Thinking Beyond Difficulty

Andrew Vanden Bossche makes the case for thinking beyond difficulty modes in videogames.

Thinking Beyond Difficulty

Alex Hutchinson, lead designer on Assassin's Creed, made a comment about how easy modes have the potential to ruin games, and though his definition of ruin was not fully defined, I am forced to agree with him, though specifically I'd like to be clear about what I believe:

What is called "easy mode" in some games is potentially a much worse game experience than other modes.

Or more specifically:

Alternate difficulties in some games can vary wildly in the experience they provide.

Though a lot of the reactions to his quote has interpreted it as a tirade against easy modes in general, that’s far from the case. For a moment, consider his quote as it stands:

"A lot of games have been ruined by easy modes. If you have a cover shooter and you switch it to easy and you don’t have to use cover, you kind of broke your game. You made a game that is essentially the worst possible version of your game."

What he is saying is not necessarily that easy modes in games are bad—far from it. He is instead making the case that developers end up ruining the core experience of their game in their quest to make it easier.  Title screens make difficulty look awfully simple; easy, normal, and hard should live up to their names, shouldn’t they? But when you start thinking about the details of how a game is going to be easier or harder, it gets much more complicated. Will the AI be more clever? Will the enemies do more damage? Have more health? On NIGHTMARE, Doom’s hardest difficulty setting,  enemies respawn unendingly, introducing a totally new game mechanic that completely changes the way the game is played. Difficulty settings seem to promise the exact same game at varying levels of player skill, but this is far from the case in practice.

Hutchinson’s statement suggests that conversations about difficulty need to acknowledge the game mechanics behind difficulty. Each game needs to have its difficulty discussed on its own terms, not as “easy” or “hard” but as an articulation of how exactly it is that a game is “easy” or “hard.” Even when reviewers make judgements about which difficulty felt more comfortable to them, there’’s rarely a discussion of what the actual mechanics behind it are doing. Partially, this is on the developers, as the coded details are rarely available. Doom is exceptional, as it has been explored so throughly that the math is known down to the decimal place. But for contemporary games without accessible source code, it isn’t always easy for critics, reviewers, or players to understand everything that is going on behind the curtain.

DOTA 2

And it’s worth understanding, because difficulty is not a perfectly sliding scale of challenge vs accessibility. There are games that are mercilessly inaccessible but extremely deep—Dota2, for instance, which requires encyclopedic knowledge and practice to play well—but there are also games that are intensely inaccessible without any sort of depth beyond arbitrary memorization (for details watch nearly any episode of Game Center CX). There are games that are both accessible and shallow, like Farmville, but games that are accessible and infinitely deep, like Tetris, which can be picked up instantly and has a limitless ceiling for improvement. 

“Hard” and “accessible” are not incompatible things, and in fact, some games feel accessible not despite their difficulty, but because of it. Hutchinson expresses a concern about crafting a difficulty setting that allows access for more players but that still gives those players an equivilent experience. However, this is problem whose solution might not necessarily be found in difficulty itself. Rather, the solution to accessibility might not be to make the game easier, but to better teach players how to play it.

Games are great at providing a feeling of accomplishment and skill, but I think that it doesn't really take any sort of special skill to be good at video games other than playing them a lot. Most of the reason that your average first person shooter is incomprehensible to non-gamers is not because gamers possess inhuman skill, but because they have spent a lifetime learning how to play these games. Most games depend on an assumed knowledge and familiarity with how to play a video game.

For this reason, I believe that difficulty is a red herring for accessibility, that what we could look to instead is a game whose difficulty is itself a teacher. To pick on a game I like, one of the reasons why Dota2 is so obtuse to beginingers is because nothing is intuitive and the game actually rewards bad behavior. Dota2 is a game about fighitng over limited resources, and one can easily become powerful at the expensive of one's teamates, ultimately losing the game while the mechanics reward you for it. Part of this is what makes the game interesting, but what if a game's difficulty actually stamped out bad habits and essentialy forced players to be good at the game?