By Zach Kliger
This year’s surprise video game hit is not another entry into the Call of Duty series. In fact, it doesn’t seem to follow any standard at all — eschewing cutting edge graphics and groundbreaking gameplay in favor of animation and music harking back to the 1920s. Cuphead is a seven year labor of love that owes more to the early work of Disney Studios than its contemporary peers. Yet, in two weeks, it has sold well over a million copies.
Most remarkable? It’s a game almost designed not to sell, not to be popular, and not to be accepted by its audience.
Cuphead was created specifically to be truly and painfully challenging. One reviewer observed that it “requires the player to be fully engaged with it, exhibiting quick reaction times and multi-tasking between jumping across platforms, avoiding both the enemies and their gunfire.” Difficult as this sounds, people can’t seem to get enough of it; in fact, difficulty is routinely praised as a fundamental piece of what makes it such a special game.
It makes no sense that a game so challenging continues to sell so many copies. But, while the aesthetic of Cuphead recalls a bygone age of animation, its success is a message to contemporary businesses: stop making your customers lives so easy.
It’s time to start making things more difficult for customers.
Cuphead’s success runs counter to almost everything brands are told about making a product successful. Prevailing logic is that accessibility and broad adoption are related: -less terms, such as “frictionless” and “seamless” function as buzzwords admonishing brands: make it easy. Technology continues to break down barriers and increase ease of use, but like all cardinal rules of design, there is a point of diminishing returns.
Understanding why people would want to play such a difficult game is rooted in the cathartic experience of a great story. It’s a classic tenet of storytelling other brands can leverage to motivate their own growth strategy.
No one wants to read a story where the hero has it easy every step of the way. Without challenges or obstacles to overcome, there is no tension in the narrative. And when the story reaches its resolution, certainty of success makes its reward feel neither earned nor deserved. The struggle of a powerless outsider has been proven to resonate with audiences, precisely because they see themselves in the hero overcoming each challenge. A product defined by its difficulty isn’t a gimmick — it’s a challenge customers will rise to meet.
Stories of struggle are so powerful and lasting because of that final moment of catharsis. Whether a person is going through a struggle of their own or watching it play out on a screen, nothing beats the emotional release that comes when the “big bad” is finally beaten. Stories aligned with the hero’s journey translate so well from myth to the modern day because they are bedrocked in the endlessly resonant tale of struggle and reward.
Few brands have mastered catharsis like IKEA. Each one of their customers has a personal story about deciphering instructions, working out the puzzle of construction, and feeling the sense of accomplishment once their furniture is erected. IKEA makes it difficult, yet its “IKEA Family” are some of the most loyal customers in the world.
This well-documented phenomenon is referred to as the “IKEA effect.” The progenitors of the theory, Harvard business student Michael I. Norton and colleagues from Duke and Yale, Daniel Mochon and Dan Ariely (now Chief Behavioral Economist at Woden client Qapital) describe it this way: “labor alone can be sufficient to induce greater liking for the fruits of one’s labor: even constructing a standardized bureau, an arduous, solitary task, can lead people to overvalue their (often poorly constructed) creations.” By requiring personal investment, IKEA creates stronger relationships for an objectively inferior product than competitors who make it easy for consumers to furnish their homes.
Tesla’s velocity in large part may be because of the similar difficulty it infuses into its brand and its product. It’s difficult to buy a Tesla car — for a reason. A prospective Model 3 buyer can’t simply waltz into a dealership, talk to a salesperson, and drive away in their new car. Each vehicle must be custom ordered, and the buyer awaits delivery for as much as a year. Even that process understates the challenge of limited charging stations and the lack of dealer network to support owners. Yet that long wait only makes the moment when the car finally arrives that much sweeter, and the small difficulties of ownership only add to a feeling of community. Buyers feel they’re ahead of the curve, and passing through the crucible of ownership only amplifies the catharsis felt on the day of each Tesla’s delivery.
These approaches are scary, precisely because they challenge the deeply held belief that every customer experience should be as pleasant as possible. Examining the roots of customer and user experience in architecture reveal the flaws in this approach. Fundamentally, the goal of architecture is much the same as user experience work: to build a space that is both functional and beautiful. In architecture, making simplicity and seamlessness your guiding principle is but one of many approaches. Yet in designing products or services, it is dominant.
Apple’s incredible level of success is largely to blame for why simplicity and ease of use have become the new defining standard for what marks “good design.” In seeking to emulate Apple, company after company follows their principles doggedly without realizing that simplicity works for Apple because it is fundamental to who Apple is. Design is an extension of the brand story. Simplicity at Apple feels authentic; for decades their customers’ catharsis was the decision to switch. For others, it just feels contrived.
Ease of use for the customer is valuable only inasumuch as it advances the message of your brand. Brothers Chad and Jared Moldenhauer dedicated seven years of their lives to creating Cuphead. They spilled their own blood, sweat, and tears in the process, painstakingly crafting each frame of hand drawn animation until they were done. It’s a feature, not a bug, that the game is so difficult that at least one reviewer couldn’t even get past the tutorial section.
Like every upstart initiative, there was likely plenty of trepidation and doubt along the way. But in creating a game as uncompromising as they are, the Moldenhauer brothers established a bond with their audience. They found something in their own struggle worth sharing, and in fearlessly delivering that to customers, they have been rewarded.
Theodore Roosevelt once said that nothing worth getting comes easy. Ease of use, simplicity and frictionless onboarding sound obvious, but they reduce the value of a company in the eyes of customers. If those traits aren’t core to their message, brands should stop holding their customer’s hand. Instead, treat them as a real hero: one worthy of struggle and the satisfaction that comes from their own personal catharsis.
Zach Kliger is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, let Woden help. Download our free StorytellingBlueprint, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss how we can help tell your story.