There has been a grow­ing debate the past few years regard­ing the high dif­fi­cul­ty of cer­tain games, and how they rep­re­sent a bar­ri­er of entry to new­com­ers (read new con­sumers) to a pro­duct. Granted, this argu­ment is not nec­es­sar­i­ly new, but it has increased in pres­ence this decade as cer­tain pun­dits have called for things like skip­pable com­bat and an easy mode in all games — with a focus on Dark Souls a lot of the time.

The recent men­tion that got a bee in my bon­net — so to speak — comes from Oliver Cragg via International Business Times UK, and it presents an inher­ent con­tra­dic­tion when it presents a call for an easy mode in the Dark Souls series.

… I believe the Souls series should have an easy mode.”

He states, yet far­ther down he observers:

Surprisingly, I do believe that low­er­ing the dif­fi­cul­ty lev­el in the Souls series would dilute the expe­ri­ence some­what.”

Now this caused my head to cock to the side like a con­fused dog. I won­dered to myself, “Why would you pur­pose­ful­ly dilute a game for new­com­ers to a series and present them a lesser pro­duct?” To those who have not played it, the major buzz around the Souls titles is the so called bru­tal dif­fi­cul­ty. I ful­ly believe a major­i­ty of new play­ers would default to an easy mode if pre­sent­ed with it, whether they need­ed it or not, based on that buzz alone. But in the speci­fic case of Dark Souls, this gives way to an issue that Cragg him­self points out in his dilu­tion state­ment.

The grind­ing, gru­el­ing nature of Dark Souls is very much linked to its atmos­phere, sto­ry, and over­all mechan­ics. Being reck­less is almost instant death, but you are reward­ed for method­i­cal patience and care­ful plan­ning. You are parceled out bits of lore with each pro­gres­sive vic­to­ry in this seem­ing­ly daunt­ing world as you view the his­to­ry of items you find, and explore new areas. Lowering the dif­fi­cul­ty in Dark Souls would dilute the pre­sen­ta­tion, I absolute­ly agree with this.

So why would you give peo­ple new to the series the option of a lesser ver­sion of the game? 

Yes, this would be an option­al set­ting — of course. But why even present a “dilute the expe­ri­ence” option in a game whose over­all expe­ri­ence is so deeply tied to its mechan­ics and gru­el­ing nature? For what it’s worth, I don’t think the Souls series is all that “dif­fi­cult.” It does require that you to know what you are doing and ensur­ing you are aware of your envi­ron­ment. When I see peo­ple telling oth­ers to “git gud” in a game like Dark Souls, it is a lit­er­al thing — not a sar­cas­tic quip. Learn the game, learn the envi­ron­ment, learn what your options are. 

If this dude can play FPS games with no hands, you can play Dark Souls. Just say­ing.

Now this isn’t a piece to just address one dude talk­ing about one game, as that would be kind of bor­ing and I wouldn’t even be writ­ing this. Nor is this some rant about how games shouldn’t have easy mod­es, or skip­pable com­bat at all — I am actu­al­ly for them in many cas­es. I’d just like to dig a bit deep­er into this debate, as I feel some core issues are skipped over or are being addressed from the wrong angle.

The Dark Souls dif­fi­cul­ty top­ic just hap­pened to be the thought shard that start­ed this all off. When com­ment­ing on easy mod­es or skip­pable com­bat, I hap­pen to feel peo­ple are address­ing game design issues from the wrong direc­tion and want to apply a band-aid.

Before gnaw­ing on the meat of the next part, I’d like to give a cou­ple exam­ples of skip­pable com­bat and decreased dif­fi­cul­ty that I feel is exe­cut­ed very well — espe­cial­ly given that a gran­ite hard dif­fi­cul­ty is not core to their expe­ri­ence.

I think Grand Theft Auto 5 han­dled skip­pable com­bat about as per­fect­ly as one can. If you fail part of a mis­sion a cer­tain num­ber of times you get a “skip” option alongside the “retry” selec­tion. It’s pre­sent­ed in a no fuss kind of man­ner, and I think we can all admit that there some just absolute­ly unfun mis­sions in every GTA title. You won’t get any spe­cial rewards for fin­ish­ing a mis­sion this way, but it’s per­fect if you are get­ting frus­trat­ed and just want to push the sto­ry along.

There is a action/RPG/platformer called Rabi-Ribi I have been play­ing recent­ly for a review, and it pro­vides such a great lit­tle solu­tion for parts of the game that one is hav­ing a bit of issue with, but doesn’t low­er the over­all game dif­fi­cul­ty. If you respawn after dying a few times, and after pre­sent­ed with some tips for sur­vival, you are offered an option for some “help” the next time you load in. This help comes in the form of a tem­po­rary buff that can allow you to push past that par­tic­u­lar­ly per­ni­cious part of the game.

I feel the­se exam­ples are great for a few rea­sons. First, they encour­age the play­er to at least attempt to get past a trou­ble spot before pro­vid­ing an assist. Sometimes all a per­son needs is a lit­tle prac­tice, knowl­edge of their options, and/or may­be a bit of luck to advance. Second, they are unob­tru­sive. You might not even know the option was there if you were not told, or did not fail a cer­tain amount. Last, they are pre­sent­ed in such a way that does not scream “You suck at games, take the easy route!” at you. They come up as an option, and are as eas­i­ly dis­missed as they came up.

So the options ARE there. And if designed well can offer a no fuss option for those who don’t want to both­er with pos­si­bly finicky game play in order to advance their sto­ry. As far as I can rec­ol­lect, nobody got all up in arms about skip­pable mis­sions in Grand Theft Auto 5.

There are a good num­ber of games that also provide the option of chang­ing the dif­fi­cul­ty on the fly, and while this feels like a crutch some devs use to over­come a non-optimal dif­fi­cul­ty curve, I still think think its a bet­ter over­all choice for cer­tain games. I just wish more games would remind you to buff the dif­fi­cul­ty back up if you were breez­ing through sec­tions

But just say­ing every game needs an easy mode, or we need to be able to insta-skip com­bat like we do dialog in titles is a bit of a wrong — but at least well inten­tioned — approach.

In no par­tic­u­lar order, I’d like to address some of the pat­terns and issues I’ve seen involved in this debate.

Easy Gameplay Can Dilute Lore

This was addressed a bit when touch­ing on Dark Souls, as this is one of the text­book exam­ples of this. Your bat­tles through this extreme envi­ron­ment are most­ly reward­ed (aside from the inter­nal vic­to­ry of over­com­ing an obsta­cle) by lore to help piece togeth­er what you mean to this world. There are entire YouTube chan­nels devot­ed to dis­man­tling and dis­sem­i­nat­ing Dark Souls lore. This is all to say that the lore in Dark Souls is a pret­ty big deal. 

If this lore is eas­i­ly obtain­able, it lessens the val­ue of obtain­ing it. That lit­tle thread of the myr­i­ad Dark Souls tapes­try can have less worth to some­one play­ing in an Easy mode. This is pur­pose­ful­ly dilut­ing an expe­ri­ence. And while you may get a new buy­er of Dark Souls 4, there is no guar­an­tee they will buy a 5th as they won­der to them­selves, “I don’t even know what the big deal was about the­se games.” 

Now bare with me here.

Let’s take a quick look at MMORPG sto­ry­li­nes. MMORPGs are the def­i­n­i­tion of an expe­ri­ence that is designed to reach as broad an audi­ence as pos­si­ble. You know who I feel bad for? Writers of MMORPG sto­ry­li­nes. The amount of dialog and fla­vor text I have absolute­ly blown through as fast as I could click the OK/Next/Accept but­ton is astound­ing. And I know I am not the only one. 

Part of this is due to how eas­i­ly it is obtained, at least when think­ing about my speci­fic case. I run through, col­lect ten of what­ev­er I need, press some but­tons, see some flashy effects hap­pen on screen to some bad­dies, return the quest, and head off to the next mark­er on my map. Hell, there have been large chunks of MMORPGs where I played by the mini-map most the time, because it was so mind numb­ing­ly easy. And the lore I would get from this sim­plis­tic game play meant noth­ing to me. Do I feel bad about that? Sometimes, but those writ­ers got paid either way, so I don’t cry for them too much. 

So while hav­ing vary­ing degrees of effect on a pro­duct, and not being true in every exam­ple out there, I do believe that in quite a few cas­es a decreased dif­fi­cul­ty can deval­ue the sto­ry and lore that is pre­sent­ed to a play­er.

Yeah, I don't care about any of this. Just give me a way point to move my dot on the mini-map too
Yeah, I don’t care about any of this. Just give me a way point to move my dot on the mini-map to

But There Used To Be Cheat Codes!

Gamers who have been around for a bit, or who jour­ney through the games of yes­ter­year, may rec­ol­lect a lit­tle thing a lot of games had that was col­lo­qui­al­ly called “cheat codes.”

I’m going to be brief here, because it doesn’t take long to explain that the­se were not “cheat” codes. These codes were large­ly imple­ment­ed by devel­op­ers to test their games, just not always removed before push­ing the retail ver­sion. When you don’t have a con­sole (com­mand con­sole, not game con­sole) to issue com­mands to test your game, the­se were nec­es­sary.

Now devel­op­ers have many avenues to test their prod­ucts, and things like infinite lives and stage select codes are not need­ed to debug a pro­duct. Simply put, the­se codes were real­ly nev­er intend­ed with the play­er in mind. And when devel­op­ers didn’t have to use them, they stopped includ­ing them. 

You Are Just Cutting Off Paying Customers By Not Making It Easier

Whenever I hear this, I have to chuck­le to myself. Because there is absolute­ly no way to prove this on a title by title basis. Even far­ther, if there is an increase in copies sold because of the option of an Easy mode, there is then no way to ensure that the new rev­enue would off­set the cost of ensur­ing that prop­er test­ing was done so that the “Easy” mode doesn’t just turn into an “I mash the but­tons and win” option. 

This is an argu­ment I see thrown around a lot by sec­tions of the games press (Oh, I am going to get on them in a bit), and it’s just an appeal to prob­a­bil­i­ty. Not even a very def­i­nite prob­a­bil­i­ty.

While I agree that games made for more gen­er­al audi­ences should have some sort of dif­fi­cul­ty selec­tion, or option to skip par­tic­u­lar­ly hard sec­tions, I just don’t think that it works for every expe­ri­ence, and devel­op­ers need to make sure the­se Easy mod­es are still prop­er­ly test­ed and bal­anced expe­ri­ences.

This is not even touch­ing on the fact that there are many games out there for folks of all types, and one doesn’t need to dilute an expe­ri­ence that’s dif­fi­cul­ty is inter­twined with its pre­sen­ta­tion by offer­ing an easy route through it.

I just have seri­ous doubt when it comes to dif­fi­cul­ty being the only thing that keeps non-fans of titles like the Souls games away. 

I’m A Reviewer, And Games Are Just So Long. 

Fuck you. Review games as they were intend­ed, and if you feel the dif­fi­cul­ty is too high then let that be known in your write­up. Let your audi­ence know of any ways they can off­set the dif­fi­cul­ty if it’s too high. But I have lit­tle patience for games press who want to skip a lot of con­tent, or play games on their eas­i­est pos­si­ble set­ting for the ease of plow­ing through reviews.

Just. Do. Your. Job. 

And that's all I have to say about that.
And that’s all I have to say about that.

X Game Is So Hard In Certain Parts, But Not Others.

This is the more inter­est­ing part of the debate, in my opin­ion. This arti­cle high­light­ed on Kotaku Australia men­tions this more than once. What the author is describ­ing is a wob­bly dif­fi­cul­ty curve in parts of the Dragon Age: Inquisition DLC and in Destiny. This is also some­thing else I part­ly agree with, at least in that a dif­fi­cul­ty curve that resem­bles a sine wave is just no fun.

But I don’t think the solu­tion is as sim­ple as offer­ing an Easy mode. That is just gauze wrapped around the gap­ing head wound that is bad game design. If your dif­fi­cul­ty curve is a shit, then hav­ing an Easy mode will make the eas­i­est parts just that much more mind­less, espe­cial­ly if not prop­er­ly designed. And let’s face it, if a devel­op­er has a poor­ly designed nor­mal dif­fi­cul­ty curve, why would the Easy mode offer any bet­ter design?

What we should be call­ing for is bet­ter game design when it comes to dif­fi­cul­ty curves, instead of just stat­ing that every­thing needs to be eas­ier for some peo­ple because a cou­ple sec­tions are frus­trat­ing. I don’t under­stand how hav­ing the same bad design, just eas­ier, makes a game more appeal­ing.

There Is Skippable Story Content In A Lot Of Games, Why Not Skippable Gameplay?

I’ll pref­ace this sec­tion reit­er­at­ing that I do feel there are cer­tain expe­ri­ences and titles that can eas­i­ly do with an option for skip­ping game­play. But with caveats. I feel the game should encour­age the play­er to try it a few times, and even offer some tips on get­ting past pos­si­bly. I think it should be unob­tru­sive, and it should nev­er make a play­er feel like they are “lesser” in some way for choos­ing that option.

That said, skip­pable sto­ry con­tent and cut sce­nes are nor­mal­ly not designed with new play­ers in mind, as far as I know. These parts are skip­pable because you may be play­ing a title for the 2nd or 30th time, and hav­ing to go through the sto­ry bits every sin­gle time is a slough when all you want to do is play the game-y bits. 

But what about peo­ple who want to skip the game play to just get to the sto­ry? Well I very much non-sarcastically offer a sug­ges­tion for peo­ple who prefer their expe­ri­ences like this.

Visual Novels.

Seriously. If what you are look­ing for is a sto­ry pre­sent­ed in a more inter­ac­tive way where you can make choic­es that still affect the out­come — unlike movies, TV, or nov­els — then visu­al nov­els may well be for you. Over the past year there has been a ton of them released on Steam, and if you ven­ture into non-Steam ter­ri­to­ry then there is a cor­nu­copia of sto­ries for you to expe­ri­ence. The visu­al nov­el form has been around for decades, so there is lit­er­al­ly gen­re for every type out there. Serious to com­i­cal, slice of life to slice of hell, romance from sap­py to bit­ter… it’s all there.

Now VNs are not my usu­al cup of tea (if I am doing some­thing text heavy, I’d rather be read­ing a book), but even this griz­zled PC vet­er­an has enjoyed a hand­ful of visu­al nov­els over time. I don’t think enough peo­ple who com­plain about game play in games explore this option for inter­ac­tive expe­ri­ences.

And if you hap­pen to think that play­ing VNs some­how doesn’t make you a real “gamer”… why are you wor­ried about oth­er people’s labels on you any­way? You do you, and enjoy the type of expe­ri­ences you like.

Despite the over two thou­sand words here, this is only touch­ing light­ly on the top­ic of dif­fi­cul­ty in games, how it can improve, and how to include more and more peo­ple into the expe­ri­ences a lot of us enjoy. I just prefer the dis­cus­sion to include ways to improve on game design, rather than apply ban­dages to poor dif­fi­cul­ty curves, and call­ing for the “dilu­tion” of an expe­ri­ence because the dif­fi­cul­ty of a cer­tain title may turn off some hypo­thet­i­cal Schrodingers con­sumer.

What do you think of this whole affair? What games get it “right” to you when it comes to how they han­dle dif­fi­cul­ty and dif­fi­cul­ty curves? Do you think that low­er dif­fi­cul­ty deval­ues lore rewards in games?

Let us know in the com­ments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

https://supernerdland.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/HardGamesHeader.pnghttps://supernerdland.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/HardGamesHeader-150x150.pngJosh BrayOpinionDark Souls,Game Difficulty,OpinionThere has been a grow­ing debate the past few years regard­ing the high dif­fi­cul­ty of cer­tain games, and how they rep­re­sent a bar­ri­er of entry to new­com­ers (read new con­sumers) to a pro­duct. Granted, this argu­ment is not nec­es­sar­i­ly new, but it has increased in pres­ence this decade as cer­tain…
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Josh Bray
Josh has worked in IT for over 15 years. Graduated Broadcasting school in 2012 with a focus on A/V pro­duc­tion. Amateur pho­tog­ra­pher with a pas­sion to make things work… by any means nec­es­sary. Leader of the crazy exper­i­ment called SuperNerdLand
Josh Bray

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