On Challenge and Punishment

Designer Gregory Weir wrote an analysis piece making a distinction between challenge and punishment in games a few days back, I don’t fully agree with him although this morning it occurred to me that it actually provides some answers to the questions left lingering after I completed Prince of Persia some weeks ago.

The distinction itself is fair and well worth keeping in mind at all times – how, if gaming is a series of interesting challenges as proposed by Rollings/Adams,  challenge is about the difficulty in successfully completing these challenges, and punishment is essentially how much work you’ll have to redo on failure. A game is hard if the combined challenge/punishment is high, and Weir argues that punishment mostly leads to frustration and we should aim to have more challenge instead. Adams made a similar statement at some point, about how making the player replay already completed tasks is never good design and how saving wherever, whenever should be possible in all games.

On a personal level I agree with Weir, as a gamer I too prefer not to have to replay parts of a game, but as a developer I think he downplays the importance of punishment as a device intended to make the game feel more serious – if there’s more at stake when taking on a problem, it can be made to feel more like a challenge and less like you’re just playing around and testing the boundaries of the environment. I also think that he is a little too soft on challenging gameplay – using his example, if an adventure game has a befuddling solution to a puzzle and you run around for hours trying to find it, I don’t think this is less frustrating than having to replay parts of a platform level 20 times.

Also – although this applies more to Adams’ quicksave argument – if given too little playtime before the actual challenge, the player’s opportunity to play the “easy” parts differently in order to have the economy of the game affect the real challenge differently (picking up different weapons, conserving health etc) is decreased and all challenges need to be designed so that they can reasonably be tackled at any state, or the long-term attention to the game economy needs to be sacrificed altogether. Of course it’s easy to blame the player if he quicksaves with almost no health before a decisive encounter, but that would be punishing the player for being creative with the tools given to him, and not really better than other kinds of punishment. I would say a good save system should be transparent and if not encourage, then at least not prohibit the style of play intended by the designer – be it punishing or not.

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Posted on Feb 15/09 by Saint and filed under General game development | No Comments »