Game difficulty dictionary, part 2: real-world skill development (featuring Dance Central and Fighters Uncaged)
Following on from last week’s post on using differing opponent tactics to provide a more or less difficult experience for the player, this week we’ll be looking at something ostensibly more straight forward: making games harder by forcing the player to improve their real-world skills.
This also seemed to be an opportune time to explore the Kinect – our resident artist (in both the game art and martial sense) tried his hand (and foot, as it were) at both Dance Central and Fighters Uncaged.
Getting it wrong: Fighters Uncaged
Resident martial artist, Goose:
Fighters Uncaged has no set difficulty level; as the game progresses the characters you fight are supposed to be more difficult to defeat.
The interesting thing here though is that by the time you reach the latter stage opponents you have had ample chance (in some cases more than enough) to get your head around a method that works for you. So long as you stick to your method you won't go far wrong.
A prime example of this is when you are trying to graduate up to the next league. The hardest part isn't winning fights (that’s incredibly simple to do) it's trying to win within an imposed time limit with as much life left as possible so you can collect points. Points are what you need to advance up a level.
The main problem with this system is that you will end up fighting the same people over and over again to try and shave bits off your time. This gets very old very quickly.
Early on I discovered that simply dodging any blow and then following it up with an elbow to the same side that the blow came from was incredibly effective. After figuring this out and graduating up a level, I went straight for the toughest fighter in the class and wiped the floor with him with very little effort.
There is an almost complete disconnect between real world skill and your ability to perform well in the game. Personally, this was a massive let down especially as Dance Central heighted that this isn't due to the technology not being able to keep up with the finer points of the player's movements. Having studied several martial arts throughout my childhood and adult life, I’d made the presumption that I may have the edge over less “skilled” players.
As it turned out, I found I was constantly having to hold back and understate my movements: if I neglected to do so then my character had a tendency to behave unpredictably – lunging forward into a high kick I’d made a simple right hook. The point was rubbed in further still when my girlfriend and her sister (with no fighting experience whatsoever) experienced no difficulty at all in "wind-milling” through opponents.
Success in Fighters Uncaged seems to come primarily from figuring out the weaknesses in the game: presumably, the neat trick of an elbow to the side doesn’t work quite so reliably in a real-world scenario. As the came gets harder, you are more reliant on your understanding of the user interface of the game, not of what the game’s telling you should be good at: fighting.
Getting it right: Dance Central
Resident martial artist (and soon-to-be dancer), Goose:
Difficulty in Dance Central can be set manually, from a choice of easy, medium, hard and expert. Players are rated based on their performance in each song.
Increasing the difficulty increases the expectation put upon the player by requiring more moves per sequence. It also requires the player to execute moves more accurately.
Because each level of difficulty builds upon the last, the player is rewarded for their performance at one level by equipping them with the framework for the next. Presumably this isn’t dissimilar from how one might learn to dance in the real world.
It’s clear that the player’s ability to dance drastically improves their chances of success in this game. I also believe that with sufficient (game) play and practice, the player will become a better dancer.
The accuracy of the Kinect’s sensors shines in Dance Central – there’s no frustration over incorrectly tracked movements and there’s plenty of feedback – if one of your legs is trailing or your arm isn't hitting the right area the on-screen representation of it is highlighted.
For those familiar with Guitar Hero and Rock Band, the way increased difficulty is manifested in Dance Central is pretty familiar. Only difference here is that there’s a couple of layers of abstraction removed: the Kinect is using the player’s dance movements as an interface to, well, dance movements. It’s effectively assessing real-world skills, whereas Guitar Hero and Rock Band assess game-world skills using real word inputs, and to some extent, outputs (more on Rock Band 3’s Pro mode in a future post – that’s a whole different ball game).
The unsatisfying experience of Fighters Uncaged is now apparent – it can’t possibly be assessing the player’s ability to fight because they’re not fighting – they’re stood in the middle of a room throwing shapes at a television screen whilst the game itself simulates fighting. In Dance Central, this doesn’t matter; there’s very little difference between watching (and emulating) other dancers on screen and watching (and also emulating) other dancers in a real-world, sticky-floors-and-everything, club.
It's entirely possible to rely on real-world skill development (other than video game playing skills) to provide a progressive, adaptive or explicit experience for the player -- but if you're going to attempt do this without some level of abstraction you need to be very careful that you're assessing the right skills. This is particularly evident when the skills required are physical (we're in the very early stages of human interfaces) and when they're the primary skill required to play the game (there are plenty of examples of secondary skills drawing on real-world experience - such as the example of Modern Warfare 2 drawing on a understanding of basic military tactics in its harder difficulty modes).