Your butt clenches up hard enough to destroy the groove pressed into your gaming chair. Your eyes bulge, your heart races, and your teeth clench. Your controller emits a variety of pops and creaks as you twist it as hard as you can. Alas, playing video games for hours on end has not granted you the herculean strength it should have, and the controller remains whole in your hands. You seek to destroy something. Anything. You want to pull the disk out of the system and snap it in half, thinking that somehow this will visit upon the developers some small measure of the pain they have inflicted on you.
You spiral the controller into the ground and stand up, shouting “BLARRARRHGGARRBABLE,” which, translated, of course means “I have no idea what this game wants from me!”
God… effing… DAMNIT.
Everyone’s been there at some point, especially those of us old enough to have experienced (suffered?) the early days of gaming. Some hard games are just frustrating, or “bullshit retarded” as they are more often labeled. However, some games that exist for the sake of extreme difficulty, like Devil May Cry 3 or Ninja Gaiden, can be entirely entertaining experiences. Why is it that one game can present a challenge that is just as formidable, if not more so, as another game, but manage to be fun when the other is not? The key here is feedback, both positive and negative.
Every video game has a goal. Traditionally, the game gives the player a goal: “Save the princess,” “Find the twelve magical gems,” “Finish Him!” etc. Sandbox games allow a player to choose their own goals, which invariably leads to them curb stomping an elderly lady trying to cross the road to get to a bingo parlor. Regardless, once given a goal, the player will naturally try to achieve it.
What the hell did you just say to me, granny?!
Most gamers won’t know exactly how to achieve a goal from the get-go. They must rely on any hints given from the game, and failing that, raw experimentation. So far everything is fine; the player feels empowered and has a clear purpose. However, what happens when the player receives no initial help from the game, and no response from the game when they try to do anything? The player becomes confused, directionless, and eventually frustrated.
This represents a lack of positive feedback. Players must be given a little nudge out of the gate, and then told in one form or another when their actions advance them towards their goals. More than that, the player needs to understand which actions are producing the desired effect. Sometimes this is a very simple matter. In the early nineties, every Konami beat-em-up featured bosses that would flash red with increasing frequency as more damage was inflicted upon them. This was a simple feedback mechanic to tell the player that they were doing the right thing, and that eventually their efforts would lead to victory. Contrast this to beat-em-ups that give no signs of progress on a boss, leaving players to wonder if their attacks are doing any damage at all.
As much as a player needs to know when their efforts are in line with their goal, they also need negative feedback, or a way to tell that their efforts are not advancing their goals. This can be one of the more difficult things to provide in a game, especially in games that afford players lots of freedom. In any circumstance, the more options a player has, the more ways they can attempt a challenge incorrectly. This necessitates even more forethought on behalf of the developers – or, alternatively, a complete indifference to the problem and a desire to go eat pizza instead.
One of our focus testers just committed suicide but I just figured… screw it, ya know?
But for the developers that can resist the call of pizza, this presents a real problem. How do you inform the player that their actions may not have the desired result without annoying them incessantly, and giving them freedom to explore and attack the challenge on their own? One of the best approaches is to make the inner workings of the game explicit, so a player knows what consequences their actions will have. An example of this would be in any RPG with an elemental system of attacks. The player is informed of the system well beforehand, and if they want to use an ice attack on the blizzard demon Glacior, they certainly can. A pittance of damage serves as the negative feedback, and this action gels with the information the player received earlier. The lesson is learned without the need for nannying or incessant warnings.
Conversely, sometimes the only negative feedback a player receives is quick and unrelenting failure. Mirror’s Edge excels in positive feedback. Through the “Runner’s Vision” mechanic, certain objects (ramps, walls) will turn red as the player approaches them, signifying that using these will advance the player through the level on the appropriate path. However, if for some reason a player misses one of these cues and heads in the wrong direction, the only indication is an eventual dead end, and in more cases than not, a plummet from a tall building while police point and laugh hysterically. A good negative feedback mechanic here would be to have normally colored objects turn white the farther off they are from the intended path. Then the player would have both a positive and negative mechanic to direct them toward their goal.
Providing feedback for players is one of the most delicate balancing acts a developer must perform. Players must know both when they are doing something right and when they are doing something wrong. However, one must only think back to the late 80s to realize how far this concept has come. The going development mantra in those days regarding player feedback was “Eh….” Most games now provide feedback in one form or another, even if it is not immediately recognizable (or in some cases, intentional). Diligence on both the players’ and developers’ parts will lead to fewer broken controllers and video game -related congestive heart failure.