Is a difficult game a bad game?

The still somewhat recent release of Cuphead sparked a debate among gamers and media that time and time again comes to the foreground when a frustratingly difficult game is released and raises to the top of gamers their attention.

Is a frustrating/difficult game bad game design?

Well, it can be and most of the frustrating games out there are at least not great. Because difficulty and frustration in a game are very hard to balance for a designer. If done wrong, it angers players and quickly turns them away from your game. However, when done right, it elevates your game to a new level of recognition. Take Dark souls for example, a terrifyingly difficult game, but with a huge fan-base and almost unanimous critical acclaim.

The reason for a difficult game to be great, instead of bad or mediocre lies in the way the player either consciously or subconsciously experiences failure in the game. For a player nothing can be more annoying than getting pulled out of the flow by the game throwing a curveball that the player can not anticipate on. Having the feeling that the game is actively trying to make you fail quickly throws away any good will that the player has for your product. However, a game can make tasks almost impossible to complete but still succeed at giving the player a rewarding experience. Take Super Meat Boy for example, it shows the player where he/she died, what mistakes were made, leading towards failure. This is a very clear and easy way to get to the core of what is important in a well designed frustratingly difficult challenge. Letting the player feel like they know where they went wrong, that the mistake could have been prevented and that the player has success within his/her grasp.

A curveball out of nowhere takes away the agency that a player has over his/her failure. If the obstacle is not avoidable without previous knowledge, or without foreshadowing, the player will inevitably die without taking extreme luck or skill into account. This is unfair since games are not there to force a player into behaviour, let alone dying. Games are there to challenge players and give them a fair chance to succeed, when they’re skilled enough.

So next time your game gets critiqued as being to difficult and thus badly designed. Ask yourself this question;

“Does my player have a way to know what is coming and does he/she feel that dying was a mistake caused by their own wrong choices leading up to it?”

Got any questions or feedback? Hit me up on Twitter (@Ithunn).