Difficulty and Walkthroughs

I had an interesting discussion at GDC with a guy I know named Tasselfoot. Chances are that you know Tass, even if you don’t think you do; if you’ve ever used a YouTube walkthrough of a Flash game, that walkthrough was probably made by Tass. As far as I know, he’s the only person in the world who makes his living off of walkthrough videos.

While we were on the bus to the ill-fated Zynga-hosted afterparty, Tass and I had a conversation where he tried to convince me to put links to video walkthroughs inside my games. Obviously, he has a vested interest in this, but he also believes in it from a player’s perspective. Walkthroughs, he feels, should be as accessible as possible to the player. My initial reaction, as a video game auteur, was to disagree. The presence of a walkthrough ruins the carefully-crafted difficulty curve I’ve prepared for the game. But as Tass continued, he began to sway my mind.

I’m a big proponent of letting the player own her game experience. In other words, the player should be able to approach a work in the way she sees fit. In a sense, my role as a game designer is proscriptive; I create walls and rules and challenges to limit the player’s options. But within those constraints (which together form the whole of the game) the player is and should be allowed to do as she wishes. This is part of the strength of the experience system in so-called RPGs: the player can proceed quickly through the game with a lot of challenge, or take time to level up (or grind, if leveling up isn’t fun) and progress more slowly but more easily.

It’s for this reason that I don’t object to the existence of walkthroughs and game guides. Once I’ve released a work, players can look up solutions all that they want. But the integration of a walkthrough into the experience… it just seems like it spoils things. I explained to Tass how there should be some barrier to accessing the walkthrough, so that it needed to be a conscious decision on the player’s part, and he looked at me like I was an idiot.

It’s easy to find a walkthrough these days, he explained. Players can google and pull up a walkthrough to most games at a moment’s notice. Jay Is Games posts walkthroughs beneath every game review. A player who wants a walkthrough will find one, and any player that avoids a walkthrough doesn’t do it because they’re hard to find; she does it because she wants the challenge of the game. A good friend of mine regularly uses cheat codes in games. It’s not because she isn’t good enough to beat them without cheat codes; she just doesn’t want to bother with some challenges. She just wants “to see how it goes,” to see the progression, the story, and the ending.

I think that my more “artsy” games will never link to walkthroughs from inside the game. “Majesty of Colors” just isn’t compatible with that sort of self-aware gaminess. But for more heavily ludic games, it may just be a necessary service to the player to include walkthroughs. I certainly don’t want to be the kind of draconian developer who impotently forbids the use of game guides. If I make an Exploit 2, there just might be a button that contacts the expert hacker Ta55elf00t to walk the player through a job.

How do you feel about walkthroughs being integrated into games?

15 thoughts on “Difficulty and Walkthroughs

  1. On the advice of the FGL guys, I linked to walkthroughs in my game and put ads on the video pages. This was a capitalistic move, yes, but I also don’t want people to be unduly frustrated by my puzzled. If you fail, there’s a button you can click that will take you to the walkthrough page. That way, I was hoping more people would finish the game.

    In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t locked each level to the previous one. It would have been better if you could just skip a level here and there, but still I think integrating a walkthrough was the right decision.

    Simply because being frustrated isn’t fun.

  2. Being the cheater you mention, I’m a fan of linked in walkthroughs for a fairly simple reason: many games I play still misbehave on alt-tabbing, and most can’t handle losing focus without minimizing (making the two monitor approach of game on one, textual walkthroughs on other far less effective). Having it embedded is a nice option.

  3. I agree with your position on walkthroughs in games. I think that too much of (American) society today is oriented around simply getting things done and not taking the time to smell the digital roses :P

    Putting walkthroughs in the games, I think, IS a necessary barrier to the player. I think that walkthroughs in games would make them far too easily accessible to the player, and if they see the walkthrough, it’ll be far too much temptation to just use it and be done with the game. I had that temptation in Alice is Dead Part 2. This is especially true of a gaming site like Kongregate, where “success” is measured in achievements. The people who truly just want achievements and don’t care for the games will, of course, just go find a walkthrough and be done with it. But the casual gamer will take more interest in the game if the easy way out isn’t immediately presented to him.

    Without the walkthrough in game, I wouldn’t even think about a walkthrough until I got exceedingly frustrated trying to figure out how to move through a level. So I think it’s better to keep walkthrough separate, so as to give the game a chance to impress the player before they give in and let someone else put the effort in for them.

  4. I sometimes use walkthroughs but only when I suspect the answer isn’t properly clued (I have no idea what to do), or if the solution might be to suck less (I think I’m doing the right thing, but it doesn’t *quite* seem to work). That is my preferred method of utilizing walkthroughs.

    However, I have played some games where a link to the walkthrough is prominent. In the case of these games, I resorted to the walkthrough earlier than I feel I would have if I had to google the answer. The ease of accessibility robs me of the sense of accomplishment I would have gotten if I’d stuck it out a little longer and found the answer.

    In short, I like there to be walkthroughs, but I don’t want the game suggesting that I use one. If I need one, I’ll look it up.

  5. Hey Greg. :) No doubt I have an extremely strong vested interest in walkthroughs, but it’s more than that. There are benefits to all 3 of the main parties involved in a flash game: the developer, the sponsor, and the player.

    The sponsor has the most obvious benefit, and I stress this when I try to sell my services to them: in-game walkthroughs have a 10-15%+ click rate. This is much higher than the 2-5% of standard branding, although the bounce rate is much higher.

    The player: you’ve outlined most of my argument as to why it benefits the player already, but I’ll summarize… a player will find a walkthrough if they want one, regardless of location. But if there is an in-game walkthrough, 80%+ of the views (this is for my YT embeds) will come from that in-game embed. Players will stick with playing the game longer. I can’t say they’ll enjoy the game more, but they’ll at least have that opportunity to get the full experience that they might otherwise not get if they are stuck, get frustrated, and close out of the game.

    The developer: granted, the dev gets the least amount of benefit. I completely understand the desire to not have one’s hard work beaten down like a red-headed stepchild by having the solutions so easily accessible. As Scarybug said, it’s about money (and the stuff I said about the player’s experience); if a sponsor can make more off of a game that has an in-game walkthrough, they’ll pay more for it.

    1. From a business perspective, I definitely agree with you. It’s from an artistic perspective that I’m divided. I totally want players to get the whole experience of my game. At the same time, if I’m constructing puzzles (say, in a point-and-click adventure style game) that the player is bypassing with rote imitation of a walkthrough, why am I including them at all? Why not just have a mode where the puzzles solve themselves, and the player can click through to see the story?

      I’m a user of walkthroughs myself, so I definitely see the player perspective on this.

      1. I’d say that a point-and-click game is a genre where you really want to write your own walkthrough. Because then you can control your walkthrough to be a gradually revealing hint-through, which lets the player get some degree of the ludosity you want them to have. When the walkthrough gradually prods the player more and more in the direction of the solution, without revealing it until the last layer of hints, then the player is still engaged with the game rather than rotely following the walkthrough. (And if they’re slamming into a brick wall because they have no idea what to do, they’re not engaged or having a ludic experience.)

        Of course these walkthroughs are hard to make, but check out grinnyp’s walkthroughs on JayIsGames or the hint systems in Jim Aikin’s IFs for the sort of thing I mean. They really help make the games fun for people of all skill levels.

  6. Personally, if I get stuck for more than a few minutes, I’m going looking for a walkthrough. If it takes me more than thirty seconds to find one, I forget the game and move on.

    Certain types of puzzles gate the rest of the experience. Often either you understand what you need to do and it’s not a problem, or you don’t, and you’re stuck (unless you brute-force the solution by trying everything and that’s neither fun nor worthwhile). If I’m interested enough to be playing the game for more than two or three minutes, I’m committed to investigating the design so long as it isn’t a pain in the ass.

    The way I see it, a user seeing half a game the way the designer wants it seen isn’t as good as the user seeing the whole thing on their own terms. So, I’m all for linked-in walkthroughs. If you want it somewhat inaccessible, take a good idea from Machinarium. Build it right into the game and throw in a minigame/time-lock access barrier.

  7. From a business perspective it’s a good idea, from an artistic one it is not. When you construct a game, you are transposing it from simulation to teacher. A teacher who gives me the answers to the test both doesn’t seem very concerned with my ability to take the test myself (it’s condescending to the player) but gives the impression of not finding the test itself valuable. The only kind of games I can think of, off the top of my head, that could avoid that issue alone are games that have no “answers” and are based entirely off skill-driven mechanics, like spatial and timing challenges. A game like Majesty of Colors would have an issue with an embedded walkthrough because it is a game based on “answers” to the current problem. Walkthroughs also heavily structure a player’s route of play (that is their point)_meaning that games as a whole lose the freedom to allow a player to fail or play the game THEIR OWN way, rather then a set way. I’m aware players are not mindless drones, and can play the game how they want, and look at the walkthrough if they want, but putting it embedded into the game is to say that you approve of skirting what the game has to offer, and you to offer it, and just run through it. It’s similar (but not the same) to putting the entire script and “making of” in a movie’s DVD, if it is right there it implies to me that the director wanted me to see it, and it ruins the magic of cinema if he does.

    1. A teacher who gives me the answers to the test both doesn’t seem very concerned with my ability to take the test myself (it’s condescending to the player) but gives the impression of not finding the test itself valuable.

      As a teacher (actually a philosophy professor who teaches logic to college students), some students I can point in the general direction of the material and they vacuum it up. Other students need to be shown the answer to a lot of problems before they can start to figure them out on their own.

      The applicability of this metaphor to games is left to the reader. ;-)

  8. Me back again.

    Personally I try to stay as far away as possible. I only use them if i HAVE to, and then it feels like i cheated. I used to cheat games big time. I probably have ruined my experience of most of my early gaming years by doing so. SO i have a particular disdain for it.

    Of course the only time i really NEED a walkthrough is in a particularly difficult puzzle game, or an Escape The- games. They just stupify me on how easy it was to miss what i needed.

    I have never needed a walkthrough on any of your games though. I mean that in no particular bad way, just kinda Eh-ish They have the right difficulty curve for my playing. And if i really cant find the thing i’m missing it’s cause I have probably done something stupid.

    Majesty is my all-time favorite game of ever and ever. Thats a weird sentence. Especially since maybe one of the games i’ve made should be my favorite(?) Of course they are really crappy games I make. But still.

    I’d say keep with the current strategy, if you call it that. If i see a walkthrough button, i think, well this game-maker thinks I’m stupid and this game must not be really about the gameplay, more of a pass-the-time thing. In a way not seeing one helps me realize this game-maker wants me to think, he believes in me. I should try harder and get it on my own.

    Hopefully this helps.

    T. Jacobs

  9. Putting walkthroughs in games benefit noone, except maybe the sponsor if they can get more ads shown that way.

    It doesn’t benefit the developer, because it either compromises the game, or if it doesn’t, the game must have been developed with the walkthrough in mind and *require* it (eg intentionally nonsensical puzzles), which doesn’t lead anywhere good.

    It doesn’t benefit the player either, because it robs them of the experience of figuring things out for themselves, leading to empty victories. If they’re really stuck and really need that walkthrough they can easily google it, but having to do this manually is a slight barrier. Not a big one by any means, but enough for the player to think about the problem some more before giving up. Often this is all that’s needed for them to come up with the solution themselves, and that’s much more satisfying in the end. Removing that little barrier reduces the chance that someone will figure it out on their own.

    The only game i’ve seen that’s done embedded walkthroughs well was Machinarium, because you had to actually work for that walkthrough before getting it. Another form of barrier.

  10. Tasslefoot is correct in pointing out that it’s easy to find walkthroughs regardless of the author’s stance, but I think he underestimates the impact of having the link right there in front of you as you play. Any web developer worth his salt knows that every extra click you put between the user and the content creates a measurable dropoff in the number of people who actually view it. Saying “A player who wants a walkthrough will find one” is an oversimplification, because the degree to which people want one depends on how accessible they are.

    And speaking personally, I know that I’m much more inclined to use in-game hints than to look at an external walkthrough. For me to seek external help, it means I’ve lost my trust in the game’s author. Games, more than any other medium, are a matter of cooperation between author and player, both of whom have to be willing to do their part to create an experience. For me, hitting GameFAQs means that I don’t think the author is holding up his end. But when the author provides the walkthrough, it changes that equation completely.

  11. I think it’s fallacious to assume that we as developers always know what’s best for the player. We can talk about our games artistic integrity, but what if you actually want players to enjoy your games, you should just give them the option. It’s hard to correctly judge how difficult your puzzles or challenges are when you created them. Games are about the player’s experience, not just about the developer’s vision. If the player has decided he’s not going to be able to figure something out on his own, but he wants to try the next challenge, you should provide him with that opportunity, or lose him. Maybe you failed to give him that teachable moment you wanted because he didn’t figure out your clever puzzle, but at least now he’s got a chance at figuring out the next one.

  12. Hm.

    I think that, from a player’s perspective, it’s their fun to have. If they want to spoil it, they can have the walkthrough.

    From the money perspective, walkthrough=more play=more dollars.

    From the developer perspective, if considered independently of the other two, it’s a matter of taste. If you are less concerned with the money or the players than your perfect vision of how the game should be played, then embedding a walkthrough may go against this; however, as most developers ultimately are trying to give people something fun to play (and make a few shinies while they’re at it), embedding a walkthrough is usually the way to go, and if there isn’t one, people will find or make one.

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