Tody’s Take: Difficulty Settings Need To Have More Thought Put Into Them
In my last column I talked about the problems with gaming tutorials, and today I’m going to rant about difficulty settings, because I feel that they are another area that is seriously lacking in today’s games. Of course because there are so many genres and different types of games, I can’t exactly cover everything and all forms of difficulty in general, but I will be focusing mainly on games such as shooters and RPGs and action adventure games, because the problem is most common in these genres. I began thinking about this after games I played recently made me drop down to normal from hard simply because there was no point to upping the difficulty other than to experience frustration.
The reason is because the games in question did what many games of today do when it comes to the implementation of difficulty settings, and I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you guessed a mixture of lowering player health and increasing enemy damage, or simply upping the enemy count, then you’d have guessed right. This approach to difficulty settings is something I consider to be lazy and not that fun, as it often turns the experience frustrating and seriously screws up the game’s natural difficulty curve. As you may have experienced, increasing the difficulty settings for many games these days can result in obscure, inconsistent and unpredictable difficulty curves, and can result in turning the challenge into an exercise of both endurance, luck and frustration, rather than skill.
I will be giving a number of examples to illustrate this in practice as well as talk about what I consider to be bad execution of difficulty settings. Then I’ll go on to talk about how difficulty settings can be improved. All in this reasonably short column. Alright scratch that you know it’s not going to be so short.
Before talking about how difficulty settings can be improved, we naturally need to talk about the problems that currently exist. To use the games I was playing recently as examples, let’s take Sniper Elite V2 first. It’s a third person shooter with a strong emphasis on sniping as the title suggests, but you don’t really need to know anything about the game for me to make this point. I first chose to play the game on normal, but after a while I felt myself wanting more of a challenge, so I raised the difficulty to hard. This proved to be a mistake. All that happened was either my health became less or enemies did more damage, which amounts to the same thing really, and the game changed for the worse. Simply being exposed for a few seconds and taking like two hits got me to critical health and forced me to wait questionably long to recover, and suddenly the game wasn’t about executing badass headshots anymore but about raging at cheap deaths and trying not to die whenever I poked my head out of cover. It took a lot of the fun out of the game, and I soon got over it. I could still get through the levels without breaking too much of a sweat, but my point is that it did not provide me with a thrilling, new or interesting challenge, but rather with a badly executed test of frustration and trial and error.
I like to use Call of Duty as an example, but it wasn’t always that way. The recent Call of Duty games I’ve played, since World at War, have taken the fun out of Veteran difficulty for me, which is the highest setting. The reason is because the game becomes significantly less immersive for me, but much more frustrating. This happens because suppressing heavy fire and gunning down every living organism becomes an exercise in dodging hundreds of grenades that all land on top of you in a second, forcing you to expose yourself and die, and of course, infamously waiting to heal every time a potato crumb clips your eyebrow. It also results in certain sections of the game being insanely hard while others are strangely cakewalk. Lots of games do this. I could point to the Uncharted series, where putting up the difficulty setting to the highest levels basically means you’ll be spending every fight in critical health with a grey screen, and trying to push your luck as far as possible with all your trial and error approaches.
I’ll probably get flamed for this, but as much as I loved The Witcher 2, I wasn’t too fond of its difficulty settings. The gist of it was you dealing less damage and enemies dealing more as you increased difficulty, with the only interesting change for me being that items become harder to acquire. But the reason I didn’t like The Witcher 2′s difficulty settings was because the game originally has a negative difficulty curve, in that it starts out pretty damn tough but becomes a lot easier later on as you level up, upgrade your skills and acquire better equipment. Increasing the difficulty setting by too much results in this becoming utterly bonkers. Normal was the perfect choice for me in that game.
Now, the games I’ve mentioned above are random examples, but they all demonstrate the same pattern of what I believe aren’t good uses of difficulty settings. The reason is because in the games mentioned above, increasing the difficulty does not create a new experience, challenge players in new ways, or make them play and think differently. Aside from maybe The Witcher 2 in many respects. But for the most part it simply results in playing the game the same way but with frustration replacing fun, and luck and trial and error replacing skill. It just forces players to struggle a lot more despite not being fully tested on ability and actual mastery of the game and its mechanics. There are countless games that artificially make things more difficult rather than change the game through careful manipulation of its mechanics and challenges to players. I think this is the core problem which games need to address.
Of course the first thing we must understand is that difficulty settings often revolve around context. Each and every game is made more challenging in different ways depending on the game itself and its mechanics. With that said, I feel that difficulty settings need to be given some thought by developers so that they change the player experience and enable gamers to play the same game but with a very different approach. The game should treat players differently and force them to treat it differently. The various difficulty levels should feel new and inventive. For some examples, players should be given less resources, handicaps and extra assistance should be removed and enemies should display new behaviours that they wouldn’t otherwise demonstrate in the lower difficulties. Perhaps more difficult or different types of enemies should be introduced earlier on in the game. Maybe the environment should become more dangerous, such as by increasing the amount of hazards or reducing the strength of cover. Enemy and item locations and spawn points should be changed so that the player isn’t fully prepared for everything after playing the game once. I’m not saying that all games should do this, as it is quite a lot of work, but these are just some examples, many of which don’t require a lot of effort, that can make the experience on harder difficulties more meaningful and challenging in the good ways.
As always a point is made better with some examples. When I think of games with good uses of difficulty settings, I often think about Hitman: Blood Money, one of my favourite games of all time. As you increase the difficulty setting, enemies become smarter, you get less health, extra assistance is significantly reduced, evidence left behind damages your rating and, most importantly of all, players get a reduced limit to the amount of times they can save their game during a level, where the highest difficulty rating doesn’t allow saves at all. As I said, it’s all about context, and for a game that revolves around strategy, stealth, planning and careful execution, these changes significantly enhance the challenge and force players to think long and hard before making moves or taking risks, as well as makes the experience much more authentic if players are opting to get the highest ratings. You’ll be forced to change the way you think, constantly keep track of what you’ve done and what evidence you may have left behind earlier on in the level, and carefully go about your work as though its an art and you’re a perfectionist. In this way Blood Money really is one of the most awesome experiences for me.
Another game with excellent use of its difficulty settings is the RPG Dragon Age: Origins. Yes, yes, I may utterly despise Dragon Age 2 but I love the original game. Origins does it great because the game is already challenging on its own, but increasing the difficulty results in enemies becoming smarter and becoming harder to beat, traps doing more damage, players forced to carry less potions and, best of all, friendly fire becoming enabled. This means that you and your allies are able to harm each other with things like area of effect spells. This may seem small, but friendly fire being on dramatically changes the entire game and forces players to play so much more carefully, constantly be aware of ally positions and employ a lot more strategy in battles because things like using your area of effect spells can cause your party to separate and make you all vulnerable. It’s a perfect example of how one small change can create a much tougher and different experience for players. It’s so much more meaningful and challenging than simply weakening the player and strengthening the enemy.
For some final examples, I’ll point to the original Crysis. It may not be a grand example of using difficulty settings effectively, but it implements some nice tweaks that spice the game up. As you increase the difficulty, most forms of player assistance such as enemies being highlighted in the environment and grenade indicators fall away, but on the hardest difficulty, the Korean enemies you face stop speaking English and start speaking purely in Korean. It may not seem like it has that much of an impact on gameplay, but it’s a cool touch because firstly it makes the experience more authentic and secondly you won’t be able to pick up on enemy tactics unless you speak Korean, so you’ll need to become somewhat more adaptive. I remember always liking the difficulty options for the PS3′s Resistance 2, as the higher difficulties replaced weak enemies with stronger ones with more powerful weapons, changed the enemy count and spawn points and increased the strength of enemies.
And should I go into Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls? Should I? Maybe not. But I love them.
In conclusion, I could have made the point in a lot fewer words with a lot less examples, but I suppose I was in a ranting mood, especially at this moment in time where every word I type is further procrastination to studying for exams. However, this topic is so vast because it differs for each and every genre, and that’s why I chose to mainly focus on shooters, RPGs and action games because I find them to be most guilty of bad execution of difficulty settings. My main point is that difficulty settings need to be a lot more creative than simply weakening the player, upping the enemy count or increasing enemy damage. They need to be game changers. Naturally the context of the game is critical to determining how it can be manipulated with its difficulty, but I think it’s very important in design that the higher difficulties should strive to change the way gamers think about and play the game, and they should offer a different and more sophisticated experience. Let’s face it, when difficulty settings are implemented correctly, games can really shine in offering a rewarding challenge and completely changing the way the game is played and experienced, mostly for the better.
And what can I say, I do like a good challenge at the end of the day. That rhymed, it was unintentional.