My weird blog about the evolving difficulty of games.

From around the beginning of this console cycle, developers began, slowly but surely, dropping the standard “Easy”, Medium” and “Hard” difficulty levels in favor of a more, in theory, tailored gameplay experience. Such examples of games include Gears of War, Metro 2033, Dust: An Elysian Tail, and F.E.A.R. On one hand this is a very good trend as it provides more options for players to choose the difficulty that is more appropriate for their respective skill levels and it allows the developers to have an “extreme” difficulty unlockable for those that beat it on the “Hard” difficulty or the equivalent thereof. On the other hand, it has made the difference between the difficulty levels more nebulous and in turn has made some games’s “hard” mode the new “normal” and the “easy” mode more-or-less obsolete to anybody familiar with gaming.

This new shift is difficulty norms has lead to some games almost being required to be played on the “Hard” difficulty in order to get the best experience possible for that specific game. Take, for instance, Metro 2033, a survival horror game which is purposefully designed to make you count every bullet as you fire it and scavenge the battlefield like an animal in order to ensure your survival. The game makes finding three cheap bullets off a dead body feel like Christmas and it is very effective in making it feel like you are surviving rather than Superman with a gun on a battlefield. By putting this game on Normal or Easy rather than the other three higher difficulty levels, the sense of survival is severely diminished and the game feels different as a result, and much to it’s detriment. This is further illustrated on the game’s website in which it describes the normal difficulty as the following: “A challenge to new FPS players and an adventure for experienced players. Ammo is found in large quantities and you won’t run dry easily. Enemies do not usually pose a major threat and are fairly easy to kill.” Again, that is for the normal difficulty level even though, in some respects, it reads similarly to how an “easy” difficulty level description might read. This difficulty is also emphasized in the shooter genre as shown recently in Halo 4 where the “Heroic” difficulty is strongly encouraged in the difficulty description. This effects the gameplay in a rather significant manner as the typical “shooter puzzle” of the Halo series is in full effect in this entry. While I can see one just banging their head against the wall until they eventually progress as I occasionally do in Halo, there is definitely something to be said for experimenting with different weapons, different up-close or more long-ranged approaches or deciding to use vehicles, turrets, etc. until you conquer the relatively smart artificial intelligence. The “normal” difficulty (in comparison to the “heroic” or infamous “legendary” mode) is, while not a total cakewalk, significantly easier than the two aforementioned modes and the means of dispatching enemies is much easier than it would be otherwise, and I would argue, less satisfying of a gameplay puzzle as a result.

Games can vary so much from product-to-product that, even with the increased level of difficulties, choosing the easiest difficulty is, occasionally, the difficulty to play on regardless of how mind-numbingly simple it may be. A fantastic example of this is Spec Ops: The Line, a game which is to be played purely for how it handles the story, and characters therein. The gameplay is pretty generic third-person shooting with basic, poorly controlling squad mechanics that I never used because they, to put it simply, blow. That is not to say the game is bad by any means, but rather, that it is generic and kind of boring, and I say the latter adjective fully realizing how facile and vague it is. By playing on the easiest difficulty, one is experiencing the part that is worth experiencing while minimizing the part that is not worth experiencing unless you’re achievement/trophy hunting. The same can be said for games such as the Call of Duty series, specifically, Modern Warfare 3. The parts that are worth experiencing in that game are the batshit, insane moments of major landmarks blowing up, enormous conflicts in major cities with you in the midst of the chaos shooting ten guys a minute in the face while practically invincible. Pushing up the difficulty really doesn't add anything to the gameplay other than punishing you for running into grenade which you could have done nothing about or reminding you that you should have taken cover for longer. The “recruit” mode gives you nearly unlimited ammo and the ability to run across the battlefield and individually stab enemies at will, and directly opposed to the survival instinct Metro 2033 requires, this game turns your into superman and it is an awesome power experience. The larger number of difficulties has turned this typically “easy” mode into something that might as well be called “movie experience” at this point and while that scares even me (it terms of the gaming industry in general), it definitely works for some games.

The increased number of difficulties has even changed the way I, personally, play video games. In the past, I would typically play the default “normal” difficulty setting as I never really preferred a challenge or I wanted to play as the developers intended. Recently, however, I’ve found myself desiring to play on the harder difficulty settings for reasons that are ill-defined to me, but that i suspect to be a combination of the encouragement to play on higher difficulty settings and a desire to have more satisfying gameplay experiences. An example of this is Alan Wake, where I played on Hard where I would usually play on normal but because of a truer “survival” experience and wanting to unlock the “Nightmare” difficulty, I challenged myself and succeeded. Some other games I have played on higher difficulties include: Metro 2033, Max Payne 3 (I even went free-aim along with the hard difficulty), Dust: An Elysian Tail, F.E.A.R. and Dead Space 2. Again, when I was younger, I wouldn’t have even considered doing such a thing, but because of these new polarizing difficulty options, the choice is becoming more and more important to tailor to what I desire from the game in question, and speaking in generalities, I have been wanting more challenging, and subsequently satisfying gaming experiences.

What does this say for video games moving forward? Well, it is widely believed that video games, as a whole, have progressively gotten easier as the industry has grown towards a wider audience that may not play video games regularly and need more help. For the most part, this rings true even though there are the obvious exceptions including The Souls Series, and as I have very recently experienced, They Bleed Pixels. I see video games, as they grow even more towards mainstream adoption of the medium, become even more hand-holdy. I may not particularly enjoy the fact they will be doing that, but who can blame them? Looking back at a game like the original Fallout being released now (with a budget on par with the big games of today) seems insane with it’s level of difficulty and explaining virtually nothing to the player besides basic exposition (yes, I am well-aware of the Wasteland kickstarter but I am almost positive it won’t be nearly as unforgiving if it ever gets a release). With the player base expanding further and further, theoretically, all developers can do to assist the new player base is to make games that aren't difficult for them to get into. While I believe that big budget, popular games will get, somehow, more streamlined, my hope is that we will see a continuation of games expanding difficulties so that the core fanbase can play a game that might cater to their skill level more accurately. A fantastic example of this is Hitman: Absolution. Regardless of what you think about the game as far as core design principles are concerned, it’s hard to argue with the fact that they did an admirable job in having multiple difficulty levels (from “easy” to “purist”) so that the players new to the series could ease their way into the pool while those familiar with the series could jump into the higher difficulties right off the bat.

In the ideal future I create in my head, all games cater to people who play games everyday and discuss them online with strangers with the same frequency. However, realizing the business aspect of the industry and what developers have to do in order to connect with a growing mainstream audience, it just isn’t going to happen that way. My genuine hope for the future is that games will continue along the path of expanding the difficulty levels to cater to multiple audiences simultaneously, so that all the crazy people reading this rambling, verbose blog can be satisfied with the remake of their favorite game from their childhood, and the average-Joe Walmart shopper can be satisfied with that new "Demon’s" Souls 2 game he heard was okay from a buddy of his.

11 Comments
11 Comments
Edited by Godlyawesomeguy

From around the beginning of this console cycle, developers began, slowly but surely, dropping the standard “Easy”, Medium” and “Hard” difficulty levels in favor of a more, in theory, tailored gameplay experience. Such examples of games include Gears of War, Metro 2033, Dust: An Elysian Tail, and F.E.A.R. On one hand this is a very good trend as it provides more options for players to choose the difficulty that is more appropriate for their respective skill levels and it allows the developers to have an “extreme” difficulty unlockable for those that beat it on the “Hard” difficulty or the equivalent thereof. On the other hand, it has made the difference between the difficulty levels more nebulous and in turn has made some games’s “hard” mode the new “normal” and the “easy” mode more-or-less obsolete to anybody familiar with gaming.

This new shift is difficulty norms has lead to some games almost being required to be played on the “Hard” difficulty in order to get the best experience possible for that specific game. Take, for instance, Metro 2033, a survival horror game which is purposefully designed to make you count every bullet as you fire it and scavenge the battlefield like an animal in order to ensure your survival. The game makes finding three cheap bullets off a dead body feel like Christmas and it is very effective in making it feel like you are surviving rather than Superman with a gun on a battlefield. By putting this game on Normal or Easy rather than the other three higher difficulty levels, the sense of survival is severely diminished and the game feels different as a result, and much to it’s detriment. This is further illustrated on the game’s website in which it describes the normal difficulty as the following: “A challenge to new FPS players and an adventure for experienced players. Ammo is found in large quantities and you won’t run dry easily. Enemies do not usually pose a major threat and are fairly easy to kill.” Again, that is for the normal difficulty level even though, in some respects, it reads similarly to how an “easy” difficulty level description might read. This difficulty is also emphasized in the shooter genre as shown recently in Halo 4 where the “Heroic” difficulty is strongly encouraged in the difficulty description. This effects the gameplay in a rather significant manner as the typical “shooter puzzle” of the Halo series is in full effect in this entry. While I can see one just banging their head against the wall until they eventually progress as I occasionally do in Halo, there is definitely something to be said for experimenting with different weapons, different up-close or more long-ranged approaches or deciding to use vehicles, turrets, etc. until you conquer the relatively smart artificial intelligence. The “normal” difficulty (in comparison to the “heroic” or infamous “legendary” mode) is, while not a total cakewalk, significantly easier than the two aforementioned modes and the means of dispatching enemies is much easier than it would be otherwise, and I would argue, less satisfying of a gameplay puzzle as a result.

Games can vary so much from product-to-product that, even with the increased level of difficulties, choosing the easiest difficulty is, occasionally, the difficulty to play on regardless of how mind-numbingly simple it may be. A fantastic example of this is Spec Ops: The Line, a game which is to be played purely for how it handles the story, and characters therein. The gameplay is pretty generic third-person shooting with basic, poorly controlling squad mechanics that I never used because they, to put it simply, blow. That is not to say the game is bad by any means, but rather, that it is generic and kind of boring, and I say the latter adjective fully realizing how facile and vague it is. By playing on the easiest difficulty, one is experiencing the part that is worth experiencing while minimizing the part that is not worth experiencing unless you’re achievement/trophy hunting. The same can be said for games such as the Call of Duty series, specifically, Modern Warfare 3. The parts that are worth experiencing in that game are the batshit, insane moments of major landmarks blowing up, enormous conflicts in major cities with you in the midst of the chaos shooting ten guys a minute in the face while practically invincible. Pushing up the difficulty really doesn't add anything to the gameplay other than punishing you for running into grenade which you could have done nothing about or reminding you that you should have taken cover for longer. The “recruit” mode gives you nearly unlimited ammo and the ability to run across the battlefield and individually stab enemies at will, and directly opposed to the survival instinct Metro 2033 requires, this game turns your into superman and it is an awesome power experience. The larger number of difficulties has turned this typically “easy” mode into something that might as well be called “movie experience” at this point and while that scares even me (it terms of the gaming industry in general), it definitely works for some games.

The increased number of difficulties has even changed the way I, personally, play video games. In the past, I would typically play the default “normal” difficulty setting as I never really preferred a challenge or I wanted to play as the developers intended. Recently, however, I’ve found myself desiring to play on the harder difficulty settings for reasons that are ill-defined to me, but that i suspect to be a combination of the encouragement to play on higher difficulty settings and a desire to have more satisfying gameplay experiences. An example of this is Alan Wake, where I played on Hard where I would usually play on normal but because of a truer “survival” experience and wanting to unlock the “Nightmare” difficulty, I challenged myself and succeeded. Some other games I have played on higher difficulties include: Metro 2033, Max Payne 3 (I even went free-aim along with the hard difficulty), Dust: An Elysian Tail, F.E.A.R. and Dead Space 2. Again, when I was younger, I wouldn’t have even considered doing such a thing, but because of these new polarizing difficulty options, the choice is becoming more and more important to tailor to what I desire from the game in question, and speaking in generalities, I have been wanting more challenging, and subsequently satisfying gaming experiences.

What does this say for video games moving forward? Well, it is widely believed that video games, as a whole, have progressively gotten easier as the industry has grown towards a wider audience that may not play video games regularly and need more help. For the most part, this rings true even though there are the obvious exceptions including The Souls Series, and as I have very recently experienced, They Bleed Pixels. I see video games, as they grow even more towards mainstream adoption of the medium, become even more hand-holdy. I may not particularly enjoy the fact they will be doing that, but who can blame them? Looking back at a game like the original Fallout being released now (with a budget on par with the big games of today) seems insane with it’s level of difficulty and explaining virtually nothing to the player besides basic exposition (yes, I am well-aware of the Wasteland kickstarter but I am almost positive it won’t be nearly as unforgiving if it ever gets a release). With the player base expanding further and further, theoretically, all developers can do to assist the new player base is to make games that aren't difficult for them to get into. While I believe that big budget, popular games will get, somehow, more streamlined, my hope is that we will see a continuation of games expanding difficulties so that the core fanbase can play a game that might cater to their skill level more accurately. A fantastic example of this is Hitman: Absolution. Regardless of what you think about the game as far as core design principles are concerned, it’s hard to argue with the fact that they did an admirable job in having multiple difficulty levels (from “easy” to “purist”) so that the players new to the series could ease their way into the pool while those familiar with the series could jump into the higher difficulties right off the bat.

In the ideal future I create in my head, all games cater to people who play games everyday and discuss them online with strangers with the same frequency. However, realizing the business aspect of the industry and what developers have to do in order to connect with a growing mainstream audience, it just isn’t going to happen that way. My genuine hope for the future is that games will continue along the path of expanding the difficulty levels to cater to multiple audiences simultaneously, so that all the crazy people reading this rambling, verbose blog can be satisfied with the remake of their favorite game from their childhood, and the average-Joe Walmart shopper can be satisfied with that new "Demon’s" Souls 2 game he heard was okay from a buddy of his.

Posted by McGhee

My favorite example of a harder mode that actually adds more substance to a game is the Hardcore Move in Fallout: New Vegas. It makes it so you have to regularly drink water, eat food, and sleep. It makes it so that stimpacks heal over time and not instantly and adds carry weight to ammunition. Companions die permanently and you have to go to a doctor or use a doctor bag if you break a limb. It really adds a lot more realism to the game.

Posted by Godlyawesomeguy

@McGhee said:

My favorite example of a harder mode that actually adds more substance to a game is the Hardcore Move in Fallout: New Vegas. It makes it so you have to regularly drink water, eat food, and sleep. It makes it so that stimpacks heal over time and not instantly and adds carry weight to ammunition. Companions die permanently and you have to go to a doctor or use a doctor bag if you break a limb. It really adds a lot more realism to the game.

Oh god, yeah, I totally beat the game on that my first time through, and loved it. Damn, I probably should have mentioned that.

Posted by Ravenlight

Having just started New Game+ in Dark Souls, I'm really digging how they approached difficulty. The first time though, it's mostly trial-and-error versus the unknown. The second time, you already know all the enemies and the environment but enemy difficulty is cranked way up to test what you learned the first time.

But Spec Ops... Man, fuck that game on the hardesst difficulty. I don't really feel like I conquered it more than brute forced my way to the end.

Posted by CaptainTightPants

My biggest problem with 90% of games, is that the difficulty settings provide nothing more than some artificial increase in difficulty. Halo, Gears of War, and Hitman increase the ruthlessness and the intelligence of the enemies; however, most other games --Call of Duty, for example-- just increase the damage output of the enemies, their health, or they just throw them at you in greater numbers.

Posted by the_OFFICIAL_jAPanese_teaBAG

I hate it when games are just difficult and you can only complete them through lucky scenarios.  

Posted by Video_Game_King

@McGhee said:

My favorite example of a harder mode that actually adds more substance to a game is the Hardcore Move in Fallout: New Vegas. It makes it so you have to regularly drink water, eat food, and sleep.

What about pooping?

Posted by JZ

Damage sponges make people more tired of your combat system faster.

Posted by Ubersmake

I'd like to see the "difficulty" in Goldeneye, Perfect Dark, and Timesplitters come back. And by difficulty, I don't mean just adding more enemies/making enemies tougher/making you squishier. I can't think of too many other games that actually added varied objectives as the difficulty increased. Thief, maybe.

Posted by Godlyawesomeguy

@the_OFFICIAL_jAPanese_teaBAG said:

I hate it when games are just difficult and you can only complete them through lucky scenarios.

Even though I love Hotline Miami, I feel like there were a few moments where I just shot a gun randomly and opened my eyes to see everyone else dead. I will grant you: there are few other games that have the ability to do that and they were awesome moments, but it did feel lucky at best, so I understand where you're coming from.

@Video_Game_King said:

@McGhee said:

My favorite example of a harder mode that actually adds more substance to a game is the Hardcore Move in Fallout: New Vegas. It makes it so you have to regularly drink water, eat food, and sleep.

What about pooping?

Complete oversight, I agree.

@JZ said:

Damage sponges make people more tired of your combat system faster.

I think I remember, even on the easiest difficulty setting, finding Spec Ops: The line enemies being huge bullet sponges and finding that incredibly annoying. Gears of War does the same, but at least it makes sense given that the enemies are hulking, meaty monsters.

Posted by Vance_Helsing

Seemed like Dead Space was meant to be played on Hard. Lack of ammo means every single shot counts. It encourages- no, forces you to learn the dismemberment system & each scary moment (yes, even though most of them were jump scares) felt earned because you weren't a superman, you were just Issac, trying to survive.

Another recent example I had was for I Am Alive. There's the normal difficulty (with limited retries) or the hard difficulty (don't remember the name, but less ammo & items, you die & have to restart at the beginning of the level). The game forced you to think about every encounter for a good, long while before you could proceed. That doesn't just mean enemy encounters (where you might only have one or two bullets at a time & can only kill people with your machete in close quarters- sounds easy until you meet 4 vicious thugs) but climbing sequences, since you have to converse your stamina. If you climb too far, grasp farther than your reach, your stamina will deplete permanently & you can & will die. Each climbing encounter, stuff that you do every five minutes in Uncharted, feels like a brutal puzzle, a tense & heart-racing experience. It's a game that seems way easier than it is on the surface. I appreciate a game that teaches you to play by its rules instead of hand holding you throughout.