Difficulty vs “Difficulty”

I like League of Legends.

For those of you not in the know (all 6 of you), League of Legends is a MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, also known as an ARTS, which I’m not actually sure what it stands for, or a Defense of the Ancients-like). In essence, it is a game where you play as something like one the hero units from Warcraft 3 and try to destroy the enemy’s base. What really sets these games apart is that they are immensely team based, pitting 5 players against 5 players and pretty much necessitating they all play like a team.

They’re pretty fun! Plus, I always love to see games that require actual team play.

Now, I spend a lot of time on the forums. Primarily because I hate myself, but also because I like to see what people are doing. There are a lot of hot button subjects on the boards and the one that inspired this particular post would be the question of difficulty.

LoL tends to catch a lot of flack for having relatively simple champion design. Most of the skills in the game tend to be, mechanically speaking, quite simple. A lot of people insist that this is a bad thing. After all, wouldn’t having a champion like Brewmaster (a champion from DotA/DotA2 who possess a skill that lets him split into three separate champions) be better, since it’d set aside mediocre players from really good players? Well…

The answer here is kind of difficult. The fact is that there are a lot of different kinds of difficult, and lots of people tend to have different tolerances for the different kinds of difficulty.

For example, consider I Want to be the Guy (http://kayin.pyoko.org/iwbtg/). For those of you who don’t know (I’m looking at you 6 again), IWTBTG is a game that was designed as a love letter to old school NES/arcade style games. It is full of what I (and others, I’m sure) would like to call Fake Difficulty.

Brief spoilers for the first few minutes IWTBTG, so skip this paragraph if you don’t want them. So, for example, if you go down in the first room and run forward, you will be killed when a spiked wall shoots out of the opposite wall and almost all the way across the room. Splat. So, observing this, you bait it out, then follow it over to drop down to the next level. Anticipating what happens, you bait out the spikes. Down to the next level, bait out the- and the spikes come out from the wall behind you, killing you instantly. You couldn’t have known this without playing the game or seeing this section.

That, more or less, is fake difficulty. Difficulty that is not dependent on your skill, but rather on foreknowledge.

This, I feel, is where people tend to get a little confused. Legitimate difficulty vs being difficult for the sake of being difficult. I see a lot of people get up in arms about how easy LoL is to play, and that any moron can pick it up and play it. Which… isn’t really a bad thing, per se. The thing is, the difficulty comes from actually playing the game. You have to use your tools well, plan well, execute well, etc. You aren’t hindered by the fact that the game has obscure or obtuse mechanics that you have to exploit; everything is laid out clearly for you to use as best you can.

I’m not saying complication is bad, of course. Chess and Go, for example are very simple games to learn. Arkham Horror is very complex. I enjoy all of them. I’m just saying that being angry because the game is apparently too easy due to a general low level of accessibility? Kind of silly. Simple things can have ridiculous amounts of depth or skill required to play them well. Almost any moron can learn to play those too, but they won’t beating masters anytime soon. Would either game be improved significantly by requiring you to juggle knives while playing?

Honestly, I feel the key to most games is simplicity. That’s how you get players into it: you make it easy for them to access it initially, then you hold them with depth generated by strategic, tactical, or execution difficulty. Requiring players to spend a month with the basics before they can even attempt to play the game is a great way to turn off a lot of potential players.

Now. Am I saying that every game needs to be checkers simple? No, of course not. Do I have an exact quantity for how complex rules can be? No, because it really is variable and situational. But people should be aware of the issue of “Difficulty” and that it isn’t really a good thing. A player should be challenged in actually playing the game, not in trying to play the game.


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  1. #1 by IWANTYOUINSIDEME on July 27, 2012 - 5:59 am

    You post this like the same day you talk about picking Dark Souls back up and continuing to play it.

    I will never understand you.

    • #2 by A Rogue on July 27, 2012 - 12:03 pm

      Well… to be frank, that’s because the Souls games are relatively fair in their unfairness. Between the messages and the blood stains (excellent systems to have devised for Roguelike gameplay), you actually have a pretty good chance of being aware of any upcoming bullshit and just need to guess at it, which gets increasingly easier as you understand how the game is structured.

      That aside, Dark Souls actually did away with most of the true bullshit that Demon’s Souls did and relies a lot more on challenging encounter set-up then “SURPRISE, YOU’RE DEAD!” crap. Not to say it isn’t there (hello Curse beasts in the sewers, you horrible little things), but I get killed far more by boss fights then I do random ambushes out of nowhere.

      So yeah, just more proof that the line is really, really fine.

  2. #3 by Ry Ry on July 28, 2012 - 10:01 am

    LOL is a great game to play. It has a blend of entertainment, frustration, teamwork, strategy, and replayability that is not too common from a free game.

  3. #4 by Rana on April 2, 2013 - 12:03 pm

    Great article. This really resonated with me. It reminded me of Mark Rosewater’s distinction between the types of complexities; if you haven’t seen it yet, I’d really suggest taking a look at it (google search for Mark Rosewater New World Order). He basically says exactly what you’re getting at only he goes on for a lot longer and get a lot more specific. Really good stuff here.

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