Game difficulty settings

Demon's Souls Storm King Battle. Pictures a player character on the lower right with a large flying manta ray type creature, The Storm King, taking up most of the picture.

Some video games are known for their brutal difficulty. Roguelike games often reward death by having the player lose all experience and items. Atlus’ recent game Demon’s Souls had death mean the player went back to the start of a level, lost all of their accumulated experience (in the form of souls), and had every enemy reappear. If the player’s character could not make it back to the location of their demise to recollect their lost souls/experience in one attempt it would be lost forever.  On the other hand there are games with numerous difficulty levels. Players can choose Easy, Medium, or Hard or any variation of such in many recent games including Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins, Bioshock, Heavy Rain and Bayonetta. These steps in difficulty level make games accessible to a larger number of players.

Vita-Chamber from Bioshock. A large cylindrical metal container with glass doors, similar to a phone booth in size.

There are many ways to make a game less difficult. Just a few examples include enemies with lower health, less enemies, the player having higher defense, more time to input commands, or diminished penalty for character death. Bioshock and Bioshock 2 include a mechanic called Vita-Chambers. If the player’s character dies at lower difficulty levels they resurrect in the Vita-Chamber. Their health is diminished but any enemies that were dead when they player’s character perished remain so and any damage done to enemies that remained alive is still present. This mechanic made the game more forgiving for players that find shooters difficult.

Why are these various difficulty settings so important? According to the Entertainment Software Association the average gamer is 35 years old, 65% of households play games, and 40% of gamers are female. Video games DO appeal to people of all ages and sexes. Some gamers have played shooters for decades and want the challenge of higher difficulty,  some are new to certain genres and have trouble with the controls, some never play shooters but like adventure games, and others may have difficulty with fast paced games for a variety of reasons. There is simply a large variety of gamers out there. Varied difficulty settings allows players to make the game experience more closely fit their needs. They make a game more accessible and higher accessibility means a greater potential base of happy customers.

But not all gamers want lower difficulty settings. Beating a game like Demon’s Souls requires a certain mix of skills and patience. These brutally difficult games give players a sense of accomplishment when they complete them. As the industry adds more games with various difficulty settings some complain that games are just too easy. I argue that various difficulty settings do not take away that sense of thrill when beating the game on higher difficulty levels. Mass Effect even has an achievement for completing the game on the highest difficulty level without changing the setting, titled Insanity. If a gamer chooses to undertake that challenge they can proudly display it to others when completing the game. How does my beating the game on Easy diminish that other player’s accomplishment of beating it on the highest difficulty setting?

What do you think? Do various difficulty setting increase accessibility which is great OR do they diminish the pride of completing difficult games? Can they do both? Are easier game settings ever a negative?

45 thoughts on “Game difficulty settings”

  1. I absolutely agree with you here, and even some developers that used to make really difficult NES games have moved away from that – Mega Man 10 has an easy mode, for instance. I don’t know why a developer wouldn’t give the player choices in this regard. Beating a really difficult game doesn’t prove anything other than that you play A LOT of videogames.

    (Not to get all self-promotional or anything, but as luck would have it, I wrote an article almost on the exact same topic on my website last night. WEIRD.)

  2. I really like having different settings because I’m better at certain types of games than others, but may still be interested in playing a game that I’m not as technically good at for the storyline.
    I’m TERRIBLE at FPS, but still want to play Bioshock because the story is brilliant so I set it on easy.
    I’m much better at RPG style games, so I like being able to set those at a higher difficulty.
    If games are too easy many players get bored and don’t want to continue. If they’re too hard players will get frustrated and give up. Either one of these situations will make a player less likely to pick up that kind of game from that company in the future. I see it partly as another aspect of making games accessable to everyone who wants to play them.

  3. I lean toward “increase accessibility” especially when you consider the demographics listed above. The average gamer is 35 years old– this means many more of them have jobs and responsibilities than the gamer stereotype indicates. For me, gaming has value as a stress reliever after a day at work… if you’ve had a frustrating day at work, there’s nothing that adds to the frustration like having to reload a level thirty times. Especially (hello, Dragon Age) when the load screens also waste up to a minute of your time each time you die. I see no shame in turning down difficulty settings. I used to, and then I came to the realization that I wasn’t having fun, and if I wasn’t having fun, what exactly was I gaming for?

    I think the diversity of gamers also means not everyone is going to go into it and expect to get the same thing out of it. I’m an RPGer and not particularly goal-oriented both as a gamer and a general personality trait. My boyfriend, on the other hand, has mild obsessive compulsive disorder (I’m not using that lightly as an adjective here) and games with a wiki open on his laptop next to him to make sure he micro-manages every single achievement right. I game to just be in the world, he games to hit every check box. It’s a different style.

    Sometimes the difficulty settings can be a lifesaver when the game is “broken” in some weird glitchy way, like in TES:Oblivion (“should’ve read the wiki!” says my bf) I left the Kvatch battle till I was like level 20 only to be swarmed with high level daedra because the enemies leveled with you but your stupid companions they expected to help you stayed on Level 6 and got flattened instantly. If not for the settings, I wouldn’t have been able to complete the game. Bethesda’s fault for the poor game mechanics, not mine.

  4. Personally, I think that the culture that’s grown up around difficulty alienates more gamers than it encourages.

    I finished BioShock 2 on easy because, frankly, I’m not used to shooters on Xbox and I was dying all the time. If the game had no way to adjust the difficulty (or to adjust it without starting over, as many games do), I’d have just given up. (Easy, OTOH, was a bit *too* easy, especially once my character was customized to a style of play I was more comfortable with; perhaps I should have bumped it back to medium at some point.)

    Contrast this to BioShock 2 multiplayer, which does difficulty absolutely wrong. Players are sorted into “ranks” and earn admission into higher ranks through points earned through gameplay, with “successful” gameplay such as defeating opponents earning more points. These ranks, in turn, unlock additional weapons and tools for the player to use in gameplay. The upshot of all of this is that the system works as an “anti-handicap”, whereby more skilled players see their advantages over other players increase. (It’s interesting to note the way this is received in gaming culture as well; every forum I’ve seen this brought up in has had the complaint dismissed as irrelevant because the complainer just wasn’t skilled enough to deserve to enjoy the game, because a sufficiently skilled player could overcome the handicap of fewer resources. Of course, given that the game is set in an attempt at Objectivist utopia, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at this.)

    1. That multiplayer version sounds hellish and miserable, especially if higher-ranked players continue to gain ranks for killing lower-ranked players. For people who like that sort of challenge, it might be fun, but to me it’s a turn-off.

      1. I think in theory players are supposed to be matched with others of about the same rank, but there’s not the critical mass of players needed to ensure that.

        I tried it a couple times, got frustrated, looked up discussions, got even more frustrated, and gave up.

    2. This positive feedback loop – higher level players have better tools so it’s not a fair fight – is exactly what Bioshock is supposed to communicate. You’re in Objectivist Land now, where making life miserable for low-level players should make you want to be more productive so you can have the fun toys too.

      Unfortunately this backfires, sabotaging the player base, because the game is balanced for high-level players instead of low-level ones. For instance, a level 1 team is virtually unable to capture any flags, making the entire game mode an exercise in frustration. Without a glimpse of the possibility at the top end of the spectrum, most players conclude there is no promised land and just leave.

  5. I am all for different difficulty settings, i don’t see how easy mode can diminish playing on hard. Personally i am playing on medium and i am satisfy when complete game on this generally default level. The only game sthat i was trying to play on highest difficulty level were strategies games : Civilization series, Master of magic, Master of Orion, Europa Universalis. Generaly i noticed that as years pass i tend to dislike specially difficulty moments and elements in games, they tend to frustrate me and i don’t feel any acomplishment after beating them eg. recent Pop vs Mirror’s Edge. I sometimes look back at games i finished and think: “Whoa, I finished it ? No way, it was so hard and tiresome that today i would give up after 15 minutes.”

  6. I’d like to note that Bioshock’s vita-chambers are a reintroduction of a respawn mechanic used in System Shock and System Shock 2. Those games did have an additional wrinkle in that you had to activate an area’s med-bays before it would allow you to respawn safely though.

    Personally, I usually won’t play a game unless it has multiple difficulties. I don’t play games as some sort of personal challenge, I play them to fill time and provide some amusement. Games like Demon’s Souls or Ninja Gaiden leave me cold.

    In roguelikes and MMO raid environments, I see an illusion of difficulty– or rather, an illusion of skill requirement. In both cases you’re relying on simple tactics and learned routines, whether it’s not punching a floating eye or keeping an eye on the boss’s aggro table.

    The arguments I’ve seen against difficulty levels, quicksaves, and the like have always come down to baffling elitism and an apparent lack of self-control. It doesn’t matter that you can turn the Vita Chambers off or disable quicksaving, they won’t because it’s there, and therefore it’s meant to be used. Then they get angry because some ‘scrub’ plods his way through with trial and error, and gets an ending that he didn’t ‘earn’.


    1. Jayle Enn:

      The arguments I’ve seen against difficulty levels, quicksaves, and the like have always come down to baffling elitism and an apparent lack of self-control. It doesn’t matter that you can turn the Vita Chambers off or disable quicksaving, they won’t because it’s there, and therefore it’s meant to be used. Then they get angry because some ’scrub’ plods his way through with trial and error, and gets an ending that he didn’t ‘earn’.

      That type of elitism bothers me. Rather than just having fun with whatever makes them happy a vocal minority feel a need to squash what other people enjoy. If you love Ninja Gaiden on the hardest difficulty setting why degrade those that don’t like that type of game/difficulty? It doesn’t make their own experience more enjoyable, it is just hurtful to others. There is room for all types of gamers. Some games are there for a challenge and some are a relaxing, fun experience and neither one is bad.

  7. Are easier game settings ever a negative?

    Well, they increase the difficulty of getting a good gameplay balance for the developer, since you now have to work out many different levels of balance. Also, different people find different things difficult, and may be annoyed if setting to easy doesn’t change the particular thing that bothered them – on the other hand being faced with a huge screen of different elements they can tweak for their own desired difficulty level can ALSO be off-putting.

    More of a worry to the developer, though, is that some people are naturally timid and underestimate their ability, and will choose ‘easy’ right away in order to learn the game… then after an hour of gameplay get very bored, decide the game was bad, and quit.

    If you add an extra level of complication, the computer can watch you play, try to figure out if you’re at the right level, and suggest that you switch… but some people might find that annoying too!

    1. I’d argue that it makes things easier for the developer, since the player can correct for any balancing mistakes. But I think you’ve got a point that a developer has to recognize what elements are going to pose difficulty. System Shock had a good balance here – there were difficulty sliders for combat, puzzles, hacking and “mission” (plot/time limit) that could be set separately, so I could play it as an adventure game while someone else with a different skill set might play it as a shooter. (BioShock seems to forgo this, with difficulty being entirely based in strength of enemies and Vita-Chamber availability, but character customization can help ameliorate this.)


    2. WhineAboutGames:

      …on the other hand being faced with a huge screen of different elements they can tweak for their own desired difficulty level can ALSO be off-putting.

      More of a worry to the developer, though, is that some people are naturally timid and underestimate their ability, and will choose ‘easy’ right away in order to learn the game… then after an hour of gameplay get very bored, decide the game was bad, and quit.

      I like the developers that give a brief description of the difficulty settings. Heavy Rain does this. Easy is explained as the player is not very familiar with the controller but Difficult says the player is very familiar with the controller and video games. The original Bioshock did the similar thing if I remember correctly saying the Easy is for players that are not familiar with shooter games.

      I think that both describing what the different difficulty settings represent helps as does being able to change between difficulty settings during the game. Therefore, if the play finds Easy too simple for their skill set then they can increase the difficulty level. Hopefully that would get rid of the “bored so quit after 1 hour” problem.

      It is definitely difficult to please all gamers but I would rather developers lean on the side of accessibility than just one mode.

  8. I should say first off that I think most games should have varying difficulty levels. There are some games I play that I’m no good at and just get frustrated with and put them on easy and then enjoy the game much more than I would otherwise. (I am particularly horrible at shooters, for example.)

    I will have to defend Demon’s Souls, though! What I love about it is that the difficulty isn’t that extreme, it’s not like it’s meant to be impossibly difficult. For me, the game was awesome because even though it was pretty difficult, it wasn’t impossible. If I didn’t run in every room hacking and slashing, I usually got out alive. In that way it reminded me of SNES platformers like Donkey Kong Country 2 in which you had to be careful every step of the way.

    But as for the overall question.. I don’t know if games like Demon’s Souls should have varying difficulty levels, as it being less forgiving than other games is pretty much the premise. I don’t think the majority of games should be like that, but I can see why it doesn’t have them.

    That said I don’t think making it more accesible with lesser difficulties would be wrong either.


    1. Nymeria:

      I will have to defend Demon’s Souls, though!

      I am not implying that Demon’s Souls is a bad game. I just don’t think of it as accessible to many gamers. It requires very specific timing for attacks, dodges, and blocks to advance. Even though weapons and levels can be built up by saving souls and redoing sections of levels to gain those souls, that mechanic only helps to a certain extent. I actually played, loved, and beat the game but it was ABSOLUTELY a challenge for me to do so. On the other hand, I play shooters on Easy and many are still extremely difficult for me even on that setting. I would finish inFamous but I keep getting stuck on mission after mission. It has become frustrating for me.

      My argument is that a variety of difficulty settings allows more players to enjoy a game. I am not saying that very challenging games are “Bad”, just that they are just less accessible.

  9. As someone with a fairly low frustration threshold for games, I’m in favour of more choice in difficulty.

    That said, there definitely are people who – as you’ve described – consider some options to detract from a game even when they aren’t going to use them. As daft as I might consider these people to be, they’re woefully common in some gaming communities and so developers should at least be aware that this perception exists, even if they (ideally) resolve not to pander to it.

  10. I’m with you 100% on this. I feel no shame in defaulting to easier modes for games in genres that I am not well versed in. I play games for fun and it’s decidedly not fun to get stuck halfway through a game, unable to move on because the difficulty’s spiked.

    I recently beat Ghostbusters: The Video Game on Casual, which was described as being the mode for people who just wanted to have fun and bust some ghosts. That, to me, sounded perfect because I wanted to play the game for the story, not a challenge and I was really glad that I was able to experience the game the way I wanted.

    The first few Metal Gear games I played on Easy because I was unsure if I’d be able to beat them. Now I play on Normal difficulty, but I doubt I would have been able to get hooked on the series if I hadn’t been able to ease my way in and get comfortable with the controls and gameplay.

    I think it’s kind of sad how some genres have relegated themselves to niche status because of the difficulty. Fighting games used to be so much more mainstream in the early days of Street Fighter, but with each generation they’ve just become more and more complicated by catering to the hardcore players.

    Also, here’s a really, really good blog post about why some gamers object to the inclusion of easy modes:

    Status and Signals: Why Hardcore Gamers Are Afraid Of Easy Mode

    I highly recommend it!

    1. Thanks for linking that piece! Such a thorough explanation. The other post about Easy Mode that he links to is great, too. So much SENSE, jeez!

      I almost always play easy mode beause I like to relax and enjoy the story.

      That is the thing. Different gamers want different things out of games. Having various difficulty modes and other accessibility features (such as having Chapter Select unlocked from the beginning) accommodates those different needs.

    2. That is a wonderful article! Thank you for linking it. It definitely points at the elitism aspect of beating games like Ninja Gaiden and Demon’s Souls and helps explain the upset comments in forums about Shiren for the Wii having an Easy difficulty setting.

    3. Great article. The cynical side of me wonders if some of the resistance by certain “hardcore” gamers to having an easy mode that would allow “casual” gamers (who should just stick to the Wii, ya know) access to playing/winning their games has to do with the demographics here: assuming easy mode = casual gamers, the people who would most benefit are more likely to be female, disabled, older, and poorer.

      1. It’s a thought but I’m not entirely certain myself if it is a matter of demographics–though some of those archetypes are propped up as the ‘typical casual gamer’ along with being trampled with the title of not being a ‘true gamer’.

        -Ani8

  11. I have never understood the rail and bile spewed out against easy games when there is a difficulty setting also in the game. The only circumstance I can think of is if the setting systems are broken like they aparently are in Dante’s Inferno.

    I like the system. I am an above average player it seems to me when I look around. I find Dragon Age on normal to be a stroll and can top the charts in Battlefield. But I like the difficulty settings, so when I choose to I can have bragging rights. I beat God of War on God mode, something I couldn’t brag about if there was only one setting and it wouldn’t be special.

    Excuse my ignorance, but I never even knew people complained about difficulty except in the absence of choice.

  12. I usually like games that give a sliding difficultly level in game itself. Like Etrian Odyssey, if you want the “Easy” game you assemble a team that has certain skills that provide maximum defense so you can take on higher level monsters easier. If you want the most difficult challenge possible, you can play the game with only one character.
    Crisis Core did this as well, where you can get a ring in the early game that kept you at level 1 until you took it off.
    Other games do this as well, mostly RPG games where you can have a choice of leveling up and continuing or just charging ahead.

    So I like games where a play can change the difficulty by leveling up, or being able to buy better armor to last longer. I feel it doesn’t diminish the win because you earned it and the monsters were the same difficulty.

    For an artificial difficulty where the monsters die quicker or you get a super weapon, it just doesn’t feel as nice a win. It’s almost like typing in a cheat code. While it does make it more accessible to older people and people that don’t have as quick of a reaction time, most of those games tell you to play the Hard mode to get the best most awesome ending evar!!111 (I feel that Normal mode should always give the true ending.)

    1. I agree with you about endings. I believe that everyone should have access to the story of the game and that having the “true” ending on harder difficulties (like Halo) is deliberately hurting people who casually play the game. If all that was at stake were achievement points, then it doesn’t matter. But changing the ending because of the difficulty level is cheating the gamer if that particular gamer is not a “pro.”

  13. Harder difficulties are excellent if they are done properly. The Insanity difficulty in Mass Effect resulted in me shooting Krogan (with immunity) for two minutes. That got very frustrating after awhile. Whereas the higher difficulty levels in Dragon Age were an intense challenge that required much more tactical expertise.

    I think that it is good to have harder difficulties as long as you have easier difficulties as well. I am a big fan of the easy to hard range of difficulty settings as long as each difficulty is actually what it says it is.

    As for boasting about beating hard games or achievements for beating games on harder difficulties, I think if people use common sense and are not assholes about it, then it is ok to have an achievement saying “I beat this on the hardest difficulty.” I think it is worth rewarding a player who plays on a harder difficulty and puts the time into that (hopefully) healthy challenge.

  14. I’m definitely in favour of a variety of difficulty settings for most games. Attracting a broader range of people is good for the industry, and I don’t see much use in making things needlessly frustrating for more casual players just to stroke the egos of more serious players. Some people find fun in a challenge, others want something less taxing – why not appeal to both if you can? Just give an achievement for getting through the highest difficulty level as an extra reward.

    I do think there can be games where the high difficulty is an important part of the appeal though. I have Shiren the Wanderer for my DS and most of the achievements in the game are unlocked by being killed and returned to the start of the game in different ways. After a while I got used to the fact that being killed was inevitable and stopped getting so attached to the nice items I had managed to collect, and it ended up surprisingly fun to play and not nearly as frustrating as it sounds. I don’t think it would be much fun at all if it weren’t so unforgiving. I don’t think the developers expected it to be accessible to a wide audience, and I don’t think it’s a disaster to have more niche games sometimes. As long as there’s still a wide range of games to choose from for casual and serious players then I don’t think it’s a problem.

  15. I don’t think it should be a matter of either-or in terms of accessibility and quicksaving and respawning and difficulty levels. I think all or some of the above work for some games, while others work for other games.

    A game that is more focused on getting through some kind of narrative (games like Mass Effect, Bioshock, Half-life, Halo, and the vast majority of single-player games these days) are better suited for multiple difficulty levels as these are the games with the wider audience who are playing games solely for the experience. Recreational gamers, I suppose you might call them.

    Games like, say, Demon’s Soul or Geometry Wars or Super Mario Bros. aren’t centered around the storyworld presented in the game (which is not to say a story doesnt exist in the game, just that it isn’t central) but are more centred around the fact that they are difficult. They are meant to be difficult. That is the point of them.

    While certainly their are elitist gamers who complain that all games are too easy “these days”, there are still games who prefer the unforgiving difficulty of these games as much as the unfolding narrative of the former games.

    I want to use an analogy to books. Trying to use one blanket rule for all games is like doing the same for books. Arguing that all games should be accessible is like arguing that all books from academic texts to children’s picture books should be written in the same level of English (or any language). Conversely, arguing that all games should be harder, is like saying children books should cite references in strict MLA style.

    My point is, just as the existance of books that are nigh impossible to read unless you have spent 10 years at university is justified, so is the existance of games that are nigh impossible to complete without 10 years of gaming experience.

  16. I’ve started playing pretty much ALL games on Easy for two reasons. First, I want to experience the game in it’s entirety. I’ve not finished a game in years, usually because I frustrate easily. Second, I don’t care about bragging to anyone how I finished a game on super-hard mode. It doesn’t make sense to me. I did my time with inherently difficult games 20 years ago, so I feel I’ve earned the right to enjoy the games at my pace XD

  17. I think that there is something lost by adding the option to make a game easier. I just don’t think that it’s something as important as making a game accessable.

    It’s a prestige thing, for sure. There’s something inherently more impressive about saying “I beat [hard game]” than “I beat [easy game] on hard mode”. The first shows you to be skillful, managing something that lots of people want to do, but few can achieve. The second shows you to be a “weirdo”, attempting something difficult when an easier path is clearly available. Maybe your accomplishment is still impressive, but everyone else got the reward anyway.

    I don’t think that this is a positive way to view game difficulty, nor do I believe that it’s a reason (for most games) to do away with difficulty levels, but it’s currently true, nonetheless.


    1. wererogue:

      I think that there is something lost by adding the option to make a game easier.

      There’s something inherently more impressive about saying “I beat [hard game]” than “I beat [easy game] on hard mode”.

      Thank you so much for this comment. This is one of the things that interests me. How does adding an easier difficulty make the game itself an “easy” game? It is simply an option. If the default “normal” setting does not change, why is the game now seen as easy? The default difficulty setting is no different with or without the Easier level.

      1. I think at least part of it is what wererogue was getting at with the comment that playing on hard difficulty “shows you to be a ‘weirdo’, attempting something difficult when an easier path is clearly available”. I think it goes hand-in-hand with another major attitude among a certain type of hardcore gamer–the kind that is always looking for exploits. They don’t play games for the experience, they play games to “beat” them.* The kind of person who doesn’t do any loyalty missions in Mass Effect 2, because they are “optional” and the characters’ stories don’t matter to them. So to them having easier difficulties does take away from the challenge of the game because why bother with hard mode when you could beat the game faster on easy mode?

        Obviously I disagree with that line of thinking, but that’s what I think is part of the hostility.

        *(Part of the reason I now prefer to say “finished” or “solved”, lol.)

      2. You’re right – it doesn’t make the game inherently easy, because you can choose to play it on hard. However, because you can choose to play it on easy, it is easy to finish the game, which makes “finishing the game” less of an achievement for some.

        Rightly, I should have said [variable difficulty game], but from the point of view of someone who only wants to play the game through, the game is only as hard as its easiest difficulty. Very few people are willing to stay on “hard” if it’s stopping their progress, but if the only way to finish the game is already hard, they might persevere, and enjoy the accomplishment.


  18. Tamar bat Avraham:

    [..] If they’re too hard players will get frustrated and give up. Either one of these situations will make a player less likely to pick up that kind of game from that company in the future. [..]

    Yes indeed. I like scrolling shoot ‘em up games for example, just for the adrenaline kick you get with rocking techno music (no shoot ‘em up is complete without it, :P) and big guns and explosions (hey, I love puzzle games and RPGs, but sometimes you just want something that really goes bang).
    However, I’m not very good at shmups really. I often misjudge bullets aimed at my ship, or the amount (sic) of shots needed to complete a wave and get the bonus for it. I liked those games back in my DOS gaming days which had a ‘not-so-secret’ code or a little extra program that would turn on invincible/god mode. Then I could blast right ahead and enjoy the whole game. I still tried to do my best, gain the bonuses, etc., but at least it wouldn’t set me back to the beginning when I failed and keep me from experiencing the really big guns and enemies.
    I hadn’t played a shmup in years when I came across Nanostray (DS). It looked cool, and when I bought and started it, it was just like I remembered games like Raptor and Xenon II. Then came the disappointment. I couldn’t even make it past the first level before dying :( Despite trying again and again (on Easy setting no less), I couldn’t do it. So now it sits somewhere at the bottom of my collection of games, collecting dust, and I won’t be buying more of these games, because they’ll just be too hard to enjoy and it would just be a waste of money for me. So sad. And for the game makers/publishers too. They could’ve had a real fan on their hands who buys lots more games.

    Imagine how much bigger the game industry and gamer community could get if everyone could enjoy a game fully without being turned away by difficulty obstacles :)

  19. I’m very interested in this topic, and wanted to share an analogy I have been toying with, somewhat paraphrased from various parts of the comments section on a post I recently wrote about music and games.

    I’m a musician with a lot of really serious training, and I can’t help but draw a parallel between musical training and game “training.” Interestingly, I think that the comparison holds up when it comes to feeling threatened by an increase in accessibility.

    Gamers, or, those who have been playing games for many years, have really been spending those years in training – learning the physical, mental, and conceptual tools needed to succeed at games. It’s just like music – years are spent learning the skill, endlessly repeating physical movements until they become second nature, and past a certain point, the bar for entry gets pretty high for newcomers.

    That is to say, if I gave someone who’d never played a game a controller and threw them into a round of Left 4 Dead 2, they’d stand about as much chance of success as if I gave a non-musician a saxophone and had them sit in with a jazz quartet.

    In addition to playing, I also teach jazz, and do a lot of arrangements of famous (difficult) jazz pieces for my student ensembles. It strikes me that variable difficulties in games are quite like student arrangements – the tune is the same, but the changes have been simplified, the melodies and rhythms smoothed down a bit, and the whole thing serves as a training ground for those with less familiarity with the material. It is a wonderful thing to allow access to those who otherwise wouldn’t get it.

    Where it maybe gets a little tricky is from an artistic standpoint… Like, these are my own arrangements we’re talking about, but Coltrane didn’t record “Giant Steps” in three versions – one that is at the original tempo, one that is half-speed, and one that has a salsa beat and changes the key to be easier to play on trumpet. So, perhaps there is some validity in the argument that if a game designer has a vision of a game (as in the case of Demon’s Souls), perhaps it must exist at a certain immobile point on the accessibility/inaccessibility spectrum to remain artistically pure?

    But that’s a pretty esoteric argument, and not the one that most anti-accessibility folks make. What’s more, I don’t really believe it’s one that can be honestly applied to the majority of games. Really, I think that the need to tear accessibility down comes from a place of insecurity.

    And it’s an insecurity I understand – many musicians work so hard and so long to achieve a high level of technical proficiency that they seem unable to separate themselves from their ability. Therefore, any shift towards lowering the entry-bar a bit – i.e. the rise of digital musicians and DJs with little to no musical training – well, I understand how highly trained musicians see those things not just as threats to the status quo, but threats to their very selves.

    I’m certainly not excusing the behavior, but it doesn’t surprise me that gamers are the same way. 20 years of rigorous training to master the most hardcore fighting games and now your little brother can finish Bayonetta with one hand?

    I’m glad to see that games are allowing for users to customize their own experience, and are allowing more people to participate. I’m also glad there are games like Demon’s Souls out there (which, side note, I just got and am both dreading and looking forward to in equal measure). And those feelings, too, are mirrored by my feelings about music. There are so many wonderful and accessible student-oriented arrangements out there, but there will also always be that original version of Giant Steps.

    1. Kirk, I think you are highlighting the most rational of arguments for “lack of easy mode” (along with Brendan above). I say “most” rational because there’s still a major flaw that I haven’t really seen anyone point out, even in that great article Oliemoon posted.

      First off, all of the “prestige” or status symbol arguments are self-defeating. ANYONE who spent that much time on playing a video game would be able to “beat x game” or “beat x game on very hard mode.” I play every game on the hardest difficulty level. I’ve finished every challenge room in Bionic Commando Rearmed, am playing through Torchlight on Hardcore Very Hard, was a Field Marshal in Wow with the old honor system, etc. If anything, this isn’t something to boast about, it just goes to show how much free time I’ve had, and what I spent it on instead of other things. And in the end, congrats to me, I beat the machine . . .

      Back to Kirk and Brendan’s points, yes, EZ mode Jame Joyce’s Ulysses kinda misses the point. Cliff notes for The Sound and the Fury really does dummy down the medium, etc. I’m sure the argument about Giant Steps also follows this line of reasoning. However, there’s a major difference between Giant Steps, or the most esoteric of art and, say, Left 4 Dead 2 or Demon Souls: the difficulty aspect in these games is completely arbitrary and derives from the arcade formula for taking your quarters. There is no artistic reasoning behind difficulty in mainstream video games. It’s completely and utterly stimulus-and-response, trying-to-get-you-addicted, bold-faced and shamelessly commercialized game design.

      And Coltrane would *not* be cool with the comparison.

      1. Well, for the sake of discussion, let’s leave aside what Coltrane would or would not be cool with… :-)

        I am admittedly coming from a place of ignorance, having not played Demon’s Souls, but I do believe that the difficulty of that game is indeed a core part of the designer’s intent, and more than just an arcade-y design decision to entice players to keep playing?

        That is to say, death is an integral part of the game design, and if players weren’t dying constantly, the developer’s vision would be compromised?

        Not sure, though. Perhaps there are some Demon’s Souls vets out there who could tell me if that makes any sense.

        But to be clear – I am all for variable difficulty settings, I’m just interested in looking at the (admittedly few) times when they might actually be detrimental to a developer’s artistic goals.

      2. I would disagree that it is the arcade formula for taking your quarters that is solely to blame for the hard-game line if difficulty. Rather, I would say that modern day difficult games like Demon’s Soul are influenced by arcade games where the soul goal is to get to the end of the game, and arcade gamesbefore them were in turn influenced by non-electric single-player games and puzzles. Crosswords, for example. The single goal of a crossword is to finish it, you only lose if you do not finish it.

        Okay, now I comparing games to both high-brow literature and crossword puzzles. This may be mixing my metapors.

        Your arguement against mainstream videogames is the same arguement that has been levelled at all art since Aristotle. It is also counter-intuitive. Certainly, I agree that game companies only want to sell more games, but this stand point of game companies is why games are getting easier and more accessible, so more people spend their money on games.

        That said, I still think it is unfair to call them”not artistic” etc. Are movies not artisic even though their only goal is to get you to the cinema? Should a movie that is ‘difficult’ to watch (for whatever reason) be toned down to be more accessible to more people? Anyway, this is getting off point.

        This comment sounds like a ramble because I did just roll out of bed and I apologise for that. I stress that I have no trouble with multiple difficulty settings in the vast majority of games, but I do think it is wrong to blanket any single solution or rule over ALL games as ‘video games’ are about as varied as ‘books’ ‘movies’ or ‘puzzles’.

  20. I definitely love being able to choose difficulty settings. I don’t have the patience to reload multiple times, and have been known to knock the setting down a level to get through a difficult or broken fight. And I love that it opens up games to players who want to play on an easier setting for any number of reasons. More gamers means more people I can share the geekery with.

    & part of me was honestly a little surprised that there’s been so much backlash, because variable difficulty settings means you can make games harder, too, for people who are really invested in that kind of thing. If ME2 had been released as a single-difficulty game, it certainly wouldn’t have been the “Insanity” (ugh, really not a fan of that name) setting.

    Basically, more difficulty settings means more options for everyone. I don’t see how that’s a bad thing.

  21. I loved your post! And the link oliemoon sent.

    I prefer when I can choose the difficulty. Like others have said, sometimes I really suck at a certain genre and then I prefer to choose easy.

    I beat Medal of Honour Heroes 2 on green difficulty, that’s the easiest one. I only started playing first person shooters on the Wii because I can’t do the two analogues thing. I’m glad I had the option to go on an easier difficulty and beat the game ‘cos it was fun and it was training for maybe a normal difficulty on a future Call of Duty.

    I also love when they say what the difficulty means. On Medal of Honour, the green stood for people who weren’t used to playing shooters, so I felt it was right for me.

    I do feel beating a game on easy is not so rewarding. I guess I feel everyone can beat it and I’m being lazy for not trying at least normal difficult, which is enough for me. I have played games for more than a decade now, I should be able to beat games on normal difficulty. I know maybe I’ll die a bit more, but I can do it if I’m patient and persistent. I used to give up so easily in the past, not just in games. So this persistent thing in games is part of a stronger adult me in life as well.

    Accomplishing challenges makes me feel good about myself, it’s good to believe in yourself, feel you’re capable of something you thought was too difficult. I don’t show off to friends, I don’t feel I’m better than anyone for beating a certain game. Maybe I just spent more time playing it.

    I recently got 120 stars on Super Mario Galaxy. Gosh, that was ridiculously difficult for me. I felt so happy! I must have died more than 30 times on the Luigi 100 purple coins in Toy Time Galaxy.

    Super Mario Galaxy doesn’t offer difficult choices, I guess in this game you choose when you stop playing and there’s your difficult level. Metroid Prime Trilogy doesn’t have that option as well. I try to make it more difficult by not using the automatic aim, specially because in the Wii you can pretend your remote is a gun, so I just use it as I would a gun (with B button for shooting). But the difficult of this game for me is more for the puzzles than for the killing. That’s why I think this game is absolutely brilliant.

  22. I think a lot of the problem with difficulty levels also comes down to training and player age.

    I only started gaming about 12 years ago when I was already in my early 30s. I don’t have the twitch reflexes built in from playing games from the age of 8. So without easier difficulty settings some games are outside of my reach just simply because I don’t have the reflexes!

    This is one of the reasons I do get annoyed the way the gaming press assumes that ‘real time’ is automatically better than ‘turn-based’. But that’s a rant for another time!

    1. Another benefit of turn-based versus real-time is that I get to see the action. For real-time I often feel like I miss all the graphics. I am so busy watching my character’s hit points, enemy hit points, and the options available to me rather than seeing the action on screen.

      1. That’s definitely true – something I loved in Dragon Age (that I’d forgotten I loved from previous pause-able RPGs) was just that – whenever I pulled the left trigger, I really liked looking around the battlefield to see everyone frozen in mid-move.

        The animations didn’t always connect in real time, but it was so cool to see Alistair leaping into the fray with his sword raised, or Morrigan readying a spell., and to have the time to plan and strategize. In realtime, it often kinda just looked like a bunch of little people waving around weapons in each other’s general direction.

        Dragon Age is also a great example of a game in which I was supremely thankful for the lower difficulty setting. Sometimes I’d wind up in a closed-off area, low on health potions, and fighting an unbeatable enemy (in the deep roads, in particular). If it hadn’t been for the “casual” setting, I’m honestly not sure what I would’ve done. I was so invested in the story, but having to go back and re-do an entire dungeon just to arrive at the end properly supplied and armed would’ve been a bitter pill to swallow.

        1. I played a little of Dragon Age, put it aside and not got back to it yet. But I did have the situation of getting into a combat and realising that one of my characters used to have a crossbow and now didn’t! I had to go back to a previous save game.

          To this day I have no idea what happened – I can only assume that in a moment of carelessness I sold it…

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