The Ethics of Difficulty

January 27, 2014 at 1:57 am 2 comments

Arcade games in the 80s and early 90s were brutally hard. In fact 1 credit completions are still something to brag about:

The above TMNT 1cc completion involves figuring out particular places the a.i. Glitches in and then using them to clear out screens. I am not sure the game can actually be completed solo

R-type arcade 1cc

But this was by design:
Abiko (designer of r-type)
“In the story, stage 7 was the final stage of the enemy base, a garbage processing facility where all the enemies the player had previously destroyed were disposed of. Our impression of the stages as we made them was that stage 1 was made for the average person to play, stage 2 draws you a little further in, stage 3 makes you think “wow, I didn’t know a STG could be like this” and gets you excited for whats to come, stage 4 raises the difficulty sharply and builds income for the operator, stage 5 gives you a glimpse of another world, and stage 6 makes you wonder if you shouldn’t just give up. (laughs)”

Arcade games were essentially impossible to win and for a reason: it built income for the arcade owner. It also lead to some really impossible nes games like Ghost and Goblins and by extension the angry video game nerd. But my point is Arcade games were often impossible unless the player popped in additional quarters for more lives and temporary invincibility. Juxtapose this with many “freemenuim” games on the iOS store.

Cave’s latest shmup is DonPaccin a cutesy shooter with a propeller driven airplane that collects robots ala Pokemon for its special attacks. The game has a surprisingly robust crafting system and it’s free to play to boot. Numerous other iOS games are free to play too and employ a similar freemenuim model. DonPaccin only let’s you play a certain amount per day before you have to pay for more time or wait till tomorrow to play again. Level-5’s recent jrpg Wonder Flick employes a similar time based model.

Now imagine if arcade games had worked similarly: you got to play for an hour before the game required a quarter to continue. You could pay a dollar to get a special outfit for your character so you could show off to your friends. Would that model really have been that bad?

Don’t get me wrong mobile app stores are full of “free” apps that are essentially broken with out in-app purchases and some “free” games are essentially demos (I am downloading Lego Star Wars on iPad right now and get episode 1 story mode free.), but ethically when you begin to see what designers were doing with difficulty in the 80s and 90s you have to begin questioning how much we bought into the spectacle with out questioning the producer.

Difficulty can come in increments or it can just be impossible. Many arcade games were essentially impossible with out additional credits. However games like R-Type (which often rely on patterns and memorization) give the player a firm sense of progress with each quarter. Every life takes you a little further into the game and you learn a little more. The game is hard because the enemies have unique a.i. Patterns and the levels are often clock work puzzles of intuition and reflex. On the other hand Ghost and Goblins… Oh wait someone did a 1cc of it too:

I suppose most of the examples of impossible difficulty are found more on the NES with examples like ninja gaiden which often spawns impossible enemies and circumstances etc. Arcade operators though controlled difficulty and not play time. The inversion of this relationship though has led to numerous complaints about the ethics of iOS free to play games. We find excessively difficult games a fair monetization method, but we understand the relationship between arcade operator and player from the start: they make the game harder we pay more money. The free to play games appear less ethical because of their obfuscation of monetization techniques. Yes the game has in-app purchases, but how many? Am I going to need to pay 1000 usd for a new sword or merely a 1.99 to get unlimited time? iOS free models are converging in Japan on the time model, a system that restricts game play length. No let’s ask ourself if time is the new commodity used in monetization what will ios producers try to take advantage of? Yes, difficulty which often pushed players to greater feats of imagination, frustration, and inhuman hand eye co-ordination has lessened, what has increased is play time. As Wonder Flick advertises itself: it’s the 10,000 hour jrpg it’s just that you can only play 2 of those hour a day with out paying a dime.

Entry filed under: media.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. veryverygaming  |  January 14, 2015 at 2:37 am

    Interesting read, I like the comparison between iOS and arcade difficulty/pricing. I wonder about how the arcade pricing model would go over on iOS or a similar service. The arcade difficulty/pricing thing seems geared towards that impulse “one more quarter” feeling that only comes from having the coin and slot physically to hand.

    • 2. dignifieddevil  |  January 22, 2015 at 3:05 pm

      I was thinking death = ad, but if I am understanding correctly most ios users loathe ad models. You could make microtransactions I suppose.


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