The Fine Line Between Challenge and Punishment: Comparing Peggle and Trash Panic
A comparison of the hardest levels in Peggle with Trash Panic, and why the latter is considered punishing but not the former.
Gamers love a challenge, but when a challenge is described as “punishing”, that seems to be a roundabout way of saying “not fun.” The implication is that the challenge is so difficult that trying to overcome it can be considered a form of punishment, but what it’s actually describing is a challenge that requires a great deal of precision (and maybe some random luck) and that the slightest mistake can ruin your entire attempt. The sense of “punishment” stems from the game’s seemingly extreme consequences for failure. But it’s a very fickle word; our perception of any given challenge is affected by the rest of the game around it. A game that starts off easy and then gets very difficult won't be considered punishing no matter how hard the later challenges may actually be. Case in point: Peggle.
On the Japanese PSN, there’s an “Arcade Edition” of Trash Panic that lets you play three “lives” for 100 yen (about $1) When those are gone you have to pay again to keep playing. It’s a fitting structure for the game, since Trash Panic feels like it was designed to eat quarters.
Peggle is a textbook case of a game that’s well paced. With each level lasting only five to ten minutes, we’re constantly faced with new challenges, but the actual difficulty of those challenges increases at a slow and steady pace. Gamers love a challenge, but only when it’s an expected challenge. Trash Panic’s embrace of that instantly-punishing arcade style shows how much games have evolved since the days of the arcade. If a game doesn’t ease its player into the harder difficulties it risks losing them, and there’s no longer someone else standing behind them ready to plunk down a quarter for their turn. Today’s games must pander to the player. That’s not to say they must be easy, or even that they can’t be punishing, but they must let the player know what they’re getting into. Some challenges should be for volunteers only.