A Hard Medium: Managing Difficulty in Games

“Should FromSoftware’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice have an easy mode?” This question has sparked a fair amount of debate in the gaming world lately, and it seems like the community is split. A key argument from those against the inclusion of an easy mode is that such a thing would compromise the game designer’s carefully-engineered, difficult experience.

The thing is, difficulty is relative. Some people may take 100 tries to defeat a difficult boss in Bloodborne, while others might succeed in just 10 or 20, for a myriad of reasons. Maybe they’re physically incapable of executing difficult button-press combos. Maybe they only have time to play games when they’re tired. Maybe they just suck at a certain style of combat–for example, I found God of War much more difficult on Normal difficulty than Spider-Man on Hard. A game with difficulty that’s insurmountable, or impractical, for players like these to overcome, results in them being locked out of an experience that they’ve made honest attempts at being a part of.

Anyway, this blog post isn’t here to argue about whether easy modes for infamously difficult games should exist. Rather, I’d like to present a few ways games could, and have, included lower-difficulty modes in a way which doesn’t compromise the experience for players. Also, for simplicity’s sake, this blog post focuses on single-player games (or games which can be played single-player, such as Borderlands 2).

Don’t call your easy mode “Easy Mode”

At best, it’s boring. At worst, it’s patronizing. This infamous screenshot from Wolfenstein 2 calls the game’s easiest difficulty setting “Can I play, Daddy?” with the protagonist in matching costume.

Image result for wolfenstein 2 easy mode

There are so many valid reasons why people might want to play a less challenging version of a game, and we as game developers shouldn’t be making judgmental assumptions about why. Patronizing presentations of players who play on lower difficulty levels also perpetuate a culture of gatekeeping among gaming communities.

Not an uncommon sentiment seen in online gaming communities. Source

There are better ways to do this. In Spider-Man for PS4, the difficulty levels are named Friendly / Amazing / Spectacular — all positive adjectives that work even better because they’re themed after the Spider-Man comics. Other games, like the Uncharted series, use Light and Moderate in place of Easy and Normal, which prevents players from feeling like they’re missing out on the game’s recommended experience, by not pitching a particular difficulty level as the game’s “default”.

Base difficulty on player performance

Games can test players at the beginning, or periodically throughout the game, and recommend players a difficulty based on their performance. The Witcher 2 begins with a tutorial that ends with a combat test, after which the game recommends players which difficulty they should play at for the best experience. A thing to note is that the game doesn’t automatically set the game’s difficulty at that level. Players can decide for themselves if they want to be challenged further, or accept the game’s recommendation.

This can be extended throughout the course of the game. Game developers can implement systems which detect if players are constantly failing at a particular challenge, and have the game respond accordingly. The game could prompt players to change the difficulty, offer hints, or allow players to make trade-offs that might make their life easier in the short run, but force them to manage their resources better later on, e.g. “You can trade 3 rubies for a more powerful sword for this combat instance, but you’ll need to grind for more rubies later on to finish this quest.”

What I don’t recommend is having the game invisibly adjust game difficulty, unless it’s a public feature of the game that players will be aware of. This has the potential to confuse the player base, but also seems rather underhanded — it ignores player agency, since players should be able to choose when they want to opt for an easier play experience.

Multi-variable difficulty

Celeste‘s Assist Mode is one of the most innovative features of the game — and it isn’t really a part of the gameplay. Instead of a blanket easy mode where every aspect of the game becomes easier, the game allows players to tailor the game’s difficulty to what they personally find challenging or impossible. Players who have difficulty timing their jumps may decrease the game speed, but leave everything else intact.

This kind of adjustment exists to some extent with first-person and twin-stick shooters often having some kind of aim-assist setting, but Celeste takes the idea to a new level by adding more values to play around with. What about an FPS game where you could tune gun recoil and reload speed? Or an action-RPG where you could decrease cooldown times for your skills, or increase the amount healed by healing items by 15%?

Another thing to note about Celeste’s Assist Mode is that it can be turned on and off at any time within a level. You can flip invincibility on for a single screen in a particular boss escape sequence (as I was tempted to do), then turn it off once you’re done with that hurdle and continue playing as per normal. Again, this gives players flexibility and choice with regards to how much of a challenge they want.

Incorporate playstyles with a variety of difficulty

The Mechromancer class in Borderlands 2 allows players to build their character such that their bullets have a chance to ricochet off surfaces and hit enemies, effectively reducing the player’s need to aim. This allows players to have the complete game experience even if they aren’t good at twitch-aiming, while players who do find joy in that kind of difficulty can just opt to spec their character differently.

What about a stealth-platformer game where players who are good at platforming can complete a level using a difficult platforming route, while those who prefer to be challenged via stealth combat can reach the goal using a different route that weaves through enemy territory? Supporting a variety of playstyles, each with their own unique level of difficulty, can eliminate the need for an easy mode altogether, embedding it into the game’s core mechanics instead.

There are arguments against games having variable difficulty. Sometimes it’s about the culture surrounding the game — Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and now Sekiro are iconic in their brutal difficulty. Oftentimes, it’s expensive — more time has to be invested in testing difficulty options and making sure everything is fair.

Should all games have an easy mode? That’s still a tough question to answer. My honest opinion is that every game is far improved by being more accessible — and easy modes certainly add to that accessibility factor. For this to happen, the way people think about easy modes needs to change, and that can only arise from game developers making games that handle difficulty in a way that doesn’t alienate players from both ends of the difficulty spectrum.


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