Monday 20 November 2017

Nintendo Hard

When developing games for the NES, Nintendo designers used to have a concept of Nintendo Hard. Most kids didn’t have a lot of pocket money and games were expensive in the Eighties, so Nintendo wanted to ensure their games stood out as good value for money that provided a lot of play-time. To do this, they didn’t just make games hard; they made them Nintendo Hard. They’d do the normal three difficulty levels - Easy, Medium, Hard - and then they’d make a fourth difficulty called Nintendo Hard which was too hard for the developers to beat. Then they’d just shift everything down a space in the menu. So Easy would actually be Medium, Medium would actually be Hard, and Hard would actually be Nintendo Hard. So was the genius of Nintendo.

The above story is absolute rubbish.

There’s a thousand reasons why it makes no sense. Indeed, one of the things that makes Nintendo’s first party games stand out from other games from the same era is how intuitive, accessible and forgiving they are.

But it was told to me in a pub by a drunk guy who was very insistent and I think he liked the idea that he was imparting valuable knowledge to a so-called professional game developer. Who am I to take that joy away from him?

Thus, this is an article about what it really means to be Nintendo Hard.

I’ve had an interesting relationship with difficulty in my own games. Codex Bash was never meant to be difficult. It is designed for exhibition spaces where visitors will want to move from exhibit to exhibit. My duty as a designer is to give them the best experience I can in the environment they’re in. So they should have the best five-to-ten minutes I can offer and then be free to explore the rest of the exhibition with my game a highlight of their day.

Part of that memorable experience is a feeling of a success well-earned. So I want players to beat Codex Bash first time, but it’s important that they had to make a genuine effort to do so. In other words, the game is meant to be easy but feel hard.

A game is nothing if it is not being played, so what a player feels a game is is the only thing that game actually is.

It matters that Codex Bash feels hard. It recognises the lateral thinking, imagination and teamwork you put in, and validates that with the the sense that you’ve achieved something against the odds. It matters that you feel like you classic Nintendo games have the legend of being Nintendo Hard. It makes you feel like you have rad skills. It comforts you if you’re struggling.

Difficulty is not an absolute. A game is only as difficult as the player finds it. A beginner has to overcome the same intensity of challenge playing a game on Easy as a veteran does playing a game on Hard. The beginner gets the same pride in beating the game as the veteran, so long as they both felt they overcame a challenge that was beyond them starting out.

Difficulty in Modern Games

Designers’ approach to difficulty in games has changed, certainly over the past ten or fifteen years. They haven’t got easier, they haven’t got harder, but they have got more forgiving. Tutorials are richer and more detailed and the explanations are better. Pictures have replaced text. Doing has replaced being told. Controls are increasingly re-mappable. Checkpoints are more common. These are great trends. They mean more people get to play, and people get to play the way that suits their preferences and their physicality. The trend has been to reject the ridiculous idea that getting into a game is something that must be earned.

Nintendo Hard in the early 2010’s has changed too, albeit with some backlash from certain corners of the internet. Recent Super Mario games have given players the opportunity to skip over levels they can’t beat, or super-strength power-ups if they’re struggling. If you can’t get past a level why shouldn’t you enjoy the rest of the game you paid for? When you come back to it and finally master it you’ll still get the same sense of achievement.

Nevertheless, with these wonderful trends there has been a parallel trend which has been frustrating. As developers have embraced the reality that a good game teaches its players, my personal feeling is that “the bit that teaches you how to play” has become longer, more restrictive and more forced.

A game that offers you an exciting new toy but won’t let you play with it until you’ve jumped through a list of hoops is frustrating. A game that does not trust you to be able to figure out the toy on your own is condescending. “Let me get to the good bit” has become my most common whine about recent games.

Compare 1991’s Sonic the Hedgehog - which opens with a massive playground of ramps and springs and lets you loose to feel out its novel momentum mechanics by mucking around - with 2013’s Gravity Rush - where the first hour teaches you to use its tantalising gravity mechanics by hemming you in to small environments and metered “get to a location” quests and fights.

One game opens by giving you a racecar and the other opens by giving you a driving test. One game trusts you and the other is afraid to let you make mistakes.

Granted, one game is more complex than the other. But there’s no reason Gravity Rush could not have opened with an open playground to experiment with the mechanics on your own terms. Targeted quests could be an opportunity to put your newly-found abilities into action, to take what you’ve discovered into the playground and use it to achieve a goal. Instead, main quests feel like a harder version of the tutorial - a test to see if you’ve been paying attention rather than an opportunity to show off.

This is, of course, a reflection of personal taste. Many people have applauded Gravity Rush for its design, and I'm glad that it's found an audience who have thoroughly enjoyed it, and no game should be expected to please everyone. I personally grew impatient with the game and could not get into it because it felt like work. But I also feel that for new studios and cheaper games losing the player's interest early on can mean the work gets entirely overlooked. An upfront investment, or the trust of a known studio or a box on a shelf, means players are willing to give a game with a weak opening the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, do any of us really want to rely on the benefit of the doubt?

Fortunately, it is entirely possible to have the best of both worlds. It is perfectly reasonable to support reticent players with a helping hand and offer confident players freedom. It’s exactly what Nintendo have demonstrated this year with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey.

The New Nintendo

In Zelda, if you follow the suggested route you learn to fend off some simple enemies, and the fine folks of Kakariko Village teach you the tools of the trade. You’ll have opportunities to get equipment and power up your hearts and stamina with some simpler puzzles. There’s a neat learning curve that warms you up to the challenges, trains you in adventuring skills, and mounts the challenge when you’ve proven you get it.

The game is perfectly well equipped to train you. But if you don’t feel the need to be trained it won’t stop you going your own way.

As soon as I was given the opportunity to diverge from the suggested route I did. I felt confident. I wanted to be rebellious. I wanted to push the boundaries of what the game would let me get away with. If an area looked like it was supposed to be too hard for me I made a beeline for it and tried to prove the game wrong. I felt smart when I used my wits to climb rock faces that seemed way too high, and disarm enemies that could slay me in one hit. I felt like a maverick poking around the north edge of the map, with its lava pools and centaurs and only three hearts to my name.

This was an act of self-expression.

I got to express my rebellious nature and choose my own level of challenge. I could go straight to the harder puzzle rooms, straight into the tough puzzles that a Zelda veteran like myself would find satisfying. None of this prevented a beginner from engaging with the lessons that would help them reach the same position, and where to find these lessons was clearly marked out.

Not only this, but having easy sections in the game was of no detriment to my experience as a confident veteran. When I went back to the easy sections, well-armed and full of self-taught strategies I felt powerful. The easy puzzles felt like fun freebies, proof of my awesomeness. I’d been trying to prove to the game “look how good I am!” and it said “yes you are!”

Again, I stress that none of this means there are no tutorials in the game. Tutorials are plentiful and well-indicated, but it’s your choice to engage with them. Gentler areas of the game exist too. The beauty of the game is that it trusts you to choose. It trusts you to decide how confident you are, and gives you a teleport back to the easier bits if you decide it’s too much for you.

In Super Mario Odyssey, to progress to the next stage you need to collect a certain number of shiny gold moons. Some of these are indicated by plot points and markers which obviously guide you to the next one. Plenty are scattered around the area for players who want to go off the beaten track to demonstrate their lateral thinking and dexterity. Moons that you wouldn’t find unless you spotted some unusual level geometry, or questioned what might be out of camera-shot.

Of course, a beginner finds following the path to the plot-marked moons is just as hard as a veteran finds hunting for obscure moons. The game makes few demands on which moons you need to get - any moons will do - and rates no one moon as more worthy than any other.

Beginners: you’re not going to run across a point where your play experience stops dead. Veterans: you don’t need to trudge through tasks that do not stretch you. The game applauds both approaches and rewards you with new levels for your efforts.

These are games that say “yes, and” to their players. You need a hand to learn? I’ve got your back, here’s a tutorial. You want to just get on with it? Go ahead, pick the bit that looks most interesting to you - I promise it will pay off!

Of Toys and Teachers

This is the attitude that says the role of a game is to offer up a toy rather than teach a player a skill.

When I was starting out in the industry, and Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design was a massive inspiration for me. Raph Koster’s book proposed that we have fun as an evolutionary reward for learning, a thought which I found rational and compelling.

While I still largely agree with A Theory of Fun, I also don’t think learning is the only source of fun. Nevertheless, either through other designers using this pattern in their work, or by noticing the trend more easily having read it myself, I feel I’ve come across more and more often. Games that, particularly in their opening segments, prioritise teaching their mechanics over providing inspiration to play.

“This section is there to teach the player” is the design philosophy of Super Mario Bros World 1-1 without the nuance.

World 1-1 is a level that’s been analysed brilliantly time and time again by many astute designers. World 1-1 teaches you the basic mechanics of jumping on enemies, falling down holes, enemy patterns and behaviours, all by putting you in situations where you have to do them. It’s learning by doing, not learning by being told. This is excellent, but it’s only half the lesson. What World 1-1 also does is never feel like a tutorial. You don’t realise you’re being taught how to play, but like you’re figuring it out for yourself. As an added bonus if you already know what you’re doing you can burn through it really fast and feel awesome in the process.

Not feeling like a tutorial is important. If a game feels like it’s trying to teach the player it doesn’t feel satisfying to learn. It feels like performing a task rather than expressing yourself. The player does not get to take pride in their own achievement. At worst, if the player fails they will blame the teacher that set a frustrating task, rather than look to themselves for an alternative solution.

The designer’s hand can direct a player to the lessons they need to learn, but we should aspire that the player should not see it. The player should see themselves spotting a detail and responding with a solution.

The player chooses to learn because the player has an intrinsic motivation to solve each challenge in the level. The player’s goal is to get to the end of the level. Pits and enemies are in their way, but figuring them out means getting to that next level! But if the player can tell that each challenge is there to teach them a lesson their goal is not seeing the next tantalising stage - it’s getting the teacher off of their back.

A good game lets the lessons a player learns be their own achievements.

Yes, and

If you want to be on your player’s side you need to be able to say “yes, and” to them.

“Yes, and” means providing your game to players and letting them do whatever they want with it, learn what they want from it and achieve what they feel is a meaningful achievement to them. You can suggest new paths for them to follow, but if they choose to go a different path then your job is not to restrict that choice. It is to celebrate it.

“Yes, and” is about providing an opportunity to players. Give them an opportunity to jump around in crazy environments and go on a wild adventure. Give them an opportunity to express themselves. Give them an opportunity to prove themselves to themselves. Inspire them to ask “what if?”

A teacher gives you a task. A toy gives you an opportunity. Raph Koster was right when he said that when we learn we have fun. But the joy is much more memorable when we own the lesson we have learned.

That’s the great lesson Nintendo have demonstrated this year. Nintendo Hard is not about being punishingly hard, and it’s not about being trivially easy. Nintendo Hard is about letting players choose for themselves what they want to achieve and saying “yes.”

Nintendo Hard is, to say to every single player who approaches your game, “this is my gift to you.”