Continuing with Halo 3 launch excitement, Peter talks about the popular game from the game play experience for players with different skill levels.
I haven't played Halo 3 yet, though by all accounts it looks like a winner. I have, however, played and enjoyed Halo 1 & 2. One design aspect of the Halo series that interests me is the way the in-game challenge level associated with player designated difficulty settings has evolved. Halo 1 (and sequels) present the player with four options which vary from soothing to alarming: Easy, Normal, Heroic, and Legendary. This is a bit like a 4 point Likert scale - although the name "Normal" gives the player the illusion of a middle option, in fact, no such option has been provided. Although Normal in fact represents Medium-easy, it evokes a pleasing sensation for novice players that they are completing the game fairly at a Normal level of difficulty. There's a good set of examples of changes between various difficulty levels of Halo 2 available on IGN's XBOX site, and here's direct links to Quicktime movie clips of Easy, Normal, Heroic and Legendary.
For players with experience in first person shooter (FPS) games, Halo 1 in Normal mode presented only a modest challenge. Even so, the challenge level of Normal mode declined in Halo 2 and early reports are that this trend has continued in Halo 3, for example as discussed in the IGN video review of Halo 3. The reason for this almost certainly lies in the evolving demographic of gamers, and the emergence of a significant casual gamer marketplace.
It is true that any FPS requires a certain level of dedication to master even enough skill to navigate the environment, well above the commitment required to obtain basic proficiency in the average Wii console game for example. (Most new players I've observed seem to experience the most problems with the two-thumbstick navigation, where one controls movement and the other camera/head movement. With a combined four degrees of freedom this interface takes considerable play time to master, but is a transferable skill amongst most console FPS games.) The Easy and Normal modes of Halo attempt to compensate for this, especially in early game play, by providing AI controlled allies who are in some cases able to defeat the AI opponents without assistance from the player. Given the challenge of learning basic navigation skills, this is definitely a requirement to avoid player frustration when learning in the early levels. My experience is that players become desensitized to having their in game character “die” as the game progresses, with the highest penalties in player frustration coming early in the game.
But what about gameplay for experienced or expert players? I believe that in a perfect world, where the challenge levels were ideally designed, the difficulty curves for a console game that didn't have the initial startup cost of an FPS and those that did should merge. I'm sure it would be both fun and informative to pick out some exemplars from different platforms and game-types, and do a head-to-head comparison on the number of hours required to achieve "expert" status. (Determining precisely when a player has reached "expert" status is left as an exercise to the reader. ;)) However, the degree to which experts are challenging game based AI is also increasing. The most difficult setting in Halo 2 is considerably more difficult than in Halo 1 - and it will be interesting to see whether this trend continues. As the Halo franchise can now draw on a large pool of players with finely honed play skills, keeping these players interested requires more effort in tricky opponent AI.
Games present many unique design problems, of which determining appropriate difficulty levels is just one aspect. I can say one thing with certainty: game challenge should not be the result of difficulty with the interface. Examples of games where game challenge is significantly dependent on interface design problems are innumerable, but I’ll pick on one egregious example: the purely gesture-based interface of Black & White, which caused nearly head-popping frustration. The game design community has been getting better at recognizing some of these issues, and designing interfaces that are less frustrating and less of a barrier to play. The improved usability of each new generation of games is continually widening the gaming demographic.
Peter McLachlan is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia. His current work involves designing and evaluating usable information visualization systems. Over the years, he has sacrificed many hours to gaming on multiple platforms.