On Difficulty and Enjoyment

Why do you play games? Take a moment to consider that. Think long and hard about it.

When you sit down at your PC, or your 360, or your PS3 (but not that piece of shit Wii), why are you there? If you answered “To enjoy myself and have fun and shit” then you’re probably there along with 95% of the rest of the gaming world. The vast majority of us play games to have fun. It’s a recreation activity, much like reading a book. Yes, there are games that have the deep meaningful complex storyline (but not those shitty indie shadow-puppet platformers), or the mechanics which teach you something at the same time, and games that challenge you, but I’m willing to bet that most of us play games because we enjoy playing them. Some sections play simulators (which I technically still class as ‘games’, since the player sets a challenge and their own goal) to learn things or because they wish they really were a pilot or whatever, but even they are playing for enjoyment when it comes down to it.

Which leads me to the argument of difficulty in games. Apparently when people talk about difficulty, there are two schools of thought:

1 – “THIS GAME IS FAR TOO EASY MAN THERE SHOULDN’T BE AN EASY MODE OMFG HARDCORE IS THE ONLY ONE TO PLAY BECAUSE I LIKE IT AND YOU SHOULD ALL JUST L2PLAY.”

2 – “THIS GAME IS FAR TOO HARD MAN THERE SHOULDN’T BE A HARD MODE OMFG EASY IS THE ONLY ONE TO PLAY BECAUSE I CAN DO IT AND YOU SHOULD JUST NERF THE GAME.”

Before you say “Soldant, that’s a dramatic oversimplification”, let me head you off by saying no it god damn well isn’t and you know that and if you disagree just hit up any random gaming forum. Difficulty is entirely subjective. Some people can’t handle the realistic flight model in DCS Black Shark 2. Some people can’t imagine playing without it. Some people can’t play Mass Effect 2 on hardcore. Some people insist that anything less than Normal shouldn’t be included at all. When it comes to single-player games, difficulty is largely what the player defines it to be, and thus for ages we’ve had difficulty levels in games. Early difficulty levels were just arbitrary increases in available lives or health, while today they scale a vast number of different things. It’s generally accepted today that players in a single-player game can set the difficulty as per their own preference. The same is true of the vast majority of simulators. Taking DCS Black Shark 2 as an example, I can play it with a simplified flight mode but the full avionics mode, or I can play it as an arcade game. Granted it’d be a very expensive arcade game, but the option is there nonetheless. It’s my choice.

So why do people decide they need to dictate to other people what difficulty they should select? Developers include difficulty settings because they realise people play different ways. Some people enjoy playing the whole game without a significant challenge. Some people like to compulsively quicksave and replay the same sequence 20 times until they pass it. Is either player wrong if the developer allows for it? The answer is no, they are not.

I used to like playing with the higher difficulty settings in games. I used to really enjoy the challenge. But more often I found myself just trying to exploit the game or AI to solve the challenge, or endlessly replaying the same sequences again and again. Back then though I could do that or it was desirable to do that. After all when I was younger we didn’t get games very often, so what ones we did get we played endlessly. I’ve clocked up an insane number of hours in Doom and Duke Nukem 3D over the many years I’ve had it. But these days I, like many others, don’t have the time to invest in games, and playing the same section over and over again because of difficulty becomes less entertaining and more frustrating with each attempt.

Thus for that reason these days I stick to lower difficulty settings. I don’t play Hardcore ME2 for example, because I play ME2 not only for the combat but for the strong story-driven element of the game. I don’t play Mount and Blade so that I can lose endless battles, I play to have fun. Sometimes that involves losing a battle because I clearly deserved to, but that doesn’t mean that I want to spend ages practicing the combat mechanics. Of course it’s less of a problem in games like Mount and Blade because although you can “lose”, the game doesn’t suddenly stop and insist you replay a whole section of it. The game does penalise you but it’s a suitable penalty. One that pretty much everyone can accept.

It’s easy to criticse people like me for playing lower difficulty levels because you think it’s too easy and we aren’t getting the full value of the game, but the truth is we are because we’re enjoying our time with the game. Granted buying DCS Black Shark and only ever playing arcade mode is a bit of a waste, but if the player enjoys it then that’s fair enough. Yes, you might be able to complete Super Meat Boy with your eyes closed and playing by slapping your arse on the keyboard. We all stand in awe of your elite skills. But that’s no reason to criticse everyone else for how they play the game.

Likewise though there’s no reason to expect that everything has a flat line for a difficulty curve. If DCS Black Shark lost its arcade mode, nobody should complain because it’s a simulator at its core. If Bioware suddenly decided that ME2 shouldn’t have a difficulty below Normal, then that’s their call. We can’t demand that games conform to our own skill level if they’re not intended to. Likewise we can’t demand that a higher difficulty level conform to our own skill level, unless it’s clear that the difficulty level has a bug of course. Just as we enjoy a lower difficulty level, we have to allow others to enjoy their mega-challenge. After all it’s their gameplay experience, let them play as they want.

Of course absolutely none of this applies to multiplayer games, where the rule is “L2Play” and mechanical difficulties are clearly highlighted through observing the bulk of players, not listening to 20 or so people crying that “Gun X is too overpowered because I got killed by it.” But in the single-player gaming world developers generally recognise that we’re playing for our own amusement, and therefore should be able to select the difficulty level that gives us an appropriate difficulty curve. For some that might be a vertical climb. For others it might be a lot more gentle. The point is that the player is enjoying it and that it fits in with the game.

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