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Challenging Vs Punishing - The Difference Between Good and Bad Difficulty

On 04/07/2016 at 03:46 PM by Blake Turner

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 Firstly, I wrote this as an article about a year or two ago, however reading back over it, I wasn't overly happy. So I rewrote it. It's also really fucking long. Sorry about that. Enjoy!

Recently, I made a blog about Dark Souls' difficulty. It was an empty rant, aimed specifically at outlets like Gamespot who seem to think difficulty is the only thing Dark Souls is about. So let's get one thing straight: Dark Souls is difficult. You will die a lot. However, unlike a lot of “hard games,” it is not punishing. It is merely challenging. Through this blog, I wish to convey the difference between a game being challenging and one being punishing, and I will be using Dark Souls – as well as other games – as an example.

So what is the difference? In my mind a challenging game is a game that engages you through its difficulty. You may fail at the trials it puts in your way, but you never want to give up. Instead, you want to keep honing your skills and evolving, ever adapting and gaining an elevated sense of satisfaction from it.

A punishing game, however, is one that makes you feel cheated. It can feel unfair, or monotonous. It will feel like it's not worth it to continue, and honing your skills to evolve with the challenge will feel like a waste of time rather than an engaging experience. These are the games I generally want to throw my controller through my tv and my console into a volcano. That has dragon yetis it.

So what separates these games? What makes one category of games so engaging, while the other simply becomes offputting? Well in my mind there are six vital things that make a game challenging rather than punishing: Consistency of Rules, Depth vs Complexity, Signposting, immediacy of play, and pacing.

Let's unpack these ideas.




Super Mario Brothers is poorly designed.

Wait! Put down your pitchforks. Let me rephrase that. Super Mario Brothers is a wondrous example of how mechanically focused games should work. It has tight mechanics and a well thought out difficulty curve. However, the rules within its world aren't 100% consistent.

If you are familiar with the brilliant web-series Extra Credits, you more than likely know the point I'm about to make. The pits that you spend most of your play time avoiding sometimes hide hidden rooms that yield rewards that can really help the player out.

This is a bit weird, as it either rewards failing at the game or forces good players to jump down every single pit. Now, this system would be okay, if there was some way to identify these holes. That would add another layer of depth, and allow skilled players to know when a pit is worth jumping down, and less experienced would be surprised and learn something about how the game works. As it stands right now, it's a bad system.

This goes for enemy encounters, too. Ever been fighting an enemy and then, all of a sudden, without any warning, he gets all of his health back, or changes form? This is far from ideal, as it means the player could have made some risky moves to get the last hit in, only to be left extremely vulnerable when the boss gets it's second wind. There are many other examples of this, and it can leave the user feel like they were cheated.

Dark Souls, for the most part, is an extremely consistent game. If an enemy wants to refill it's health, it has to use an Estus Flask, similar to you. Just like when you use an Estus Flask, it takes time and leaves them open to an attack. Also, just like you, enemies have an invisible stamina bar. They can't just wail away at you forever. Eventually, like you, they deplete their stamina bar and have to allow it to regenerate.

The game mostly keeps to this consistency throughout. Some enemies have different rules to you – for example, some can fly, some are immune to poison, etc. - but their rules are consistent, and if they have different rules to you, it is generally heavily signposted (i.e. enemies that can fly have wings), even then, most of the time if an enemy does something outside of what you can do, you can find a ring or set of armour that will allow you to do it.

This consistency is the reason Dark Souls often gets the label “hard but fair.” It is certainly challenging, but but that consistency is a key reason why it never quite feels frustrating or overly punishing.

However, a game breaking its own rules can be extremely effective – i.e. invincible enemies in Dead Space, or being kidnapped in Bloodborne. However, these rule breaks need to either be telegraphed in some way, or not be detrimental to the player.

Which brings us on to the next point: 


This is a biggie. If you plan on making a difficult game, you need to give your players visual cues. If a boss is going to do some impossibly powerful move, telegraph it. Give the player a chance to react. Give it a longer wind-up time than other moves. Give it something distinctly noticeable, like make their eyes glow, or even give a sound effect that signals that the player needs to do something to avoid it. And don't make that thing new to this boss fight. Make it something the player has been doing throughout the game, so they instinctually know what to do — or can figure it out without heading over to the wiki.

This doesn't just apply to enemies. If you have a trap on the floor, make sure the player can see it. Make it so there's a noticable tripwire. If you want to obfuscate that, fine, but give the player tools that allow them to discover said trap. Do the Metal Gear Solid thing and have your protagonist smoke a cigarette to see the lazer traps. Do the Dark Souls thing and allow them to drop a prism stone down a pit to see if the drop is survivable.

Don't ever kill the player without giving them a chance to avoid it.

If you need an example of a game that looks that advice in the face and says, "welp, screw you Blake, not doing that," look no further than Fire Emblem: Awakening. You're in a battle that has been going on for 20 minutes, and you're winning. All of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, enemies appear. More than that, they get a free turn, killing some of your squad forever. This, quite franky, is unacceptable. It means one of two things: either you're going to be punished for something that was seriously not your fault – and punished forever, because those characters aren't coming back — or you're going to 

play those 20 minutes again. And losing that much progress is never fun, as you'll see in the next point. 



Now, when I say depth, I do not mean complexity. The two don't always go hand in hand. In fact, they're markedly different. Depth signifies how many options you have to tackle a situation at any given time. Complexity is how difficult it is to access and understand said options.

For an example of Depth without complexity, look at Halo. Every weapon is useful in some capacity, so if you're failing, just trying a different weapon is a viable strategy. Maybe you could snipe all of the enemies, instead of charging in with a sword or shotgun. Maybe you could throw a well-placed plasma grenade at that Elite. Maybe you could sneak up behind your opposition and give them a good old-fashioned whack. Or maybe you could jump in your Warthog and run those mothers down. All of those options are viable, which is a perfect example of Halo's depth.

Yet the depth isn't hidden by complexity. You don't have to reach level 93 in vehicles before you can build the Warthog Wheel of Justice. You don't have to wade through seventy menus and read their descriptions just to know how to put the right kind of bullets in a sniper rifle. All of your choices are immediately apparent to the player, and all of them can be useful.

That is depth without the clutter of complexity. This kind of depth means that death isn't frustrating. It gives you a chance to experiment. It gives you a chance to discover entirely new ways of playing. It makes each encounter a solvable conundrum, as opposed to a brick wall you bang your head against over and over.

In a difficult game, this is vital, as giving the player choices makes their success feel personal, as opposed to them simply guessing at the designers intentions.

Now, complexity isn't necessarily a bad thing. It can aid in the feeling of fulfilment when the player solves the puzzle, so to speak. However, if you are going to do complexity, you need to have a damn good tutorial system. One that teaches through play. I swear on Hitler's sweaty armpits if I see another insanely complex grand strategy with a text-based tutorial I will find the developers and show them the Australian definition of pain.

Text tutorials are awful. Don't do them. Ever.


Have you ever died in a game, and then had to wait for what seems like 10 minutes for the game to finish loading? This is a problem. You see, the longer it takes for the player to get back into the game, the more chance there is of them giving up entirely. There's more of a chance of saying "You know what, this isn't worth it." Or, "This is impossible, I give up." If you get them straight back into the game, they're more likely to give it another chance.

Look at Super Meat Boy. That game is bastard hard, but rarely frustrating. Why? Because you're back into the game the very instant you are killed. Even more than that, the levels are short enough that you rarely feel like you're losing progress. And you never, ever want the player to lose large amounts of progress. That basically dares them to take your game back to the store and boycott your products for the rest of their natural life.

If you're going to use checkpoints, place them regularly. Every five minutes is probably a solid length for an action game, although other genres may need longer intervals. If you can't do that, give the player the ability to quicksave, or save at a fixed point. Then, if they lose progress, it's not your fault. They'll feel extremely dumb, but they generally won't blame you – and if they do, they're big dummies and you can live without them. They are less likely to stop playing if it was their own incompetence that screwed them over, as that's something they can control.


Lastly, but perhaps most importantly of all: pacing. How many times have you given up on a game due to some insane difficulty spike? How many times have you tried to jump into a game, but felt like banging your head on a brick wall would yield the same results?

This is the result of a poor difficulty curve.

A poor example of this would be Bloodborne. I know, I know. I love these games to death, but Bloodborne is quite a bad example of this. It really frontloads it's difficulty, with the opening town being insanely offputting to new players. Not to mention, the second boss is one of the hardest bosses in the game. For where the player is at, he's a bit too much, as he all but demands you've mastered parrying.

After you defeat Vicar Amelia and the Bloodstarved Beast, however, the game becomes significantly easier, with most bosses succumbing to my mighty displays of manliness on my first attempt. Then after a while the game switches gears back up to mind numbing difficulty almost without warning. I love this game, but this difficulty curve has quite a few problems.

A beginning that rough is bound to scare away new players, and a middle section that easy is going to bore your more hardcore fans. The difficulty curve needs to be much smoother so it teaches the player gradually, and challenge them according to their skills.

Compare this to another recent example: Super Meat Boy. Super Meat Boy is extremely simple to get into. The first level teaches you how to jump. It has no means of death – just you, a ledge, and the exit. The next level teaches you to wall jump. There are still no ways to die in the level. The third level finally features a pit that the player has to run and jump over. It's their first hazard, and it's easy to avoid. From there, the levels keeps ratcheting up the difficulty slowly enough that while levels feels challenging, it never feels unbeatable. You're always learning. You're skills are always increasing. Thus, the tests of your skills are always evolving and adapting to your skill level.

That is what a difficulty curve is supposed to do. It is supposed to adapt to the player, not force the player to adapt to it.


These are what I think differentiates a challenging game and a punishing game. There are other aspects, certainly, but I feel like those are the main ones. If you have any more though, let me know in the comments.

One last basic thing before I go though: when designing difficulty levels, don't ever just increase the health and damage of your enemies. This is cheap. No one wants that kind of difficulty. Be creative. Be like Halo and change the enemy A.I. For higher difficulties. Or be like Doom and mess with the enemy placements. Or be like Goldeneye and add entirely new objectives and areas. Just don't be lazy. Nobody likes lazy game design.





04/07/2016 at 04:15 PM

Losing progress is the big one for me quitting a game. In Demon's Souls, I'd get as far as I could get before a mistake would get me killed and i'd be sent all the way back to the start. Now, maybe there was a save spot somewhere just beyond where I got, but I did a lot of battling and level progression before being ignominiously returned to the beginning to do it all again with enemies in exactly the same place as before. Repetition and threat of losing all progress gets me physically depressed after a while. And I love that game so much for its atmosphere and enemy designs. Grrr!

Blake Turner Staff Writer

04/07/2016 at 04:42 PM

In Demon's Souls, there aren't any more checkpoints. You open shortcuts and different routes to make it quicker to get to where you were up to. Dark Souls might be a bit more forgiving, as it actually has proper checkpoints in the form of bonfires.


04/07/2016 at 04:45 PM

Yea, the bonfires. I forgot if they were in Demon's Souls or not. That makes Demon's Souls even more frustrating for me. But, at the same time, I want to go back and play it again. I heard you can just run around enemies in a lot of areas. I never tried that. Maybe I'll get farther next time.

Blake Turner Staff Writer

04/07/2016 at 04:54 PM

The biggest tips I can give is always be on the look out for shortcuts, keep your shield up, and make sure you don't run out of stamina. Keeping your shield up makes stamina regen slower, so your best bet is to move away from the enemy and let it regenerate before you swing.


04/08/2016 at 02:25 AM

Right on. Thanks for the tips. 


04/07/2016 at 09:33 PM

The game devs designed the game to be played this way, like a hard old school 2d platformer. They want you to fight every enemy you encounter and still make it to the boss, and then kill the boss, but as @whatsacows previous blog about exagerated difficulty of the souls game, they are exploitable. In Demon's, you can find shortcuts, and also speed run to the boss avoiding all the enemies. Defeating the boss will give you enough souls to level up without the need to level grind, at the beginning anyway. There are also items in Demons that make the game easier like raising HP and Stamina for example. The worlds are terrificallly dark and worth experiencing. Exploit. Exploit. Exploit.Cool


04/08/2016 at 02:10 AM

Yea, just like a hard old school platformer. I felt that for sure. I'll try and exploit it next time. 

Super Step Contributing Writer

04/07/2016 at 06:25 PM

Honestly, it's the scope of some of these games more than the difficulty that puts me off. I like to have very tight designs in my games so the action comes at a rapid pace. Not a fan of travel ...

Blake Turner Staff Writer

04/08/2016 at 07:38 AM

Fair enough. Try Demon's Souls then if you ever can. I hear they're releasing a HD rerelease in the not too distant future, and that one is broken up into stages rather than being a consistently interlocking world.


04/07/2016 at 06:50 PM

I've been thinking a lot lately about my willingness to jump at a "hard" game like Bloodborne or even take a stab at Dark Souls 3 when it releases. It feels like I'm missing out by not taking a chance but as you mention above, I'm a prime example of someone who lets frustration turn me away forever (& hence basically just throw my money away...). I was actually close to giving up on possibly my favourite game of last year The Witcher 3 due to it's initial combat learning curve which felt unfair and overly harsh. The way you still admire Bloodborne while being very much aware of it's flaws gets me interested though in taking the plunge. Plus the fact that it's now around $30 helps... Really nice write up Blake. 

Blake Turner Staff Writer

04/08/2016 at 07:37 AM

Thanks for the comment! If you can, I'd maybe avoid Bloodborne as your first entry into the series, as I feel it is the hardest. It may be the simplest to get into, but that first town is rather overwhelming to new players. If you have a decent familiarity with the original DmC games you might be okay, but it can be frustrating, especially as the load times aren't fully resolved.

 I've heard Dark Souls 3 is supposed to ease players in more successfully than other games, and has a significantly lower barrier to entry in the first few levels. It is supposed to get much harder later, but if it eases you in well enough you should be ready for it. 

 If you can get it, I'd suggest Dark Souls 1 one anything but PC (port still sucks, even with mods). Look up a begginers guide to get you started, and then enjoy.

 The Witcher 3 is annoying. The start is bastard hard, but just when I was getting used to the difficulty and starting to REALLY enjoy it, I felt really over levelled and didn't have to really dive into the depth of the combat to win. I wish it layered it's tutorial out more and made you start with swords, before learning magic, and then finally learning how potions worked. That would really elevate the game in my opinion.

Matt Snee Staff Writer

04/08/2016 at 08:01 PM

I had no idea u had written a novel.  

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