Despite how seemingly obvious the concept may be, there is actually a great deal of discussion about how difficult a game should be. Why should a game be hard if the goal is to get as many people playing as possible? The original purpose of having challenge comes from the arcade days of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Games weren’t even meant to be beatable by the average person, just to be interesting enough to earn a set amount of money. On the Pickford Bros. blog, Pickford remembers the break from this model with the first console game he made. The publisher simply requested that the game be winnable. Now games have to have a last level, Mario actually gets the right Princess eventually, and the game has a point where it finally ends. How do you balance the desire to have the player beat the game with the need to make that accomplishment satisfying?
Tailoring difficulty for a player’s enjoyment is a much tougher task than it sounds. The traditional method of counting quarters was a simple gauge of success for a game; you knew the game was fun because people were playing it. Now a developer has to factor in a huge number of variables. For starters, the players themselves don’t always know where they stand with a game. The easy mode for Devil May Cry 4 may be highly appropriate for someone new to the series, while easy in Bioshock is borderline boring for anyone even remotely skilled at games. Chris Bateman explains in a fascinating blog post how tricky this balance becomes even if you have the alternative of making the game adapt to the player. With adaptive gameplay, the best strategy is to lose a few times so the game makes itself easier. If the player gets killed too many times before they have learned how to play, by the time they figure it out and are ready for a challenge it’ll be too easy. Finally, there is the simple problem of some players enjoying difficulty more than others. Challenge and overcoming it is still a source of satisfaction for some people. Bateman ends the post with the lament that there is simply too little information for developers to really know if they’ve got the right level of difficulty for their audience.
Beyond balancing difficulty is the simple question of whether it serves any purpose in the game at all. Back at the Pickford blog, another article goes into the various game design options that let a player break down the difficulty at their own pace. Although these games still utilize difficulty to a certain extent, there is always a way out. In some games, you can just level grind until your characters can overpower a boss. Interactive fiction or puzzles rarely maintain their difficulty because you can always check for hints online. The origin of such accommodations in these games was to make sure that someone who enjoyed the plot would always be able to get to the end. After all, as Pickford notes, when you’re telling a story, getting to the conclusion is the reward, not overcoming a tricky boss fight. Using GTA 4 as an example, Pickford notes that keeping up both challenging gameplay and also having a compelling narrative then becomes problematic. We all want to know what happens to Nico at the end, but doing those last couple of missions over and over can ruin the pace of the story. They just become annoying. Where is our way out if we don’t care about the satisfaction of saying we beat the game? If we’re there for the experience, is any difficulty that stops it really appropriate?
Yet just because the difficulty is hard to get right doesn’t mean it can’t serve another purpose. What if we used difficulty in conjunction with the plot? A more organized approach beyond just making everything have more health or deal more damage. For example, going back to Bioshock, if you play the game on Easy, hunting the Big Daddy becomes a light affair. Yet that’s contrary to their role in the story as fearsome protectors, which you appreciate more in the higher difficulty settings. You don’t really get the full narrative experience if you play it on a low difficulty. If you play the game on Hard, a Big Daddy is a very difficult, strategic affair that can take several tries. Would it have been better, for the sake of the story delivering an experience, if the Big Daddy was still hard to kill even on Easy? The method seems to work in more free-form RPG’s like Fallout. If you pick a fight with a super mutant in that game, rather than talking your way out, it is always guaranteed to be an unpleasant exchange for you. That’s consistent with the story and the setting: the super mutants are extremely dangerous and poised to take over the West Coast. Yet in the couple of instances where the game forces you to engage in direct combat with them, it offers a lot of help to lighten up the exchange. What one game does and the other doesn’t is that they adapt the difficulty with the plot. A person who is represented as a badass stays a badass.
Such considerations of difficulty become even more prevalent as multiplayer becomes a huge feature in video games. Why develop a brilliant A.I. or carefully balanced difficulty system when players can just go online and fight real people? Rankings and choice of opponents give a player the same set of options that developers spend years developing themselves. It also lets them feel that sense of accomplishment that beating a tough game provides as well. In an article with ‘The Escapist’, Kieron Gillen muses that challenging games are quickly becoming the equivalent of ‘80s metal. They’re such an acquired taste and appeal to such a small group that they aren’t able to find a home anywhere except the underground scene. This seems like a loss in terms of what difficulty could potentially add to a game if there was a bit more thought behind it. The satisfaction of beating a difficult game or having the highest score will always be there for players. It cannot hurt to wonder what other uses challenge in games may have for creating a game experience.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.