Back to making a concentrated effort on this Design blog, for no discernible reason. Good enough, right?
So today I'll talk about difficulty, since Yahtzee Croshaw brought it up on his Extra Punctuation blog thing - this won't be a recurring "rip-off that Yahtzee fellow" thing though, don't worry.
Difficulty is an odd thing for me when relating to games. As regular readers have probably figured out, I pretty much abhor anything that resembles work, including updating a blog more than once a year. So naturally, Easy would be the preferable setting. Yet a game without conflict has no purpose - with no challenge, there is no reason to keep playing. A narrative draws its power from conflict. At least, this is what I've been led to believe from any other media.
Because a video game derives its narrative conflict from the in-game story (i.e. a cutscene depicting a reversal of fortune or the irreversible death of a major character) rather than your own actions (i.e. dying for the twentieth time, because it will reset itself by returning to an earlier save anyway) the difficulty setting does not really provide that necessary narrative feature.
So what about fun? A game has to be somewhat challenging to maintain your interest - if you were to waltz through every stage without a scratch, the enjoyment would be minimal. Well, yes and no. In a lot of situations, that is indeed the case - an action game specifically needs to keep your interest by throwing catastrophe after catastrophe at you.
[ This is where we get the precarious balance of in-game and cutscene ("cinematic") set pieces, wherein a dangerous situation beyond simply "there are a dozen guys shooting at you" or "there is a boss" is presented to the player, and to resolve the situation requires a design choice: you can give the players the capacity to beat the situation with the usual controls (jump, shoot, what have you), go the half "cinematic" route with an annoying Simon Says Quick-Time-Event, or just go fully cinematic and solve it for them in a cutscene. Obviously, the first option would be preferable to the player, but it's difficult to pull off and still keep the whole experience tense and perilous. A good example would be the Uncharted games, where climbing a collapsing bridge or running from an explosion can be easily performed with the game's Tomb Raider-esque acrobatics. Talking of which, Tomb Raider Legend goes pretty much the QTE route, only the buttons you press correspond to in-game controls of Lara - e.g. if the scene requires you to shoot a rope support to lower a bridge you're rushing towards, the QTE will prompt you to press the button that normally corresponds to Lara's guns. So in a manner, the QTEs and in-game controls kind of merge to allow players to quickly react to these split-second decision dangerous scenarios. It's not perfect, of course, but I feel the reign of those annoying QTEs is coming to an end as games find ways of prompting a player's quick response without just flashing buttons at them. ]
It's not always true that a game needs to constantly challenge you to stay fun. A game like Animal Crossing thrives due to its complete lack of challenge. It also has no momentum, save the slow introduction of all the game features that are available. A player is free to create and meet their own targets, or to simply hang out in a danger-free environment. Games that focus on exploration and development, such as sandboxes and building sims, shouldn't require a difficulty curve. I dare say even some games like Oblivion or Fallout were more fun when enemies stayed a low level and just let you explore. It all depends on what elements of a game appeals to you the most.
Some games realize this, and provide difficulty options that reflect this insight. If a game is action-packed, there's no reason not to just stick with the usual "easy, medium, hard" options - once players are experienced enough, they can tackle the next category up. Other games enhance their longevity (something I talked about last time) by making the harder modes not only more challenging, but a substantially different experience. There's two ways in particular where this happens - A) What was a survivable melee is now an impossible-to-survive massacre, and thus requires a different approach (usually stealth, or simply aversion) and B) allowing the player to keep what he's earned in previous playthroughs, and provide even greater challenges to match this advantage (i.e. the "New Game+" trope).
But there are games that take this even further. Take, for instance, survival horror games. The main focus of these games are to frighten you, and thus are more dependent on telling a scary story (that you experience first-person) than the interactive elements that make them games instead of just movies. Subsequently, survival horrors can often focus on puzzles [puzzles are a great way to introduce story elements while giving the player something to do - e.g. figuring out the furniture in a dollhouse based on the haunted house you're in forces the player to learn more about the setting before they can solve the puzzle and continue] (like "The 7th Guest") or action (like "Resident Evil"). In most ("Silent Hill" being a good example), there's a smattering of both. Often, there are two difficulty scales - one for the action and one for the puzzles. A higher action difficulty makes the various monsters harder to kill and more dangerous to you, creating a more rewarding experience for those who want to fight the darkness, whereas a higher puzzle setting makes the puzzles more complex and harder to solve creating an overall more cerebral playthrough. Depending on what kind of game you'd prefer to play, you can choose to make one of those settings easy (pretty much removing that aspect of the game, almost) and the other difficult (to make that the focus). If you're indifferent to either mode, you can focus on one for one playthrough then switch focuses for the second creating two very different experiences. Or you can simply set both to highest and go full "hardcore".
So imagine if you could do that with, say, Sandbox games. A hypothetical GTA-esque Sandbox might have a mix of driving vehicles, shooting enemies and fighting enemies hand-to-hand - each category, though mostly using the same reaction-based gameplay, requires a different type of skill from the gamer. The game could feasibly just give you a relatively easy time with all three categories for the main story, with harder challenges for any of the three categories as optional asides (such as optional street races, gang takedowns or cage fighting tournaments respectively). Or the game could allow you to choose the difficulty of each categorically separately, once it has let you test-run all three modes. Not only will making one category "easy" make those segments of the game less difficult, but it will actually remove some of them and replace them with something else - perhaps a non-interactive cutscene, or a lengthier sequence involving either of the other two categories. If you decide you suck at fighting armed & unarmed both, you can just set the driving to "hard" and the others to "easy" and spend most of the game performing driving-based challenges.
In other examples of a dual-genre format, like the Metal Gear Solid series, you can decide if you hate stealth more than the usual action or vice versa and change the difficulty settings accordingly. Of course, in that sort of game either option would be equally viable, but occasionally one or the other is impossible to avoid. This was the case with the recent Alpha Protocol - forcing players into a combat with the game's final boss with little recourse from any non-combat approach that they had previously focused on.
Other examples, from one of my favorite genres:
Battle Complexity/Difficulty - Not only making monsters stronger, but increasing the complexity behind the strategy required to defeat them - such as a stronger emphasis on elemental classes or weapon types. A "Difficult" setting will be equivalent to a standard MegaTen battle - victory is only assured by being properly prepared. An "Easy" setting, however, might simply auto-fight the battles for you and tell you how you fared, allowing you to focus on something else.
Dungeon Complexity/Difficulty - If you prefer the fighting to the exploring, setting this to "Easy" will simply line up a series of random battles before a boss battle with between-battle prizes that basically consist of "gold", "health potion" and "mana potion", instead of creating a dungeon to explore. A "Difficult" setting will give you various dungeon puzzles to solve (usually involving keys, switches or pushing blocks), maze-like corridors and a more varied treasure haul that might require inventory micromanagement.
Story Complexity/Difficulty - If you're the impatient type who skips cutscenes, setting this to "Easy" will simply weed out any unnecessary character-building cutscene and leave you with the bare essential exposition needed to tell you where to go next. Of course, setting it to "Difficult" will just unleash every minor piece of chitchat between the characters for you to enjoy. Actually, this is more of a gag suggestion.
As games continue to "casualize" and find audiences from absolutely any walk of life, it'll grow more important that video games can be both challenging to the twitch-reaction hardcore crowd as well as approachable to the casuals alike, without dumbing it down so much that it becomes "Baby's First Video Game". The basic "Easy, Medium, Hard" system won't suffice forever.