Degrees of Difficulty

One of the more important and unique aspects in the medium of video games is adjustable difficulty. It allows video games to be more accessible which translates into more money for people who make games. As games have become more accessible (aka more mainstream) the overall challenge of your average game is lower than it was ten years ago. The reasons for this are many, mainly being that the games that make the most money are developed and marketed towards a wider audience. This means that the target audience is less familiar with the product and the game ends up being easier to win as a result. There was something valuable in games that would let the player discover things for themselves, but this is practically non-existent today. Most mainstream games like Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty hold the player’s hand throughout the game. This is where the value of adjustable difficulty becomes evident. It allows games to meet a middle ground between accessibility and challenge. A lot of successful franchises would not be what they are today if weren’t for adjustable difficulty.

For those who got this cutscene in Halo, I salute you!

The best use of adjustable difficulty is when the experience of playing a game differs with each level of difficulty. Games like Halo: Combat Evolved or Left 4 Dead are great examples of this. Playing Halo on Legendary or Left 4 Dead on Expert are completely different experiences than playing either game on Normal. On higher difficulties the enemies use deadlier tactics that take advantage of the player character’s decreased health. On lower difficulty settings, the game is more forgiving of the player’s mistakes, which allows them to take greater risks. However the importance of difficulty runs deeper than mere challenge. Left 4 Dead is fun on any difficulty setting because the fundamental principle of working together is always intact.

Some games run into trouble by making the experience so easy that entire aspects of the gameplay can be ignored. The first Mass Effect is an example of this mistake running rampant. The less intuitive aspects of Mass Effect, such as the squad management, power use and weapon choice can be completely ignored on lower difficulty settings because the game only requires the player to be good at the shooter aspects and not the RPG aspects. It’s only natural that the later installments of the Mass Effect franchise play more like shooters than role-playing-games. This mistake often shows up in games that have an optional power-up such as Rage of the Gods from the God of War games or the Drive system from Kingdom Hearts 2. This mistake is an example of sloppy game design. Guitar Hero is game that gets this feature right. Star Power is one of the more exciting and fun power ups in all of gaming, but what makes it so effective is how it functions. It boosts a player’s score, but only for the notes that they actually hit. It rewards success while not substituting for skill. Finally, Star Power can only be gained if a player hits specific notes in succession. It rewards skill and requires skill to obtain.

If I ever manage to beat Through the Fire and Flames on Expert, it will go on my résumé.

Speaking of which, Guitar Hero is probably the most significant example of adjustable difficulty, where the experience is vastly different for each difficulty level. The great thing about these games is that the challenge of the game is constantly decided the player when they pick a song. It also allows each player to learn the game at their own pace which leads to an amazing feeling of empowerment when a player is able to move up to a higher difficulty. The mainstream success of Guitar Hero was not because it included familiar and popular songs but because the difficulty accounted for a wide range of players. Interestingly enough, Rock Band eventually became more successful because it was in fact slightly easier than Guitar Hero, which cashed in on the casual player base.

Then there are games like Ninja Gaiden and Dark Souls which have a reputation for being incredibly challenging even on the default difficulty setting. Having not played Dark Souls (or it’s predecessor) I can’t speak for its quality or difficulty but it’s safe to assume that a game which can successfully market itself to specific audience is likely well-designed. It’s interesting that adjustable difficulty in games such as these is essentially redundant. Ninja Gaiden actually mocks the player if they play on the easiest difficulty setting.

It’s respectable when a developer makes no attempt to hide their target audience especially when the target audience is hardcore gamers. I feel that respectability is lost in today’s video games. Publishers are marketing games to the lowest common denominator, I feel that many publishers see pleasing their hardcore player base as a convenient bonus and not a primary goal. It’s even worse when franchises try to water their games down to sell more. Ninja Gaiden 3 was an example of this (it was panned for being too easy), and it may a sign of where the industry is heading. It’s important to celebrate the games that remember to be challenging, and not to indulge in games that games that seek please the masses. For those are the games that have nothing to say.

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About Sam Hale

Autistic, young adult and lots on my mind.

Posted on April 11, 2013, in Editorials and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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