Freedom versus Challenge

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February 1st, 2010

This is a guest blog post from Wilbefast. He is a long time community member, has made a number of his own games, and always posts excellent commentary.

I get the feeling that many of the industry's game-developers secretly wish they were film-makers instead. "Cinematic" is often a selling point; but as a consumer, I'd sooner watch a film if that was what I wanted. In this arena movies have the upper hand because their directors have complete control over pacing. Meanwhile games, by their very nature, give their audience a lot more liberty to explore content meaning that game designers have far less control over the experience. This can be a good or a bad thing, depending on whether you're fighting against the nature of your medium or seeking to make the most of what it does well.

Simply put, we're never going to beat films at their own game, and so long as we're looking to cinema for our ideas, we'll only be making second-rate copies. Instead of turning to other mediums for inspiration, we should be taking a closer look at our own, at what is special and unique about the interactive medium.

So what is it that games can do that nothing else can?

The Yin and Yang of Game Design

When you think about it, the only thing that really sets games apart is their interactivity. This means, first of all, that games can challenge their audience. A lot of the enjoyment of playing a game comes from overcoming the various hurdles that the designer puts before you.

Interactivity also means that, unlike a book or a film, a game can present a world the player is free to experiment with, to explore and to leave their mark on. Thanks to interactivity, a player is not a passive observer, but rather an active participant. No other medium can hope compete with games in this, their element.

So Interactivity is what makes games special; freedom and challenge are two of its manifestations. All games will feature a mixture of these two ingredients, though more often than not, one will be used to the exclusion of the other. For example, Postal and SimCity give the player total freedom, but there's no real objective, so you have to create your own challenge. On the other end of the spectrum, games like Doom or Mario Brothers don't give the player any freedom to speak of; you either play the game "properly" or you die and have to restart.

It is, however, important to aim for a good balance of both freedom and challenge because in general it's far more satisfying to find your own solution to a problem than it is to correctly answer a multiple choice question.

For example, in Informatics (a course I'm taking), you're often asked to derive a conceptual model from a real-life system. Even for a fairly simple problem, no two people will come up with exactly the same chart or algorithm. You get this feeling of pride and satisfaction from having your own personal solution, even if it's not the simplest or the most efficient.

Meanwhile, a friend of mine is studying Medicine and has to learn the names of all the bones in the human body. I can't imagine deriving a great deal satisfaction from memorising 206 names. Certainly there's no sense of ownership of the solution, nor is there a great deal of pride or satisfaction to be had if you succeed: it's just part of the job.

Ying-Yang freedom-challenge graph
A balance between freedom and challenge is important: in a sense they are the Yin and Yang of game design.

This point, that finding your own solution to a problem is more interesting than just knowing the correct answer, is obviously true of games too. It might be satisfying to beat a difficult level, but it's even more satisfying if you did so "your way". Getting balance right can be very difficult though, because freedom and challenge don't simply complement each other, they also contradict each other, work against each other. Giving the player too much freedom will make your game a cake-walk, while making your game too challenging will severely restrict the number of viable strategies.

Take for example the game Lemmings: If you want to let the player come up with their own solution to a given puzzle you'll need to provide them with a good collection of different "lemming skills". However, if you want to make the level challenging you'll need to do the opposite, to limit the number of available skills to the bare minimum required.

So the question really is, how do you make your game challenging, while still allowing the player to personalise their experience? How do you give the player freedom without making the game too easy?

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I - Provide some Cosmetic Personalisation

One way of solving this problem is to add little decisions that don't greatly affect gameplay. On the one hand they won't skew the balance or affect and challenge, and on the other, they're fairly simple to implement.

This could mean, for example, the option of customising the appearance of your character. In GTA: San Andreas "my" CJ was anorexic, always had an afro and never wore shoes - a bit of an eccentric really.

The personalisation is entirely superficial - there are no changes to dialogue for example – but through the miracle of projection I see him as being a very different character from my brother's shaved, muscle-bound, bandanna-wearing CJ:

anorexic, afro, shoeless CJ versus shaved, muscle-bound, bandanna-wearing CJ
On the left, "my CJ". On the right, "his CJ".

It's also possible to do something a little more elaborate. In Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, you can choose between killing or simply knocking out any NPCs you happen to confront. In close combat or interrogation, this is just the difference between a left- and a right-click, and while the decision has little impact on the gameplay or the story, it can make a huge difference to the player, who, again through projection, actually feels sorry for nameless, virtual goons.

Lugaru does differentiate between dead and unconscious enemies, but doesn't benefit from Splinter Cell's heat-vision mechanic, so it isn't always easy to tell who's dead and who's unconscious, unless you know the signs to look for. It's also quite easy to accidentally kill someone you mean to leave alive. This is, perhaps, as it should be though: there is nothing harder in real life than to subdue an opponent without badly injuring them. Clothing in Lugaru has no impact on gameplay and can be drawn on any character in the editor. However the player never has the option of changing their outfit.

II - Use Procedures, not Scripting

I talked about deriving models earlier, obviously these need to be corrected individually by a human being, but the Game Designer won't be there to judge each individual player's attempts. The difficulty is thus coming up with a way of automatically judging the player, and most games solve it by axing freedom in favour of the challenge. As such they tell the player something like You Have To Burn The Rope and don't give them any other option. Sometimes the opposite approach is taken, and the challenge is removed or rendered utterly trivial.

You Have To Burn The Rope
Click to play You Have To Burn The Rope.

To provide freedom without sacrificing the challenge, or vice versa, it's necessary for the game to react dynamically to the player's attempts and to adjust the challenge based on their play-style. Of course, since it's impossible to predict everything that the player could possibly try, you can't do this through scripting. Instead it's necessary for the game to be based on a robust simulation.

A very simple example of this would be the classic tank game Spectre. In Spectre, the player was able to customise their tank, choosing how fast, tough and powerful it was. The designers were able to give the player this option because the game-world was simulated, and as such any tank design that should work in the real-world, say, an ultra-fast light-tank that can dodge incoming projectiles, would work as envisaged in-game.

AI needs to be part of your simulation too: it's important to have agents that will prove to be challenging opponents no matter how aberrant the player's behaviour is. In Oblivion, the player is able to climb up onto high ledges that the AI can't reach, and slowly kill them with ranged weapons. Clearly the AI is not advanced enough to cope with the amount of freedom that the player has been given, and the degree of challenge suffers as a result. One solution would be to limit the player's abilities to what the AI can do, but in a perfect world you'd want agents who can recongise when their target is unreachable and retreat, if not follow the player anywhere.

Lugaru's solid physics engine and simulation-based gameplay allow for a great range of different strategies. Unfortunately, the game's greatest strength, its challenging gameplay, means that a new player's freedom to experiment is rather limited.

Lugaru's AI is simple but generally effective. The AI's ability to counter any attack that's used too often is especially noteworthy, as is the tendency to run for help. Agents are easily led astray though, and, if you give them the slip, will walk slowly back to their patrol nodes, sometimes getting stuck on the way. They are also not very good at following you up onto complex geometry, and can be systematically tricked into jumping off cliffs. However, the lack of ranged weaponry and sober level design mostly prevent this from being used to the player's advantage.

III – Be careful with scores and constraints

Many games go to great lengths to provide players with the right balance of freedom and challenge, only to spoil it all my making their choices influence their score, or imposing arbitrary restrictions on what strategies can be used when. This is a problem because, for the same reason that we feel a sense of pride when we come up with our own solution to a problem, it's hugely frustrating to have to have this solution rejected.

For instance, there's a puzzle in World of Goo where you need to lower a bomb down to the right level and then detonate it. I did this by bracing up against the walls (as I'd been previously taught) and then dropping the bomb so it would slide down and become wedged at just the right place. Trouble is the second part of the problem required you to have solved the first part "the right way", which is to say by gradually lowering the down bomb on a strand. This strand is needed to support a bridge, and all the hints make the assumption that you've started doing things "the right way".

I won't tell you the amount of time I spent trying to make my solution work, even after I'd realised it wasn't what I was supposed to be doing, but I was very sad that my little bit of originality had been rejected.

Okay, maybe that's not a very good example but I wanted to put it out there, in case 2D Boy happened to be reading (love you guys by the way). It does prove my point though, nobody wants the designer to arbitrarily reject their propositions or to mark them down for their choices. Unfortunately this happens quite a lot.

Splinter Cell, having given the player the choice between stealth and combat, severely rebukes them for using the latter: you lose points for every NPC you kill, ever shot you fire, and every time you're seen. Of course, sacrificing the player's freedom does increase the challenge. Playing perfectly means not only completing your mission, but doing so without using any of your weapons.

Hitman 2 is less judgmental, generally letting the player take down their target any way they please, simply letting them know how conspicuous and how aggressive they are, and giving them a rankings such as "Mass Murderer" or "Silent Assassin".

The agony of choice
The agony of choice. Pick any three and justify your answer.

However both games sometimes force you to restart the mission, in particular you'll lose in the original Splinter Cell whenever you set off too many alarms. On certain levels you also had other constraints added, like not being allowed to kill anyone. Again, this is a very cost effective way of making the final levels of the game a lot more challenging, and of providing a greater variety, but it does restrict the player's ownership of the experience. Of course, sometimes it's necessary to limit the player's abilities, especially at the beginning of the game, when the sheer number of options could otherwise be confusing. For this reason most games have player unlock new weapons, equipment and abilities very gradually. Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a good example of this; you have a great many tools at your disposal but because they're not all introduced at once, learning how to use your abilities is very simple.

Lugaru's scoring system rewards variety, and this doubled with the AI's ability to detect repetition really encourages experimentation. But again, the game's difficulty does the exact opposite, keeping new players away from the more outlandish techniques. New weapons are introduced slowly, but the player is never forced to play the game a certain way, even if it is sometimes suggested that they use stealth for a given mission. Experienced players thus enjoy a great deal of freedom, at the expense of inexperienced ones.

IV – Acknowledge, but never judge

So it can be a bad idea to give certain play-styles preferential treatment. It is important however to acknowledge the player's choices in some way, because otherwise they may not even know that they're making any. As with film there's absolutely no point working hard on things your audience isn't going to notice.

For example, Iji plays like just any other platform-shooter, and, if dialogues and messages referring to the player's actions weren't scattered throughout the levels, you'd probably just shoot anything that moves. That is, after all, what we've grown to expect from this kind of game.

Another reason for acknowledging without judging, is that most people will lock up and ignore you if you start evangelising, but they will listen to you if you tell them stories. This is why Milton H. Erickson was such a successful therapist, he never told people what to do, but he was a great storyteller. I think it's important for games, especially those depicting violence, to start being more responsible, and the best way to do this is probably just to show players the consequences of their actions. Don't judge, don't moralise: show.

This doesn't even mean you need a branching storyline with huge amounts of content that many player won't see. In Iji you always play exactly the same missions in the same order, with the same bosses at the end. However, the game does acknowledge how you've chosen to play by altering the dialogue slightly and by giving you a different cinematic at the end. The Suffering is another example of this: very little extra content was created, but the player still made interesting choices.

Lugaru did a pretty good job with its awards in challenge mode: you're recognised whether you're merciful or merciless, but the game never judges you. There's none of this acknowledgement in the story mode however, for instance Turner will say "do I have to kill everyone?" whether or not you've actually killed anyone. As a result players never really learn that they have a choice to make. Thanks to the game's visceral hand-to-hand nature though, the consequences of your actions are pretty apparent in the broken bodies of your enemies.


To sum up, games are a medium whose potential, their interactivity, is often squandered. To make the most of this potential it's important to achieve a good balance of player freedom and challenge. This can be done by providing the player with cosmetic personalisation and using simulation as the basis of your game. At the same time it's important to carefully balance the number of constraints and to avoid judging the player.

It might seem like my stance is more towards accentuating freedom, but this is because freedom is far more rare in games than challenges are, and I think it's important to recover the balance between the two.

I'll avoid going too far into what might jokingly be called "Taoism applied to Game Design", but is it so surprising that challenge, the yang, the masculine, is so omnipresent in our male-dominated medium? Perhaps if we gave our players more freedom, more yin, then more of these players would be women. It's certainly true that games like the Sims, which provide little in the way of clear challenge but a lot of freedom, are extremely popular with women.

What do you think of interactivity, challenge and freedom in games?