Is Difficulty a Fair Metric for Success in a Genre?


#1

The latest Game Maker’s Toolkit just dropped, and addresses whether roguelikes should have persistent upgrades:

I’m usually in agreement with most of Mark Brown’s videos in regards to game design, but I couldn’t help but disagree with several of the points made here. It’s still a good video with the usual level of analysis you’d expect from the channel, so I’d recommend watching it. In any case, if you choose not to, these are the big takeaways from the video as I understood it.

  1. Roguelikes are defined by two key concepts; they must have randomly generated levels, and there’s permadeath.
  2. Roguelikes are about practicing your skills, becoming more familiar with the game’s world, and learning new tactics.
  3. Successful roguelikes are ones that make the player raise their skills to meet the difficulty level, not ones that lower the difficulty to match the player’s skill.

Now, assuming those axioms are what Brown actually posits, I really have no quarrel with points 1 and 2. I do think permadeath and repetition are hallmarks of the genre, and often a good source of appeal for these types of games. I could see myself considering a game with static levels to be roguelike, but I understand why people view random levels as something roguelikes do. But point 3 just strikes me as overly dogmatic.

I think what raised my ire was Brown’s use of Rogue Legacy as an example of what not to do in the genre. I find the critique a bit alienating because Rogue Legacy is one of the few roguelikes that I actively enjoyed, and I’d love to see more games riff on its model for progression. I feel that it is a successful roguelike precisely because its progression system kept me playing so that I can enjoy the other aspects of the genre, such as getting better at the game and getting more familiar with the game world. Though I fully admit that my final run was easier than my first run, I was also a significantly better player by the end as well. My skill rose while the difficulty dropped, but from my view it was an accomplishment. It still felt like a well-earned roguelike victory, progression system or not.

I guess the larger point I’m trying to make is that the latest crop of “hard” genres, like retro platformers, roguelikes, and soulslikes, feel stifled by an insistence on high level play as the price of entry. That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be difficult games in those genres. I’m more that happy to walk away from Bloodborne and let others enjoy it. But I can’t truck with the insistence that games without their forebears’ level of difficulty are somehow failing the genre. There’s a place for less punishing games which still provide challenge to players of all skill levels. All while exposing new players to the appeal of the genre.

Before anyone asks, I don’t think the other side of the argument is necessarily gatekeeping by insisting a certain level of difficulty be inherent to these genres. I fully admit that I’m not the most patient player. As I use gaming to relax from the stresses of life, I’m less inclined to enjoy games that contribute to stress. So perhaps traditionally difficult genres aren’t for me. But I’ve definitely enjoyed games that Mark Brown might consider “failures” of the genre, so I’m not sure where that puts me. In any case, what do you folks think? Is difficulty a fair metric for rating successfully in “hard” genres?


#2

I’m going to start by noting that I really dislike how “roguelike” now means everything from FTL through to who-knows-what. (I still think of these as “roguelikelikes”, to borrow Rock Paper Shotgun’s phrasing - “roguelike” to me is a much more restricted subset of that, with a lot more mechanical similarities to the original rogue (and maybe its most famous immediate successor, NetHack) ).

That said, even using Mark’s terminology, I disagree with some of both his “bad” and “good” examples. Spelunky definitely becomes easier if you’re using shortcuts (for the Olmec ending) - the more levels you play through, even as a really experienced player: the more chances there are for random deaths due to bad luck.
In the case of Rogue Legacy, a game I really disliked, I don’t think that the grindiness is just due to the “leveling up” you get from repeated playthroughs. In fact, I seem to remember that the game difficulty itself also scales with player level, so it’s not entirely clear to me that a Level N character is always easier to beat the game with than a Level N-1 character. (I certainly found the grindiness horribly unpleasant - but that was partly because I didn’t really see any significant gain in “ease” from precisely the persistent upgrades which Mark claims ruin the player’s ability to measure their own skill improvements.)

In the case of True Roguelikes (games which are actually more like Rogue than, say Rogue Legacy and FTL - maybe including as far out as Crypt of the Necrodancer at the very far extent), 3 is certainly true - but the meaning of “skill” is different for this category, as they’re also mostly turn-based. “Skill” at Nethack, or Linley’s Dungeon Crawl, or ADOM, is about having memorised all of the tricks the game can throw at you, having a compendium of solutions to turn-by-turn issues, and being hyperprepared. There’s none of the somatic response skill, which, say, a Spelunky or a Rogue Legacy, requires.

[edited to add: also, as someone who is precisely gated by pointlessly hard games, I totally agree with the OP’s assertion about the stifling nature of this apparent design requirement. There’s nothing wrong with even an “easy” True Roguelike - and there are plenty of “roguelikelikes” with difficulty levels, even (something which Mark sort of ignores - FTL, Into The Breach, et al, all have an Easy mode)]


#3

There’s the idea that’s brought up pretty often around here of games “respecting your time,” and that’s more or less where I stand with this. I have enjoyed roguelikes of either kind, as long as I feel like they’re respecting my time, and that there’s not some kind of blanket lowering-or-not-lowering the difficulty metric that determines that.

I haven’t played Rogue Legacy, but Dead Cells, which probably beats out Enter the Gungeon as my favorite roguelike/roguelite, is a really interesting case study for this. I’d argue that Dead Cells has unlocks, but not upgrades. Very few of the items you acquire in that game actually make the game easier—they just give you different ways to play, and that way you always feel like you’re learning or trying something new and novel as your skills are slowly growing. Meanwhile the character unlocks are all movement abilities that unlock more areas and give you a more variable moveset, but not necessarily an easier one to manage. So very few runs actually end up feeling wasted, even though the game itself isn’t making it easier for you the next time around.


#4

I like Mark, i think he does good work. But the pitfalls of the “X is Good game design, Y is bad game design” has some serious blind spots based on subjective interpretation and so on.

Combine that with gaming’s weird problem with Genre and Language that seem to be at its most narrow minded when it comes to the roguelike meta-genre. I.E: the amount of times i’ve heard “Roguelikes are only X and X alone” and “X isn’t a roguelike because of reason” is staggering.

Combining those two factors seems to have lead to Mark finding that “Only these specific circumstances leads to a good roguelike” And Eh, idk, thats not how i define roguelike, which again, is more of a meta-genre than an actual genre.


#5

I haven’t watched the video yet but will eventually, but just sitting here after a dry martini I was thinking how nice it would be with a roguelike that isn’t procedurally generated. The levels are the same every time (maybe there are a lot of them) but you still do some progression. Then I thought maybe that’s just Dark Souls. Then I thought maybe that’s just every game?
Anyway, rogulikes is a genre I’ve never really found my game in. Is it because I’m terrible at every single one I’ve played? Maybe!


#6

This was an interesting/frustrating watch for me yesterday. On one hand it’s the best presentation I’ve seen for some ideas I’ve been thinking about as I play roguelikes / session games. On the other it maybe leans a bit too close to “git gud.”

The thing that makes roguelikes work for me isn’t their difficulty, but the process of learning how to overcome their challenges and getting better over time. Playing roguelikes with persistent upgrades always makes me (me personally, to be clear) feel like every run makes the eventual victory less meaningful. Did I win, or did I beat my head against the wall until it felt sorry for me? And I don’t think it even works as a way to make the game accessible to players who might not be good at the genre: the worse you are, the more you need to grind. It’s like the most tedious dynamic difficulty system in the world.

Which prompts the question: why not just have difficulty selection? What’s wrong with the good old-fashioned easy/medium/hard? I mean, besides the fact that some players are going to gatekeep on what counts as “really” beating the game, but they’ll do that anyway. FTL has an easy mode (that I admit is still quite hard, but it proves the concept). Even some more traditionalist roguelikes like Ancient Domains of Mystery or Tales of Maj’Eyal have added an array of difficulty options, right up to disabling permadeath if you want to.


#7

I guess i never really talked about difficulty which was probably the main question. I’ll give my 2 cents about that too.

I have two short and kinda contradictory statements.

  1. There should always, ALWAYS be accessibility options including easy modes, always
  2. Difficulty can be a valid metric to want to define your game around.

To start out with, like most people who play games, i’m good at some things, and not so good at others. I’ve beat every souls game and beaten B-Sides in Celeste, but most puzzle games turn my brain inside out. I loved Souls’s and Celeste’s difficulty and think they are all stellar experiences that really were elevated from me putting the time in and really figuring out how to beat them. That being said, there still should be an easy mode in Souls, you know what i mean?

I feel like you should be able to make a difficult game with difficulty being central to its conceit. I don’t want this to be like a “actually hard games are bad game design” as an overreaction to “games shouldnt’ be too easy”. That being said even if difficulty is a core part of your game, you should still make an easy mode because that’s just being courteous.

I think about the game Furi, who is a hard as nails boss rush game that according to the developer, is absolutly “meant” to be played on the hardest possible difficulty, but you know, there is still a normal and an easy mode, because goddamn it, it doesn’t hurt the game in the slightest to have that.

I think of my own experience playing Into the Breach, where to be brutally honest, i can’t beat normal mode. I dunno if my brain just doens’t think the same way, but i’ve only been able to succeed on Easy. And you know what, if the game only had normal, i probably would have set it down within 2-3 hours and said “eh not for me” But instead i’ve been able to really enjoy my time on easy, and am satified with know some of why this game is so beloved.

Well, there is my slightly incoherent talk about difficulty, and how while it think its a entirely valid metric to aim for in a game, easy mode options should always be included.


#8

Brown makes a similar critique in his video, which I wanted to address but couldn’t fit into my first post. So I’ll address it here. This could come from a childhood playing way too many JRPGs, but I don’t necessarily think of grinding as a bad thing. I find it can be enjoyable and it can provide a steady stream of engagement to a certain kind of player. I didn’t feel like Rogue Legacy was punishing me with the grind, rather it helped me invest a narrative into this bloodline slowly building from one generation to the next until finally the family legacy was complete. It also helped that I enjoyed how that game played and happily spent hours wandering aimlessly through the castle.


#9

Yeah, I think that “grind” is always in the eye of the beholder.

To be fair to Rogue Legacy: I can see that if you enjoy its style of platforming, you might enjoy “grinding” it to get improvements. (Just as I don’t see playing games of Spelunky as grinding, as I happen to enjoy how it plays.) On the other hand, it definitely felt like it was punishing me, as I was sort-of waiting for the grind to actually make playing the game feel good, so I really wasn’t enjoying the process at all - just hoping for the end goal.

edited to add: on @GibdoInferno 's original point - I totally agree, and this is something I dislike about all of these kinds of “collect more stuff to get coins to buy kit to make it easier/more fun” systems, be it the upgrades in Shovel Knight, or even (to a lesser extent) the ship unlocks in FTL. The worse a player you are, the more you need the “crutch” of those upgrades, and yet the more the game frustrates you by making it harder to get them.


#10

That’s fair. My feelings on grind in general have softened lately thanks to games like Warframe. I’ll give a game a lot more leeway if it has a cool world and fun mechanics. Games where the degree of grinding depends strongly on how skilled the player is don’t sit right with me, but I guess that’s null if it doesn’t feel like punishment to the player.


#11

This was probably my least favorite video I’ve seen from GMTK (and normally I love most of his stuff, to the point that I support his patreon). And I think this thread had helped me realize why: as was said in the OP, calling a particular type of game outright lesser felt dogmatic and, given that I like that sort of game, felt a little offensive.

He takes a few moments here and there to caveat it that it’s just his personal taste, but that never felt like it really changed anything since outside of those moments his language is very emphatic about “good” and “bad” design.

Which is all to say, I think this video was a huge missed opportunity. This design distinction is really interesting! There’s genuinely cool information in there about progression mechanics that don’t impact difficulty or power scale! But it’s all buried underneath a deeply unnecessary value judgement that made it hard for me to get at the stuff I care about.

All that said, I don’t think he ever made any real statements (that I remember) about whether a rogulike’s difficulty should be hard. Just that, in his opinion, it should be static from run to run. He’s certainly been a proponent of easy modes and accessibility options for a while now.


#12

This video feels like it was made as a reaction to someone saying “Roguelikes aren’t fun because I hate losing all my progress.”

And that sentiment is both

  • a reason you might not want to play a particular game
  • a 100% valid way to feel about the game, and really a matter of preference

I know Mark’s videos often express their ideas in terms of “this design works for me, and this other approach doesn’t”, but he’s definitely making more value judgments here than usual. I agree with OP that the conclusions he makes here bothered me. This feels like weird hair-splitting around personal preference and touting it as better design.

It feels like someone saying “Actually, cover shooters are better than first person ones and here’s why.” Maybe they’re both fine? And they serve different types of engagement? And I bet there are folks who prefer one, both, or neither?

I particularly agree with @snphillips0 in that he could have used this opportunity to talk about how cross-run progression systems help you appeal to different audiences, while static difficulty better serves folks who want to focus on skilled play. Maybe you could use this as an argument for, if resources permit, providing two different modes!


#13

If you want a rougelike where the levels are the same every time there are some out there where you can put in a specific seed for world generation so we can keep playing one seed over and over if you want. Unexplored has this feature, which is really nice because the level generator for that game is fantastic so I like that I can go back to dungeons that I particularly liked. That game is great in general, particularly on the Switch.


#14

I’m probably not going to get around to watching this video, mostly because I don’t really care for the ‘game dev video that’s actually just [rips back curtain] my opinion!!!’ genre and the thumbnail already makes me think “huh, this dude is probably gonna shittalk a game i’m excited for before i can even play it. hard pass.” that said, I’m more than happy to respond to the topic post.

I like roguelikes of all sorts. My first actual roguelike was technically Stone Soup Dungeon Crawl, which i put hours into in high school, followed by Binding of Isaac. That said, I’m not even sure what constitutes a roguelike anymore, because people start to get picky and start talking about the differences between roguelikes and roguelites and honestly? I don’t give a shit. I didn’t even play Rogue. The point is that these are games I find enjoyable, and I find roguelikes as a genre enjoyable because they’re usually about not getting attached to what you have.

Imo, roguelikes with progression systems and ways to make yourself better each run are a good thing. It can keep the game somewhat about skill while still allowing you to technically make it easier for yourself. And the thing about adding a progression system in a roguelike is that, for the most part, you can just… not take them? I don’t think I’ve played a roguelike lately that forced an upgrade on me. For the most part, they seem content to just let you… not pick them up?

Anyway, I don’t think everything needs to be skill based. Games should have difficulty levels or accessibility options. I haven’t played a platformer or a metroidvania nearly a decade because most of the ones that come out seem to pride themselves on being as difficult and inaccessible as possible to people who aren’t already familiar with what the genre has to offer. That’s all well and good, but from an audience standpoint, eventually the pool of people you have to sell those games to is gonna dwindle.


#15

It just seemed like a weird video to come from him for this series because generally he takes the approach of “this is what this game or games of this type are doing, why they are doing it, and what the effect is” without making a value judgement. More straight-up information than opinion. So even though I disagreed with him, that wasn’t why it felt like a strange video to watch. I just wasn’t expecting it from him.


#16

sure: but, again, I disagree that he actually picks “good” cases which don’t change difficulty with unlocks (as others have noted - Gungeon’s gun unlocks include some very good guns (as well as some potentially bad ones), so each unlock does change the difficulty from the previous run; FTL’s ship unlocks might make a ship which is more suited to your playstyle available (and thus change the “effective difficulty” - as with Into The Breach and the various mech teams); Spelunky’s shortcuts definitely make it easier (for a less-skilled player) to get the “non-secret ending”, and so on).


#17

Yeah, that’s all super fair and I agree. And those are really good and interesting points that could have been examined in the video! It all for me keeps coming back to, if the premise was just framed differently, all of this stuff becomes so much easier to be fascinated by.

@LavenderGooms that, 100%. I’d be put off by this sort of thing from anyone, but from him in particular it was disappointing on top.


#18

The main issue with the video is that it casts too broad of a net, even though I generally agree with his arguments in regards to the specific games he’s talking about.

To start by defining a genre by a set of specific mechanics and then say “the goal of the genre is Y” is reductive and eliminates the possibility of using that tool set in service of a different goal.


#19

So let me jump in with a spicy hot take before I get into more nuanced conversation:

If you are judging the quality of any piece of art by its adherence to purported genre codes, you are not going to come away with a very good assessment.


#20

I personally don’t like his take about Rogue Legacy simply because he assumes it doesn’t work because you can eventually grind past the challenge by taking it slow.

That’s missing a lot of nuance in an idea like that.

Because, for one, you have those people out there who do three-heart runs for Zelda games, specifically avoiding powering up Link as much as possible in order to maintain a sense of challenge, and that’s fine. And that’s something that is totally doable in Rogue Legacy if you’re that kind of person. He does touch on this, but he treats it as a weirdly black-or-white scenario and dismisses it outright.

And for two, the whole thing I love about RPGs is the idea that if something is too difficult then you can just grind past it and that’s okay. The “Lunar” series of RPGs made me furious because they nullify the benefits of grinding by making bosses level with the player. It doesn’t matter how much you beef up your party, the game never gets any easier, so if you find yourself in a bottleneck, unable to get past a particularly difficult boss, then you’re stuck there.

It sounds like Mark is just against the concept of grinding, which is totally understandable, because I used to be the same way – until I realized what a useful tool grinding can be. Also, it’s 2019, grinding can actually be a borderline therapeutic way to burn through a podcast or something. It’s not like you’re still sitting in your parents basement listening to the same 2 minute ditty on loop for hours.

But, ultimately, it’s all about a gradient of challenge. Removing difficulty layer by layer until you find your comfort zone. For someone who is doing a series on accessibility in games, I would think he’d be able to appreciate that.