I thought that today I would give you, the fans, an insight into how I choose my video games and how I rated them. Hardcore readers of this site know of my many different ratings systems I’ve tried in the past, but what I consider important hasn’t changed. This will be a five part series, in reverse order of what is most important. I can play, enjoy, and heartily recommend a game with four out of the five, but without at least two, I’ll despise it.
Here are some criteria that didn’t make the cut.
Innovation: A really innovative game will make me pick it up. Black & White is probably the best example. But it won’t keep me playing without the other factors.
Publisher: Almost a non-factor, unless the studio is Blizzard. Every studio has flops and hits. I have brand loyalty, like the Civilization series, but that’s about it.
Graphics: I appreciate awesome graphics. Uncharted simply blows me away. But I’ll never buy a game solely on graphics, and pretty pictures won’t keep me there.
Technical stability: I hate bugs and glitches as much as the next guy, and I’ll always call a game on it. However, I rarely stop playing a game because of a bug or glitch unless it’s earth-shattering or has no workaround. I’m actually pretty forgiving. I know plenty of people who stopped playing Dragon Age because after 1.03 came out, it froze up every time you played it — I just rolled back to the older version, because I’d rather have long load times. It made me mad, but not enough to stop playing.
Loading times: I can always read a book or get a sandwich. Make them predictable and that’s all I ask.
Now, for our first entrant of those that did make the cut…
What exactly do I mean by difficulty? I don’t just mean if a game is easy or hard. Civilization IV still taxes me at any higher than the second difficulty level, and I can beat The Journeyman Project with my eyes closed, but I consider both favorites.
There are two components, for me, that must be addressed before I will rule positively or negatively on difficulty.
First, the learning curve. Even the most difficult game must start out easily enough, or I’ll get too frustrated and put it down. Now, a lot depends on genre, too. If it’s a first person shooter, it’ll only take me a few minutes to figure out what’s going on. An RTS should be two or three missions to get my feet wet before you throw the kitchen sink at me. That kind of thing.
If my character improves, learns new skills or gets better weapons, the difficulty should stagger a bit. I should be able to relish my new ability or weapon for at least a short period before you make things even harder.
The second part of difficulty is fairness. Some games are hard because they’re designed for better gamers. Mega Man games come to mind. When I pick up a Mega Man game, I expect things to be hard. If I weren’t slightly masochistic, I never would have chosen it.
Other games are hard because they’re complex and the AI is well designed. Strategy games and RPGs fall into this camp. Baldur’s Gate was really tough, but when I did win, it was an amazing feeling. I get better at Europa Universalis every time I play, but there’s always something new to learn.
Still other games are hard because they’re not well designed. These are the games I can’t stand. The price of death in any game should be severe enough that you try to avoid it, but not so severe that it drives you crazy. Save systems are the best possible solution to this problem. Dead Rising 2 takes a different approach, but it still works, because you keep your character improvements but lose your progress in the story. That’s another fair way to deal with the situation. A lot of early NES games take the unfair approach, where death forced you to restart from the beginning. I don’t like it, but then I know to avoid these games if I can’t pay the price. Most modern games don’t fall into this trap, and I’ve avoided the ones that do. (I’m looking at you, Dead Souls.)
However, the difficulty problem I’ve found in newer games, if it isn’t related to bad controls (another part of this series you’ll see), is bad AI. This doesn’t always make a game harder — Delta Force: Land Warrior featured amazingly stupid enemies that would never fire their guns. Ever. For any reason. If by some miracle they did fire, they would miss. At point blank range.
Pathfinding problems in RTS games (unit walks through the middle of the enemy base, despite clear instructions not to) or FPS games (computer controlled player steps in front of you when shooting) are frustrating. Equally frustrating are scripted events that don’t trigger when they should or, my biggest nightmare, items or skills that are critical to advancing in the game, only they’re really well hidden (the stupid skeleton key in King’s Quest 6) or nigh impossible to attain (pilot’s license in GTA: San Andreas). If something is critical and well-hidden, give me the option to go back and get it.
I’ve always believed the most difficult parts of a game, where designers can be as sadistic as they want, should be bonus or optional content. I don’t mind adding super hard levels, if you think life is too easy, but not if you can’t finish the game without them. Trophies are a great idea (achievements for X-Box fans) to add difficult features without detracting from the main experience. The hardest bosses in Final Fantasy VII are the optional bosses. That’s the way it should be. Dead Space is hard because it’s a hard game that makes you think about your choices. I’m okay with that (although I stopped playing it for other reasons). Beijing Olympics is hard because only actual Olympic athletes have the reflexes to win. That’s not okay. Sheep (an obscure Lemmings like PC game) is hard because the eponymous creatures are moronic, cute, and cuddly. They’re sheep after all. That’s fine. The original Rainbow Six is hard because the CPU teammates, allegedly elite counter-terrorist operatives, always stare straight ahead and always walk into the middle of a room and throw the grenade instead of just tossing it inside the door. That’s retarded.
In conclusion, games should be hard because they offer challenging situations for worthwhile rewards. They should be hard because you chose the wrong option of a number of viable alternatives. They should be hard, in other words, because the gamer screwed up, not because the designer did.