Saturday, February 8, 2014

On Video Game Difficulties

I don't consider myself a "hardcore" gamer -- I'm not the type of person who has to play every game on the hardest difficulty or hunt down every single achievement or trophy to get satisfaction from the games I play. When it comes to playing video games, it's not about proving how good I am to the rest of the world; it's just about having fun. For the longest time my philosophy was that whenever a game presented me with difficulty options, I would play the default, normal difficulty unless I knew in advance that the normal setting would be far too easy and therefore unsatisfying. And yet lately I've noticed myself consistently playing games on the "hard" setting, because it seems like in most mainstream games these days, "normal" has actually come to mean "easy."

It's no secret that games have been getting easier over time. Classic NES games were so difficult they even inspired their own trope. The idea at the time was to make less total content last longer and to cause arcade players to spend more money on the machines buying continues after reaching a game over. Those games were so hard that only the most dedicated players mastered the skills and know-how to reach the end. Nowadays, with advents like regenerating health and frequent checkpoints, the idea seems less about challenging the player and instead about ensuring that evern the lowest common denominator will be able to reach the end of the game.

I find myself playing on "hard" more often lately because I want to feel some sense of challenge, and most "normal" modes don't provide much real sense of accomplishment. I like that feeling of satisfaction that comes from developing my own mastery of the game, the realization that it was my own skill, wit, and determination that got me through to the end. That's what makes the experience unique and personal, because otherwise I'm having the exact same gameplay experience as everyone else, and I don't always get that feeling from playing games on the default, "normal" difficulty.

When I started playing BioShock Infinite, I was immediately intrigued by its so-called "1999 mode," a tough difficulty meant to replicate the feeling of challenge found in games from the late 90s like its spiritual predecessor, System Shock 2. As I played, however, I found myself bored and annoyed with its "cheap" difficulty; it felt more like a tedious waste of time than a genuine challenge to me. As much as the developers may have hyped its 1999 mode, the fact remains that the game was fundamentally designed around its "normal" mode, and all 1999 mode does is artificially inflate the difficulty by playing with damage values and monetary costs.

Demon's Souls and Dark Souls are both considered hard, challenging games, and indeed they are -- unlike most modern games, they're not afraid to punish you hard for your mistakes. Both of those games require you to think and play intelligently in order to succeed, and really aren't that difficult if you're observant, take your time, and play diligently. When you die, it's usually because you made some kind of mistake; you learn from the experience and improve. The Souls games are what I consider ideal in terms of difficulty, because everything in the game is fundamentally designed around providing a certain level of challenge, and because they empower the player to succeed or fail based on their own skill and technique.

This makes me realize there's a difference in perceived difficulty making some games feel like worthwhile challenges to beat, while others feel like a waste of time and effort to overcome. The Souls games offer a wholesome challenge because even in the face of failure there's the distinct perception that "I can do better" and "my fate is in my own hands." BioShock Infinite is the case of a game that's almost too easy on normal mode, but then doesn't improve the feeling of gameplay in higher difficulties, since it's the exact same gameplay but with the odds unfairly stacked against you. It's as if the game reacts to your complaints that it's too easy by tying your hands behind your back instead of stepping its own game up for the challenge.

BioShock's 1999 mode is the type of difficulty designed for hardcore enthusiasts who have already beaten the game and already know where to expect enemy spawns and strategies for surviving certain encounters. But since it's the exact same gameplay experience (same level progression, same enemies, same everything -- just harder) I have zero interest in replaying the game just to experience the extra challenge. It feels like a tedious waste of time the first time through because I'm having to resort to trial-and-error as I learn what to expect up ahead, and it would be a particular waste of time doing a replay because I'd have already seen and experienced all of the game content.

With most games that only artificially inflate the difficulty by stacking the statistical sliders against your favor, they only succeed in making the player take longer to accomplish goals while doing the same basic thing he would've been doing otherwise. In a typical run-n-gun FPS, for instance, the gameplay doesn't change much except that it demands more efficiency on the part of the player, and enemies take twice as many bullets to kill. Borderlands 2 is a good example of this, where replaying the game in True Vault Hunter Mode has you literally playing the same game the same way, but causing you to pump hundreds of bullets into enemies to kill them, while making you hide behind cover more often/longer regenerating shields.

Games like The Witcher, by contrast, change their difficulty with the usual tweaks to the sliders but also by requiring the player to use more game skills. Alchemy and potions aren't really necessary in the normal mode of The Witcher, but playing hard mode practically necessitates the frequent use of potions to offset some of the statistical deficiencies you suffer thanks to the difficulty. This kind of difficulty, while being harder and increasing the amount of time it takes to kill enemies, encourages the player to play more intelligently, using the alchemy system to his advantage and planning in advance for situations he might encounter. In The Witcher 2, you even get access to unique armor sets and weapons, offering you some new game content to experience in the process as a reward for taking the challenge.

About a year ago I wrote an article reminiscing about the way Rareware used to implement difficulty modes in their games. Their games in the 90s were known for being easy to beat but difficult to complete. GoldenEye and Perfect Dark are particularly iconic of this; both games offered three difficulty levels to accommodate novice, intermediate, and expert players, but the gameplay experience radically changed and evolved from one difficulty to the next because they added objectives, opened new areas of the game, and changed enemy placements in addition to simply making enemies do more damage, be more accurate, and have more health.

With GoldenEye and Perfect Dark I found their hardest difficulties almost impossible at first, and thus stuck with the easier game modes until I'd developed a familiarity with the levels, gotten used to the controls, and improved my skills at the game. I then felt empowered to go back and try the hardest difficulties, for more than just bragging rights -- I felt encouraged to see and experience all the game had to offer. While the artificial difficulty inflation of going from "normal" to "hard" (in terms of enemies being impossibly accurate and lethal) was indeed tedious and frustrating, it felt entirely worth it because it provided a genuinely dynamic gameplay experience.

I can't think of any games that have handled higher difficulties the way Rareware did with those games in the 90s. Most developers, it seems, design their games around what eventually becomes the "normal" difficulty -- a mode designed not to provide a challenge, but to ensure that players will be able to safely see their way to the game's end -- and then scale damage values and resources after the fact, which is a really cheap and lazy way to do things. I've never been drawn to hard difficulties until recently, because it seems like normal difficulties have gotten too easy of late, but it's tough knowing ahead of time if a game's hard mode will be a fun challenge or a shallow exercise in tedium.


  1. Completely agree.

    Also would put forward a different way of handling difficulty: Cave Story. The game, originally, have one difficulty level that reminds me of your description of Demon's Souls. It is extremely punishing, but if you are observant and strategic you should not have too much trouble. But after you have it down pat, you have it, and replay is therefore made far too easy. But that is where the Perfect Dark, et all like features come in. But instead of selecting a different difficulty level you unlock different weapons, harder locations, different endings, and more objectives, by searching for them, making different choices, and playing better. Then for another level of playability and hardness, none of the weapons and upgrades are mandatory. You can skip every one of them, and play with 2hp instead of 25hp, with lesser weapons, etcetera; Making the game NES hard.

    So instead of making you pick a difficulty setting, and guess at what normal or hard means, you simply play the game. And while there is some (if you are really good you might skip a difficulty setting) most of it is built as replayability.

  2. For games that don't necessarily have a (single) story (e.g. city-builders like Zeus), a good approach (which WAS used in Zeus) is to designate missions/campaigns/maps with a difficulty, depending on their objectives, time limits, resource distribution, and even scripted events, allowing players to freely choose what order they play them in based on their confidence in their ability, and not only on mission descriptions.

    Then there are also Gothic 1 and 2, where you don't have any difficulty settings and sliders, everything is perfectly balanced, and all you need to succeed is to be careful, save often, and correctly assess your abilities before any dangerous encounter - meaning that in the end it's still you who chooses the game's difficulty at every step.

  3. Yeah, devs are making things easy because people expect there to be achievements for completing games on the highest difficulty, which would be... difficult... to do supposing said difficulty was... difficult...

    What can you do, though. The types of devs who would include a difficulty level that didn't rely on unwitting HP/damage scalars are few and far between, so to ask for a game that has a good story *and* gameplay *and* difficulty *and* ... well, you get the point. Demon's Souls has most of this, anyway, and being a jRPG, has no story... but that's not too important in its case.

    I don't know. All you can do is complain about it. There is no trend in the market right now (or a foreseeable one) that would make devs want to include "legitimate" difficulty (optionally by the inclusion of some setting, or otherwise...) option in their games. People are far too content seeing all those trophies unlock and bosses vanquished and the like.

  4. I think even an artificial difficulty slider that merely increases the health and damage of enemies can also work wonders. For examples, in Shadow of Mordor, the game becomes far too easy at the end because you unlock multiple game-breaking powers that allow you to one shot even hardest difficulty bosses. Even if they had provided a hard mode where these bosses would do more damage would have made the games far more enjoyable.