I’m the kind of guy who sets the difficulty immediately to the highest option when starting a new game; I feel it enhances the experience through challenge. However, in my experience this not a perception commonly held by the majority of gamers. This is not an article denouncing easier or ‘casual’ games. Rather a discussion about the perception of difficulty in modern gaming & the drive by developers for a broader audience. My brother and I released our first game Obsessive Collecting Disorder last July on XBLIG then in January of this year on Windows Phone. OCD is a punisher in the same vain as Super Meat Boy, N+, Manic Miner & Super Mario Bros but the intention wasn’t to make a ‘difficult’ game. We simply worked within our limited skill set at the time & made our first game which developed into what is OCD.
We’re both in our thirties and have played games since the ZX Spectrum & NES era. Games of that era such as Chuckie Egg, Jet Set Willy & Ghosts N’ Goblins were all very difficult yet have what would be considered by younger gamers today a ‘casual’ aesthetic. As a kid growing up with some of the first home computers & consoles, most games I played had a steep difficulty curve & maintained the arcade based one more quarter style of gameplay. The difficulty inherent in early arcade machines like Donkey Kong & Pac Man was to ensure maximum monetary gain against limited playtime.
This became instilled in home games of the 80’s so the challenge provided even as a kid was fairly ‘hardcore’. As 3D graphics & a more filmic approach to game design in terms of narrative & visuals pervaded the industry much of that pure difficult gameplay was in some respects muted. That’s not to say there weren’t difficult games but as the market became broader developers wanted to expand their audience beyond bedroom geeks & so accessibility became a prerogative.
Most indie devs will consider their potential audience during development but that doesn’t mean like larger studios we have to provide all out accessibility. Instead Indies find a smaller audience, albeit sometimes quite large but not the 5-10 million required to justify a triple A release produced by a team of over a thousand. That’s why the platformer genre has flourished in the indie scene; Super Meat Boy showed that just because a game is exceptionally difficult in the current market it won’t do damn well.
A game like Dead Space is all about pleasurable tension conveyed via narrative, level design, lighting, sound & the Necromorph model designs & animation. But if the game is played on a low difficulty there is no real sense of player vulnerability and danger, a key convention of the survival horror genre. The open adaptive confrontations in a Halo game felt more fun to me when the enemy A.I. was putting pressure on me. On an easy difficultly level the enemies provide little challenge and simply act as bullet sponges between the inevitable cut scenes. Where’s the fun in that?
The notion of attracting the ‘casual’ gamer is one that has permeated ease of use & accessibility in big budget games. Deus Ex: Human Revolution has a ‘Tell Me a Story’ difficulty so a player can experience the narrative without the challenge of playing a stealth FPS. In this mode does Human Evolution become less of game? Yes I think it does but it also allows access to the cinematic narrative for not overly gaming types. It is a stealth FPS though so does that ‘Tell Me a Story’ audience the developers are attempting to reach even exist for the game genre?
Back to Obsessive Collecting Disorder; the critical reception has been good with scoring sites giving us a 7 or 8 out of 10 & one common opinion is that it has a decent difficulty curve. However, response from gamers has been mixed with a ‘marmite’ effect; some players grasp the sense of challenge, repetition for reward & increasing difficulty. Whilst others will try a level a few times without success and give up very quickly. Playtesting is very different for Indies compared to big studios; some indie devs will be the only person to test their game. This can have a detrimental effect on balancing difficulty as you’re playing it every day and becoming rather good at your own game.
As a first time game developer I’m hardly an authority on correctly balancing game difficulty but as a gamer I hope I understand how the flow of challenge in a game should generally work. We took feedback from peer review that said our game was too difficult with 3 lives per stage so we designed a mode with infinite lives. For the phone version we knew tilt controls would not be as accurate as a pad so we redesigned almost every level & changed those that didn’t work.
The generational difference between gamers from the 80’s & today is a factor in the perception of difficulty. As the triple A industry pushes for a broader audience so too will their necessity for inclusive & accessible design. That’s fine but even kids need to feel challenged and to overcome problems without always being held by the hand. Now and then a game crops up like Dark Souls or XCom: Enemy Unknown that are eulogised over their difficulty, as they should be, and I hope this tradition continues. Particularly in the indie space, not impossible or unfair games but those that challenge our ability to react & problem solve.
I teach 16+ year olds game design and have a handle on some of their gaming trends, at least in that part of the UK & in the context of a game design course. Last year I Wanna Be The Guy was a student favourite and it’s difficultly lies in the trial & error nature of its deceivingly tricky gameplay. I’ve also shown classes The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and now some of them are attempting to get their own Donkey Kong high scores. If approached correctly in terms of design, difficultly should be progressive, challenging, and also rewarding but never unfair. Right then its back to getting my ass handed to me in Dark Souls. It’s so worth it.