If padding is solely defined by how difficult a challenge or a series of challenges is, then we already have a problem. Obviously what is challenging for one gamer isn't necessarily challenging for another. And by challenging, I mean when one is pushed outside of their comfort zone of execution. While we can't use the general meaning for challenge because it's subjective, maybe we can use a measurable, objective system like my DKART system to measure skill.
Instead of throwing around numbers, I'll simply cut to the heart of the matter. Difficulty cannot be the sole determining factor for what defines padding or filler even when skill is measured objectively. First, gameplay difficulty cannot be measured on a simple, linear scale. Each facet of DKART skills (dexterity, knowledge, adaptation, reflex, timing) represents the distinct ways a player's agency can be stressed. And each sub-facet of these skills was designed with as little overlap as possible. For example, you can be great with static timing challenges and terrible with complex timing challenges. Getting better at static timing challenges doesn't necessarily increase your ability with complex timing challenges. So in a game, even if a level stresses objectively less measurable skill than another level, depending on which skills and sub-facets are stressed, the actual difficulty a play can have overcoming the challenge can increase or decrease disproportionately.
Gameplay challenges not only stress different skills in different ways, but there are a lot of different ways one can use their skills to overcome a challenge. For example, if one doesn't have good reflexes, it's possible to be successful with a reflex based challenge by leveraging additional knowledge skills. Knowing where opponents are likely to be and aiming ahead of time (pre-aim) is technique that all pro FPS players use to increase their reflexes. As I've described before, the skill specturm is fluid, flexible, and overlapping.
Easy sections = filler/padding? Of course not.
Mandatory challenges that are relatively easier cannot be filler. Even if you restrict the analysis to just a singe facet of skill (dexterity, knowledge, adaptation, reflex, or timing) or a single sub-facet of one of those skills, you still face a simple problem with using difficulty and skill as the determining factor for padding. Challenge isn't the only way to create engaging, meaningful, or interesting gameplay. Some mandatory gameplay challenges are easy but memorable. Simple yet entertaining. Obvious, yet effective. And many art forms are paced to produce waves of intensity and suspense from literature to music.
To overcome challenges players build skill. Skills are mostly honed using knowledge skills. Stressing knowledge skills largely involves learning (memorization and analysis). So to overcome challenges, many games are balanced to support player learning through challenges of varying intensities. Since video games are interactive, moments of low intensity can be extremely important for calming, focusing, and refreshing the mind throughout what can be a continual, engaging, learning experience. So if you have a grudge against low challenge gameplay, you should consider how much they help you overall.
And this is not to mention that building skill (virtual or real) and using powerups inherently undermine gameplay challenge. For this reason players are constantly engaged with reducing the challenge of their gameplay experience. To maintain one's flow zone, choices are made to raise the difficulty of the experience some of which are in game options while others are pure player choices. And this process goes back and forth in a rubber banding fashion.
The bottom line is there's no way to objectively prove that content is filler because of how engaging, interesting, or challenging it is. These factors are too variable or subjective for our purposes. And it would be ridiculously limiting if video games developers strove to make every challenge in their game harder than the last. So maybe a better way of looking at this problem is by looking at difficulty and ...
So far I've been clear that words like filler or padding are typically used to describe mandatory gameplay challenges. I found that people don't really complain about optional challenges in the same way that they do mandatory ones. So the question is, how do options factor into our quest to find an objective definition of padding?
Most games are very emergent. Many are designed with alternate paths, different solutions, and some even feature multiple goals. Games with these features present a tricky case for the player and our quest to define filler. If players don't think there are options, they may not consider, look for, or experience them. So, if such players are forced to repeat a challenge that features multiple different yet optional solutions, they are likely to repeat the same solution that worked for them the first time. If this happens, they may consider the repeated challenge to be filler. The important question now is, how does simply being able to solve a gameplay challenge in different ways affect our analysis?
This is when skill floors tend to enter the conversation. A skill floor is basically the least skilled solution to a gameplay challenge. The concept of a skill floor in itself is somewhat nebulous for the reasons I explained above when discussing difficulty. Still, the concept is very useful because it is important to consider how little players can do to be successful. While designers and test makers of any kind can't guarantee that users will experience what's optional, we can almost guarantee that the mandatory, bare minimum, skill floor of the challenge will be experienced.
Some gamers are greatly influenced by skill floors. When these gamers learn the easy way to win, they can't seem to choose to take on any other, optional, more difficult method. These gamers can't help but get by with the minimum even when they'd enjoy a greater challenge more. I think players can acquire a unique understanding of gameplay systems by sweeping the skill floor, so to speak. By only changing and adapting when the game forces you to, you get a good sense of the contrary motion or interplay design of a gameplay system which helps in understanding how deep it is.
On the other hand, there is so much more to all art than the bare minimum. One reason why art is so interesting is because it can be very deep; giving us more the more we dig in. Likewise, most video games have high skill ceilings and other experiences that are only reachable after players put in the work, endure the squeeze, or explore optional possibilities. Many games these days feature relatively low skill floors while also providing the structures and the incentives for optional harder challenges. I find it odd when gamers demand harder challenges yet refuse to accept them when they're optional. This is a topic I will explore in greater detail soon.
Bringing the core discussion back, can we really call a mandatory, low skill floor, challenge with unique optional high skill solutions filler? Can we really call this padding? It seems that such a challenge has the potential to be both repetitive and unique depending on what the player chooses. If the point of words like filler and padding is to categorize a challenge that's lacking unique qualities, doesn't this potential for the challenge to be unique disqualify it as being filler? And isn't this the case with most games? You can play Super Mario Bros. by walking everywhere, pausing before every jump, and taking things one step at a time. There's nothing wrong with this approach, but there is something wrong with complaining that the game is too slow if you play like this. After all, players always have the option of using the RUN mechanic to increase their speed and therefore the difficulty of SMB. At the end of the day, a game can only enforce the rules and penalties. It can't actually make you have fun. When games give us the option to adjust our gameplay experience to our liking, it's always on us to take it.
From this perspective, grinding doesn't seem so bad. In my experience with many JRPGs and other grindable games, there are almost always options to significantly reduce the grind or eliminate it altogether. Some of these options requires a lot of skill (typically knowledge skills) that players typically can't acquire playing close to the skill floor. But instead of working for real knowledge skills, some players choose a low risk scenario to repeat in order to build their virtual advantages. More often than not, griding is taking the simple, easy, skill floor solution rather than the complex, challenging, skillful solution. I detail how Pokemon Black/White gives players many options to avoid grinding completely here. So, though I couldn't find a way to objectively define filler or padding, I think I have a solution for grinding.
Grinding is best defined as engaging in a continuous, repetitive task for the purpose of gaining some kind of virtual resource or value. Also called farming. Notice how this definition doesn't have a negative connotation, include story elements, worry about mandatory challenges, or concern itself with skill levels. Essentially, you can grind in lots of games. You can grind for lives in Super Mario Brothers by repeatedly dying and grabbing 1up Mushrooms and coins. You can grind for drops in Mega Man 9 by using the Jewel Satellite on infinitely spawning enemies or by simply traveling back and forth to make enemies respawn. You can grind in any game with a leveling system even if there are decay features that reduce the effectiveness of grinding. There's nothing wrong with grinding in itself. Before we move on, contrast my definition of grinding with the dictionary.com definition of practice: "repeated performance or systematic exercise for the purpose of acquiring skill or proficiency." Notice how one works for virtual resources while the other works for actual skill.
I don't think optional content can be filler. To illustrate, using Super Mario Bros. as an example, let's say on top of the 32 levels in the game I add 32 levels that are all the same flat level with no hazards, enemies, or obstacles. To beat these levels you simply have to keep moving right. Let's say you have the option of playing one of these levels in between each traditional level (1-1, ---, 1-2, ---, ... see image above). Because anyone can skip these levels, these levels can't be filler. They may be boring, repetitive, and unchallenging, but you never have to play them. Because there is potential to play these levels, how should we factor them into our considerations? This is the reverse issue that I described before. Instead of hugging the skill floor resulting in a lacking experience, these optional-flat levels are non-mandatory gameplay challenges that result in a lacking experience. Is it simply a waste of space to have these levels in the game whether you have to play them or not? Whether you like them or not?
It is here where we must move away from trying to objectively define filler and padding in games. For trying to define these terms objectively from every angle I could think of has only strengthened my original claim; that filler and padding are highly subjective terms to describe any kind of disappointing game experience (most likely mandatory gameplay challenges). When someone claims a game has filler, the real question is, what exactly is disappointing? And if we continue to press the issue we'll eventually stumble upon and consider the topics of a game potential, waste, and design space.
In part 4 we'll seriously consider how we can begin to have an objective conversation about potential and waste in art, an inherently arbitrary construction.