But I beat it anyway.

Yeah, that’s right. Go ahead, gape, cry, pull out your hair, whatever. I beat it.

On expert.

The experience of GH3 is so utterly different than GH2&1 that it really is entirely its own game. When I first cracked the seal and started it up (all those months ago when it first came out), I interpreted this “different” thing as “worse”.

Live and learn. Live and learn.

When the game first came out, there were various uproars across the ‘net about how difficult the game was. Folks who had become accustomed to shredding their way across the rock & roll landscape with abandon suddenly found themselves brought up short by a Grand Canyon-sized gulf between what they could do, and what they needed to do. “Foul!” they cried, “Foul, that you should make this game so hard!”

I must admit… it was a tempting argument. Neversoft did some stuff in GH3 that one could characterize as “challenging”. Or, say, “Brain obliteratingly difficult”. The wee folk who play on the Easy and Medium difficulties (they are so cute) complained of random blue and orange notes (fourth and fifth fret buttons, if you are among the uninitiated).

Actually, if you’re among the uninitiated, you need to knock that crap off. Quit being a dick and go play Guitar Hero. Jesus, you people.

Anyway. Where was I? Right! Easy and Medium random Notes of Death! I can report that the bullshit that flies your way down the guitar note highway on Expert is astoundingly complex, when laid against the earlier versions for comparison. Three-note chord changes, of a most unkind combination (1-3-4 to 1-2-4 is BS, but 1-3-4 to 2-3-5 is just cruel), and some runs that a) killed me in 1.5 seconds, and 2) didn’t even register as patterns until the seventeeth time I tried to play them. Yeah, it was hard.

But… see, I went back and did some thinking. And then I went back, and did some looking.

‘Cause I remembered. I remembered fucking Cowboys From Hell, and how unbelievably retardedly difficult it was. I remembered Bark at the Moon, and Misirlou, and Hangar 18… weren’t those songs fucking hard too? Why didn’t we care then?

So I went back and looked.

I gotta tell ya. It’s way worse than we thought it was.

Playing Guitar Hero 1 on Expert? It feels like a gentle stroll through Hard difficulty on GH3. It’s astoundingly simple. Chord changes that I considered to be impossible, like absolutely can’t be done impossible, are now trivial. And here’s the thing: GH1 was easy compared to GH2 as well.

GH3 didn’t up the ante beyond all expectations. It continued the difficulty curve increase pattern that GH2 established. Much to my astonishment.

I started to think about this. As you may know, I have some passing experience with the work of balancing video games. I have, in the past, made a study of the topic. And I remembered a key factoid.

Do you play shooters? First-person shooters? Recently? Like ’em? Feel about right to you?

Have you gone back and played DOOM recently? The original, I’m talking about here. The very first one.

It’s trivial. It’s like, having spent all that time sitting, unplayed, the game itself decided to easy itself up in order to lure people back, coaxing them to play. “Please play me! I promise not to hurt you!” it says. I’m serious: you move at 5x the speed you do in other shooters, the AIs are ridiculously dull, the levels are wide open, the enemies have no guns… it’s like shooting pigs in a barrel.

Yes, pigs. Jeeze.

There’s a name for this phenomenon: difficulty creep. As game genres establish themselves, the playerbase develops a higher and higher level of skill, and so the difficulty required to produce the same experience in players goes up. In order to make it seem on-par, you have to make it harder. Often much harder.

So, what happened? GH3 was the right thing – they made it harder.

I think two things happened, in conjunction:

  1. Neversoft was a newcomer to a beloved franchise. This sets expectations off-kilter, and the slightest misstep in this kind of situation can be very costly.
  2. The dev team did a couple of things (here and there – not all that much, actually) in-game that made the experience feel deliberately hard. This is rarely a good thing in game design. If you can feel the cold, gauntleted hand of the game designer reach out and smack you across the face, that’s rarely a pleasant experience.

I theorize that these two things in concert set off the anger machine that was part of the response to GH3.

Whatever happened, it turns out that if you set your brain on “let’s take this at face value” mode, and just fucking play the game, it’s astoundingly fun.

And, I beat it, last weekend. On Expert. Did I mention that?