Embracing Hardness

I am not very fond of new year’s resolutions, but I will make one anyway: From here on, I promise myself to never take the simple way, but always take the hard one, when making game.

This might seem a bit weird, so let me explain myself.

When creating games in the past we have sometimes tried to take the easy way out, hoping to create a lot of “playtime” for little effort. This kind of thinking have always ended up being the worst parts of the game or the worst ideas. For example, in Penumbra Overture, I designed some of the maps to be maze-like and have roaming enemies, thinking it would be an easy way of adding engaging parts to the game. These levels turned out to be tedious and easily my least favorite parts of the game. Another example is from Amnesia: When coming up with the basic gameplay design we were set on creating some easy way of making levels. This ended up being a bad way to go about it and we pretty much discarded all of these features in the final game. Instead we went back to doing it the hard way – with much better results.

After releasing the Penumbra games, we actually felt a bit annoyed that it was so hard to make new maps for them. We saw that other games could put out a lot of map-packs and similar, but this was very hard for us, and would cost almost as much as making a new game. This feeling is not a new one, and I have personally felt like this many times. The ability games that could be completed quicker and that allowed for simple expansions.

This feeling has resided a bit after the release of Amnesia, but until very recently it was still there, nagging me. Then it suddenly occurred to me that I should not feel bad about having work that is hard to make. Instead I should feel proud and embrace it. I know this might sound a bit silly and self-evident, but it honestly came as a bit of a revelation to me. Not only should I feel good about any part of the game that was hard to make, I should actively strive for it and discard anything that is too easy. If a feature can easily create gameplay for a part of the game, it should be considered a bad idea and either scrapped it or a adjusted into a harder version. This not only because of personal motives, but because I am quite convinced that it will result in better games.

We should of course try and make the process of creating the game as simple and straightforward as possible. Just like we, to great success, improved and greatly simplified level and entity creation for Amnesia. Handling the tools of the trade is not what is meant to be hard, but the act of creation. I am also not implying that we should try and reinvent the wheel and try to come up with new solutions to already solved problems. What I am saying is that if any part of the game is too easy to design or implement, then we should be critically examine if it is really needed and if we really put enough thought into it. It should be considered if there are any ways to vary, expand or in any other way change it to make it harder.

What I am hoping will come out of this, are games that give a much richer experience. I think a good example of this at work is to compare a game like Braid to a “normal” puzzle game. The first few levels of Braid could easily have been expanded into a full game, but instead the hard route was taken. This resulted in a game where the gameplay is constantly fresh and provides a much deeper experience. You also see the same kind of forces at work when comparing the Super Mario games to contemporary platformer titles. There is a certain degree of quality to the Mario games, a large part of which I think comes from to doing things the hard way.

This will most probably result in more work for us, but as I now aim to embrace hard problems, that should only mean we are on the right track!