Aztez – A Game of Conquest and Brutality

Challenge Vs Punishment

One of the fundamental components of an engaging game (card, board, electronic, party, etc.) is that there is some degree of difficulty between starting the game and arriving at the success state, whatever that may be. While this can be applied to games of all lengths and depths, the bottom line is that a player that goes unchallenged for too long is going to get bored. It's one of the amazing properties we possess as living creatures; we need to go face to face with our environment in SOME way or else we start feeling numb. The geniuses that developed the first arcade games realized that tapping into this evolutionary compulsion was the perfect business model. They realized that by engaging players hard enough with a game they must pay to play, then they will happily pay to play...over and over again. This is why coin-operated games were often times so difficult yet so successful; they managed to find the sweet spot between compelling and punishing. The problem here is that a lot of us game designers who grew up playing those games still think that challenge must be appropriated in those archaic ways. But times have changed. Different kinds people are playing different kinds of games and expectations have mutated, for better or worse.

Now I want to talk about Super Meat Boy for a quick second. Edmund McMillen (one of the two developers of the game) wrote an awesome post on the Team Meat blog about challenge in games and he broke it down into a really straightforward formula; (% chance the player will die) x (Penalty for dying) = Difficulty. This formula is basically addressing the player concern of "How often will I fail and how much and I going to be punished for it?" Super Meat Boy answers this question in a very distinct way - you die very often and are punished very little. This was a conscious decision on the part of Team Meat and they have specifically constructed all of their levels around this equation.

So what does this have to do with Aztez? It has to do with the fact that we are also going to answer this question in a very distinct way; by making it very difficult to die in addition to punishing you very little when you do. Of course this seems to introduce the problem of having too little challenge, and I absolutely agree that the danger is there. So my perceived solution to this potential problem is to alter the nature of the challenge itself and design accordingly. Instead of challenging the player to not die, Aztez will challenge the player to perform very well (phase 1 of the game). Games like Tony Hawk Pro Skater and Off-Road Velociraptor Safari have done this to great effect; the onus is on the player to accumulate high scores in creative ways as opposed to avoiding a death state. The only problem with those types of games is they are timed and you are restricted to experiencing the game in specific difficulty levels in specific amounts of time. I believe there is a way to circumvent these traditional restrictions and still create an engaging game.

How are we going to do this? Don't know yet! But I'll tell you this much - I'm asking the following questions: What if the player had control over the difficulty of the game on a moment-to-moment basis? What if the player could end the current gameplay segment whenever they wanted? What if the player was rewarded for taking creative risks by having their punishment states delayed, or even eliminated? Help me out here, gamers! :)

  • Evilagram

    A reasonable formula, though I feel it doesn’t really capture everything about difficulty. Players get better at games, decreasing their chance of dying. It is fair to say that the game is less difficult for them, but then the trouble is, how do you measure whether the game itself is difficult, or merely difficult from a certain player’s perspective? What about games that don’t meaningfully feature those concepts of difficulty, such as racing games? Can any fighting game or multiplayer game be considered harder than any other from this perspective? What about the distinction between tackling a high difficulty game when you are at a high level of skill and tackling a low difficulty game when you are at a high level of skill? what about games that are designed such that deaths are high percent chance due to randomness?

    In response to your concept for difficulty, I think you may be better off just having different difficulty modes for players who want more or less of a challenge. I don’t think score based difficulty really delivers as satisfyingly, unless scores become an actual barrier to progression. In general I think that the barriers to progression should be things that ensure the player is actually playing the game well. The whole point really is to force the player to learn the system. It’s to present them with a challenge and only let them pass if they can overcome it. This is the road to achieving flow with a game, that feeling of being met with something challenging and being able to overcome it. Self imposed challenges just don’t ring as strongly to me as those imposed by the game. I need to play street fighter well to overcome other people, I need to play god hand well to overcome the level. Any game can become hard with a self imposed challenge, like going for highest score or best time, but if it doesn’t gate progression, then I think achievements don’t really have much backing to them.

    If you want an emphasis on scoring, leave that for the guys who want to do it, and implement proper difficulty modes for everyone else.

    • So this post is super outdated (from an earlier time when we had a different game structure in mind) but you bring up some interesting points. But let me tell you what we’re doing now.

      In the full game experience you’ll be bouncing back and forth between a strategy game and real-time sequences. Events appear on the Empire map and what you choose to address and how well you address it has different ramifications on the larger game. But something we’re going to do is let you ratchet up the difficulty at the beginning of the event. Doing this introduces more enemies, and higher level enemies. But it also ups your reward. We’re hoping this is a way to engage yourself further. but the crucial difference is the reward; self-imposed challenges, by their nature, don’t reward you. They can be rewarding, but only internally. So we’ll see.