How to Make Difficult Video Games Fun

Back in January 2019 I was enjoying my SNES Classic and decided I should investigate games I’d never played before. I mashed Right on the D-Pad in a kind of “Retro Roulette” I’d made for myself. I landed on Super Ghouls n’ Ghosts. I booted it up, died about 20 times without even finishing the first level, and closed the game.

“Yeah, no thanks,” I said to myself.

Super Ghouls n’ Ghosts is absolutely brutal — kudos to anyone who has actually finished it.

Spinning the roulette again, I landed on F-Zero. I knew about Captain Falcon from Super Smash Bros., but at that point I’d never played any of the games before. Tentatively I booted it up. Despite losing the first few races, I wanted to keep trying. And so I did. Eventually I won the first Grand Prix, and from then on I was hooked. For the next week, all I played on my SNES Classic was F-Zero. I lost dozens of times, and I accidentally blew up my vehicle dozens more, and yet I kept coming back to it. Even after I completed every race, I still kept playing. I memorized the tracks, getting higher and higher in the rankings and beating my old times. It was a blast. I still play F-Zero every now and then on the SNES Nintendo Switch Online app, just to see if I can do a little bit better.

What’s the difference between Super Ghouls n’ Ghosts and F-Zero? Why did I set aside one difficult game only to embrace the other?

F-Zero is tough, but it’s much more my speed (pun intended).

I’ve been thinking about game difficulty a lot recently. After trying out many new genres and styles of games, as well as watching Twitch streamers attempt to play Elden Ring, I’ve realized that it’s only a matter of time before most players encounter a wall in a video game. It may occur at the very beginning, or it may occur further in. It may happen only once, or it may happen often. It may be caused by new controls, or it may be caused by complex combat mechanics. But most games will halt the player in their tracks, or at least slow them down. The player will have to learn something in order to move forward.

The fail state is one of the most common things in video games. How the game handles this state will change whether or not the player will stick with it or walk away.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to play a game casually or on Easy mode. Games are meant to be enjoyed, after all, and not everyone will get enjoyment out of a challenge. But our discourse around video games sometimes misses the point on why the challenge can also be fun. Trying a new strategy is exciting. Solving a puzzle makes you feel clever. Overcoming an intimidating enemy is empowering. Even casual games such as Animal Crossing have at least a small level of challenge in their gameplay. If a video game offered no obstacles to overcome, with no friction to the player, then why even bother?

What we should actually start talking about is how a game creates a contract between itself and the player. The player holds up their end by thinking, experimenting, and trying again; while the game holds up its end by motivating the player to keep going. I don’t know if I can speak for everyone, but I have come up with 5 game elements that motivate me to improve, as well as 5 elements that push me away. Let’s get started!

Crash’s soundtrack and hilarious death animations take the sting out of dying.

Motivating #1: A Good Soundtrack

This sounds obvious, but a strong soundtrack can ease the blow of a mistake or a Game Over. Crash Bandicoot and Donkey Kong Country are brutal Platformers, but their charming and atmospheric soundscapes make it easy to want to be in the level… even when I keep falling into pits. I believe part of why I stuck with F-Zero for so long is also because of that amazing Mute City soundtrack.

There are four pages of text explaining Wirebugs in Monster Hunter Rise, and that’s just one mechanic.

Unmotivating #1: Walls of Text

You know what I’m talking about: a tutorial that slaps you with pages upon pages of text explaining what you’re supposed to do. It’s easy to miss something in the paragraphs of exposition. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is guilty of this, as is every Monster Hunter demo I’ve ever played. It’s always hard to want to keep playing when I see a novel of text, and I know more is coming.

Nothing makes me want to play a game more than seeing myself getting stronger and stronger.

Motivating #2: A High Skill Ceiling

By “high skill ceiling,” I mean games that offer the player options to become more and more skilled at the game. To have a high skill ceiling, a game needs 1) solid controls, 2) good game feel, and 3) complex game systems. For example, if you watch videos of long-time speedrunners or veteran players of Breath of the Wild, you’ll see techniques that you’d never imagine was possible. Other games like Hades, Super Mario Odyssey, Metroid Dread, and Astral Chain all had these high skill ceilings with advanced techniques that motivated me to keep improving long after the credits ended.

I barely did any damage, and this was just against the computer.

Unmotivating #2: High Skill Floor

On the other hand, there’s nothing so discouraging as a high skill floor. And by “floor,” I mean the level of skill you need to perform basic tasks in the game, like winning a match or finishing a level. This factor is where many people disagree on what makes a game “too hard” or “too easy,” as everyone’s skill level varies to some degree. Many fighting games and shoot ’em ups have a high skill floor, as does the aforementioned Super Ghouls n’ Ghosts. This problem becomes exacerbated if the game has a poor tutorial (like the walls of text mentioned earlier) or other unexplained mechanics (which will be mentioned soon).

Having an army of unlockables is a surefire way to get me to commit to getting better.

Motivating #3: Unlockables

Collectible trinkets and unlockable rewards are a solid method of motivation. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, for example, will reward you with fighters, spirits, and awards. Additionally, if you dial up the difficulty, you’ll earn even more rewards. Sakurai is a master at persuading you to get better without pressuring you. I have over a hundred hours put into the game for this exact reason.

Seasons plague almost every modern online multiplayer game, and they’re my biggest pet peeve of the entire industry.

Unmotivating #3: Multiplayer Seasons

For me, these Seasons that online multiplayer games espouse nowadays feel like evil twin of Unlockabes. Nothing pushes me away from a game faster than a meta game tied up in a never-ending hamster wheel of getting more stuff, and I can only get it now, because the season only lasts a few months! Recent games I’ve tried like Destiny 2 and the multiplayer part of Halo Infinite commit these exact sins. They are preying on my Sunk Cost Fallacy to make the game my second job. Life is stressful enough.

The mysteries of Lordran are so tantalizing, you just need know what happens next.

Motivating #4: Characters, Story, and Mystery

As I shared in my recent review for Halo: Master Chief Collection, the story played a large role in motivating me to learn the controls and gameplay mechanics. For my partner, the quirky characters motivated her to learn the complex strategy elements for Fire Emblem: Three Houses. In Dark Souls, I was so intrigued by the mystery of its world that I persisted during its tough boss fights. While I wished Arms had a more robust single-player mode, its characters were so charming that they motivated me to learn the game’s mechanics. It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare, but a game’s story matters. It can be the one feature that encourages the player to try again.

It’s nice that Fatal Fury SP teaches the controls after the title screen, but what about Combos? Spacing? …Any help here?

Unmotivating #4: Unclear Game Mechanics

Many old fighting games commit this sin, in my opinion. They teach basic moves, but that won’t help me against a computer or a decent human opponent. When should I kick instead of punch? How do I execute combos? Since these games originated in the arcade, you would initially get that information from a friend, or from watching someone else. It’s not exactly a good recipe for a single-player home experience. I’d like to get more into the classics like Street Fighter II Turbo and Fatal Fury, but I need to sit through several video tutorials on YouTube just to grasp basic mechanics, and I lose interest after half an hour. I appreciate how more modern fighting games handle this problem, such as Pokken Tournament‘s practice dojo, which offers me much more of the motivation and immediate feedback I need to learn.

Star Fox 64 is a replayable masterpiece. Even after all of these years, I still play it again and again.

Motivating #5: Replayability

Games that are short but have high replayability are fantastic at encouraging me to keep getting better. Star Fox 64 is a classic example. You can beat it in just a few hours, but the branching paths mean you can take dozens of different routes through the campaign. With every subsequent playthrough, you’ll get more skilled at controlling your ship. By the time you see every level, you may feel motivated to reach for the high score medals, which sit proudly on the level select screen. It’s a gameplay loop that keeps the player spiralling upwards.

The way that Tunic and Hollow Knight pull the rug out from under you with their initial sad endings is quite demoralizing.

Unmotivating #5: Bad Endings

It’s one thing to have a “true ending” or an “extra special ending” as a reward for those players who took the time to 100% complete a game, but then there are games where the default endings are the “sad endings.” For example, in Tunic (another game I recently reviewed), you’ll likely see the sad and unfulfilling ending first. The true ending is actually hidden behind even more cryptic puzzles and challenges. I managed to do it, and it even had a clever twist, but I did it despite how discouraged I initially felt. Hollow Knight had the same problem. In its case, though, I was so exhausted that I never bothered to go back and get its true ending. I’m not sure if they’re trying to spur me on to complete the extra challenges, but it has the opposite effect on me. There’s nothing that takes the wind out of my sails like realizing that all the hard work I put into the game doesn’t have at least some satisfying payoff.

And there you have it! The next time you find yourself playing a hard video game, or you see other people talking about difficulty in games, stop and think: what is the game doing to motivate me to keep trying? Is the game hard, or is it discouraging?

This answer will naturally change from person to person, or even depending on the person’s mood, and that’s okay. Not everyone is motivated by the same things. You will encounter games that you think are easy or enthralling that others find cryptic or boring. Your disagreement isn’t bad, it just means you’re different people.

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