For those of you in a rush let me summarize this for you:
Difficulty should not come from confusion.
Now let me explain why confusion is often used to inflate difficulty in games before I explain how to correct it.
In Dungeons and Dragons, DM’s will often shroud their puzzles and challenging encounters with mystery. Giving most DMs the benefit of the doubt, they do it so that players will investigate and interact with the world more. It’s an attempt to deepen experience and immersion in the world. Where this often breaks down is when a DM isn’t prepared to hand out extra information when the players are trying to interact. If you have an altar for example that can be turned off when it gets wet (the assumption is that most people would sacrifice a person on it so blood activates it) but the players could trigger it with water instead, and you have hidden hints around the room, but your players are exploring the roof where there are no hints because they misheard you and now they have that idea stuck in their mind, what do you do? A normal DM will let the players play out their questions until they get frustrated and sacrifice their ally on the altar. A good DM will remind the players of descriptions around the room to try and hint them away from the ceiling. But, a great DM will tell hers/his players the information by reshaping the room without their players knowing. That hint that was in the molding at the bottom of the room? Shazam! It’s now a constellation in the pop-corn ceiling that the space case druid that is bored out of their mind sees while zoning out. The reason why this is the best move is it triggers the Ah-ha moment for the team. Traps and challenges spawn enjoyment from two sources: Figuring it out after struggling a little, and surviving something that felt insurmountable. No one remembers the mines of madness had a port-o-potty that had 3 ways to instantly kill you with no warning. But, the rolling boulder from Indian Jones is a classic because it’s highly visible, seems unconquerable, and survivable.
Let us look to Video Gaming for a parallel.
League of Legends is a favorite game to rip on for its craziness, toxicity, and complexity. And, anyone who has met me and seen my Support tattoo knows it’s a guilty pleasure of mine. The game has over 150 champions at the moment, each with 4 unique abilities that interact with the over 175 items in the game in various ways. The complexity of the game is daunting. And most players starting out will ask over and over “that works like that!?!” in confused frustration. Those that learn to enjoy the game do so because they start to understand the rules. Barely anything in the game is randomized. Even the critical hit chance is cumulative so where if you have 40% crit and don’t crit with your first attack you are more likely to crit with the next. These hard and fast rules, along with the weekly message from the balance team to show transparency make the complexity bearable and even enjoyable. This is a competitive game, and knowing more about it than your opponents feels highly rewarding, learning from a loss feels rewarding. The feeling of “I died to that it’s so BS” dies away with an understanding and you start to play around the rules of each champions’ abilities.
My last example is a hidden gem of a game that I love but applies more to its genre than any one game in particular. Confession time, I was addicted to Muse Dash for longer than I should have been. Muse Dash for the 99% of humanity that doesn’t know what it is, is a rhythm game. Like DDR, Guitar Hero, or DJMAX RESPECT, Muse Dash, has very simple controls. The difficulty of rhythm games comes more from the speed, not the comprehension. Once most people hear a song they understand how the melody goes, if you don’t believe me, hum the middle part of Britany Spears “Toxic” , Plain White T’s “Hey There Delilah”, Eric Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff”, or Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady”. Once you have a comprehension of how the song should sound, the enjoyment is mastering the input. In fact, Muse only has 2 buttons that need to be pressed and is just as enjoyable as League.
So how do we take advantage of this principle?
Well, I suspect most of our game design goals will not go much farther than running an RP game. When designing your traps, remember to make them memorable. They should feel larger than life, be easy to understand, and should leave failures at death’s door. Boss fights should have had many opportunities for the players to have figured out what makes the boss tick. Players should be able to observe and understand the boss’s strengths and weaknesses. Your players will enjoy a Boss more when they know their weakness and then have to figure out how to apply it more than luckily guess that the boss is weak to X element. In addition, This can be done in multiple ways!
Don’t be afraid to let your big bad out early, let your players get destroyed completely by your Boss Bro only to be rescued with the knowledge of the bosses weakness. The players will continue the rest of the campaign knowing they have this immense challenge ahead, spend their free time looking for ways to exploit their weird weakness and it will temper all their victories. Maybe your players can’t fight the world ending women, but they can appeal to her greed and trick her into another multiverse that has died because she can rule it all with no challenge. Letting your players know more while keeping the difficulty high will make them more engaged into your world.