enemy attacks. Well-timed dodges, parries, or simple kiting from range might be all you need to solve a difficult encounter regardless of your stats and equipment. By sticking to its rules and giving you plenty of viable tools, the game allows players to always find new ways to approach different problems, giving it great depth regardless of its otherwise simple controls.

There is a fine line between difficult games that you want to master versus one that is simply punishing. The best of these games are easily accessible at the beginning but gradually unravel  to reveal its true depth to the player when they feel ready for it. There is of course always a place for more relaxing titles like Stardew Valley or Heartstone, but there is just something inherently engrossing and rewarding about a round of DOTA or Dark Souls that I enjoy getting better at, and look forward to playing more of such games in the future.


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