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Peggle and the Redefinition of “Difficult”

January 13, 2010

I thought, for a while there, that I was getting better at Peggle. Slowly, but surely, its challenges were being knocked down; slowly, but surely, I asserted my dominance over the game and its all-too-simple physics-based dynamic. I could beat all of the competitive matchups, even on the highest difficulty. Knocking out 35 orange pegs was barely different from taking down 20. Adventure mode was almost a joke.

Still, on the very last 400,000-point challenge, there was trouble. 250,000 was a great score. 175,000 was a little more like my average attempt. It just…wasn’t…happening.

Now, please believe that I’m not making this up. I’m not. This is not editorial privilege, this is not a story of fiction built to reinforce an argument. This actually happened:

After ten attempts that involved lots of eye-bulging and internalized bad words, I gave the controller to my three-year-old daughter who had been begging to play for about the last two rounds. Some context: she always picks the dragon, because the dragon looks cool. She calls the owl “fancy-pantsy” because I called him a fancypants in a competitive game after a particularly beneficial zen shot. She knows enough to aim for the orange (mostly because her attempts at playing typically involve her brother and sister shouting “AIM FOR THE ORANGE!”), but knows nothing of strategy beyond the initial aim.

She came within a decent landing of beating the thing. 360,000+ after a mere 10,000 in the game-ending plinko slot. Ridiculous shot after ridiculous shot, complete with long shot bonuses and a fireball that had to have eaten half the board, and she just about finished the challenge for me.

*** (deep breath) ***

Of course, you can give yourself advantages -- like using flippers on this stage.

“Difficulty” and “skill” in Peggle are carefully-crafted illusions — or, at the very least, mean something entirely different than the same words applied to action, adventure, or even sports games. The concept of difficulty in a casual game like Peggle is tied directly to chance, with the definition of “harder” or “easier” hinging on whether your odds of accomplishing the goals the game sets for you get better or worse. Granted, one could theoretically say the same thing about any other type of game. Some lucky shmuck may well beat Ninja Gaiden II the first time he plays it, simply because his fingers happened to fall on the buttons at the right time. The difference here is that the odds of such luck happening in Peggle are not negligible. There’s always enough of a chance that the player who’s never played before is going to outmaneuver the master to make it worth playing.

On one hand, this is part of what attracts people who in no way define themselves as gamers to Peggle — when the prospect of success is always available, the intimidation that many games present to non-gamers disappears. On the other hand, it is that very ease that infuriates gamers enough to come up with apocalyptic scenarios in which casual gaming takes over and pushes so-called “hardcore” gaming into extinction.

Where Peggle wins over the latter group of gamers, however, is in adding decidedly “hardcore” scenarios like the one described above. The number of attempts that is typically necessary to succeed in these scenarios is enough to emulate the “hardcore” experience, because it feels like you’re practicing and getting better. The truth is, it’s still largely down to luck — even if you were able to line up your shots in the same place every time, your results could be wildly different thanks to the round-to-round randomization of orange pegs and the turn-to-turn randomization of the pink bonus peg.

None of this is to say that Peggle is a bad game; it just presents a shift in the concept of “difficulty” by leaving so much up to luck.

As such, next time I’ll try not to be so surprised when my three-year-old outdoes me.

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