I started writing my first RPG for Spiderweb Software in 1994. Yes, this makes me old. When I started my cute, little shareware business, I had a lot of instincts for how to write a good role-playing game. Happily, about 85% of those instincts were good ones, so I was able to write solid games and make a living.
But 15% of my original instincts were not good. In fact, they were terrible, and it has taken many years for me to realize that. Even now, I have to fight those bad instincts with all of my heart, and I lose as often as I win.
My worst instinct has to do with game difficulty. I'm a hardcore nerd of the old school, and I'm not truly satisfied unless a game is really difficult. Other people, also known as "regular humans," do not, in fact, want this.
I used to succinctly describe my views about game difficulty thus:
People will forgive a game for being too hard. They will never forgive it for being too easy.
No. This is, in fact, completely, 100% opposite from the truth. A better summary of reality would be:
People will happily forgive a game for being too easy, because it makes them feel badass. If a game is too hard, they will get angry, ragequit, hold a grudge, and never buy your games again.
Video games are leisure time expressions of adolescent power fantasies. They should only be hard if players specifically request that they be hard.
I tend to like hard games. I am perfectly happy if any given title has 3 or 4 fights that requires 3 or 4 tries each to beat. But I am increasingly recognizing that this makes me a bit of a mutant. I am also realizing that while I like (or at least don't mind) the occasional repeated failure, I don't require it. I blasted through Brutal Legend with ease and I still had a great time. Plants vs. Zombies is easy, and it is also terrific. On the other hand, a game like Ninja Gaiden 2, which would happily make me refight bosses ten times on the easiest difficulty level ... Well, that was just stupid. Never again.
After long reflection, here is my new rule for RPGs I write:
When a player is on the default difficult level, has built his or her characters poorly, and is playing straight through the main storyline with mediocre tactics, that player should almost never be killed.
I can almost hear the heads of hardcore gamers imploding with impotent nerdrage. But seriously. If you have a problem with this, I think you're getting a lot of your fun from making other people have less fun.
Of course, a game should have harder difficulty levels. And, if a player chooses to opt-in on higher difficulty, they should be seriously nasty. But, when played on the default difficulty, the game should be accessible to your mom or average eight-year old.
I'm about to release my next game, Avernum 6. And it doesn't live up to what I have learned. In fact, in parts, it gets downright tricky. But then I'm going to write an all-new game series, and I promise that it will be pretty easy on Normal difficulty.
And if you turn the difficulty up to Torment, well, I'll be gunning for you.
Oh, and one parting thought.
If your game is actually fun, killing the player won't make it more fun. But nothing sucks all of the fun out of a good game faster than repeated failure.