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.