Last time I talked about the theory behind how I feel a game should be designed, I went over how anything that is included into the game should be something that's worthwhile for the player to use if he so chooses. Otherwise it was a waste of development time to include it. Today I'll be talking about Rule #2, which covers the difference between a game that's fun and challenging, and a game which uses what I've come to call "pseudo-difficulty".
Now, a game doesn't automatically need to be hard, that isn't quite what this rule is about. If you want the game to be very simple and easy to play, that's great, you can mostly ignore this rule then. It's when you decide that you do in fact want your game to be hard, or have sections which are challenging to get through. Making a game challenging is a thing of finesse. Anyone can make a game difficult by just pumping everything upto the max, but without careful attention to the details of what you're doing, then it can be very easy to cross the line from making the game challenging and fun, to making it simply difficult and frustrating.
The first thing any developer should ask himself when making his game hard is this: What's fun about this game? After-all, if the challenge in your game is focused around one of the less entertaining aspects of the game, then it's no fun to over-come the barriers and just leaves the player annoyed when it's finally over. Once you've figured-out what aspect of gameplay is the most entertaining, and thus what you want to focus on, you need to look at how that method of gameplay is played. What weaknesses should the player have to over-come about this gameplay? How can it be made challenging, but still interesting?
As an example of one game in particular that got this wrong, I'm going to cite Prototype (or Protoshyte as I've come to call it). The first half of Prototype was amazing. It was fun learning your new powers and experimenting with how they work, leaping around the city all willy-nilly, doing the mini-missions. The problem comes at around the half-way point when your character is (literally) stabbed in the back. At that point, the missions become more and more tedious, and the bosses a complete disaster.
This is where we get back to that Pseudo-difficulty I was mentioning earlier (and note the difference between my uses of the words "challenge" and "difficult", as I consider them two different things in gaming). See, when Prototype wants to get hard, it basically just floods the area with enemies. Battles against the military involve you having to dodge salvo after salvo of explosive weaponry. You never really get more than a couple seconds to stand still and actually attack enemies, which basically breaks the second question from a couple paragraphs up. Using your powers was the funnest part of Prototype, yet the difficulty revolves around forcing you to dodge and weave around attacks that knock you around like a bowling pin if they connect.
The bosses are just as bad, if not worse. The first bad one involves a boss which attacks by either spitting rocks at you with pin-point accuraccy (even if you're dodging to the side as they launch), or spitting-out a bunch of slow-moving globules that track with flawless accuraccy. If you get in close enough to punch and kick, the boss has tenticles that it can flail about to knock you away. On top of all this, the boss has a massive attack it can use with NO WARNING (another boss no-no) that will deal roughly 75% of your health in damage, so if you've taken any hits, it will just kill you flat-out.
The only way to fight the boss is to basically run around the corner absorbing a bunch of minor enemies, then running to the boss to unleash a couple super attacks quick (IF the tenticles don't knock you away and deplete your meter, forcing you to run away and re-recharge without doing any damage to the boss), and then it's back around the corner to recharge. It took me nearly an hour to kill this boss, and about 10 minutes of that was spent actually engaged with the boss itself.
The other boss was basically the same way, except that he actively charges you, so there really aren't any corners to hide behind. The fight is a little quicker than the other boss, but it was still terribly designed because I spent over 90% of the time in the fight dodging and evading the boss trying to absorb health from random enemies around the area. Now, I'm not saying it's bad when you fight a boss without actually being engaged with him. Plenty of games have done that (especially Platform titles). The difference is that while you're dodging around the boss, you can still do something fun. In Prototype though, there's really nothing fun to do while dodging enemies, it's a necessary evil, but should be kept to a minimum.
In the end, Prototype is never truly "hard". The game is pseudo-difficult. It makes you think a particular segment of the game was hard, but the reality is that it was really very easy, it was just annoying to do. You want to have fun while playing the game, so when you try playing the game in a way that's fun, you die over and over because that segment was designed in such a way that you have to play the game in a way that's less fun. In Prototype's case, it's pseudo-difficulty comes from the fact that the challenge in the game is designed so that you have to spend a lot of time dodging around enemy attacks. This means either the developer didn't know what was fun about his own game, or that while he was dodging to the side he was having WAY too much fun with it.
Rather, the challenge in Prototype should have been balanced around your powers. Which arm weapon is most effective for this boss? Which combos work the best? At what times does he have an opening so I can do the biggest combo, and when should I do smaller combos or even single hits? The first boss in the game was like this. He would counter-hit you if you got too close, so I quickly switched to the long-range Whipfist and pegged at him from a distance. Dodge an attack, launch one of my own. Eventually I learned how to read him and what he was doing so I'd know when to charge for a bigger hit. The fight was fun, but sadly the fight also marked the start of the downhill slope for the rest of the game. The game might as well have said "Congratulations, you just beat the game as far as the developers had ideas for, but we still have a lot of story to cover to brace yourself."