Easy Mode: Making Games More Accessible?

Recently in an interview with London’s Metro, Hidetaka Miyazaki discussed a potential for an “easy” mode to be incorporated into Dark Souls. Miyazaki says

I personally want my games to be described as satisfying rather than difficult. As a matter of fact, I am aiming at giving players sense of accomplishment in the use of difficulty.Having said that, however, it is true that Dark Souls is rather difficult and a number of people may hesitate to play. This fact is really sad to me and I am thinking about whether I should prepare another difficulty that everyone can complete or carefully send all gamers the messages behind our difficult games.

This comment has sparked a bit of a debate in the gaming community about the purpose and (lack of) necessity of difficulty settings in video games. In an Edge interview, Alex Hutchinson, the lead developer for Assassin’s Creed III says,

“A lot of games have been ruined by easy modes. If you have a cover shooter and you switch it to easy and you don’t have to use cover, you kind of broke your game.

These two perspectives paint an interesting picture of the need or lack thereof for difficulty settings in video games. Each interview brings up some key arguments which we’ll explore in-depth.

1.) Making an easy mode “breaks” games

This argument by Alex Hutchison can best be described through this video (originally from College humor)

The idea that “easy mode” will break video games is a valid one. There is always the possibility that an easy mode will create a Stormtrooper effect, and that you will be able to go around the game in an unhacked version of “God mode”. The problem with this view for me, is that it appears as if people coming from this point of view are not the people that should be playing games on an “easy” difficulty level. If you consider yourself a “hardcore” gamer then easy mode is most likely not for you. If you’re playing with a high skill level, then of course going through a game on the easy setting will make you feel like a god among men.

I recently played Dragon Age II as a mage on the “easy” setting –  which can make it feel like the game is broken. Honestly that’s half the fun of having an “easy mode”. Sometimes it’s just fun to dominate a game, even if you know you couldn’t do it on a different difficulty level. However, when I first started playing Dragon Age II, I needed that “easy mode” in order to simply survive the game. I would never have been able to beat the game without the “easy” setting, nor would I have been able to enjoy the game as much if I was constantly thinking strategy.

That is the true purpose of an “easy mode” – to help less experienced players acclimate to a game. Not all easy modes are done well, but I do think that they can be done without “breaking” the game.  If you have a cover shooter, then the easy difficulty level should ease you into learning how to use cover. A game like Guitar Hero eases new players into the game by adding keys and octaves for each difficulty setting – easing players into the harder difficulties. You have to find the right balance between making a setting so easy that even noob players feel like gods while still not inducing rage quits.

2.) But but but…all games shouldn’t be all things to all people!

This argument isn’t one that is made directly by Alex Hutchinson or Hidetaka Miyazaki, but it is one that has been brought up in discussion since their interviews. In a post entitled “Not all games should be all things” one blogger suggests

What I think is going on here is that a game maker wants the game to be all things to all people. They look at someone like Nintendo whose games sell to ‘everyone’, and they get more money. Why shouldn’t games have an easy mode?

Maelstrom points out that the main goal of most video games is related to winning/losing. His argument basically boils down to this:   Easy mode makes games more accessible to different levels of people, but if the ultimate goal is winning, then why give people the opportunity to win that don’t deserve to? In a response to the question “What’s wrong with adding different difficulty levels” he answers

It is because it changes the gamers. It creates gamers who think they are entitled to see all the content just because they bought the game. At least during the 8-bit generation, they had to buy a game genie and experience the shame of cheating

Heaven forbid that someone who pays for a gaming experience gets to have a complete one because of an easy difficulty mode! To me this argument again brings out the bias of hardcore gamers. If you are a hardcore gamer, you have all of my applause and respect for your skills. There are many extremely difficult games out there, and if you’ve mastered them you certainly have all my respect.Do you know what you get for beating a game on hard that I don’t usually get when I play on easy? A trophy! I can never Platinum trophy the Mass Effect series because I can’t play on Hard. There are certain rewards in place to recognize your skill as a hardcore gamer without denying games to people with less skill like me.

I don’t think I’m entitled to see all content just because I bought a game. Playing RPG’s has taught me that there are always cut scenes that have to be earned. I would just like the possibility of being able to earn those, and I typically can’t unless a game is dumbed down a little for me.  I’m sorry that there are people out there who think I don’t deserve to be able to experience  entire games just because I’m not as skilled. Companies do make more money off of people like me by including an easy difficulty setting. But, my experience playing on easy may be just as difficult to me as your experience playing on nightmare mode. Does the ability of people to complete a game on easy mode really take so much away from your sense of accomplishment?

3.) Games are Supposed to be a Challenge

Games are supposed to be a challenge and I think Miyazaki’s quote speaks directly to this. He says that he is “aiming to give players a sense of accomplishment in the use of difficulty”. Dark Souls is a notoriously difficult game and one small misstep can demolish hours of steady accomplishment. I am consistently impressed when anybody tells me that they’ve beaten Dark Souls. It is a well-known difficult game and there is a sense of accomplishment and pride from the people that have been able to beat it. The academic study “Fear of Failing? The Many Meanings of Difficulty in Video Games” points out that

Players clearly prefer feeling responsible for failing in a game; not feeling responsible is tied to a negative perception of a game

We want to be held accountable for our missteps. If we feel like failing is our fault, then successfully conquering an area of a game that has provided vast difficulties gives us a sense of accomplishment. Playing a game on “God mode” is only fun for about 5-10 minutes. After you’re done slaughtering everyone (or whatever it is that you’re supposed to be doing) the game gets boring. There’s no challenge and thus no reason to continue. The problem with that for many people is the difficulty arc.

When you get to a point you just can’t get past no matter what, you eventually throw the controller away and quit the game. I could get to the 6th castle or so on Super Mario before my little brother and I just couldn’t progress any further. We probably tried a thousand times, but we were never able to manage it. The difficulty level increased too high for our skills to match it.

Games definitely have to do a delicate dance with difficulty settings. It needs to be hard enough to give challenge, and not difficult enough to make players break things in a violent rampage after they’ve died for the 100th time. It’s a difficult balance to strike especially when there are so many gamers out there with disparate skills. I personally think that adding difficulty settings helps players manage this difficulty arc on their own terms. If something is too easy, switch difficulties, do the same if it’s too hard. Games are supposed to be a challenge, and many studies have shown that players want it to be this way. The addition of multiple difficulty settings ultimately can help players control their own difficulty arc so they can enjoy the game and still feel accomplishment when they complete it.


  1. As video games become more story-oriented, I think casual mode becomes more relevant. Like you said, just because someone isn’t super skilled at a game doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get their money’s worth and finish it. Playing on Easy means you don’t get cool loot. Playing on Hard unlocks trophies. I think that’s a fair system.

    I can see where people would complain about Casual mode “breaking” the game. With Dark Souls, the difficulty is part of what the game is known for, so it’s more integrated into the game’s overall feel and style; Easy mode could break that, imo. I like the idea of having different types of games for different gamers. That being said, I usually play on Casual mode the first time through. When I played ME3 on casual, it was much easier than the other 2 games in the series, and I never had to take cover. I got bored quickly and had to increase the difficult. And that was fine. I am perfectly capable of adjusting the difficulty, and so is every gamer.

    But my favorite game for the difficulty levels is Dragon Age: Origins, because the different difficulty modes change the way you play the game. (Of course, it’s not a game where you take cover, but still…) On Casual, you hit quickly and fights are brief. But as you increase difficulty, you start to pause the combat more often to set up combo attacks, jump into the mage’s skin to heal the party, etc. It becomes a game of strategy, which totally changes the game. To me, that seems like the best way to incorporate the different difficulty levels — including Easy — because it makes each difficulty mode about a certain style of gameplay rather than just “easy” or “hard.” I suppose every game is like that to an extent, but DA:O did it very well, imo.

  2. One idea that I think isn’t tried often enough by game designers is the customizable difficulty setting. Bastion lets you do this through the shrine system, where you can pick from ten different options that make enemies harder (such as making them faster, hit harder, or explode when they die), and each one you turn on increases your rewards, with completing certain content with all ten activated being required to get all the achievements. Might and Magic: Heroes VI does a similar thing with map difficulty by letting you tweak the size of enemy armies or the prevalence of resources. Beat Hazard does this to a certain degree by giving you a limited number of “perks” to choose, so you can load yourself up to the gills with superweapons and extra lives, or pick up a bunch of score boosters and rely more on your skills (this in addition to conventional difficulty levels). It’s nice to be able to say “This is a little too easy, I’ll make the enemies faster,” or “this is hard, but it’d be doable if I had a few more resources to work with,” as opposed to having to jump between difficulty levels that might be far apart in the skill level required to play them.

    Games like Dragon Age: Origins are nice because they let you switch difficulty levels on the fly. It’s very much preferable to be able to adjust difficulty mid-game if it turns out to be too easy or too hard rather than having to start from the beginning. Especially in a long game like DA:O.

  3. When the outrage over Miyazaki’s comments started pouring out my eyes nearly rolled right out of their damn sockets. I’ve been considering writing an article about it myself.

    The problem that I see, and that no one seems to be addressing, is that everyone is judging a game’s worth based on an arbitrary standard of mechanical difficulty. A game like Diablo 3 gets derided for being a “gear check” and a game like Dark Souls gets a free pass because it’s mechanically challenging.

    But what happens when you compare a game like Frozen Synapse to a “game” like Farmville? Both have roughly equivalent mechanical barriers of entry. But one is undeniably more “hardcore” than the other (a word I hate using, by the way). Maybe we should be asking ourselves what mechanical difficulty actually does for our games, and whether we can get anything from them without it.

    • Yeah, that was one of the points I wanted to address and didn’t have space to…probably because I was too busy defending my lack of skill. I think that this is strongly related to the hardcore/casual gamer divide, which I was planning on writing about soon. If a game isn’t “hardcore” then you can’t be hardcore for playing it, and therefore it must be derided.

      I like games like Flow, Flower, and Journey which do not involve skill. Those are the first games that come to mind that don’t require any skill. But do those count as games or interactive experiences? Do we need new categories for emerging games?

  4. I want to piggyback off of Hagood’s first point – games are more story-oriented- and say that, with that in mind, the 3rd perspective is rather dated. As Reynolds pointed out, “challenge” is almost exclusively linked to the mechanics of the game; for the most part, it’s how successfully you kill people. Bulletstorm aside, I’d like to think games offer more than that now.

    I equate the notion of “it has to be challenging” to “difficulty is a central component of this game. Now unless that *was* meant to be a or THE core part of the experience, as others have mentioned, that sounds like you’re still thinking of games in terms of getting the biggest high score in the local arcade. That’s, again as others have pointed out, a rather elitist, exclusionary perspective that places overcoming difficulty as implicitly superior to telling a story or, you know, any other reason you might play games for fun…

    Mass Effect 3 is an excellent example of considering difficulty as not the end-all-be-all of a gamer’s experience, but as one of *several* factors a player can tailor for their own, *personal* experience.  Mass Effect asks you what is more important to you: do you want to focus on the difficulty of the game, or tone it down and focus on the story, or, hey! Get a mix of both! Besides, in the end, short of bragging rights,  difficulty is irrelevant: you all beat the game and finished the story (except for YouTube-able “hidden cinematics 😛 ).

    Like you said, gamers should be able to customize the difficulty of the game to achieve the right level of satisfaction for them, but we shouldn’t assume that challenge is always the ultimate goal of their experience.

    Sometimes a game has horrible controls but you want to see the story through, or you’re playing it half-heartedly until something else comes out or for some other reason need to rush through it. Heck, maybe you’re like me and want to use the Playstation Move rifle for fun – because that’s what I’m aiming for, fun – but just outright suck with it, lol. Am I going to NOT use a pretty neat peripheral because I can’t simultaneously master it and playing on normal or hard? Pppfff, heck no. Amma use me my boomstick! 

    And then there’s simple, practical reasons like playing the game over on easy so it doesn’t matter if you take a shotgun blast to the back of the head while hunting for collectibles you only tried half-heartedly to collect the first time around 😛

    Overall, difficulty  has the capacity to enhance or detract from your enjoyment of the game: it all depends on what sort of experience you want. That being said, developers have absolutely no responsibility to offer an easy mode, in my opinion: it’s their game and they wanted you to experience it a certain way. If you can’t agree with that or handle the challenge, well, unfortunately you should have done more research: that game obviously isn’t for you. But there’s probably more money in being accessible to the widest audience… Meh.

  5. My secret shame is Luigi’s Mansion. It was the first video game I ever played actually, since I didn’t have a console growing up. I bought it when my dude and I got married and moved in together since it looked adorable. And I OWNED that game, had a blast. UNTIL the final battle wherein Bowser was dressed up like King Boo and is all “LOL, JOKES! YOU’LL NEVER WIN! I JUST BECAME A BILLION TIMES HARDER THAN YOUR LAST OBJECTIVE!” And he was right. It was depressing. And while I still have hope for the upcoming Luigi’s Mansion, there’s a part of me that’s hesitant about it because I don’t want the same thing to happen all over again. I’m no gamer extraordinaire, but I also know when a game’s difficulty level spikes randomly and unfairly.

  6. I think games should be difficult, but the uber-difficulty should be player choice. I loved COD4 and when I decided to revisit it I played on the hardest difficulty. The game completely changed for me and I was considerably more strategic and careful than before. I am currently playing Bit.Trip.Runner for my review and the game is ruthlessly hard, but you have unlimited lives so it does not feel punishing. I like this idea.

  7. Very nice post!

    I’m indifferent to easy mode. Mind you, I never play on easy because it does essentially “break the game,” but I’m not one to complain about options. Take Donkey Kong Country Returns, for example: That game is really difficult. But die too many times, and you get the option to let the game beat the level for you, though it will intentionally skip all the collectibles. I never let the game beat a level for me because I wasn’t interested in it, but I can see somebody who’d want to see the rest of the game, and this would be the only way they could do it. I never complained because I was never forced to use it. Plus, when I saw that the option had been opened because I sucked and died too much, I’d only become more determined. So there’s that 🙂

  8. I love easy mode. On games that I’m nervous about, or game-styles I’m trying for the first time, it’s a big help. The first time I played through Metal Gear Solid 3, I was terrified. Then, after seeing what the game has to offer, I played it again on a harder mode. Various levels add a lot of replay value – can you beat it in Super Hard Mode?

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