At the 2007 Penny Arcade Expo, Metanet developers Mare Sheppard and Raigan Burns were ready to show their upcoming Xbox Live Arcade platformer N+: an enhanced version of the evil hard 2004 Flash original where a slippery ninja has to jump around increasingly cruel mazes collecting gold and dodging traps.
They were pretty happy it, but what they found shocked them. “We hadn't yet done any play-testing with the public”, Sheppard tells Red Bull. “To our horror many people couldn't even get past the first level.”
Rather than dumbing down, they added a bunch of easier levels to ease players in. It was definitely the right decision - as Metanet prepares for the release of N++ on PlayStation 4, they have one bit of feedback ringing in their ears: “Some fans have actually complained that N+ is too easy!” The follow up to a game that had an achievement for dying 1,000 times ('Practice Makes Perfect' – 15G) will certainly not be aimed at casual players.
Ultra hard games -- the likes of Dark Souls, Spelunky, Super Meat Boy and Trials – are enjoying a revival at the moment, and the fans know exactly what to expect. They hark back to the good old days when games were unforgiving, and made that way to last longer.
Coin-ops like Contra were designed to keep you pushing in coins, while Megaman and the original Super Mario games' difficulty made them addictive: just one more go to beat this level. Even the original Prince of Persia didn't believe much in checkpoints: if you lost, back to the start of the level with you, and oh: you only have an hour to complete the whole game, or you lose.
I'm an okay videogame player. I think I'm a little better than average, and I didn't want to make any levels that I couldn't beat on a normal basis.
Antti Ilvessuo is the co-founder and creative director of RedLynx, the developer of the Trials series, a motorcycle game which only allows you to tilt, accelerate and break against increasingly impossible looking obstacle courses. He says the studio has occasionally gotten hate mail from players angry that a level is impossible, but those are in the minority.
“More often we get emails from people who show us pictures of their broken controllers with a note like, 'Look what you made me do! P.S. this is the greatest game I've ever played.'"
Super Meat Boy developers Edmund McMillen and Tommie Refenes (Team Meat) have only had one complaint about the notoriously precise platform game's legendary brutal difficulty, but they did get an angry email about The Binding of Isaac: “His girlfriend unlocked an achievement he hadn't managed, and he wanted us to delete it for him.” Ultra hard games aren't supposed to be generous.
Even when people do complain, it turns out they're more suckers for punishment than they'd let on. When Metanet got complaints about N+, they'd write back apologetically with advice, but often end up getting sheepish replies from players who'd taken time out, calmed down, played it again and won on their own.
But what about the developers themselves? “I'm an okay videogame player,” says McMillen, “I think I'm a little better than average, and I didn't want to make any levels that I couldn't beat on a normal basis.” After all, the developers need to be able to play everything to test everything.
But when Super Meat World -- the portal for players to create and share levels they'd made -- opened, there were soon more than 7,000 user generated levels up, and with them the careful difficulty curve went out the window.
There's a lot of kids making games right now, and they'll send emails or tweets saying 'Super Meat Boy inspired me', and I'll take a look and it will be the most insanely difficult thing I've ever seen with saw blades and lasers covering the screen and that's all it is from the beginning.
“There were quite a few up that were just really pixel precision stuff that I couldn't do”, says McMillen. “It's safe to say there are thousands and thousands of players out there way beyond our skill level” adds Refenes.
Some of the add-on levels for the Xbox version came from user generated content, and they can both 100 percent Super Meat Boy as they originally designed it: “There was one point in testing where I couldn't do it: the Kids Warp Zone [a bonus world for hardcore players] section where I had to dial things back. I needed to consecutively beat it in a reasonable time frame for a week of testing, so that's the level I had to edit. It's still the hardest level though.”
Metanet insist on parity with their fans: if they can't beat a level, they don't put it in the game. “Not only is this fair to players, it also means we can be confident that none of the levels are impossible and there's at least one solution to each level.” There are some close run things though: “There are definitely levels which we've only managed to beat once or twice that we're still a bit afraid of,” Sheppard says.
Like Team Meat, compared to their fan-base, both Sheppard and Burns cannot complete all of the fan-made levels. And even on their own designs, they're quickly eclipsed: “we always get bumped off the high-score lists almost immediately.”
There’s one exception to this: the creator of fiendish iPhone game Super Hexagon Terry Cavanagh, who obsessively keeps his highscore on top of the leaderboard - but then he only has to keep an eye on his own levels, not fan creations.
Including level editors with these super tough indie games is definitely half the fun, allowing the community to be just as sadistic with the same tools the designers used. With Trials, they include the editor in the Xbox version. It's a big selling point for the series, and the creativity still surprises the team who included some of their favourites in the official trailer below. “Some of their stuff is better than ours,” admits Ilvessuo, “and many of them have received jobs here as a result.”
The advantage of having a user friendly level editor is that anyone can make a level, but the problem is that anybody can make a level. Getting the balance between pure frustration, fairness and of course fun is essential, something that sometimes separates the fans from the creators.
“There's a lot of kids making games right now, and they'll send emails or tweets saying 'Super Meat Boy inspired me', and I'll take a look and it will be the most insanely difficult thing I've ever seen with saw blades and lasers covering the screen and that's all it is from the beginning,” says McMillen. “I think there's a little dance to do with making the person feel accomplished from doing something and slowly increasing the difficulty.”
But are the current glut of hardcore indie games really difficult, or are we just used to being spoonfed in the days of free-to-play and Farmville? A bit of both. Super Meat Boy is itself a throwback to the NES platforming twitch gameplay, and the likes of Spelunky and Dark Souls pride themselves on being consistently fair - just very, very unforgiving. Rather than finding masochism a niche pursuit in gaming, this harsh difficulty has been gaining more and more of a following.
“Games were easier when we were working on Super Meat Boy - I think more difficult games have come out since. Demon Souls and Super Meat Boy proved that people wanted a harder game. People want a challenge,” McMillen explains.
Meanwhile Ilvessuo doesn't think the Trials series is hard, just unfamiliar to newcomers: “It's like playing guitar or riding a bike, the more you do it the better you get. Your skill as a Trials player will carry over from game to game in the series.”
So, what do our hardcore game designers play to unwind and can they beat them? Spelunky is the only game to get name-checked by Team Meat: “Spelunky is one of my favorite games of all time. I got to Hell first out of us, but I haven't beaten it” says McMillen. Hell, for the unfamiliar is a hidden ending in Spelunky that requires the collection of various hidden items and access to secret exits across the entire game to unlock – and if you die, it's back to the start with you. It's very much the hardcore way to complete the hardcore game.
“I've beaten it two or three times now” Refenes chips in. Sheppard name-checks a few that her and Burns enjoy, and they all have a certain quality in common - “games which present what seems like an impossible challenge”: Dark Souls (“we rage-quit in Anor Londo, but started a new game”), Spelunky (“we made it to through Hell to Yama once but died”), DoomRL (“really accessible but deep”) and Kaizo Mario (“ingeniously creative, but sadistic”).
So what of the future of the Super Hard Game? N++ on Playstation 4 will be “the hardest in the series”, Dark Souls 2 will include a feature that lowers your starting health every time you die forcing you to get better, and McMillen is aware that if (and it's an 'if' at this point) they go back to Meat Boy the fans will want it to be “in a realm of semi-impossibility”. As for Trials, RedLynx has actually been pretty generous with the difficulty up until now, keeping so-called 'Ninja Tracks' out of each release because even the world's best players would need at least 50 faults to beat them.
“As for rumors of tracks even more difficult than Ninja level, it's possible we may have once created such a beast and then hidden it away in our server room, never to be mentioned again. It is best not to even speak about it, until that day some time in the far future when there may be a player born ready to attempt the Elder God level of difficulty,” jokes Ilvessuo.
“But that player has not yet been born, the bio-enhancements needed for such an awesome display of skill are not yet ready.” Challenge accepted.