Spacing Out: Another Brick in the Difficulty Wall…

It's Pretty Until You Hit Your Head Against It...
It’s Pretty Until You Hit Your Head Against It…

So after our random-ass podcast covering Piracy (and a ton of other things), I’ve been playing some Independence War 2: The Edge of Chaos here and there so as to get past the initial chapter in which you play annoying, whiny child pirate in order to get to the meat of the game wherein you play an annoying, whiny adult pirate (I assume) so my co-host and I can play together and try being pirates. Wheeee!

I was chugging along through chapter zero (wait, how can one have a chapter of NOTHING?) doing just fine when I reached one of the missions that made me pissed off at this game in the first place. In the preceding missions, you did some simple errands involving some theft and some maiming for others. This time, however, you had to steal some reactor rods for yourself, which was in an area surrounded by NINE ships in three groups of three. The game tells me to sneak in there, but no details as to how really, so I try to make my way into the area, remaining undetected and far enough away from the other ships to avoid being scanned, to dock with the reactor and get out of there. SIX TRIES LATER, I — through some sheer force of luck — manage to get far enough away from the base to kick in my LDS drive and hightail it out of there.

This got me thinking (after all the cursing), WHY did this mission have to be so difficult? The previous missions weren’t this tough, so why the sudden “OMGIHATELIFE” difficulty wall?

I Do Love a Challenge

Sure, we want games to be challenging, but that challenge should feel organic, natural, hell, NORMAL. I mean take a look at Freespace 2. That game goes bats%^& off the rails early into the game, and throws all kinds of wacky-ass situations at the player, yet the challenge never feels overwhelming. TIE Fighter is another excellent example of this, as the stakes get higher and the difficulty gets greater, the challenge remains manageable (at least I think so). What I think games like Independence War 2 (and Arvoch Alliance, to use another example) do wrong in this kind of instance is rely too much on a puzzle-like solution, with very few paths to victory.

Give Me Options, Dammit

What do I mean by this? After I finished that mission in I-War 2, I went to look at a walkthrough to get an idea as to how it might’ve been easier. APPARENTLY, I was supposed to use these “disruptor” missiles I’d acquired in my last mission, which have a way of shutting ships down for easy capture. Those were to be used to knock out some enemy ships so that I could escape. Okay, here’s the problem with that. As I’d never used these missiles before (and I didn’t even know they were missiles until later), I didn’t think there was a PRESSING NEED TO USE THEM RIGHT THEN. I mean sure, getting a new toy means using it right away, typically, but it also means feeling compelled to use it, and since I’d been doing fiiiiiine so far, I felt no such compulsion.

Games that are successful with puzzle like missions such as these either make narrow paths to a solution clear enough to be sussed out without too much difficulty, or make the mission/level broad enough that multiple paths or play styles can be used to achieve a specific goal. Why do you think games such as Deus Ex are so dang popular? Even space games that in the past have felt overwhelmingly puzzle-like in nature (I’m looking at you, X-Wing), many missions either gave enough leeway that they could be solved using different techniques and tactics, or they gave the illusion that different tactics could be used. If the only way to win a mission besides sheer luck is to use one specific thing that I’d never used before, I’m gonna get upset.

A Lazy Approach?

This got me to thinking, is this kind of difficulty wall a lazy way to induce a challenge? Rather than taking the time to carefully craft a scenario that provides a realistic, organic challenge, it feels that devs just throw a bunch of crap at us just to artificially inflate the difficulty unnecessarily. I’m no programmer, so I might be speaking out of my ass (wait, when am I not?), but I have to believe that there’s a better way to make a mission than just “Let’s put a bunch of ships in here and give them really only one way out”, because that is how it feels when these kind of difficulty spikes occur.

In conclusion, devs, I implore you. Nay, I BEG you. When creating your missions in your games, please make it organically challenging, not needlessly difficult just for the sake of artificially creating a challenge. Making the game challenging and exciting gives me all the tension I need. Throwing up a difficulty wall just for the sake masquerading as a challenge just makes me want to burn your game onto a disk just so I can throw it out the window.

Anyway, that’s my rant for this week. Thanks for reading!

Author: Brian Rubin

20 thoughts on “Spacing Out: Another Brick in the Difficulty Wall…

  1. It’s been a long time since I tried I-war2 and I recall not getting past the very first encounter. IIRC there’s a ship that attacks you and you have to survive/blow them up? Multiple tries later and I was done. These walls usually make me drop a game. Compare this to Dark Souls, one of my favorite games and I can’t tell you why one worked and the other didn’t.

    (BTW, 4th sentence in “Gimme Options” paragraph s/know/knock.)

  2. Brian, being a programmer or not has NOTHING to do with it. The suite of issues you are talking about fall squarely in the realm of Design. And if the design of any game mission elicits the emotional and intellectual response (frustration, to use one polite word for it) you describe, as a game designer (and programmer) I assert the designer of that mission has Failed.

    1. Heh, sorry man, I call everything a “programmer”, but you’re totally right.

  3. I had the same initial experience with I-War 2, getting killed a bunch of times until I went online and found that you were supposed to sideslip in order to avoid the first pirate attack. It was a really badly designed mission because it had a trick solution. Better mission design would be more like a sandbox, where you get to experiment and grow competent by learning from little mistakes.

      1. That one yes, but I got frustrated enough in mission 9 of act 1 (Construction Yard) where you have to stealth through that I quit playing entirely because the game felt too punitive and arbitrary. The mission prior, where you have to paint the governor’s ship to embarrass him, had been the tipping point and although I passed it (after half a dozen tries) it just wasn’t fun.

        Funny enough I should have seen it coming. I never even got past the the timed “accelerate the crates through the hoops using Newtonian motion” training tutorial in I-War 1. Guess I was hoping the sequel was going to be more forgiving.

        1. Heh, yeah, the second game seems even less forgiving than the first, and the first wasn’t even that forgiving. At all.

  4. I am terrible at missions that involve intercepting missiles. In Wing Commander III, I was never able to save anything from Skipper Missiles. In the original FreeSpace, I was stonewalled by the “Clash of the Titans” mission for months. I tried it dozens of times, racking up failure after failure.

    I finally gave up, extracted the final mission using a third-party tool, and beat it on the first try in the simulator. ¬_¬

    1. Oh god, NO ONE likes missile/torpedo interception missions, yet they KEEP INCLUDING THEM! Stop it people.

      1. Yeah. It’s like mission designers have the most unhealthy obsession with missile interception AND escort missions (both equally hated by basically anyone).

        SOL Exodus went even farther, gifting us with an idea of Escort Campaign…

  5. To be fair, Quintet has both a torpedo interception scenario and a transport escort scenario, and both are rather fun – they’re also short, so that may be a factor. I’d say both strike a good balance between hectic chaos and a reasonable level of difficulty. The former gets much easier if other players are involved. However, the latter only gets more difficult when more player ships are involved.

    1. Short is okay if they’re balanced well enough, and if they make sense from a challenge perspective.

  6. Oh, yes, those escort missions, arg! Poorly designed levels and/or gameplay mechanisms frustrate me to no end. Games with specific missions that requires a specific playthrough that isn’t obvious are frustrating. Example, Sanctum 2, the last level. There’s only a few possible defense layouts that actually works (had to look them up online).

    I love it when a game presents a challenge, but don’t restrict you to a specific method of beating it. That’s why I hate levels in RTS that don’t start you off with a base, but with only a few units that you can’t replace. (Starcraft, KKnD, C&C are all guilty of this). As well as FPS games that have levels that instead of playing it normally, it changes the rules completely (Red Faction 1, the stealth mission, arg!)

    I can go on, but yeah, a game that limits you and you can feel the limits are very irritating…

    1. Totally man. I mean, if there are limits, make ’em realistic. If I hit a wall that’s there just for the sake of artificially inflating the game’s challenge, I can tell.

  7. Well, regarding I-War, I’m a very long-time fan. I finished I-War 1 once, tried Defiance (and failed half-way) and am now an my first play-through of I-War 2. I must say that while the game is really polished in some aspects, it’s a downright failure in others. It is beautiful, even with today’s standards. The Newtonian physics are awesome, and the mission objectives are really interesting.

    But I-War 2 has so many flaws that I can understand that a less determined person can be annoyed enough to put the game away for good. Yes, there is the lack of proper guidance in the game, although I personally haven’t found that too disturbing. Also, I seem to have less issues with script breaking, which is a very common source of annoyance for many I-War 2 players. (Although this is now nearly as bad as with I-War 1, which had severe scripting issues even when it came out, not to mention now with modern machines and OS’s).

    Finally, it is just not possible to play the game without certain mods installed, like the Location Finder mod or the Manual Countermeasures mod. The game should not have shipped without proper focus group testing. The price for not doing so was extremely bad sales, with around 50k copies sold.

    And still, the games just click with me. I dunno why, but I spent hundreds of hours in I-War 1 and dozens of hours in I-War 2. And although I have had my fair share of rage-quits over time, I don’t regret a single hour of playing those games.

    That’s my two cents.

    1. Hey, how do you even USE that manual countermeasures mod? I can’t figure the dang thing out.

      1. To be honest, I don’t remember. I haven’t played I-War 2 for a few weeks, and my memory is getting a little foggy in that respect. As soon as I get to play it again, I will get back to you. Default is Page Down, but I honestly don’t remember if I managed to switch it to a different button.

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