The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

March 21, 2014

Banging Your Head Into the Wall for Fun: Why Do We Enjoy Frustrating Things?

Filed under: Games — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 8:30 pm

Image credit: Flickr user sharpshooter99, Creative Commons

Earlier this week, I had been working on some insipid Blog post about the arrival of Spring, the temporary reprieve from Winter (sort of) that it brings and all sorts of stuff like that, but even by my own standards the whole thing was pretty much inane drivel, so you get to read this instead (believe me, this can’t be any worse than that…)  Besides, I’ve been a bit distracted lately by various things.  Work, as usual, is the big one (it seems to come and go, although even on a “slow” day things get pretty hectic lately,) but as tends to happen on occasion, I’ve found myself spending quite a bit of time on Luftrausers, a game that came out just a couple of days ago on PC and Playstation platforms.  On the surface, it’s pretty simple.  You have a little fighter jet called a Rauser (basically a vaguely German-sounding word that means absolutely nothing that I can figure out) made up of various customizable parts, a relentless pixelated navy of various things that are trying to kill you, about five shades of monochromatic beige, and about fifteen seconds worth of cutscenes to tie it together with the flimsiest of cheap throwaway plots.  Basically, the idea is to blow up as much stuff as possible before you meet your inevitable demise (which is basically every arcade game made before about 1985 or so in a nutshell.)  This video should give you an idea what to expect:

Generally they’ll do it pretty quickly too, since you can only take about 2 or 3 hits at a time before you blow up.  Your fighter will slowly repair itself if you stop firing, but there isn’t exactly much time to do that when you’ve got a whole fleet of enemy fighters on your tail and a giant battleship wantonly tossing artillery into the airspace in front of you.  As such, your lives in this game tend to end up being nasty, brutish and short.  Scoring is pretty standard aside from a chaining system that adds multipliers to your score as long as you keep killing things (you have about five seconds between enemies to keep the chain going, which might seem generous at first but can still be tricky to maintain at times,) and caps out at 20x the base value for each enemy type.  Staying at max chain for a long period of time will bring up your score quickly, but can also be very risky, and there’s a good chance you’ll get yourself killed by taking unreasonable risks to keep the scoring streak going.   And then you’ll do it all over again.  As you play you unlock a number of different parts, different combinations of which will change the way your fighter works.  You’ll probably find favorites as you go on, but you’ll find certain missions (basically tasks you’ll probably accomplish in passing) will need certain types of fighters.  As simple as the game might seem on the surface, It’s surprisingly easy to end up spending an hour or two doing this without even noticing it.  I decided to play a couple of quick rounds after I got home from work (admittedly a bit later than usual) this evening, and when I looked up it was 9:30.

And yet, in about 2 1/2 hours of playing almost nonstop at about 1-2 minutes per run (you will be lucky to last that long in most cases,) I had only once or twice come close to beating a high score of about 27,000 that I had managed on pretty much a fluke the previous evening (at the time, it ended up being as high as #107 on the Steam leaderboard, but it’s dropped a fair bit now.)  Yes, I’m terrible at it, but given the developer’s track record (Vlambeer’s most notable release before this one was Super Crate Box, another game in much the same “keep playing even though you suck at it” vein) that seems to be by design.  Anyone who has spent enough time playing video games with me knows that I tend to get frustrated with things pretty easily (if you ever come and visit, ask to see the pile of broken controller parts I probably have sitting around somewhere.)  And yet, even though these games seem like the ones that should be the most rage-inducing (aside from random Nintendo games from the Eighties back when practically everything had the difficulty cranked up to “merciless” straight out of the box,) I can play them for hours and not even really care if things are going badly.  There seems to be a fine line between hard yet fair and rage-inducingly cheap, and occasionally you get a game that manages to come right up to the line without crossing over.  Luftrausers seems to have done a pretty good job of this.

Another game in a similar vein that I’ve spent quite a bit of time on in is Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2.  Although this particular game is a rather chaotic 2D arena shooter that throws huge amounts of brightly colored badguys (er, bad polygons) at you all at once, surprisingly the one mode in the game that I couldn’t stop playing was the one that didn’t involve any shooting at all.  Sure, you still have all sorts of enemies coming after you from all directions (although it’s more of a big blue Advancing Wave of Doom than the Technicolor assault of the regular game modes) but since you can’t shoot, you have to pass through gates that trigger explosions which will destroy enemies in their proximity.  On the surface it seems pretty simple, but the difficulty ramps up quickly, and in this particular mode you don’t get any of the screen-clearing bombs you have in the other modes (you’re a pacifist, rember?) so basically your only recourse is to keep moving and using the gates to hold back the swarm.  You build up score multipliers by collecting little trapezoid things that the enemies drop when defeated, and as you last longer your potential for scoring increases until you make it well into the millions.  This video shows a particularly high score (for reference, my own highest score in this is somewhere in the 35 million range.  It happened once, and I haven’t been able to get past 25 million since that one run in spite of plenty of trying.

Without much searching, I could find plenty of other examples to cite here (the whole Flappy Bird craze that appeared and disappered in about a week and a half last month comes to mind as a notable recent example,) but the balance between fun and frustration can be really difficult to pull off.  Even though I’m not a game designer (nor do I profess to be anywhere close to one,) it seems to me that there’s a few common threads between games like this:

  • Make it cheap and easy to restart.  If your players are going to be dying repeatedly for ridiculous and/or quite possibly stupid reasons, at least make it easy for them to try again.  In Luftrausers, after you die you can literally be starting a new round within two seconds, just long enough to see your score from the last round and jump back in.  In some ways, simpler games have distinct advantages in this department over more elaborate ones, simply by merit of not having to worry about things like load times and changing settings.  In a notorious counter-example, the critically panned Xbox 360 game Too Human forced its players to endure a pointless unskippable 20-second cutscene every time they died.  
  • Give the players something to shoot for.  This can be done in a number of different ways.  In Geometry Wars there wasn’t much to do but blast (or dodge, in the case of Pacifism mode) your way to a high score, but the game over screen highlighted a leader board that showed all your friends’ high scores, and also the scores from your last eight rounds.  In addition to this, the in-game screen showed the score above yours on the leaderboard to use as a goal to shoot for.  Luftrausers isn’t quite so forthcoming with the leaderboards (you actually have to dig a bit to find them) but it does come with some goals to aim for in the form of the missions.  And on top of that, it’s always clear what your high score is so you can try to beat it.  Which brings me to the next point…
  • Keep the player too busy to care about their score.  Just staying alive for any length of time in games like this can be a challenge, let alone doing whatever it takes to get a high score.  Then again, it’s hard to care much about your score when you’ve got two aces on your tail and you’re dodging bullet spam from a battleship.  When the battle gets heavy, oftentimes you won’t even have an idea that you’ve got a high score until you’ve reached the game over screen and see it.  And if you’re a few points short, it provides good incentive to jump in and try again.
  • Give the players incentive to take unnecessary risks.  In the Pacifism mode of Geometry Wars, you can get additional score multipliers for diving through multiple gates all at once.  which can be a really risky thing to do but can also get you a large number of points if you can pull it off.  In Luftrausers, it can sometimes be awfully tough to resist the urge to make foolhardy divebombing runs on battleships, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s oddly satisfying to watch one of the things blow up.  There’s also the challenge of trying to maintain a max combo when things start getting really hairy.  You have to keep seeking out targets and taking them out to keep the combo going, and sometimes you’ll find yourself having to resort to charging headlong into a fleet of PT boats with guns aimed right in your face to try to take one out before the timer runs out.

I’m sure there are plenty of other lessons that could be learned from this type of thing, but since I’m just sitting here writing about these things instead of actually going out and making them myself, I’ll leave it to the professionals to figure those out.  As I said earlier, there’s a fine line between making something frustrating but fair and making it rage-inducing.  The trick is to figure out how close you can get to that line without going over.  It’s been said that the best part about banging your head repeatedly against the wall is that it feels so good to stop, but sometimes, the trick is to figure out how to keep people banging away at that wall.

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