To me, games are meant to be fun. So, I usually avoid Soulslike games like the plague. But, even to me, it is undeniable that the Dark Souls series, Elden Ring, and other Soulslike games are loved. After all, Elden Ring not only won the Game of the Year at The Game Awards 2022, but it has also earned one of the highest review scores among games. And this fact makes me wonder: why?
There are 2.46 billion gamers in the world, according to Statista. It is easy to imagine that all gamers might have different preferences regarding the games they play. Indeed, they even have various reasons to play. Based on Bartle’s Taxonomy, there are four types of gamers: Killers, Achievers, Explorers, and Socializers.
The Killers type is defined by their desire not only to win but also to defeat others. Meanwhile, Achievers love gaining points, reaching higher levels, and finding better equipment. As the name suggests, Explorers love discovering new areas, though they dislike time constraints because thorough exploration requires time. Last but not least, gamers who fall under the category of Socializers play games because they want to meet and interact with others.
As the number of gamers rises—and it is expected to keep rising in the future—games are also becoming more diverse. Now, games are not only meant for hardcore gamers willing to spend hours upon hours grinding on a game, but also for casual gamers who play on their mobile devices during their commute. So, it is believed that modern games are getting easier.
Why are Modern Games Easier?
There are several reasons why modern games are relatively easier. One is because older games were designed to be difficult. In the arcade era, games were designed so players would stop playing after three minutes. At the time, developers were motivated to create difficult games so they could maximize revenue from coin drop. The more players spent their coins to play, the more profits the developers would get.
Another reason why modern games tend to be easier is developers no longer feel the need to artificially inflate the duration of the game. The original version of Super Mario Bros. can be completed within two hours. Gamers would be more reluctant to pay tens of dollars just to play a game with such a short duration. Thus, developers feel the need to make the game feel longer by making it harder to complete. On the other hand, modern games naturally have a longer duration. On average, you need 6-12 hours to finish a single-player campaign in games.
Old games usually have simple premises; a princess was kidnapped, you need to save her, or an evil being is threatening the world, you have to kill it. That is not true for modern games. Now, more games are focusing on the narrative. This becomes another reason why developers choose to tone down the difficulty. For a game to be able to convey a complex story, it needs to make sure that the players can focus on the narrative and not worry about their lives all the time.
Last but not least, the reason why modern games usually have easier gameplay is because the game industry has grown so large that games not only appeal to core gamers but also to casual gamers.
Modern games are indeed getting easier. But, it does not mean that you can no longer find games that are difficult to beat. There is a genre for games that are known for their notoriety of being tough: Soulslike. Even outside of the Soulslike genre, you can still find some challenging games, such as Super Meat Boy.
You would think difficult games that induce rage on their players would be review-bombed on Steam, right? Wrong. Super Meat Boy has more than 24 thousand reviews on Steam, and most of them are positive. The game made by Team Meat even got 87 on Metacritic. Overall reviews for Elden Rings — another notoriously difficult game — are also Very Positive. It even won the Game of the Year in The Game Award 2022. It also won the Ultimate Game of the Year, Critics Choice Award, Best Multiplayer Game, Best Visual Design, and PlayStation Game of the Year in the Golden Joystick Awards.
It suffices to say that difficult games are still loved. The question is why? Are some subset of gamers closeted masochists? Spoiler: they are not.
The Appeals of Tough Games
Psychologists believe that the reason why some gamers love challenging games is linked with intrinsic motivation aka the willingness to accomplish something even when there is no promise of rewards. One of the frameworks that can be used to study intrinsic motivation in people is self-determination theory, which was co-created by Richard Ryan, a psychologist at the University of Rochester, in 1985.
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Ryan said that the gaming industry caught his eye in the 1970s and 1980s because, at the time, people were not only intrinsically interested in playing games but also in designing them. “In any good video game, the designers have intuitively picked up on important principles of motivation and found a way to apply them,” said Ryan to Scientific American.
Based on self-determination theory, playing games fulfills three psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Unlike movies and books, games are interactive media. Gamers are free to decide the actions that will affect their characters. This fulfills a person’s need for autonomy, to decide one’s actions and choices.
Meanwhile, relatedness is the need for socialization. And that need can be satisfied by online features in a lot of games. Fulfilling a person’s need for competence can be tricky though. Because, if a game is too easy, players will stop playing out of boredom. But, if the game is impossible to beat, it might push the players to rage quit. So, the key to a good game is finding a balance so the game will be tough enough to be challenging, but not too difficult that the players are not even bothering to try.
Jamie Madigan, author of Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games, explained that one way for developers to keep players in a “flow state” despite the challenges in a game is to give positive feedback. For example, instant replay in Super Meat Boy. This feature not only allows players to laugh at their failures, but also learn from them.
Another way to keep players engaged is to dangle the metaphorical carrot in front of the players, all the time. That way, players will not forget the target that they are supposed to achieve in the game. Last but not least, the way to keep players’ frustration to a minimum is to implement a quick restart feature.
The Sword in the Stone Effect and Constraint Satisfaction
In Arthurian Legend, Arthur managed to secure the British throne after pulling a sword set in stone. Merlin foretold that only the “True King,” the true heir of Uther Pendragon, could pull Excalibur from the stone. However, before Arthur could do so, it did not deter others from attempting to extract the sword.
This phenomenon also applies to playing challenging games. Do people know that Soulslike games are notorious for their difficulty? Yes. Does that stop them from playing these games? No. Game designer Jesse Schell referred to this phenomenon as “The Sword in the Stone effect.”
“Everybody wants to be able to pull it out. Nobody can, but they try anyway,” Schell said. “That notoriety goes a long way.” Additionally, playing tough games can satisfy gamers’ need for competence. Interestingly, games like Elden Ring also encourage people to share strategies and stories, giving rise to a community that fulfills the need for relatedness.
Nevertheless, there is a limit to The Sword in the Stone Effect. Ryan stated that if a game is too challenging, players may still want to quit. “There’s got to be some kind of expectation that you can break through, that it’s possible if you work or think or practice hard enough,” he said. In the case of Dark Souls, the creator, Hidetaka Miyazaki, explained that he aimed to make a game that is both difficult and enjoyable.
While self-determination theory can be used to understand the behavior of gamers who love tough games, Paul Schrater has a different theory. Schrater, a computer scientist who studied intrinsic motivation in the psychology department of the University of Minnesota, believed that human brains are meant to be “very complex constraint-satisfaction machines.” Consequently, people naturally seek goals to accomplish, including conquering frustratingly difficult games.
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“Having a goal means defining a constraint on an outcome,” Schrater said. “Satisfying that constraint can involve a whole path toward the goal that is not enjoyable, like climbing a mountain to reach food or safety.” Furthermore, he explained that a person will feel satisfaction once they reach a goal that has been set. However, Schrater believed that this satisfaction is “non-hedonic.”
In the context of gamers who play tough-to-beat games, Schrater said that the reason these gamers play has nothing to do with pleasure. He believed that playing a challenging game allows gamers to set constraints. By beating the game, the players release the constraints, thus experiencing satisfaction.
In 2020, more than 9.7 thousand games were published on Steam. This number increased in 2021 to 11.4 thousand games and further rose to 12.6 thousand games in 2022. Year after year, the game industry is undeniably growing. However, the competition that developers face to secure their share of the market is also intensifying.
Given the diverse preferences of gamers, one way for developers to make their games stand out is by finding their own niche. Big developers usually will keep making franchises that are already popular, like Blizzard with Diablo. Meanwhile, for From Software, the creator behind Elden Ring, the Dark Souls series, and Bloodborne, this means developing challenging games that will test gamers. The genre of Soulslike gained popularity in 2009 with the release of Demon’s Souls.
Understanding why a subset of the gaming community loves the Soulslike genre or any other challenging game can help developers comprehend the motivations behind gamers’ choices. This information can then be utilized to design better games. Moreover, knowledge about intrinsic motivation—the reason why people engage in an activity even without external rewards—can be applied to other industries, such as education. If schools can motivate students similarly to how Soulslike fans are inspired, it would greatly benefit the education industry.
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