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On Getting Good

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Stop me know if you’ve heard this one: FromSoftware puts out a new, highly anticipated game. Like many of their recent games, this is an incredibly challenging and punishing game. While there are many who enjoy the game, there are others who find the game too challenging which inspires a string of opinions and articles that argue that games should have an easy mode (and the expected string of counter-opinions and arguments).

Having read through far too many of these pieces the past few weeks, the central thesis in favor of an easy mode can be presented as such: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a great game, more players would be able to play and complete the game if it was not so punishing and did not require players to perform at the current skill-threshold, and including an easy mode would not have a drastic negative effect on the experience the game is able to deliver. Conversely, the counter-position can be presented far more succinctly: ‘git gud.’ Rather than focusing on the merits or detriments of an easy mode, issues of accessibility, or discussion about artist integrity, I wanted to focus on an adjacent topic -- namely, the notion of personal improvement.

Whether the issue is with the difficultly of a boss or level in a single-player game or with an overpowered weapon or meta in competitive multiplayer game, ‘git gud’ is a common response from players or community members meant to dismiss complaints from perceived lower skilled players. However, while its tone is derisive, the underlying message of the expression is that the recipient should focus on improving his or her own performance rather than complaining or asking for things to be easier. This message comes from the perspective that most challenges can be overcome by putting in the requisite time and effort to improve. Of course, it is important to note that the amount of time and effort necessary can be very different for different players.

Not surprisingly, this philosophy is core to the experience of many of the recent challenging FromSoftware games. At times, playing these games can feel like repeatedly slamming into an immovable wall where players make little visible progress for extended stretches. Struggling players often complain that the difficulty requirement is unfair, but one of the best things about these FromSoftware games is that the encounters in these games are fair because they follow established rules. Enemies and bosses have set moves which take a set time to complete, cover a set distance, and take a set time between moves. At the end of the day, these opponents follow these rules and it is up to the player to learn the rules that restrict a particular adversary and then work around those rules to overcome the challenge. Some players, perhaps due to previous experience or faster reflexes, are able to learn an encounter faster, while others will struggle for some time. However, the rules are the same for all players, and by putting in the time, every player can, in theory, learn the rules and overcome the obstacle.

Earlier this year, I reviewed the exceptional indie game Celeste. Celeste is a side-scrolling platformer largely built on the idea that failure can be a valuable teacher. The game keeps a running tally of the number of times a player dies in a level, not to shine a light on the player’s shortcomings, but to highlight the lessons that could be learned from failure. A stage might take ten tries, another might take one-hundred, and another might take over one-thousand. However, by repeatedly attempting the levels and learning from previous mistakes, a player can improve his or her skill and make progress through the game. This notion of working through failure to improve works especially well in Celeste because the game’s core narrative focuses on overcoming self-doubts and the voice in your head that says you cannot do something. The only way to overcome a challenging obstacle is to attempt it. and if you fail, it just means you have another opportunity to try again.

While challenges are more fixed in single-player games, multi-player games open the door for other players to influence the necessary skill requirements to complete a task or goal. Those of us with endgame experience playing Final Fantasy XI can probably remember the competition to claim NMs, HMNs, Kings, and even triggers in Sky. The fights themselves were not especially hard, especially as players learned the mechanics of the fights. Ignoring the whole issue of bots, claiming these coveted targets was a matter of reflexes and other players were essentially the measuring stick to evaluate if someone was good enough. Competitive player-versus-player games offer another venue for players to measure their skill against others. Players play these games to win, but the only way to win is to improve your skill and perform better than your opponents. Games like StarCraft, Overwatch, League of Legends, and many others use ranked playlists to identify and explicitly state a player’s skill level.

One of the things that makes player-versus-environment game-modes distinct from player-versus-player game-modes is that the former has a fixed skill ceiling while the latter has an infinite skill ceiling. In player-versus-environment game-modes, a player knows the skill requirement of a challenge and once the player exceeds that requirement, he or she can proceed past the challenge. Sure, a boss might have a second phase and a new set of moves, but at the end of the day, that’s just moving the goal-sticks. In player-versus-player game-modes, every game, match, and encounter plays differently because players behave randomly and sporadically and the things that worked in one match won’t necessarily work the same in another. I used to love playing Super Smash Brothers Melee, but I didn’t enjoy the Wii and Wii U entries as much and did not keep up with the franchise. I’ve been having a lot of fun with Smash Ultimate, and after reacquainting myself with the franchise by finishing the campaign on hard and playing with some friends, thought I was ready to delve into online play. I was wrong. Playing competitively against others online is completely different monster and I’ve had to develop many new skills and techniques to succeed. Luckily I know that the only way to improve is to keep playing, and although I lose a lot, I can see (small) improvements in my gameplay.

Destiny 2 took the idea of ranked play a step further with pinnacle weapons. In season 3, Bungie introduced a ranking system to Destiny 2’s competitive playlist and unique rewards tied to hitting specific point thresholds. The most coveted are powerful weapons that shine in the hands of high-skill players. For many players, it isn’t difficult to hit the rank requirement to acquire these weapons. For others, it is a challenge that can last all season. And some players view the challenge as so insurmountable, they refuse to even set foot in the competitive playlist. As I said earlier, the effort needed to overcome challenges can be different for different players and acquiring these weapons is no different. Contrary to opinions of the Destiny community, Bungie has worked to make the competitive playlist more accessible to players, and this season players could reach the necessary rank requirement in as few as sixteen matches. However, because other players will acquire these weapons quickly coupled with the fact that they might not hit the required rank after a full season has led some players to berate Bungie for introducing these weapons and demand they make them more accessible rather than even attempting to improve their skill to earn these weapons.

The thing about ranked playlists, whether it is after ten placement matches or a season of play, they identify a player’s actual skill rating. For a player under the skill requirement for one of these weapons, whether they are eventually attainable or not comes down to the player’s mindset. Psychologists have a theory on two different mindsets when it comes to individual ability: fixed versus growth mindsets. Players with a fixed mindset believe that a player’s ability or skill level is set in stone. For someone with a fixed mindset, either they are good enough or they are not. Failure is seen as a permanent outcome and critical feedback is seen as a personal attack against something the player cannot change. Conversely, a player with a growth mindset looks at ability as something that can change with time and practice. For them, failure is a chance to learn and feedback can highlight places for improvement.

When I used to play Overwatch more frequently and actually kept up with the community, one of the things I found interesting was the different perspectives on rank from players at different skill tiers. There were many players who viewed their rank and progression to higher ranks as something to chase. It wasn’t uncommon for a player to make a post when, after several seasons of work, he or she reached a rank like Diamond or Masters after starting in Bronze or Silver. However, there were some players, seemingly more common at lower ranks, who didn’t view ranks as a chase and would instead complain about their placements. These players could not fathom that they were not top tier players. The game must have placed them incorrectly, or they kept getting paired with bad teammates, or there were other factors outside their control which kept them out of the higher tiers they deserved.

We’ve all played with teammates who cannot take responsibility for their shortcomings and will look for anything to blame but themselves. Whether it is bad teammates, lag, the enemies' loadouts or weapons, an imbalanced map, or any number of other factors, these players can always find an excuse for their own poor performance. Conversely, the ability to be critical of one’s own performance and self diagnose is a necessity to improve as a player. If I lose a match in a PvP game or against a challenging boss, one of the first questions I always try to ask is whether I played a perfect game. This might surprise some of you, but the answer is usually no. Did I die because I over-extended beyond the range of my support teammates? Did that boss punish me for getting too greedy with my hits? Did I mistime a block or miss my shot? Although no one likes to highlight their own flaws, these are the types of questions that open the door to improvement. Of course, that’s not to say things like lag and the other factors I mentioned above don’t bother me. I am no stranger to tilt. However, blaming these issues, issues outside my control, instead of focusing on my own mistakes leaves little room for improvement.

Hidetaka Miyazaki, the director of Sekiro and president of FromSoftware, has said that he creates these games for players who are willing to persist. In an interview, Miyazaki stated that "the basic approach to his games is to let players experience a sense of accomplishment through overcoming difficulties." Getting good is not an easy process. It is different for everyone and some players will struggle for a significant amount of time. However, just because a player can’t beat Genichiro or Moon Presence, acquire one of Destiny 2’s pinnacle weapons, hit Masters in Overwatch, or reach Elite Smash right now does not mean he or she cannot get there eventually. I get that no one likes to lose and some players might never overcome some challenges, but skill ceilings should be things we strive to hit instead of asking for skill ceilings to be brought down so they are easier to reach without the same effort. Sometimes failure is the best teacher and the only way to improve is to keep trying and fail a lot. And if that's not convincing enough.. ..well, git gud.

Winning is temporary, better is forever~


  1. theshun -
    theshun's Avatar
    Sekiro is set on "easy." You can do a series of steps to turn on "hard" mode. And people pay for D2 pinnacle items. $250 for someone to play your account for five hours to get Luna's Howl.
  2. Kalmado -
    Kalmado's Avatar
    I like many hated Dark Souls after a period where I just couldn't seem to "win". I never saw the draw to the game. I took time off and eventually returned to try again months later. Once I beat Taurus Demon I was hooked. It was like a switch was turned. Been hooked on these games ever since and each game has given it's own very rewarding experience.

    To me people bitching about the difficulty level of video games is an absolute joke and is pathetic. Too tough for you? Don't play it! If you really want to beat it, get better, keep at it, or take a break and come back to it. It is the choice of the developer to determine the difficulty level and it's also their choice to never adjust it whether too difficult or even too easy. In my opinion this is such a silly thing that people get so upset about.
  3. Serra -
    Serra's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by theshun
    Sekiro is set on "easy." You can do a series of steps to turn on "hard" mode. And people pay for D2 pinnacle items. $250 for someone to play your account for five hours to get Luna's Howl.
    The point of this post was about self improvement and I think most would agree that the player who pays another to get Luna's has not improved at all.
  4. theshun -
    theshun's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Serra
    The point of this post was about self improvement and I think most would agree that the player who pays another to get Luna's has not improved at all.
    I agree. Just pointing out that things don't need to be easy since people will find a way to get events completed. Sekiro is my first in this type of game and speedruns show me fantastic ways to deal with bosses.