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Are Games Crippled By Easy Modes?
by Chris Dunson on 12/13/13 01:04:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


When you start up some games for the first time you have a very important decision to make (once you've passed the loading screens and company logos). What difficulty to play on? Take it easy and make your way through the story? Or play it on hard to truly challenge yourself?

A rose by any other difficulty would smell as sweet?

Rayman games are known, by the few people who play them, for their difficult platforming. Many platformers allow you to jump at various heights depending on how long you hold the button down, but Rayman is one of the games that will send you to the game over screen if you use your high jumps too frequently.
For a long time, in games, it has been a common principle that there needs to be obstacles for the player to overcome. By learning the rules of a game and honing their abilities, players can surpass any challenge.
But what if there is no challenge? 

The original Final Fantasy XIII, which I wish was the last story of its saga, was the worst game I think I've ever played in my entire life. And I've played Barbie Super Model for the Super Nintendo.
In an attempt to make the game more accessible to new gamers, Square Enix cut out practically everything that makes a RPG a RPG. There are essentially no NPCs to talk to in the game, the bulk of exploration takes place in narrow hall ways, and each character only has three stats. The only thing the game has going for it is that its probably the most aesthetically pleasant game on the PlayStation 3. The lack of challenge and depth left me completely appalled and keeps me hesitant from trying newer titles in the Final Fantasy franchise. 


There are games without challenge that I find myself able to enjoy. Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing are both games that I enjoy even though I don't have to dodge bullet fire.
These games do a wonderful job at presenting unique themes, introducing interesting characters, and placing the player in a role that generally can't be found in other games. In Animal Crossing I found myself really enjoying coming across the random villagers that made up my neighbors. These creatures all have their own odd behaviors and choice of words.
I could tell the game had a powerful hold over me when one of my favorite neighbors had moved away to a friend's town. I was so sad to see her go, but as an awesome last gesture she had sent me a letter along with a piece of furniture. That piece of furniture just so happened to complete the set I was going for. I couldn't of asked for a better memento to remember my virtual friend.

Master Of Your Own Destiny

The white tanooki suit in Super Mario 3D World seems to be generating some distaste amongst 'retro' gamers. For those of you who don't know, the white tanooki suit is an item that appears after dying multiple times in a row within the same level. The item makes you invincible from enemies and spikes that would normally knock you out. The complaint I see the most is that people who beat levels using the white tanooki suit didn't 'earn' their victory. I honestly look at this as a very out dated line of thinking.
Back in the NES days there were a lot of very difficult games. Not everyone wants to spend hours upon hours learning the exact positioning and timing required for intense platforming moments. In today's age of gaming, developers try their best to make their games as accessible as possible so players of any skill level can have fun.
A very young player might get frustrated with a particular difficult challenge and the white tanooki suit is there to assist him. A more patient player who finds themselves failing a few too many times will also see the white tanooki suit appear, but by no means is the item mandatory. If you prefer the challenge and want to learn from your mistakes you can ignore the power-up and focus on the problems ahead. It's simply a choice for you to make. 

It's not always apparent to most players, but ignoring certain items is a great way to ramp up the difficulty if it fits your fancy. I've yet to try a 'No Mushroom' run of a Mario game, but I have tried the 'Three Heart Challenge' in Zelda and 'Minimum Level' boss fights in Kingdom Hearts II. By keeping my health low in one game and my experience down in another, I'm able to turn simple hindrances into nightmare inducing spawns of true evil.
Player created challenges like these really require you to learn the ins and outs of the mechanics of the game. A single missed dodge or mistimed attack can be your last. This maybe exactly what you're looking for if you feel you need more challenge from your games.

Pick Your Poison

Now some developers literally have you choose between modes of difficulty. Far too few games actually change the game in meaningful ways when you choose a difficulty setting. More times then not the game merely alters a few values such as damage and health.
I really enjoyed playing Tomb Raider with my partner in love and crime. When ever she was silly enough to put the controller down I'd steal it for myself and shoot some arrows through some unsuspecting hats. I eventually decided to give the game a go by my lonesome on the hard difficulty. It took me quite some time to figure out what the changes were. I was really hoping for end game enemies and attack patterns to turn up early alongside new threats. Much to my dismay the only differences I could note were my opponents dealt more damage and had more health.
Having already played the game a bit I was more then accustomed to dodging molotov cocktails and enemy projectiles. Increasing the damage of these attacks literally has no effect on me since the attacks are unable to land. I'm no Robin Hood but I was having no problem aiming for instant kills with my bow and arrow. Increased health, or not, a killing blow is a killing blow. Even on hard mode action scenes felt too easy and had become repetitive. 


Then we have the beautiful game Catherine. This game has you climbing up a tower of blocks as it slowly collapses. You have to utilize several block pushing/pulling techniques in order to ascend. Trick blocks and annoying fellow climbers will slow you down as the tower seems to collapse that much faster.
If puzzles aren't your strong suit I heavily suggest playing it on easy. This game is definitely one of the more challenging ones made now a days. Rather then just changing the amount of time you have to climb the block towers, the difficulty settings actually have their own puzzles. The techniques you have to employ in order to rise from one level to the next change with each difficulty setting.
I really wish more games had differing content between modes. Not that I'd cheat on Catherine to be with them. That would be wrong.

This article was originally posted on my gaming discussion website: Berathen Games

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Theresa Catalano
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Although I identify with the overall premise of your article (challenge is an important element of games to me too) you really lost me right of the bat with your very inaccurate criticism of Final Fantasy XIII. It has a very well thought out and unique battle system, and it's actually one of the more challenging games in the series.

Of course, it doesn't seem that way at first, because the game take a long time to introduce you to the various elements of the battle system as you play through the story. But once you get to the later areas of the game, and especially in the post game content, the battles are very difficult. They require you to know the paradigm system inside out, to set appropriate paradigms for each battle, and to switch them on the fly in order to control the pace of the battle appropriately, and it's not easy.

I guess you just haven't played FF13 enough to know about any of this. That's unfortunate, but in the meantime I would suggest that you refrain on commenting about it, and perhaps edit your wildly inaccurate comments out of this article, as they don't do it a big service.

Seth Strong
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Or, pull that line of thinking into a new article. Granted, the author got a lot of comments jumbled from my perspective such as FF13 was on PS2. But if the author feels that FF13 lost the heart and soul of Final Fantasy, I'd certainly be interested in hearing the argument.

I agree with Theresa that it doesn't do anything for the central argument which I see as better ways to address difficulty settings.

Chris Dunson
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I don't feel FFXIII(PS3/360) was a betrayal to the series. I didn't enjoy the characters or the story, but I absolutely enjoyed the setting and the lore.

I feel it tried really hard to attract non-RPG fans and thus simplified itself on a multitude of levels. The lack of defensive stats, accuracy, and speed left me confused for awhile. I tried to see what the game had to offer despite its flaws and was told by many players that the game really picked up near the end.

The idea behind the FFXIII segment of my article was to point out a game without challenge and how that lack of difficulty caused me to be unhappy with the game. The next section of my article going into how I find other games enjoyable even without challenge.

I was hoping to make the reader think about difficulty in games and how varying levels of challenge have effected their own experiences.

Christian Nutt
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Don't you think you're missing the forest for the trees a bit? The post may not be something you 100% agree with, but the point is made tolerably well enough to overlook that, I think.

Chris Dunson
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First off thank you for reading my article and taking the time to comment!

I played Final Fantasy XIII from beginning to end and spent about ten hours trying out the various missions on Gran Pulse. My entire playtime was abut 70 hours. I do see how you can like the paradigm system, but personally it wasn't really to my liking. The bulk of encounters could be easily handled by Commander/Ravager/Ravager or heck all three going Ravager. Sure there were fights that require you to use certain sets, but then the lack of flexibility was unnerving.

I did not find the game challenging. I've played almost every Final Fantasy, including the online ones, and I find XIII to be the easiest. Even more so then Mystic Quest. This was the first Final Fantasy I had ever reached max level in, despite it also being the one with the least time invested. I really am not sure how this happened as I avoided most of the fights in the game.

The customization in this game really bothers me more then anything. You start out with three trees and unlock three more, but due to the amount of XP required to go from one level in a tree to the next you can't effectively specialize in one tree. Even if you did specialize in one tree that would actually hurt you more then help. The bulk of the codes you unlock along the trees are simply the three stats in the game: HP, Str, and Mag. Why pay 20k XP to raise a level in one tree followed by another 60k to unlock a single HP node? If you move to one of the other main three trees you can easily pay 5~6k XP and unlock multiple attribute nodes.

The trees are also incredibly linear. Despite spiraling upwards each tree has a main path for you to follow all the way to the top. There is no second or third branch for a tree, simply small branches from any given level that cost slightly more XP than the main path. If you take away the stats and only look at the ability nodes in each tree you can really see how there are no interesting choices to be made.

Say for a moment that you simply do enjoy choosing between stat nodes. Well here again is a problem. Say you want to be a heavy hitter and are progressing through the Commander tree. The bulk of your nodes are HP and Str, but you still have Mag as well. You don't get to choose which stats you increase. They are already laid out in a path. If you want a certain Str node then you have to get every other node before it as well. If Mag is in your way then you have no choice but to pick that up in order to get to the stat increase you actually want.

Perhaps I'm missing something, but it felt like I really tried to find the depth in this game.
I just couldn't find it.

Theresa Catalano
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Let me just add that if you're going to single out a Final Fantasy game for being too easy, my choice would be FF10. It's not a very challenging game, and it's rather infamous for it's final boss you can't actually lose too. The PS1 era Final Fantasies tend to be on the easy side as well, certainly much more so than FF12 and FF13.

Chris Dunson
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I have a hard time thinking of Final Fantasy X as an easy game. This is probably due to how incredibly under leveled I was in the game. I really enjoy boss fights in RPGs and do my best to not be over leveled and thus I generally run away from the bulk of random encounters.

The random items I found lying on the floor just before the final confrontation with a certain special someone were incredible compared to the very outdated equipment I adorned. I truly struggled with that boss and its two companions. I can't tell you how dismayed I was when I found out not only does the boss petrify your allies, but if you don't recover them in time he smashes them to pieces. No phoenix down can put those pieces back together again.

Perhaps if I had been at an appropriate level when I fought those bosses I would be singing a different tune right now.

Nathan Mates
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Too easy? That's the only FF game I've died on the third fight in the game, mostly because of the "halve your HP" enemies, and the savepoint just nearby that restored all HP/MP was not intuitive in the least.

The idea of sitting thru the cinematics again to get to the second fight didn't appeal to me. I didn't play FF10 after that initial half hour.

Jeff Alexander
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>When you start up some games for the first time you have a very important decision to make…. What difficulty to play on?

"Normal". That's what most players choose, because they view themselves as the baseline. "Easy" and "Hard" are for other people. If "Normal" is easy, it's because the player is better than he or she thought. If it's too hard, the game is designed wrong.

Wylie Garvin
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I choose "Normal" when I just want to experience the game, and "Hard" when I already know what kind of challenge to expect from it and don't think Normal will be enough. I sometimes pick "Easy" when I'm not enjoying the mechanics and just want to rush through to the next cutscene or something. (I played Mass Effect 3 on a hard setting, but I also tried it on the "narrative" difficulty for a little while, just to see what it was like... I think it might be impossible to actually die on that setting, or at least very difficult... it was quite funny!)

Sometimes I want a challenge. But then I'll probably play Dark Souls, instead of whatever new game is at the top of the pile. Or maybe I'll play something like Halo on the hardest difficulty, even though it kills me over and over. Sometimes I just want to smash things, and then I'll play one of the Lego games for an hour with "God Mode" turned on. (For some reason its frustrating to play them without "God Mode", losing the studs I collected just makes me enraged.. but playing them with "God Mode" on is relaxing and fun.)

Anyway: designers, don't forget to put the challenge into your game, for the players that want it. But also please make it adjustable, so people with a broad range of skill levels and patience/tolerance can enjoy the game you've made. And please don't just scale the hitpoints--that tends to be bland on 'easy' and a boring grind on 'hard'. Please put a little effort into other ways of adjusting the difficulty: smarter AI, spawn different combinations of enemies, reduce the benefit of health and ammo pickups, etc.

Chris Dunson
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I pick out my difficulties pretty much the exact same way. If I'm playing a game simply for the novelty and don't have much time to enjoy it then I'll go for easy and see if the game's world can capture my interest. If so I might try the game again on a harder difficulty, if not I'll just not bother playing it.

So glad you're calling out for changes in gameplay on different difficulty settings. I really can't stand seeing the only change being a health increase/decrease. If I can hit a boss's weak point without fail then simply making me have to do it 5 or more times in a row on hard isn't making the game any more difficult.
Zelda Master Quest was an amazing difficulty change for Orcarina of Time. I really wish more hard modes went down that route. They don't have to be quite as extensive, but taking a leaf from Master Quest's book wouldn't be a bad idea.

Joe Stewart
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Some games are able to infer something about the player's skill and offer to change the difficulty accordingly. I started the first inFamous on the easier of the two difficulties, and after a little bit of playtime it recognized I was having too easy a time and bumped me up to the harder one automatically. I liked that. Plus I got the trophy for finishing it on hard, even though I didn't start that way.

Dane MacMahon
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I choose hard on shooters, because I have played a lot of shooters and I play on PC, which means I have an aiming advantage.

That said a lot of games do the "increase enemy health, lower PC health" thing to such a silly degree I am left super annoyed, so maybe I should be clicking normal after all.

David Navarro
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They say that when a headline ends in a question mark, the answer is invariably "no". This is one of those instances. "Challenge" is one element of videogames, but that's probably an artifact of their birth at the arcades; now it's no longer their defining characteristic. I don't disagree with you that many times harder difficulties just add tedium, instead of challenge, but that's simply bad execution and bad game design, not an indictment of the concept of difficulty levels.

Andreas Ahlborn
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Overall it depends on how much the actual gamedesign thrives on the philosophy what different types of players are getting for their moneys worth.

Barricading disabled gamers for example, because your game is manually demanding and leaves no option to make it easier while it may be enjoyable for them is -in most cases- bad for business.

So I can really understand the idea Bioware used for the latest Mass Effect, where there was the possibility to practically get through the game without failing. (Similar to the last two quantic dream games).

On the other side I also dig the attempts to spice up the difficulty for that little niche of gamers who want to hone and perfect their skills.

When I started to play xcom and failed every second attempt I never would have guessed, that "Classic Ironman" (you only have one save per game) would ever seem attractive to me. But during that one gameplay I had the most satisfiying/frustrating situations in a long gamertime.

So between easy-mode and perma-death there is a wide range of viable difficiculties, if your gamedesign can support it.

(There are exceptions to the rule, though, Dark Souls or xcom -imo- wouldn`t work with a "cinmeatic mode", also many "roguelike games")

Dane MacMahon
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As someone who grew into gaming playing 90's PC RPGs and shooters I expect a certain level of challenge. Most games made today, especially the RPGs, are way too easy in my opinion. It can lead me toward getting bored and moving to another game. I need challenge to keep me engaged.

That said an important aspect of 90's challenge on PC was quicksaving. As much as I love a tough game I can't stand repeating areas and things I already accomplished. Let me save anywhere and I'll fight through almost any challenge, because once I beat it I know it's done forever, and I can retry right from that point ever time I fail. As an example: I played Dishonored on the hardest difficulty, because it had quick save, and I am playing my latest stealth game Dark on easy mode, because saves were limited on every other difficulty.

In short: I think gamers like challenge but hate redoing things they've already finished. A lot of console-focused 90's kids equate challenge with starting over in Ghouls and Ghosts every time they died, which is pretty much the opposite of challenge in my mind, and the opposite of what I am looking for. Make a hard game but respect the player's time and real life by using quicksave or extremely frequent checkpoints. Look at Super Meat Boy and VVVVVV, arguably the two most successful indie platformers: insanely hard, but no death penalty at all in time or game mechanics. Emulate that.

Maria Jayne
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Defining challenge is quite an Enigma, regardless of what game forum you go to, somebody there will tell you the game is too easy. Presumably these people are either significantly above the difficulty curve or they expect lower levels of difficulty to cater to their requirements.

My instinct would be to ask why they couldn't make the game harder for themselves, there are countless ways you can voluntarily handicap your ability to succeed, you don't have to maximize for success and then complain you succeed.

Then I wonder...just what sort of difficulty do these people actually want? would they be happy if the game was too hard for them? It would be a trivial thing to design AI to cheat and exploit enough to dominate the player constantly. It is rare AI plays by player rules so all that will do is make it feel more and more unfair. Is that what they want?

What is frustrating and annoying for one person can be trivial and boring for another, while I personally consider easy often too easy, there are occasionally exceptions where my lack of ability or understanding can make the game harder for me even on "normal" For example in Dawn of War 2 I found normal AI skirmish quite difficult because I am not good at micromanagement, so I often chose Easy, however that was too easy and left me feeling like I couldn't enjoy either difficulty setting.

Nathan Mates
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Different players play for different reasons -- see the player archetypes posts here and elsewhere. Some people see tough-as-nails as fun. Others want to explore, be entertained, or the like. The explorers are not merely defective challenge-seekers. The explorers aren't threatened by extremely tough games; they usually read reviews and say "not for me, I'll play something else." Quietly. But the challenge-seekers are much more vocal when a game/genre doesn't live up to their standards.