Dead Easy: Designing Difficulty

This is the third post in a series of blog entries about the inclusion of an ‘easy mode’ in all games. The previous piece Difficulty and Design Intent focused on the argument that an easier mode in some games would ruin the experience intended by the game’s developers. The second post Is Art for Everyone? asked if difficult games should be their own genre, and if perhaps these games aren’t for all players. I discussed how this applied to other mediums with difficult texts like film, literature and art.

N.B. I want to make clear that this post is for now putting aside the issue that an easier mode in games would be beneficial to differently abled or disabled players. I want to look at the discussion regarding this in a post on its own – mostly because I would like to research this topic in more detail so as to be more educated on the matter. Therefore, the arguments presented here relate mostly to players who can’t play games due to their skill level, although I am sure there will be some cross-over.

This post was inspired by this article that went up on Game Informer yesterday, which looks at seven games that created higher difficulties by doing more than just reducing health for the player and increasing enemies. So today I want to look at what a difficult mode of a game can/should look like, rather than focusing on the easy mode. Perhaps if more games had sophisticated difficulties then more players would not mind a game that allowed choice. I think the reason many popular difficult games are revered is the obvious love and care that has gone into designing the game’s difficulty. For many games a difficult mode can result in just basic changes that make completing the game feel like a slog, rather than an enjoyable challenge.

Game Informer has actually published a lot of good articles on creating difficulty modes in games, and I’d urge you to check them out here, here and here. I liked these as their tone was neither ‘git gud scrub’ or ‘fuck game elitism’, but a considered look at the mechanics of difficult games.

One thing that these articles highlight as being useful to creating difficult games is choice and allowing the player to customise their experience. And this is something that hadn’t really occurred to me before, but makes a lot of sense. For some, choosing a pre-set game mode may be more convenient, but allowing for tailoring of the gaming experience would benefit everyone. Uncharted 4 does this, which arose from discussion with disabled fans, and allows the player to create a game that is easier or harder for them, based on their own needs and skills. These sort of options can also lead to experienced players creating new challenges for themselves, and allows veteran players to experiment with tactics or explore the environment with ease.

I really enjoy The Long Dark, a wintery survival game that has remained in beta for a long while. The story mode was due to be released this spring, and devs have stated it still isn’t quite ready yet. However, in order to keep their players engaged in sandbox mode, they regularly create new challenges and difficulty modes. This is a great example of how developers can keep adding to a game – since TLD is still in development, many players are long time fans who have been following the project for a while. They have had plenty of time to play and master the game, which could lead to stagnation as the longer you play a survival game, the less difficult it becomes. Unless the developers add some new challenges for you to complete. Or release a patch that makes food decay and your player develop cabin fever if kept inside for too long. Looking at The Long Dark, and other survival games with multiple mechanics of difficulty could give us ideas of how to customise a gaming experience.

Another key thing these articles highlight is the need to avoid frustration when creating difficult games. I love The Binding of Isaac and despite the fact I’ve only every defeated Mom a handful of times, I honestly don’t mind. Rouge-like games are still fun to me due to the addition of randomised or procedurally generated levels. Even if you have to start again every few minutes, you get a new game experience each time, preventing boredom or frustration. The Binding of Isaac also rewards the player with new enemies, playable characters, challenges and loot as they progress in the game, which not only keeps the game fresh, but rewards players for their struggles and triumphs.

In saying that however, in other games I am a big fan of learning through failure. As long as I feel like I can see a way forward, or gained useful knowledge from my death (like doing x is not effective, or going down y path is a bad decision) then I can avoid frustration. Even if a game is difficult it needs to feel do-able. When games just lower your health and amp up the enemies, I just feel like the situation isn’t fair and I get angry and give up. I think failure as a game mechanic can work in games with lower difficulty, and even still have weight to each death, as long as it is done thoughtfully, rather than to show how hardcore the game is.

Difficulty in games is something that, I believe, should challenge each player, and allowing customisation means that each player can tailor the challenge to them personally. Clever game difficulty design can engage and encourage players who usually don’t stray out of standard modes to have a go, and can even motivate them to keep playing. Multiple options also gives confident players a chance to challenge themselves, as well as encouraging creative gameplay. So perhaps this is a solution to the debate of easy/hard games, although I acknowledge this is easier said than done.

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