Challenge Accepted: Select difficulty
A curious thing happened on one of my playthroughs of Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner. I realized that the difficulty I had things set on was actually making my life harder, despite the fact that it was down at Easy.
I’d beaten the game before, and this was just meant as a fun run using the relentlessly overpowered final form that can then be used to play through the game. What made things difficult is that there’s a boss where your goal is to parry her attacks, then grab her machine and delete a virus that’s manipulating her controls. Hack at her actual mech too many times and it’s game over. Between the difficulty setting and my machine, every time I would accidentally hit her instead of parrying her attack, she’d lose a good third of her health – compared to a normal playthrough, where a few misses were unfortunate, but you had to be really trying to kill her.
This was an isolated incident, but it also serves as an interesting introduction to how difficulty levels alter games, sometimes unsuccessfully. While the dream of multiple difficulty levels is that the same content can provide entertainment for different sorts of players, in practice it doesn’t often work out that way.
As someone who’s said that easy content is a good thing more than once, you might think that I’m all about difficulty levels and giving more options. The problem is that a lot of the most common ways of scaling difficulty up or down do not, in fact, do so. They scale content, yes, but it doesn’t really make it easier or harder.
The most basic difficulty scaling, for instance, is a simple one – make enemies take less damage and deal more damage. This is almost a given for any game that allows you to select your difficulty. But bigger numbers are not a challenge, they’re just bigger. If you can successfully dodge a boss attack and counter the first time, you can do it as many times as it takes. Simply making the boss take twice as many hits just means I’m fighting twice as long; it doesn’t significantly alter my play. And, of course, if a player isn’t able to overcome that pattern, they won’t be any more able to overcome that pattern by reducing the number of repetitions.
Mercifully, there are more scaling options. Placing more enemies at various points, or removing ones that are normally there for easier levels. Removing attacks from the boss at easier difficulties and making existing ones come out faster for harder content. But that speaks to the central issue, because it’s assuming there’s a baseline, a “normal” amount of enemies, a “normal” speed for attacks, and so forth. More enemies is harder, fewer is easier, but you’re altering from an agreed-upon basic level.
In other words, you’re not making the individual enemies easier or harder to deal with, or the individual attacks all that much different. You’re altering composition. Fighting Titan in Final Fantasy XIV involves the same mechanics at several difficulties, with Hard mode apparently used as the default. But if you don’t have the reflexes to get out of Landslides, they’re going to peg you no matter how slow they are, and if you do, they’re as easy to dodge when they cover five directions as when they just cover one. If I can cut my way through twenty enemies in Devil May Cry, I can cut my way through twenty-five, and if you place one in an inconvenient spot that likely won’t do much more than inconvenience me rather than stop me outright.
This isn’t even getting into games that cut endings if you played through an easier difficulty level or unlock most of their fun additions by beating the game on harder modes. This is the most transparent version of trying to shove players into the harder settings; the other options are just there to serve as a crutch, they’re not real options.
What makes things even more ridiculous is when the developers massively misunderstand the practical effect of different difficulty levels. My favorite example of this was in World of Warcraft‘s second expansion, which introduced two modes for every raid, a 10-person mode and a 25-person mode. The former was meant to be easier, but due to the reduced number of people faced with scaled-down enemies and the increased consequences if one person made a mistake, nearly every 10-person fight was considered harder, on average.
It’s not the only example. Final Fantasy VIII was much easier to beat if you never gained a single point of experience but found other ways to pick up powerful spells. Earlier shooters could be gamed more easily on the hardest difficulty level simply because there were more enemies on screen and more bullets flying at you, which meant slowdown for the hardware and easier maneuvering for the player. Go into an 8-player free-for-all map on the highest difficulty in StarCraft II and watch your AI opponents spend a great deal of time beating the snot out of one another while you build up without attracting their notice.
Selectable difficulty is, ultimately, a good thing. Unfortunately, it’s not usually a tool for making a game easier or harder – easy mode is more often akin to a “relaxation mode” for players who are experienced with the game. The fact is that design and overall structure have a lot more to do with the difficulty level of the game in every way that matters. Selecting Easy won’t make a hard game trivial to beat, and selecting Crazy Hard won’t make simple games any harder beyond some surface changes. You can’t design a game from the ground up to be challenging and then make it a simple experience just by knocking a zero off of someone’s health.
But why is it a good thing? Well, for one thing, having a relaxation mode for a beloved game is a good way to reduce the effort required to replay the game, which is always welcome. It also adds automatic replay value to the game, since if you enjoyed it the first round through you’re more likely to play again in a harder mode or in an easier one. For online games, it lets you build a single piece of content and use it for multiple points of character growth – upped health might not be a challenge, but requiring a higher level of durability to survive and take out bosses and enemies can make it clear how far you’ve come.
It just doesn’t change the essential game, whether hard or easy.
Feedback is welcome down below or via mail, Twitter, however you like. It’s a familiar refrain at this point. Next time, I want to talk about character growth and how it plays into games as a whole. The round after that, let’s look at when good challenges go bad.