Tom Jepson Creative

Glutton for Punishment - Peak Experiences in Tough Videogames

As a UX designer, things such as videogames hold a wealth of knowledge that can be picked into. Seeing how the designers have worked to create 'peak moments' in a game and implement mechanics to both drive and impede your progress is deeply interesting. It can fuel the fire of my own creativity, showing new ways to create points of elevation or pride in a product outside of 'traditional gamification'.

Real challenges are 'the new black'... or something like that!

I grew up in an age where computer games didn’t come with difficulty settings. You played the title and, more often than not, you were bludgeoned into submission by its unforgiving challenges. Succeeding in completing a level or mission was, by all accounts, a grand achievement for someone of my tender years.

This love of a challenge hasn’t dissipated over the years. Changed and evolved, maybe, but it’s certainly not been extinguished.

When I talk about ‘tough videogames’ I don’t mean cranking the pre-set difficulty levels to the hardest (‘Grounded’ mode on The Last Of Us, I’m looking at you!) and toughing out the same game experience with no save points, limited ammunition, and enemy AI which defies all logic.

I’m talking about titles that aim to break the script when it comes to a challenging experience in the game. Titles that look for opportunities to create peak experiences (to use a term from The Power of Moments by Chip Heath & Dan Heath) in their gameplay outside of those you might ordinarily expect. These games flip problem-solving and progress-making on their heads.

The first game that did this for me in recent years was Demon’s Souls; a JRPG dungeon-slasher that openly punished you for playing like a buffoon (or getting too cocky, thinking you’re actually good at it!). The mechanics were generally quite similar to any other action-based RPG; an open-ish map, crawling through dungeons to slay enemies, picking up weapons of increasing magnitude… The leveling-up was, on the surface, commonplace. You slay enemies, earn ‘souls’, and spend them to increase your stats. Brilliant!

Sadly, death in this game means failure, embarrassment, and countless hours of frustration while you crawl back through the dungeon to the point of your previous expiration. Dying in this game causes you to drop your ‘souls’ and therefore the currency you so desperately needed to level-up your character. Die twice in a row without reaching the last point of death? Kiss goodbye to your hard-won level-currency; you’ve got some dungeon crawling to do!

This mechanic has been iterated upon in subsequent titles — Dark Souls 1–3, Bloodbourne, and more recently Nioh which I absolutely love — but one thing remains a constant. If you get cocky, you die. If you die, you end up frustrated as hell because it’s definitely your fault!

Without a doubt, you have to learn — quickly — how to think differently and work with what you’re given. The game is the game and there’s nothing you’re going to do to change or subvert it; you cannot play and expect to win as you would with other less-inventive titles.

In a way, the game is putting the control firmly back in your hands as a player. The experience you have in-game, once you’ve come to learn, understand, and dare I say ‘master’ the environment, rest on your shoulders. It takes a very skilled team to make something which has an almost invisible wrapper of user experience; frictionless mechanics for ‘all the other stuff’ you can do in the game which gives way to the brutal, bleeding core.

These titles grasp the opportunity, again, to create a peak experience — one of elevation — when you do finally succeed. The feeling of satisfaction that you have beaten something which previously felt insurmountable is tremendous; more often than not, too, the in-game rewards and position of progress are more than worthwhile to keep you playing.

Another game I’ve played recently that has caused me numerous hours of heartache and doubt in my ability to think like a sensible human being is ‘Baba Is You’. A simple-on-the-surface puzzle game on the Nintendo Switch which completely deconstructs problem-solving in a way so fluid, and so frustrating, that you eventually start to wonder if you’re actually losing the plot.

It requires you to think on multiple planes, changing the state of various objects to create a sequence of events that will allow you to complete a level and progress in the game. Sometimes it’s as simple as changing something from ‘fixed’ to ‘moving’… other times, it’s a cavalcade of convoluted state-juxtaposition that (as with the enemy AI of hard-mode gaming) defies any kind of logic. And that is the point. It’s not formulaic and flips the tradition if-this-then-that puzzle completion through myriad degrees.

Needless to say, I’ve not gotten very far with it… Still chugging away, though!

You have to love a challenge and be some kind of glutton for punishment to get any kind of a kick out of these hard-as-standard ‘games’. They’re not for everyone. If you put Call of Duty or any other mainstream title in front of me I’m likely to abandon it within minutes. Find something which has hidden layers and peak moments of pure bliss, however, and I am a convert for life.

How are you creating peak experiences in your business, product, or service? Thinking in moments and finding brief points to lift your customer up can make the difference between delivering what's expected and something that people will come back for time and time again.

If you want to find out more and start creating your own peak experiences, head to - let's start the conversation.


  1. The Power of Moments by Chip Heath & Dan Heath