Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Stairway

There's no such thing as too hard.

I'll say that again: there's no such thing as too hard.

It's perfectly acceptable for a game to require players to have savant-like intellects, superluminal thumbs, and a latent ability to predict the immediate future.

That's the beauty of games. Doing what we never thought was possible. Threading the eye of the storm with perfect lucidity. That's the gaming high, and it's the reason we keep coming back for more.

The catch is this: difficulty must be a stairway. Games must start at the bottom and they must introduce each new concept incrementally. Every escalation in complexity and difficulty must be discrete, and each plateau of challenge must be eminently reachable from the one below it.

If you set the bar low and raise it by slow and unflinching degrees, you'll soon have players vaulting higher than they could ever have imagined.

This is part of the unheralded genius of Guitar Hero. From a beginner's standpoint the songs on Expert difficulty look impossible, but as you play through the game skill sneaks up on you and soon you're ready to go toe to toe with sequences that previously moved too fast for your brain to process. The songs themselves teach you the skills you need; if you haven't learned how to do hammer-ons by the time you hit "Jessica" on Hard, you'll discover an unthreatening environment that trains you in them just in time to put them to use in "Freebird" a couple of sets later. Similarly, your fingers learn simple note progressions in early songs that are repeated faster and longer as you enter the higher tiers.

It's also what made Guitar Hero 3 not quite as good as its predecessors. Note maps are apparently set out with the intention of thwarting players rather than challenging them, and ridiculously hard chokepoints are inserted amongst comparatively forgiving peers. I speak from personal experience when I say it's possible to complete every normal song on the Expert difficulty and still be blocked by the end boss of Hard.

There is no limit to what you can train players to do. Aiming high is the mark of a memorable game. But once you've set those goals, you then have to bring your players to them, and suceeding at that is the hard part.

The ambitious game builds a long and epic stairway. But in the end the good game - and I mean the really good game - walks beside you while you climb it.

Please visit the Round Table's Main Hall for links to all entries.


Anonymous said...

wow... not the same experience that I had!
I'm stuck on Phychobilly on Expert in GH2, but have been trying and trying and trying to get past the last set on Hard in GH3 for MONTHS now. I just can't get through One.
And yeh, the forced hammerons are annoying, no one likes to be told what to do, but iut sure beats the wondering if a hammeron is a hammeron only to find that your 5 star performance is ripped from your grasp becuase of the three notes that weren't.
I really like the shill-building aspect of this game. You were there when I started.. watched me whinge that Medium expected too much from me. That I hated the waily bits. Over the last 2 years, not only has my playing skill speed and perferences changed, but this game has changed the way I listen to music. I'm now enjoying listening to guitar-heavy tracks and appreciating the fun in them a whole lot more.

Greg Tannahill said...

I'm on Beast and the Harlot in GH2 Expert, and Holiday in Cambodia in GH3 Expert (I think).

But if you get past One on Hard in GH3, you'll be feeling like you deserve some sort of Nobel Guitar Prize or somesuch, and instead of breaking out the champagne the game will just sit you down with the Boss Battle instead, to remind you that Neversoft hates you and wants you to stop dirtying their game with your useless, stumpy fingers.

I've 5-starred One on Hard; I can't even get NEAR to beating that boss.

Chris said...

You represent the view of the fiero-seeking (challenge-oreiented) player quite nicely here when you say:

"That's the beauty of games. Doing what we never thought was possible. Threading the eye of the storm with perfect lucidity. That's the gaming high, and it's the reason we keep coming back for more."

And it's true, if you are a fiero-seeking player that is why you come back from more.

Turns, out, though, that this isn't why most people play games.

The player of The Sims or Animal Crossing does not match your description of play here at all. Animal Crossing in particular is light years away from an expression of the joy of challenge - it is precisely in the other direction, the joy of mimicry anchored in the habits of logistical accumulation.

If you make the mistake of assuming all players are seeking fiero, you will savagely misjudge the bulk of the new market.

It *is* the case that all players enjoy fiero - triumph over adversity. However, having investigated the psychology of play for many years now, I can confidently report that most players are not looking for this as their primary motivator for play.

Best wishes!

Anonymous said...

I don't like twitch based games, but GH3 is fun. I think I agree with the idea that the game should become just a bit more difficult each step.

But then... who put Raining Blood by Slayer in? I can get through every song on Easy with four or five stars, 3 or four on Medium. Except Raining Blood. Which I fail at 38% on Easy.

And watching videos of people making it on Expert makes me want to quit the game for ever.

And I agree on the bosses. The addition is thematically nice, but they are killing the fun for us (few?) who seek the fun in the songs and their mastery.

Nismo said...

Guitar Hero is perhaps the best definition of difficulty done right. Maybe not when you focus on just the one game (GHIII) but as a whole, the idea of the game being simple and accessible to pretty much anyone (easy) while also being one of the most challenging games around (Hard/Expert) is brilliant. Combine that with the idea of improving one's score, something longtime gamers have been doing in various games for ages, and it is almost the ideal formula. In fact the only other game I can think of right now as an example of difficulty done right is Tetris, but anyway.

I have only been playing the games this year so I guess I am still inexperienced, but my Guitar Hero progress is this: Guitar Hero 2 I can now play on Hard using the guitar although I am still yet to finish the last set. I'm not as consistent as I was on Medium so it will still be a little while before I can 5-star every song on Hard but I'm sure I will get there eventually. Guitar Hero 3, well honestly I haven't tried it on Hard using the guitar so I don't know how I would fare yet.

What I do know though is that GH3 is much harder than 2 on Hard and the way I know that is because for a few months, I was playing the game using the 360 controller. Now I'm pretty good with said controller (can play most of Expert on GH2 using it) but I am still yet to finish GH3's Hard career. Reason being? One. I can play the song absolutely perfectly right up until the end parts of the song. The Darkness Riff I think it is called; playing the green note THAT fast and then adding the odd chord here and there as well is nigh on impossible to hit using the controller. By the time the solo comes around, I'm in the red ready to fail within seconds. I cannot for the life of me get past it. It'll be interesting to see what the story is with guitar though.

Anyway, nice post as per usual. It reminds me that I still haven't given this Roundtable thing a go and really, you couldn't have chosen a better game as your basis for this month's post.

Greg Tannahill said...

Chris - I'm of course presenting one side of the gaming spectrum here. I'm sure you've seen other posts I've done suggesting that challenge is completely unnecessary to the experience of gaming. But the point here is that challenge and casual players don't have to be mutually exclusive; a casual player can be trained to some quite extraordinary heights without them even realising it; check out the collected works of Popcap for examples.

Tormodh - GH3 is indeed a lot of fun. I'm not clear from your comment whether you've played GH2 but when you hit the inevitable brick wall of difficulty in GH3 you might be well served by going back to the marginally more forgiving second game.

Nismo - The real jump in GH3 is between Medium and Hard. Medium difficulty in 3 strays into territory that GH2 reserved for Hard, but Hard in 3 contains moments as hard as the last set in Expert in 2. The difficulty rise is just a sheer cliff face with no handholds; if you're not able to take a sufficiently big running jump at it you're just locked out of Hard completely.

But why on Earth would you play Guitar Hero without the guitar? Are you on a pirated copy?

Nismo said...

No no, I just got used to playing the game with controller because I had the GH3 demo for ages and used the controller for that.

So when I got the games, I of course used the guitar but because it was a lot easier for me to use the controller I did so to experience the higher difficulties and stuff. Then because of GH3's controller based achievements, I continued using it for a while up until I couldn't beat One on Hard. Now I'm back into pretty much 90% guitar use.

And yeah, I can see exactly what you mean about what you said with the two games' difficulties. 2 has certainly been easier for me to play and progress so far. I would even take a guess and say I could play a fair bit of Expert on 2 now, but I haven't tried yet (using guitar).

Anonymous said...

Well spoken - the absolute level of difficulty doesn't matter so much as the difficulty curve. Rhythm games make this obvious, but a smooth curve is also the driving force behind third-person games from Mario 64 to God of War. (I went from zero to Expert in GH3 without playing it any, because Rock Band has a WAY better difficulty curve.)

Also check out Dave Sirlin's article on Difficulty Tuning at - and coming from a fighting game player, he knows what "hard" really means.