A Balancing Act for the Right Difficulty
It's no secret that games are becoming a lot more streamlined and easier than they were over 20 years ago, but why has the difficulty been toned down in recent years? What can developers do to challenge the old school masochists, while still remaining user-friendly to newcomers?
Editor's Note: BizarroZoraK offers up some interesting ideas on how to improve difficulty seetings. I especially like the ideas of how to improve both the hardest and easiest settings. Oh and Bizarro, practice makes perfect, so don't sweat the trouble you're having with those retro titles, and keep at it. You'll beat them eventually!
Difficulty seems to be a hotly debated topic among generations of gamers. Some want a less frustrating, streamlined experience with more lenient checkpoints, while many others seem to be clamoring for a brutal Demon’s Souls-esque challenge. Thus, a tough balancing act of appeal is imposed upon the developer whose goal is to engross every player in their game with clever challenges and obstacles, while trying not to send said players into a controller-chucking fury.
The overall challenge presented to the player in video games has always been a thought-provoking issue for me because, as much as I hate to admit it, I suck at most video games. I’ve never come close to defeating any of the bosses in the first Metroid, I’ve never made it very far into Contra (even with the Konami code), hell I’ve never even beaten the original Super Mario Bros.! Watching me try to play a particularly hard game, especially one from the 8 or 16-bit eras, is like watching a quadriplegic try to walk a tightrope while juggling knives and chainsaws. It truly is a sad state of affairs.
I like to think that if I actually sunk some time into these games I could make some significant progress towards completing them, but I guess I’m just too easily discouraged. Don’t get me wrong, I love playing those NES classics and the like and I usually try to display some semblance of skill when playing them. Unfortunately, these challenging sessions usually end in failure.
I keep bringing up the older games as examples because, as briefly stated in the beginning, the generational gap seems to be the major source of the conflicting desires for different difficulties. The harsh days of no saves and no continues have been thrown out in favor of friendly tutorials and frequent checkpoints, a shift likely made to appeal to younger, millennial gamers, including myself.
If you’ve ever heard the term “millennials,” referring to those born within the timeframe between the 80’s and early 2000’s, you’re also probably aware of the mostly negative connotation that this term has garnered. Millennials are characterized as being generally more connected than past generations (hence the nickname “Generation We”), but we are also labeled as lazy whiners and complainers, probably brought about due to a greater dependence on technology and the help of others. It’s safe to say that us millennials have lived fairly easy lives compared to our elders, so perhaps we tend to be more irritated when things are difficult or we don’t get what we want.
Generation X, Baby Boomers, and earlier generations, on the other hand, seem to be known for greater self-reliance and a more diligent work ethic. Of course, these were the generations who pioneered the creation of video games, as well as the first to play them. Naturally, a desire for challenge was born, and that challenge remained particularly tough throughout the early days of gaming. I can’t imagine the easier games of today holding anyone’s attention back in the 70’s and 80’s.
While game developers are likely aware of this generational divide, the millennials appear to be the target audience for most modern games. In my brief time as a game design major, my classmates and I were taught about these different generations to help our games appeal to a specific demographic, but we were also told to make our games as easy as possible for ourselves, with particular emphasis on the use of tutorials. Evidently, the large majority of gamers today are probably millennials.
Perhaps a more widely accepted explanation for video games becoming easier lies within the evolution of the medium itself. Games have always been about reaching an end goal and achieving triumphant victory over the enemies or obstacles presented in the game. More recently, however, we’ve seen video games become less game-like as they’ve turned into a cinematic method of storytelling, similar to movies, television, and even books. Of course, developers don’t want players to get stuck on a painfully hard level, they want players to finish their story, which is why most story-driven games provide little in the way of challenge.
Anyway, I’ve already taken up plenty of time analyzing why different gamers want different difficulties, so I suppose I should suggest some ideas I’d like to see implemented in video games that may work towards finding a happy medium between the “casual” and the “hardcore” alike.
#1: MORE DIFFICULTY SELECTION OPTIONS/IMPROVEMENTS
Yeah, this one’s obvious, and it’s already present in many games, but there are a few cases where the difficulty selection is severely limited or entirely absent. No instance of this stands out in my mind more than the Grand Theft Auto series. I managed to complete San Andreas without too much trouble, but I can see how the time consuming, trial-and-error nature of many of the missions can quickly become annoying for less experienced players.
There are also those rare cases where the easy difficulty is too easy, like the insulting Easy mode in Mega Man 10. That same game, however, is also known for being pretty brutal on Normal mode. Such a wide gap means less skilled players have to choose between boredom and torture. Perhaps another difficulty could have been added between Easy and Normal in order to fall in line with that old Goldilocks principle.
Aside from simply adding more options, I’d like to see some improvements made on both ends of the difficulty spectrum. First, those who wish to play on Easy should not be treated like babies. Sure, some help and tutorials may be necessary to an extent, but having to deal with only a miniscule number of obstacles which pose little to no threat to one’s success has to be boring for just about any gamer. Case in point: I don’t know anyone who genuinely enjoys Guitar Hero’s Beginner mode, a level of simplification that feels almost patronizing. Instead of presenting fewer enemies/obstacles to the player, I might suggest giving that player a similar experience to one found in a medium difficulty, but make those enemies/obstacles less powerful or make the consequence for failure less severe (take less damage, have more lives, etc.) I assume this would feel more rewarding and would better prepare newbies for tougher challenges later on.
Second, those who wish to play on Hard should not be treated like slightly stronger babies. Don’t continue to bombard those masochistic players with tutorial messages, and don’t force them to unlock the Hard mode by first playing the game on an easier difficulty (*cough* Doom 3 *cough* Resident Evil 4 *cough* probably a ton of other games *cough*). We can assume that these guys know what they’re doing; they don’t need that much help. But like I said, I suck at most video games, so I can’t suggest much else for the hard players.
#2: DON’T MAKE THE “GAME OVER” CONDITION TOO TIME CONSUMING
Having to deal with the impending annoyances that go along with the Death or Failure condition in a video game serves only as a test of my patience. Such annoyances may include having to watch a lengthy death animation, being asked whether to continue (even though the answer is pretty obvious), possibly being sent back to the main menu, sitting through painfully long loading screens, and the list goes on. Granted, most games won’t reach this exaggerated magnitude of inconvenience, but it is possible, and it’s bothersome to most gamers, regardless of skill.
Thankfully, there are games that quell the threat of these annoying death tropes, most notably, in my opinion, Bit.Trip Runner. This rhythm platformer is known for its often-unforgiving difficulty, but dying really isn’t a big deal. Sure, the game sends you back to the start of the level for hitting just one obstacle, but your sent back immediately without having to wait even a second. The harsh consequence is balanced out by an instant restart that won’t irritate the impatient.
Of course, the Game Over condition has to be somewhat punishing; otherwise it wouldn’t really be a Game Over. Developers need to find a balance between a sufficient penalty for failure, while not blatantly inconveniencing the player. Hopefully more games follow Bit.Trip Runner’s example.
#3: ABILITY TO SAVE ANYWHERE
I anticipate this one will be met with much disagreement. Indeed, being able to save anywhere at anytime could nullify any long-term risks of the player’s actions (especially in games like Mass Effect), and could potentially remove the challenge of the game entirely. One’s mistakes could be erased with a simple load of a previous save file. However, I think saving anywhere, combined with the ability to limit how often the game autosaves, would allow gamers to set their own checkpoints and customize a challenge that suits their specific skill level. Plus, it would simply be far more convenient to stop and save at any point and later pick up the game directly from that point without having to redo any work.
I don’t think players would abuse this ability too much, but I can see how it might be hard to resist the urge to save the game every few seconds when playing on a harder difficulty. If that’s the case, then perhaps there could be a way to limit the number of times the player can save. If I recall correctly, Dead Space 2 did something like this on it’s Hardcore difficulty setting in which you could only save three times. Yikes!
I realize these suggestions are probably flawed and not entirely original, considering many games have already implemented such features, but they could still use some improvements if developers want to satisfy gamers of all skill levels. My ideas may not be great, but feel free to share some of your own in the comments. How can games appeal to more newbies without pissing off the hardcore audience?
Valid points, ZigTheHunter. Certainly, preset save points have a very special place in gaming, and probably always will, but among complaints of games either having too many checkpoints (Call of Duty) or too few checkpoints (Bit.Trip Runner), I think saving anywhere could potentially serve as the happy medium.
More difficulty options are always nice and the best way to go in my opinion. Kid Icarus: Uprising with its fiend cauldron system basically has 90ish difficulty settings, With better and more rewards on higher difficulties. They range from infantile where you basically kill everything in your way with essentially stationary enemies, to absolutely brutal difficulties where a few hits = death and enemies are sporadic, quick to attack and slow to die.
Long game over sequences can be a little annoying, but they've never bothered me much, especially now that I and most people have near limitless things we can do on our phones.
Being able to save anywhere in any game just sounds weird to me, I don't think it would work as well depending on the game over preset save points. One reason to have selected save points by choice is to have that intense feeling of being on the verge of losing after not saving in a while, winning feels a lot more gratifying, at the same time losing and having to redo so much can make someone want to not play for a while or ever again depending on the progress lost, the game itself, and the person, so its a double edged sword. It is more convenient to be able to save anywhere, but I don't think preset save points have no place in games now. Just randomly saving somewhere and coming back later could be awfully jarring and even frustrating if you're immediately attacked by enemies and haven't played in a while.
One reason to have selected save points by choice is to have that intense feeling of being on the verge of losing after not saving in a while, winning feels a lot more gratifying, at the same time losing and having to redo so much can make someone want to not play for a while or ever again depending on the progress lost, the game itself, and the person, so its a double edged sword. It is more convenient to be able to save anywhere, but I don't think preset save points have no place in games now. Just randomly saving somewhere and coming back later could be awfully jarring and even frustrating if you're immediately attacked by enemies and haven't played in a while.
Whoa, that was a surprise to see this get promoted! Thanks a ton to everyone read and commented!
Regarding the generation intervals, the time frame I stated was a very general guess. The text book from my Game Design class specifically placed the millennial generation between 1982 and 2002, but I've heard of different times elsewhere, so it's pretty subjective. I don't mean to insult any millennials!
@Abominable_Analog: That's a pretty cool idea! Players could certainly avoid a world of frustration if the game offered just a tad bit of help in those troubling times. I'd be interested to see this implemented in more games (though not to the extent of Simpsons: Hit & Run, which allowed players to simply skip a mission if they failed it 5 times).
Like Gimmickdinger, I too was born in '85 (which again, I didn't know that I was a millenial). So I grew up playing games from the 8-bit/16-bit era, and yes they were difficult. For instance, I haven't beaten any of the early Mario games, nor the Mega Man games, nor the Metroid games, heck I haven't beaten any of the early Zelda games!! Even the Adventures of Bayou Billy has bested me several times! And lets not forget Ghost N' Goblins or Castlevania! So I'm not the world's greatest gamer. However, I cherish these games, and given the chance I would play them again and again. Why? Because these games are GOOD challenges, and I like a good challenge which may be different for other millenials. For instance, Dragon Quest VIII is one of my favorite RPG's of all time (honestly, I talk about it A LOT). It was released on the Playstation 2, which isn't a really old game. However, the mechanics are the old turn-based RPG's, the monsters don't drop a lot of xp which leads to lots and lots of level grinding, and the bosses are tough without the right plan to defeat them. Therefore, it's kind of like the Dragon Warrior games of old, and it's a very good challenge, and the challenge gets better when you go through the Dragovian Trials.
The point I'm trying to make is that for me, games don't have to be NES-hard or pushover-easy. As long as it presents a good challenge, I'll be willing to play it.
I've been attempting to beat Dead Space 2 on hardcore for almost a month now, and I'm still stuck on a single spot( for those of you who don't know what the hardcore contraints are, look it up) and the fact of the matter is, without proper planning, it's impossible, I've used up all 3 of my saves and I'm empty on plasma cutter, javelin gun and pulse rifle rounds, and I'm at the final part of the game before the last boss(those of you who have played, it's while your reaching the marker). So limiting saves sure as hell makes for a challenge in that regard, but It's imposible for me to beat the game at this point without going back halfway through. So , I believe that If you die enough times in a row at the same spot, you should get help from the game( this would correct my lack of ammo in dead space 2 for example) Max Payne 3 did this. I think it was die a certain ammount of times, and your given a painkiller and ammo.
Unlocking a harder difficulty, while I do agree with you on some level, actually is viable in certain games. Take the Mega Man Zero series, for example. The only difficulty level at first is Normal, and that is extremely difficult in of itself. Once you unlock Hard Mode, that's not when the "real" challenge begins, because Normal mode was already a "real" challenge. It's a whole new challenge entirely.
For me, it depends on what I'm playing. I never want the game to be easy but at the same time, I don't want my butt kicked, this is especially for story driven games. While I do like a challenge, like the article stated, I want to experience the story and not be stuck trying to beat a hard boss over and over. Now platformers, puzzle games, fighting games, those types of games I love a challenge since I like to test my skills and I know it's not the end of the world if I can't beat a specific level (Level skip power! haha).
I've never really been a brilliant gamer either. I've always only managed to get decent at a game, but never outstanding. If there ever was a game I came close to being really good at it would be Smash brothers(Melee, Brawl), but that is a looong time ago. Because of this I have noticed I found myself taking on classics I missed out on known for their difficulty(Megaman 2, Castlevania). It was only then that I really expierenced the gap of difficulty between the past and nowadays up close(Not saying it's always grounded). I also noticed how impatient I've become in regards to frustrating deaths and game overs. Still, good blog. You make a good point.
I was born in '97, and I sometimes complain about how much the difficulty has decreased. But I agree with Ben, since nowadays, most of the games have a different challenge, which is basically another way of saying online multiplayer. Also what you said about the story is so true.
Interesting blog.The way I see it, many games these days don't NEED that same challenge old-school games had. There's so much more to current games that to have fun with everything the game provides might mean letting some challenges go, inviting new kinds of challenge instead, though not necessarily the obvious life-or-death challenge many nostalgic gamers put so much stock in. Still, people complain that you can beat a CoD in just a few hours. But hang on, you can beat an old-school Mario in the same time, so what's the problem? Heck, I beat Sonic CD live right here in under an hour! What a synch! And that's my favorite game of all time! The real question is not about time or difficulty, but whether or not you enjoyed it.
Anyway, aside from programming requirements, I've never understood why any game would have selected save points by choice. It's entirely by a player's decision, so if a person wants to cheat the system like you described then they obviously don't want the challenge and wouldn't be playing the game anyway, so what's there to lose?
I feel exactly the same. I suck at video games, but I love them so much. Also, as said by Egoraptor in Sequelitis, I think one of the things in old games that makes them difficult is the amount of thought put into everything. Difficulty was less "MOAR ENEMIES" and more about planning what will happen to the player if he comes in from a linear path. That is admirable of old games, but it makes them REALLY difficult at times.
Improvements to the difficulty settings would be great or at least something similar to what the Max Payne series does and has auto-adjust difficulty based on how good or bad you currently are in the game.
I agree with most the stuff you said in this article. I really miss the challenge of the 8-16 bit eras. Also I was born in 85' does that really make me a millenial?
Good job, you bring up very good points.