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Why Difficult Video Games are Popular

The Secret Behind the Popularity of ‘Difficult’ Video Games

The Souls series is one of the most popular video game franchises of all time, especially, so-called, ‘hardcore’ gamers. Yet, some players think it’s too difficult and too high-stakes. After all, the game’s mechanics and approach to player death punish those who don’t learn fast. Players have to familiarize themselves with the enemy’s patterns and adjust their own strategies in every fight. Making a mistake can be fatal, as they lose all their souls, which is the currency of the game.

They can still retrieve the currency if they reach the location they died in. However, if they die before then, they lose everything. Combine that with challenging battles and you can expect to die many, many times before reaching the end. For some, it’s hard to enjoy a game where you die a lot, but the Souls games are so popular they spawned the ‘Souls-like’ genre.

Another somewhat similarly difficult genre is the ‘rogue-like’ genre. With permanent character death, some of these games make the player go through a whole level (other times the whole game) after dying. Because these games are usually procedurally-generated, each playthrough would differ from previous runs. The challenge is to keep adapting to the changing items, enemies, and environments you encounter. Popular rogue-like games are Hades or (a bit older) The Binding of Isaac. Both games have enjoyed a good reception from gamers, earning accolades and awards.

Both of these genres can be too challenging for some players, but they enjoy immense popularity with gamers. Here, we’ll explore why that is.

Earning vs Receiving

Kids who throw a tantrum to get what they want are called ‘spoiled’ kids. All they have to do is to cry a bit, and they get what they want. They don’t know how to work to earn things, because they got used to getting what they want.

They don’t know how meaningful it is to earn what they want by working hard for it. Figuring out a puzzle or finally being able to clear an obstacle becomes an achievement. It’s more precious when you feel that your efforts were rewarded with sweet loot or some kind of powerup. There’s nothing better than getting to the max level or collecting all the items by your own effort.

The alternative is getting spoiled, like the kid from the example at the start of this section. Achievements ring hollow and become not as precious. Players would think that the power and strength are due to them naturally and would likely fail once they encounter something they can’t beat with brute force. Everything should come easy, they think, but getting things without much effort isn’t very fun.

Classical Conditioning vs Operant Conditioning

These are the basics of conditioning, how behavior can be controlled. At some level, games make use of these techniques to keep players engaged and playing. Let’s take a closer look.

Classical conditioning makes the subject associate a stimulus with a reward. The subject doesn’t have to actively do anything but detecting the stimulus would make it anticipate the reward. The most famous example of this is Pavlov’s dogs salivating as soon as they hear the mealtime bell.

Because their food follows soon after hearing the bell, the dogs associate the bell with food. Just hearing the chime lets them know that food is coming, so they salivate. This association became so ingrained that they even salivate by hearing the bell, even if the food doesn’t come!

Operant conditioning, in contrast, either reinforces behavior by administering a reward or inhibits it by doling out punishment. For this to happen, the subject must have behavior to reinforce or inhibit. Training dogs to sit or do other tricks is actually a type of operant conditioning. You’re reinforcing their behavior to follow commands by giving them treats when they do.

You wouldn’t give them treats if you’re trying to get them to roll over, but they sit instead, right? That’s still part of operant conditioning. You’re withholding the reward when they don’t do the expected behavior. The dog soon learns to do the behavior so they can get the reward. Later, even when you don’t give them a reward, they still do the trick upon your command.

Between the two methods, classical conditioning is more prone to the extinction effect. That means it’s easier to lose the associated behavior created by classical than the ones created by operant conditioning. This is why games actually do employ more operant conditioning associations in their mechanics and systems.

What does this mean for challenging, difficult games?

By placing rewards behind puzzles, bosses, or some kind of challenge, the game is conditioning players to keep tackling obstacles until they get the rewards. You don’t notice it, but the game is conditioning you to keep playing and experimenting. It’s reinforcing your behavior to play more and get that reward (which may or may not help in reaching other rewards).

Difficult games just ramp up the obstacles. Sometimes they’re not in order, especially in open-world games. Other times, you’ll need some out-of-the-box thinking. Because of the conditioning and the increasing rewards, players don’t mind the challenge and gladly go to meet them. Part of that is the conditioning techniques used (mostly during the tutorial phase).

Self-Imposed Challenges

Some players love challenges so much they make their own ways of making things harder. One good example is the Nuzlocke run of Pokémon games. The rules say that:

  • You can only capture the first Pokémon met in a route (outside of the starter).
  • When the Pokémon faints, you can’t use that Pokémon again (unless you caught another one from another route). The Pokémon is either released back into the wild or stored in the PC box.
  • Pokémon center visits are restricted, or you can only use items to heal (optional, depending on the player).

The game doesn’t really encourage or discourage this style of playing. However, it does bring a fresh perspective to Pokémon games, which can be a little formulaic, really. Players are forced to use the Pokémon they don’t usually train, making them rethink their usual strategies and teams.

Another good self-imposed challenge is the ‘Knife-only’ Resident Evil run. Enemies in the game franchise are best fought at range, so using only a knife is the riskiest method to defeating them.

You might ask why these players like to make things harder for themselves. Well, some of these self-imposed challenges show off their mastery of the game. In a Knife-only run in RE, these players have got the enemies’ movements down to a T. They know when to block, dodge, or take the attack. They know how to manage their health and herbs, and how to make use of the environment whenever possible.

It adds a new layer of fun and enjoyment to a game that is otherwise a bit too simple. Of course, it also takes a certain kind of gamer to enjoy this kind of challenge.

The Existence of the Story/Easy Mode

For every player who loves a challenge, there’s one who doesn’t. For a variety of reasons, they could want to play an ‘easy mode’ instead. They could be more invested in the story of the game than the mechanics, or they couldn’t catch up with the mechanics. While it’s a cop-out for more hardcore players, it’s a godsend for casual ones interested in a game’s story.

Some elitist gamers look down on these gamers, but it’s all just a matter of preferences. No game can satisfy everyone perfectly but being able to satisfy the majority is good. This kind of feature can widen the game’s player population and more players would be good for the game.

It’s a bit of a controversy, but then again, why rip on an easy mode when it’s easier to find and watch a playthrough of the game? There’s also the fact that games are best experienced by the player.

In Summary

Challenges give a sense of achievement by rewarding your efforts. You’re also more likely to keep going at the challenges through conditioning and timely rewards. Some players even give themselves even more challenges, making the rewards sweeter for them. Challenges make the game more fun by gradually making things more challenging as rewards get better and better.

In this age of instant gratification, it’s sometimes hard to wait or work for something good. Fortunately, games still make players work for the sweet rewards. The difficulty depends on the type of game, as some can be comparatively easy compared to others. It can also depend on the preference of the gamer.

Some gamers live for the challenge, others would like a smoother path. There are some who think Souls-like games are quite easy, and those who think they’re the hardest games ever. All of that falls into a spectrum where any gamer can fall in one extreme, the other, or somewhere in the middle.

Wherever you fall in that spectrum, the most important thing is to enjoy the games you want how you want. Whether that’s by challenging yourself or opting for a more relaxed playthrough, play the game your way.

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