Difficult Talk: Challenge vs Punishment

Difficulty is a big part of game design, something people talk about a lot when talking about why they like or dislike a given game, a major factor all-around... aaaand it's actually a rather large array of distinct concepts that unfortunately all gets rolled under the singular banner of 'difficulty'.

In this post though, I'm focused on what I think are two of the most important and distinct elements people are talking about when they're talking about a game being 'too hard' or 'not hard enough'.


Challenge is how hard it is to get a success, by whatever metric is most relevant.

Say you have a timing-based mechanic in your game. Super Mario RPG has 'timed hits', as a fairly clear, unusual-for-its-genre example; the player can increase the damage of their attacks and decrease the damage of enemy attacks by pressing a button about when the game considers the attack to 'connect'. When speaking of how challenging the timed hits are in SMRPG, the primary metric is how tight the timeframe for the button input is. If there's a second-long window in which pushing the button is appropriate, that's easier than a half-second long window, but harder than a 2-second long window.

As an example of this in action, one of the abilities in SMRPG is Mario's 'Super Jump'. The Super Jump has Mario go and jump on a single target, and every time the player pulls off the timed hit, Mario jumps on the target again. This can go on theoretically infinitely, so long as the player can keep managing the timing, and in fact the game rewards the player for getting long enough streaks -a 100 jump streak nets you one of the best items in the game.

Now, on the face of it that sounds fairly easy. Pushing a button in a simple rhythm 100 times in a row? Tedious, but not actually a challenge.

However, the Super Jump does two things that make this not so; firstly, Mario's time off-screen is slightly randomized. Pushing the button every 1.2 seconds or whatever will inevitably fail, requiring the player to actually pay attention to when Mario appears.

Secondly, it tightens the timing the longer a streak goes on.

As such, it's actually flat-out harder to get the timed hit for the 50th impact than for the 10th. A typical experience is to try the move two or three times, get an idea of the rhythm, think you've got it, and then somewhere around the 10th impact mess it up, because what was fast and precise enough is no longer good enough.

So that's challenge: how high is the bar set for achieving success.

The Super Jump actually also segues nicely into...


For all that the Super Jump gets harder to get right the longer the streak goes on, you know what doesn't change?

The consequences of failure: the streak ends.

That's a meaningful punishment, but it's also a fairly minor one. You could've done more damage, but it's not like the game took all your unspent cash for messing up the 30th jump, or permanently killed off a party member for failing on the 50th jumps, and it certainly didn't erase your file just because you botched the 100th jump. The punishment didn't scale to the challenge.

Punishment is an important part of having meaningful difficulty. If 'success' and 'failure' lead to the same states, then there's no reason to try to succeed, and obviously failure should be the undesirable state. At minimum, the game needs to reward success with progress and punish failure with lack of progress.

However, it's not interchangeable with challenge, and a moderately common design mistake is to escalate punishment when trying to make a game 'harder'.

Now, to a certain extent scale of punishment does actually factor into difficulty. A squad-based tactics game with no ability to replace or revive squad members who fall in battle has your options become increasingly limited as casualties mount, for example, where a game in which downed party members can be returned to the fight over and over again has death merely a temporary inconvenience, costing you 2-4 'man-turns' each time someone dies. (1 'man-turn' spent on the revive, plus 1-3 'man-turns' lost because the dead unit didn't get to act, dependent in part on when they died in turn order and how the game handles timing of revival)

On the other hand, if the challenge is low enough that failure just doesn't happen, the game can escalate its punishment all it wants and it will never have an actual effect on play. There are entire games I have never seen the Game Over screen, and couldn't tell you what the consequences of in-game death were.

Furthermore, there's the nature of the punishment to consider: the two examples I named were both in-game punishment considerations. By contrast, many classic games would give a player a limited number of lives, and punish losing a life by booting the player to the beginning of a stage, and then punish losing all your lives by kicking you to the beginning of the entire game. (Okay, 'continues' were common, but they're the same principle But More So) In something like Sonic The Hedgehog, there's no in-game point to booting the player to the beginning of the game. Booting them to the beginning of the level and stripping them of Shields or other powerups? Yeah, you've not only punished them by making them start the level over, but also in the deal made the level harder. I take issue with that design for other reasons, but it's purposeful within the game.

Booting the player to the beginning of the game is just wasting their real-life time for no real reason.


I suspect this distinction is the heart of why Dark Souls' difficulty gets a lot of heated debate -Dark Souls has a lot of challenge, which is definitely good, but it's also unusual as an action game for having notable punishment (the loss of all your unspent Souls and all your current Humanity), and it's particularly worth noting that undoing the punishment requires returning to the area you originally died. If you died because you just plain aren't ready for the area, that's a rather unpleasant dynamic. If you love challenge and don't particularly mind moderate punishment for your failures, then the game is amazing. If you're put off by more than minor punishment, then pushing through the learning curve is an unpleasant experience, regardless of what your feelings on challenge might be.

The fact that the punishment shades into punishing the player by taking away their real-life time probably contributes to some people not being motivated to push through the game.


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