ExPlay 2012: Boss Alien designer wants games to be hard again

Dark Souls

Dark Souls

Speaking at the ExPlay Festival in Bath today, Alex Trowers, designer at CSR Racing developer Boss Alien, said he believed too few modern games offered enough challenge, and that designers shouldn’t be afraid to make players’ experiences more difficult.

“I don’t mean ball-breakingly hard,” he said, before bringing up an image of Dark Souls on screen which was met with an appreciative murmur from the audience. “I love this game: it’s a good illustration of what games were like before gamers became sissies.

“The damage enemies do is massive; two or three hits and you’re dead. But there is always something you could have done to mitigate that damage to zero – rolling out the way, parrying with the shield. Whenever you die, it was your fault. You still die a hell of a lot, though.”

The concept of acceptable failure, Trowers suggested, allows you ramp the difficulty up. As long as the player feels that failure or death is their own fault, you can kill them as often as you like.

“Challenge is good,” he added, going on to stress that even though today’s players are more and more likely to feel entitled to access all of the content on the disc without being inhibited, they will have a more satisfying experience if there is a well-judged level of challenge.

But this isn’t to say that all games should follow this blueprint, he continued. “My favourite game in recent months was Journey. Absolutely no challenge in that. As a game, it was ‘meh’. As an experience, it’s better than any cinema trip.”

You’ll find no argument here: indeed, we make much the same point in our new Ten Commandments of game design in our latest issue, E247. But this is especially interesting coming as it does from Boss Alien, developer of free–to-play smash CSR Racing – and those making free-to-play games are normally put off from making games too hard because they don’t want to scare players off.

It’s something Gamesbrief’s Nicholas Lovell highlighted during a session at last month’s F2P Summit, saying: “You must never lose a free-to-play game. There are no fail states.” There’s logic there, but we do like a challenge, and hope Trowers and Boss Alien can prove there’s an alternative to stripping out challenge for the sake of player engagement.