Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Room (IOS, Android): Frictionless Difficulty Scaling

You might think you have played a game like "The Room" before but you haven't. The basic premise,  solving a series puzzles to unlock increasingly more challenging levels  sounds familiar. There is a plethora of games involving rooms, locks, gates, cubes etc that employ this mechanic. Yet "The Room" is different in a few key respects. 

In the first instance the sheer quality of game sets it above most of its peers. Beautifully ornate artwork and animation  show off the game's multi level puzzles while an atmospheric sound track adds greatly to the ambience.

What really sets the game apart for me though is the effortless way the game tackles difficulty scaling. Difficulty is the greatest problem for any puzzle game. Too easy and the game becomes boring for lack of challenge. Too hard and I will eventually give up in despair or be forced to make a humiliating trip to Youtube to find out how to proceed. "The Room" deals with this by including a progressive hint system within the game. If you fail to make progress then after a short delay a little  question mark appears in the top right hand corner. The hints seem to come in three levels. At first it might say something vague like "Perhaps I should try something else". If you still don't make progress then the hint is updated with slightly more specific advice for example: "I wonder what that funny clock does ?" and finally a third hint will give quite explicit instruction like "Perhaps I should examine that strange rectangular grille under the clock."

These hints are entirely optional and the little question mark is very unobtrusive. When you are making progress it is very easy to ignore but should you get stuck there is almost always relevant advice to be had. Best of all there is absolutely no penalty for using  a hint. There are no achievements, no difficulty settings. There is no record of whether or not you used hints and nothing is lost if you do. This feels so liberating compared to the shame of having to select "easy mode" or being forced to rely on Youtube to get through the game. A small but very significant touch is that hints are given in first person as if you yourself are thinking these thoughts and they feel entirely part of the game.

All of this combines to make the hint system completely unobtrusive and painless. I think that frictionless is a good term to describe it. I have no idea how many times my daughter and I used hints when we played the game together. I don't know and I don't care because the game doesn't care either.

A possible downside of this frictionless difficulty scaling is that the game doesn't last very long because you never really get stuck. It took about three hours for myself and my daughter to finish the game playing together. At first I was a bit disappointing that the game was over so quickly but when I thought about it I would not have had it any other way. Without this hint system we would undoubtedly have got bogged down in some of the trickier puzzles and may even have abandoned the game. Yes we would have spent more time on it the game as we struggled to overcome these but frustration is not entertainment.

"The Room" is currently available in the Humble Bundle for Android or from Itunes for IOS.

You can read some of my previous thoughts on game difficulty here:  http://mindbendingpuzzles.blogspot.ie/2011/10/approaches-to-difficulty-in-puzzle.html

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