• Derek Chan

What are the flavors of frustration in games?

What are the flavors of frustration in games?

I was recently playing Divinity Original Sin 2. Overall, it’s a great game with a lot of things going for it: good combat, snappy writing, encounters with multiple ways to succeed. The bubble was popped, however, when I walked into the first genuinely open map area. As I understand Div 2’s design, you really shouldn’t be tackling enemies more than one level above yours at best. Using this shorthand you can usually guess where you’re intended to go even if the whole map is open for you to explore.

So there I was, a level 12 prison island escapee walking into level 20 trolls, level 15 dwarf gangers, etc. I spent maybe 45 minutes just walking around trying to find the “level 12 area.”

Great news: I found it.

Infuriating news: I hated it.

It probably would have been perfectly enjoyable if I hadn’t been trudging around the map for the last hour angrily. I’ve since committed to an angry break from a game I was otherwise perfectly happy playing.

This experience was frustrating, but isn’t that what games are all about? Appropriately frustrating challenges to interact with. Using gmail is easy, playing Div 2 can be appropriately hard.

Therefore let’s split up frustration into a few different kinds of frustration:

-Engaging frustration: difficult enough to make you interested but not overwhelmed (think of the flowstate chart: appropriate difficulty for your skill level)

-Difficulty Frustration: this is what the level 13 Div 2 encounter was (without the added frustration of being lost for 45 minutes). Slightly harder than my skills as a player. Alternatively think of playing a guitar hero song at too high a difficulty level. (goin up the flowstate chart in the y direction without the corresponding x direction skill). A game isn’t at fault for having challenges that its players are unskilled to tackle.

-Confusion Frustration: what am I supposed to be doing? I don’t get it. When you design something confusing for a player, first they’ll slow down and think. Then they get angry and then they stop playing. That’s where I was in Div 2 when I left. Arguably this overlaps with immersion: players were along for the ride until you introduce a bad mechanic or you make a weird plot point. It’s the moment in the movie when you realize you’re watching a bad movie: the magic is broken and it’s all the designer’s fault. Frustration with mechanics and narrative.

-Player vs. Player Frustration: this is the phenomenon in competitive games where people continue to play and get angry at other human actors vs. at the game. Consider League of Legends, any given match has a 50% chance of your team winning and a 50% chance of your team losing. Despite functionally being a coinflip, people love League. People also flame their teammates and opponents all the time, but they keep playing the game.

So players get frustrated. Sometimes that’s a normal part of the experience; other times it completely ruins the experience. Sometimes it’s even directed at other players and not the game itself. Depending on the business model of the game as well, making a player so angry that they quit might not be a bad thing. I already paid for my copy of Divinity Original Sin 2 and arguably already got my money’s worth out of it. In the case of League of Legends, Riot’s business model requires continued goodwill from its players (i.e. if other players are so toxic that they actively push players out of the game, then there are fewer people to buy things from the premium shop). In some ways, premium games have an advantage in that you really need to frustrate a lot of people, motivate enough of them to spread a negative reputation about your game, and then cause new customers to not buy your game before seeing a major hit to sales.


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