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Accessibility & the Folly of Exclusivism
by Tom Battey on 04/23/13 06:51:00 am   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.

 

Lara Croft is parachuting again. She whips in an ungainly fashion from side to side, bouncing off a few spiky twigs with noises of urgent discontent, before slamming full-force into a tree and impaling herself on a large branch. She gurgles brokenly and dies. This isn't the first time this has happened.

It's something like the sixteenth. I splutter angrily and set the controller down. I know this bit isn't supposed to be difficult. It's supposed to be exciting. Someone on the Tomb Raiderdevelopment team came up with the idea that rather than simply transition from one area to the next in a cutscene, it would much cooler if the player were to guide Lara, parachute-bound, through a gauntlet of deadly trees.

It's not cool. It's exasperating. The player suddenly has these brand new 'parachute controls' foisted on them, with no indication of what these new controls actually are. You're given about three seconds to try to work out how to steer before Lara is hurled brutally into an instant-death tree.

You fall back on videogame logic. Left stick steers. OK. But is it inverted on the horizontal axis or not? Wham. Dead. Okay. Right stick does the camera. But is that also controlling the direction she faces, or…? Wham. Dead. God. Right. I think I can steer her now. Am I supposed to aim over there, or…? Wham. Dead.

I almost stopped playing Tomb Raider at this point. What made me persevere was, again, videogame logic. This section is only a small set piece, like in so many games these days, a brief if pointless diversion before I can get back to the real gameplay. The gameplay where I understand the rules and the controls.

So I persevered. I kept playing. But it was touch and go for a moment there. Had I not been so versed in what to expect from videogames, Tome Raider would've been irreversibly shelved. It's not like I don't have other things to do with my free time, after all.

It occurred to me that this is what every game must feel like for people who are new to games, those who aren't versed in their inscrutable logic. You're given all these sticks and buttons and a brief, impenetrable set of instructions (left stick moves the guy; right stick controls where he's looking, and also the gun; right trigger - that's the squeezy one at the back - shoots the baddies, but only if you hold the left trigger first) then you're hurled into this unfamiliar world full of things that hate you.

A few minutes later something probably kills you. You didn't shoot it fast enough. That's the left trigger then the right one, remember? And you have to line your shots up with the right stick first. And press X to cover. That's the blue one. Look, it's not that hard, you'll get used to it. You're just going to have to keep repeating this section until you can do it without dying. Then you get to be killed on the next section. Won't that be great?

Is it any wonder that great swathes of people would rather play Farmville than Tomb Raider?

Daniel Starkey recently wrote a piece that called for a simple addition to Bioshock Infinite; a mode where it's impossible for the player to die. He was, perhaps predictably, excoriated by hundreds and hundreds of passionate game fans, arguing that such an addition would be a travesty, would somehow compromise the perceived sanctity of Infinite, of it's authors' 'vision'.

In what kind of narrow-minded world does that make sense? It's worth pointing out that Starkey isn't calling for any change to Infinite's existing modes. The hardcore gamer-types could completely ignore this proposed super-easy mode, and play the exact same game they already enjoy.

On the other side of the coin, new players who might be intrigued by Bioshock's premise but unfamiliar with the arcane mechanics of the First Person Shooter could both learn those mechanics and experience the other wonderful, non-combat-focused elements of that game without the frustration of repeated death.

There's a vocal subset of the gaming population that hate this idea. Hate it enough to fill the comments section of Starkey's article with many-hundred-word justifications of why such an inclusion would somehow ruin the entire of videogames. Why?

The pervading opinion seems to be that opening games up for a wider audience would somehow compromise what we love about games - that somehow more people being able to enjoy these experiences would lead to a loss of depth or complexity.

I call bullshit.

I think about Bayonetta. I think about Bayonetta a lot, because in my personal sphere of gaming it is one of the Best Games Ever. In this instance, though, I think of Bayonetta because it is at once one of the most challenging modern games around, and one of the most forgiving.

Bayonetta is a game of exquisite depth and complexity, and on its hardest mode (the brilliantly named Non Stop Infinite Climax) it presents the kind of challenge few modern games do, a brutal gauntlet that's impenetrable to any but the most skilled and patient.

Yet Bayonetta's easiest mode provides an 'automatic' option that fundamentally changes how the game controls to make it accessible to those with no experience of action games at all. It takes a lot of the more complex controls out of the hands of the player, placing them automatically in positions to make the most effective attacks, and compresses the game's elegant combo systems into a few simple button presses.

It allows players unfamiliar with the game's systems to progress through the game without difficulty, while at the same time teaching them the skills required to play on the higher difficulties.

If Bayonetta can exist across the full spectrum of possible difficulty, from easily accessible to punishingly difficult, why shouldn't Bioshock? Why shouldn't all games?

I think back to why I even ended up playing Bayonetta in the first place. Why I even wanted to pick it up.

I didn't get a PS2 until a couple of years after it came out - my parents quite rightly didn't see the point of shelling out £300 on a new Playstation when I had a perfectly functional old one already - so there was already a wide library of games for me to choose from when I eventually did receive the console.

One of the first games I picked up was the original Devil May Cry. Prior to DMC, the games I played tended to be pretty light on action - mainly 3D platformers like Spyro the Dragon, loose action/horror/stealth games like Metal Gear Solid or Resident Evil, and Final Fantasy-style RPGs.

I picked up Devil May Cry because it kind of looked like Final Fantasy, except with all those bits where your guys stand on a grid and trade blows replaced with actual, real-time slicy combat. To my thirteen-year-old self, this was a magnetically cool prospect.

So I started to play, and hell, it was cool. I was kicking guys up in the air and then hovering there just by shooting my guns. A whole sword went through Dante's chest, and he just pulls it out and then starts hitting things with it. Spyro the Dragon this was not.

Pretty soon I ran into Phantom, the now-iconic giant spider demon that represents the game's first real challenge. And he flattened me. Repeatedly. I couldn't even make a dent in his health bar - I simply didn't have anything like the reflexes or control mastery required to even stay alive for more than a minute, let alone actually beat the bastard.

After several deaths in embarrassingly quick succession, the game asked me if I'd like to switch to Easy Automatic mode. And though it felt like admitting defeat, I hit 'yes', because I loved this game and I wanted to keep playing, even though I wasn't 'good' enough to beat it on 'normal' mode.

Eventually I would beat Devil May Cry on normal mode. Eventually I would beat Bayonetta on Non Stop Infinite Climax mode. But if the designers of the original DMC hadn't had the presence of mind to acknowledge how difficult their game was, and the generosity to include a mode that circumvented that difficulty, there's a chance that I'd have stopped playing before I'd really started, and written off these hardcore action games as something that just wasn't for me. And I'd have missed out on many of my future favourite gaming experiences as a result.

There's a subset of the gaming audience who would argue that DMC shouldn't have an Easy Automatic mode, who would say that I should have 'earned' the 'right' to beat the game through sheer force of will.

To these people I say screw you. This idea of gaming as an elitist club with a high bar to entry is toxic to the entire industry. Because most people don't want to have to 'prove themselves' in order to enjoy a piece of entertainment. And they don't have to; there are plenty of 'casual' and 'social' games waiting on all manner of platforms to take their custom instead.

And as greater numbers of people drift towards these small games, these games that go out of their way to make themselves accessible to all, so too do the eyes and wallets of games publishers turn towards Facebook, towards mobile, towards Kinect.

And is that what we want - we, people who have grown up playing and loving games and still play and love games today? It's certainly not what I want. We know there's value to these games we play, a value somehow bigger, deeper than what these 'casual' experiences offer - why else do we keep playing them? But if we can't effectively communicate this value to people who don't already innately understand it, those who aren't versed in the arcane logic of games, then what's that value worth, actually?

How long will the people with the Big Money keep serving a static, inward-looking audience of gamers, when part of that audience - and a good deal of developers, too - seem bent on denying this audience a chance to expand?

I'm not asking for a seismic change in how we develop games. I'm not asking anyone to sacrifice depth, or complexity, or immersion, just for the sake of expanding the audience. I don't want to turn games into films, I don't want to dumb anything down, I don't want to spoil anybody's fun.

I'm just asking that developers think about what they're making not in terms of ingrained 'game logic', but in terms of real-life people logic. To think about how and why a game is challenging, rather than creating challenge for challenge's sake. It would take about 5 minutes to add a 'God Mode' to Bioshock Infinite; that involves changing a single variable and making exactly one new asset that says 'Beginner Mode' or something to that effect.

And if even one more person gets to enjoy Infinite as a result of this theoretical new mode, if there's even one new gamer who might otherwise have been turned off by the game's difficulty, one gamer who might move on to play other games, to invest time in gaming as a hobby and as a community, isn't that a net win for gamers and for the games industry as a whole?

There are people out there who no doubt have a hundred different reasons why this is somehow a terrible idea, one that somehow compromises everything that games 'stand for'. But if meaningless exclusivism is what games 'stand for', then count me out. These people are welcome to their precious little club - and they'd best enjoy it while it lasts.


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Comments


Nathan Mates
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Thank you for reminding people that there are multiple archetypes & skills of players out there. Not everyone is part of the hardcore movement that worships Dark Souls and other crazy-hard games, despite some blog posts on this site. The monthly NPD reports tend to agree that such games do not dominate what actually sells. It's good to have options for things to increase or reduce difficulty as desired.

Tom Battey
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Hey, don't get me wrong, I love Dark Souls, but I also understand that a healthy games market caters for more than me and things that I like.

Plus, I'd like for more people to enjoy Dark Souls and its ilk the way I do, which won't happen unless the industry extends a hand towards new players.

Roberta Davies
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Hear, hear!

My "Tomb Raider moment" came in the '80s with Elite. Elite opens with you docking your ship at the space station. This is the first action you take in the game, and a basic action you'll be repeating hundreds, maybe thousands, of times during the game. WHY IS IT SO FREAKING HARD?

I NEVER managed to dock at the space station. Which means I never got so much as a sniff of the game itself. This is bad design.

A very similar game, Federation of Free Traders, automated the docking process. Come close enough to the station, press "dock", and your ship computers coordinate with the station computers to bring you in. Which, when you think of it, is more realistic as well -- given an interplanetary civilisation where ships fly in and out of space stations all the time, of course the process would be automated. It would be made as simple and safe as possible.

Elite and FOFT are both based around travel, exploration, and trade. They're not primarily flight simulators. They shouldn't require flight-sim expertise to play. Elite got it wrong; FOFT got it right. FOFT is the game I kept coming back to for years.

gard skinner
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A+, but the "moment" can happen anywhere. I bet it happens at the first moment of INVENTORY CONTROL for a huge number of gamers.

Even if you love loot games or RPGs or anything where you need to manage your assets, sometimes you get to an interface that just makes you think WTF? What is that and why is it there and how do I and what happened to my _____?

Wylie Garvin
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Several years after it first came out, I picked up a copy of KOTOR (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic). I knew it was popular and well-reviewed, so I gave it a try.

Well, the game starts in a little room, and for me the game ended there too. I tried for about 10-15 minutes but _I couldn't figure out how to open the door to get out of the very first room I started in_. I thought "oh well" and moved on to other, more accessible fare.

Even ICO, a game I adore and have played through multiple times, nearly lost me at the beginning. You have to discover, sort of by accident, that Yorda can open doors for you. Well I somehow didn't wander close enough to the "door" (which was not obviously recognizable as such; remember I had never played the game) for her to accidentally activate it. Instead, I spent 20 minutes methodically searching every inch all of the accessible areas at the beginning of the game, TWICE, trying to figure out how to proceed. Then, fuming and ashamed, I spent 2 minutes on the Internet hunting for a walkthrough and skimming it to try and figure out what I was missing.

Accessibility isn't just for "newbies", its for EVERYONE ! =)

Stephen Mangold
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This idea of gaming as an elitist club with a high bar to entry is toxic to the entire industry.

< I hate this. I hear this bitching about easy mode. For the last 2 to 3 years, I have played every game on easy. I have kids and I'm doing a Game Design college degree. I can dedicate maybe 10 hours a week to video games. i don't have time to really go through it on a difficulty setting. I mainly play through these games for the story. It being more difficult won't change it for me. Dishonored was too difficult for me so I missed out on the experience. Not everyone can spend hours upon hours playing games. Some of us have other more important responsabilities. Making an easy mode doesnt ruin the experience at all and I have no respect for any person who is trying to ruin the experience for someone else(and it doesnt affect their own experience). I love easy modes, I can relax and just play through the story.

Tom Battey
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It's worth pointing out that challenge isn't the sole purpose of a videogame - nor is it synonymous with interactivity. Games can be interactive without being challenging. My favourite parts of Bioshock Infinite, for example, are the small moments where you explore or just toy with the environment, or interact with Elizabeth.

These are still interactive moments, and wouldn't work in the context of a film, but they're completely removed from the game's challenge, which exists entirely in its shootouts. It's not that I didn't enjoy the shootouts, either, just that they are not the sole worthwhile feature of that game.

Wylie Garvin
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@Brion Foulke:

"Are you the type of person who doesn't actually like "games," and but somehow values interactive storytelling? If that's the case, then what is your ideal sort of game? Something like The Walking Dead where the only "gameplay" is making decisions?"

Don't forget that there's also people who _like_ games, but just aren't very good at them!

Maybe their reflexes, their hand-eye coordination, are not so good. Maybe they don't have the right instincts that "hardcore" gamers have evolved for making split-second decisions that maximize their chance of survival in a firefight. Adjustable difficulty settings are a good thing because the player can calibrate the experience to their own skill level.

Yes, some players won't bother (unless they are completely stuck), so thats why its up to designers to choose sensible defaults, and maybe also to provide automatic/invisible "pain-easing" features. Example: having NPCs provide more explicit hints through dialogue, if you haven't solved a puzzle in the first minute or two. Having other enemy creatures attack and weaken the group of enemies that the player is struggling to get past. Influencing the "random" combat factors (how often grenades are thrown, how good the enemies' aim is, how long they stay exposed when they stand up to shoot at the player, etc.) a little bit in the player's favor, if they have died a couple times already at that spot. And so on. Playtesting can help reveal most of the places where players are likely to get stuck.

Stephen Mangold
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I love the walking dead game. I still get a challenge out of the game. With games likeDead Space or Bioshoc. I can experience the game without too much difficulty wihilst enjoying the atmosphere/enviroments. I'm terrible at video games(except FIFA) and given the time, I'd love to dedicate more you better. But sometimes I have to make the decision to just go through the story without much struggle. Watching a Youtube clip doesnt have the same effect as playing a game on easy. As mentioned, exploring Rapture, Columbia or the Ishamura by yourself is an experience you have to do. Watching it doesnt have the same effect. I'm experincing the gameplay and the story and the atmosphere, just without having to die a million times. I'm sure I would get enjoyment of beating something on hard. It's just not a priority with the number of video games out right now.

Arseniy Shved
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@Brion

Watching a playthrough != watching your friend play in the same room != playing on god mode.
Most people (and animals) prefer to work for rewards instead of receiving in for free (http://www.forbes.com/fdc/welcome_mjx.shtml). So, despite the fact I have not played games on easy for a long time I can understand why someone prefers it to watching games on youtube.
Moreover, youtube completely deletes the interactive element and puts the decision making into someone else's hands.
For example I've peassed Bioshok: Infinite on hard. Yeh, I've died a lot, but every viktory felt good. Now I want to play it again - for the sake of exploration and story. I do not want to spend another week in the fights - I just want to check every single corner and find all the story hints.

Also, one can easily be bad at someone he likes. Hell, to become good at something a lot of practice is required. For examle in addition to games I like Muay Thai, Japanese language and playing guitar. But to become good at any of these I need to spend really lots of time practicing (10 hours every day for 4-5 years to become really good at japanese - according to my teachers in the university).

@Tom the topic starter
Totally agree that if an ultra easy game mode is present it does not mean that all other difficulty levels somehow get erased form the game. Most people, I presume, anyways alweys pick relatively similar presets.

In addition to this. Some time ago I stumbled on a principle, which goes like this "design your games to be played on easy presets. If you can make it fun - you have a good game. It is really easy to make an interesting easy game harder and to maintain the interest level. It's much harder to make a difficult game fun on easy presets."

Tom Battey
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"design your games to be played on easy presets. If you can make it fun - you have a good game. It is really easy to make an interesting easy game harder and to maintain the interest level. It's much harder to make a difficult game fun on easy presets."

I really like this principle. It deals quite nicely with the argument that 'Easy Modes take away from the experience the developer intended,' which is quite often true, but only true of badly-designed Easy Modes.

Outside of that, we're getting into the 'what even is a videogame?' argument, which is a big ol' separate topic that I'm not up for tackling here.

The way I see it, the word 'game' in videogame does indeed imply challenge and competition, but the term 'videogame' has come to mean so much more, and can cover everything from Dear Esther to The Walking Dead to Call of Duty to Angry Birds. I understand why some people thing that 'videogame' is an unsatisfactory term for ALL these games, but it's what we have to work with right now, and it's unlikely that any attempts to rename things as 'interactive entertainment' will stick.

When I say 'videogame', I mean a piece of entertainment which is interactive. Some of these pieces of entertainment are focused on challenge. Some of them are not. All of them, as far as I'm concerned, are videogames, and equally valid.

Jonathan Gersam Lopez
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(On Difficulty)
There are badly designed games with redeeming qualities. 'Bad' elements may include anything from difficulty curve, art, music, 'feel', plot holes, etc.

If the dev allows players to 'not participate' in an element of a game (inferior or otherwise), I think it's perfectly respectable. Critics often cite difficulty curves and spikes in a review. And patching difficulty spikes are something that studios do anyway, so it just shows that devs change their mind too.

F2P In-app purchases tread similar waters (to grind in-game, or to grind in your day job for the cash?). Bonus elements (Challenge Modes, Minigames, Time Trials) are similar optional choices to take or to leave.

(Stop Gaming, Start Watching)
Also, the logic of 'if I wanted to watch a game, I'd rather watch a movie' - If the recent Final Fantasies had a movie, I would. If DMC had a movie, I'd still rather play the game. Power fantasies and Stealth are themes that are often conveyed superior as interactive mediums.

I didn't have all consoles I wanted growing up (particularly the Nintendos), so some classics I just never got to experience (Marios, Zeldas and Eternal Darkness spring to mind).

There are times the games/stories/movies/art I want to follow just aren't available in the format I have, or I'm interested in.

Dominick Sileo
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It's also worth noting that people learn in different ways and paces - I think this goes along with what you are highlighting in this article. I never really "got" the Nintendo Super Guide, for example, until I was playing with my 6 year old cousin in Donkey Kong Country Returns. The first time we played he always wanted to use it and it was frustrating to me at first because I thought that he wasn't going to learn how to overcome the obstacles that way. When I was his age I would die again and again until I got it, so that has to be the only way, right? But I played the game with him again about a week later and he was completely confident in those previously difficult obstacles and was leading ME where to go! This kind of changed my perspective about the Super Guide.

I think adding an easier mode to games is not a problem, especially given the perspective of your argument. However, I think a lot of hardcore gamers tend to take up arms because sometimes a harder mode is sacrificed for something easier. So, despite the fact that the easier mode for Bioshock Infinite would have been completely separate, I think people have a tendency to tune out details when they see red like that. Personally, I love hard games and it is really disappointing when developers do this. It really sucks the fun out of games for me, which is why I agree that having scaled modes of difficulty is a good solution. Having an option of difficulty is fundamental, I think, and it really shows when it is not there.

Andreas Ahlborn
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While most of your points are valid and I -generally- favor the "let every player choose his own approach how he wants to experience the game", the devil lies in the details.

There are imo opinion (at least) three different approaches to difficulty:

1.the most common is the "lets turn the numbers wheel "-difficulty (Enemys do more damage, have more health while the player has less etc.), I would call this the "quantitative " difficulty approach, simple math. There is no arguing in giving the players multiple choices how they want to tweak these numbers because (in most cases it is a simple time commitment choice easy mode:5 hours....hardcore:10 hours).

2. Then there is the "learning curve approach" (example of this would be Super Meatboy and most Puzzlers like Portal etc.): the game gets gradually harder with progress. You won`t find a difiiculty setting in most of those, because it makes no sense (the puzzles are especially designed for this level of expertise you gained to the point you mastered the mechanics)

3. Then there is the "core approach", the game being difficult from the get go out of a deliberate design choice (the only games I played of the 3rd kind are Demon Souls and Dark Souls, I´m sure there are others out there, maybe the "Elite" game mentioned here in the comments).
"Core" has nothing to do with "Elitist", it means the gamedesign "depends/shines" becuase of how difficulty/dying/loosing is used in the mechanics to hit a certain note/resonance with its players. Its also a niche approach (so it`s not "toxic" to the industry)

For example, almost everything in DarkSouls (Music, Sound, Story, Voice acting, so-calledProduction Values) is not in the same league as other Fantasy RPGs (Witcher, skyrim etc.) it practically has only its combat/creature design that let it stand out among its competitors. Bottomline: if you take away its difficulty and give the player the choice to use quicktime events instead, the game praactically ceases to exist. The world only functions with this constantly "high gravity" otherwise it would fall apart and be a more than poor experience, ridiculous even.

I haven' t played Bayonetta, that you use as a paradigm that every game must be a jack-of-all-trades, but I doubt that this template can be blindly applied to every game.

Tom Battey
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I agree - most modern games equate a 'difficulty curve' with starting with only small gunfights, and ramping up to ALL THE GUNFIGHTS. They rarely put adequate effort into teaching you how to win a gunfight - knowledge of these mechanics are left to implied knowledge of how games work.

Super Meat Boy is an undeniably difficult game, but it's also one that I imagine almost anyone can play. It explains each one of its central mechanics in detail, then rapidly steps up the challenge from there. Quite how you'd manage this with a modern game that assumes knowledge of things like dual-analogue control I don't know, but not trying at all isn't acceptable.

Bernardo Lazo
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Tutorials, tutorials, tutorials. Vast majority of people is capable of performing very difficult tasks (in and beyond games) with knowledge, practice and patience.

I venture to say that 90% of the games that people drops on difficulty grounds are NOT because they are DIFFICULT per se, but because POORLY DESIGNED TUTORIALS.

Example, in a game dubbed casual such as Plants vs Zombies, try to win as a first time player on the survival modes, and you will get frustrated and beaten for sure. The game is not really casual: 49 different weapons -plants- and around 30 different enemies all with different abilities. Why does it seems easy to play enough to be considered casual? because its creators did an exemplary job at teaching the gamer the mechanics. The adventure mode can be viewed as a huge tutorial for the other modes. So, it is not really about difficulty, it is about communicating the mechanics.

William Pitts
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That's why I can't play any platform games, because they don't have a level up the skill that you are bad at feature (I am a crappy jumper). Maybe that's why I stick mostly to RPGs, because even if you get beat up enough you can get to a new level and maybe start getting rid of those rats.

Alex Boccia
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I think Tomb Raider really could have really benefited from being more difficult. That being said, I had a great time playing it and I look forward to playing through it again. It was dumb, though, none of the game was challenging at all besides the adjustable combat difficulty. Although enjoyable and cool, many of the puzzles did not progress past elementary. I hope this doesn't continue to be the future trend for games because it really is disheartening. Games really do have generally weak stories, so sub-par gameplay experience (i.e. difficulty) really is kind of a dealabreaker for me and a lot of other players out there.

Wylie Garvin
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I could totally relate to Tom Battey's anecdote about the parachute controls and dying over and over.

Anybody here play all the way through God of War 1 on the hardest difficulty setting ?

Remember that part near the end of the game where you had to walk across a bunch of annoying balance beams without falling ? I remember being stuck there for ages. I figured they probably didn't have time to playtest that section near the end of the game, because it was absolutely terrible. Finnicky balance controls, bad feedback, and it was the first time since the _first level_ of the game that the balancing skill came into play. I think I tumbled to my death at least 30 times before I finally got past that section and finished the game (and swore never to play that level again).

To add insult to injury, every few deaths it would prompt me to ask if I wanted to switch down to Easy mode, even though my death was caused by crappy design and bad controls. The difficulty setting affected combat difficulty only (damage taken/received) and switching to Easy would not have made the stupid balance beam section any easier.

Tom Battey
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Indeed. There's a big difference between designed difficulty (ala Dark Souls, where the difficulty is carefully designed around and is integral to every aspect of the game) what I'll call 'artificial difficulty' (Tomb Raider and basically every third person shooter, where halfway through the game all the enemies start to take TWO headshots to kill, because damn, guys, we have to make this get harder somehow. Also Hard Mode in almost every game) and 'accidental' difficulty through poor design (that God of War example and arguably that goddamn parachuting bit in Tomb Raider.)

Designed difficulty works because it presents a designed challenge to the player, something they can learn to overcome and thus feel rewarded. Artificial difficulty sucks because it just makes you to do the same thing again and again until you either win or give up. And 'accidental' difficulty just means you've essentially built your game wrong.

Wylie Garvin
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I would suggest the term "accidental difficulty".

Alfa Etizado
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It is what I commented on another article long ago. Give players more control over the game. Let them go to town, throw in a cheat mode, action skip, whatever. Open the game up completely. In the end it is the player's choice.

Alfa Etizado
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They'll have the option to do whatever they want or follow the pre packaged path. If they manage to have more fun their way more power to them.

Wylie Garvin
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@Alfa Etizado:

I used to play Diablo 2 single-player, but using the console command that increased the difficulty to the same factor as you would have in an 8-player network game. It suited my slow-and-thorough style of progressing through the maps (completely exploring each one etc), without that I had always out-leveled the area I was in. It made it slightly more challenging and significantly more fun. As a bonus, I could temporarily lower it if I got stuck on Duriel at the end of Act 2.

In Skyrim I used to take advantage of the adjustable difficulty to make levelling certain skills easier. I found it most fun to play the game with the slider set about half-way between normal and the hardest setting, but it was fun to play on the hardest too (2.0x damage taken, 0.5x damage dished out). But levelling some skills was much easier if you set it to the easiest difficulty level. And running through high-level dungeons to complete a specific quest or find a specific item was obviously much much easier at the easiest difficulty level.

Alfa Etizado
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I think the player can be trusted Brion. We know that because games with cheat codes and console commands have no problems. Take Wylie's statement there, and mine too. Console commands allowed me fixing bugs, changing the game to give it new life, etc.

John Flush
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You're forgetting that cheat mode is a DLC unlock these days...

Tom Battey
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I agree on both accounts here; I think the player should be given as much freedom to experience a game how they like, WITHOUT this jeopardising the core systemic experience of the game.

Wylie makes a good point - some players might actually want to customise the difficulty to make it harder in some aspects, but easier in others. Customisable difficulty is great - especially in a game where the different difficulty modes are really just variables adjusted on sliders anyway (more damage, less defence, etc).

However, it is the designer's responsibility to make sure their vision is delivered as intended, regardless of what the player chooses to do with their difficulty settings.

Harry Debelius
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I agree that allowing more people into games is a benefit to the industry as a whole, but difficulty can greatly influence your opinion on how good a game is. Bayonetta, as you point out, has a very good approach to difficulty allowing any player to instantly join in the spectacularity of the game. However, Playing this game on auto-easy makes it lose one of the best element in the game: gameplay and tight controls. I remember when I first played DMC's auto-easy mode and switched it off immediately because I never felt in control.
I understand Stephen's point of view above. Some people play games for the story, while others like me expect much more regardless of the growing time constraints we face as we get older. I think having an easy mode is not a bad thing per se, but some games rely so heavily on their mechanics that inputting an easy mode makes the experience more forgettable, more diluted.
Vanquish had that problem. Playing the game in easy allows it to play like any other 3rd person shooter, losing its' unique points as players don't feel the need to do any sliding or weapon switching. In easy mode it actually makes those mechanics less effective unlike the other modes where it is absolutely critical.
My point is that easy is good if it brings more players to the fray and it can appeal to more people, but it can seriously change a person's point of view about a game in question, and when those people include proffessionals it can hinder the sales of any game. I don't think it's solely about the challenge, some games are not meant to be played in easy, although having the option there is good.

Tom Battey
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I can see how this might be an issue from a designer's perspective - how to actually maintain the balance and flow of a game whilst nerfing its mechanics to an accessible level. After all, I didn't actually PLAY Bayonetta on Easy Auto - I probably wouldn't have liked it as much if I had.

But what we want out of games isn't necessarily what everyone wants out of games. You and I might appreciate Vanquish's mechanics, but someone else might not actually care that much. They might like the story (okay, it's Vanquish, but bear with me) or the spectacle, or just enjoy dominating robots.

And if the game accommodates this, these people might keep playing, and realise that hey, these mechanics are good after all!

Jonathan Gersam Lopez
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Just to share another game into the discussion mix: Mass Effect 3, at the onset, asks players to choose one of 3 modes

1) Action Mode - automatic conversation replies, normal combat difficulty.
2) Story Mode - manual conversation replies, minimal combat difficulty.
3) RPG Mode - manual conversation replies, normal combat difficulty (typical Mass Effect experience)

I think this approach Bioware had taken is fair and works if you start the game honest with you expectations.

Lihim Sidhe
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Every game should have an interactive cinema mode -i t's not about the gameplay it's just about making decisions to see how the story progresses. From there something between Easy Automatic and this proposed cinema all the way to something harder than Dante Must Die on crack.

Think like this:

Dragon's Lair>Heavy Rain>Easy Automatic>Easy>Normal>Hard>Very Hard>Dante Must Die>Wow Really?!>As Difficult as the Devs Can Possibly Make

As long as the curve is truly a curve a game can be as easy AND as hard as the devs can possibly muster.

Harold Myles
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I agree with you that the people that say 'a game must NOT have an easy mode' are being idiotic. However, I would also state than anyone saying a game MUST have an easy, automatic mode is being equally idiotic.

From the article headline 'What your audience wants.' There is nothing wrong with targeting a hardcore audience, just as there is nothing wrong with targeting a casual audience. To say video games in general need or must target one, the other, or both, just doesn't make sense unless you are a suit trying to maximize earnings, or a storyteller trying to get his story out to largest audience (should probably pick a different medium for your story if that is the case).

If you made a 'hardcore' game and a bunch of casual gamers also wanted to play, then are the casual gamers your audience? I think not. You see it on game forums all the time, where a portion of players actually want a completely different game than the one that was made. Instead of realizing this is not the game for them, that they were not the intended audience for this gameplay, instead they demand a different game. Many times its because even though the gameplay doesn't suit them they are still drawn to the fiction or IP.

It is not about what your audience wants. It's about what audience do you want.

From the title 'Accessibility & the Folly of Exclusivism', there can only be folly if the designer was trying to make an accessible, inclusive game and failed.

Again, this discussion comes back to what many discussions on this site seem to be about. A large portion of the people who buy and play video games are not gamers. They don't like games. They don't want to be challenged or tested. They don't want to lose.

They want tailored stories, pretty graphics, and social interaction. And there is nothing wrong with that, except it creates some confusion for the 'games' industry when a portion of paying audience doesn't actually want a game.

The solution isn't to make all games accessible to everyone. Just as when you go to the grocery store and you see fifty kinds of spaghetti sauce (not just fifty brands, but fifty different flavors). That wasn't always the case. Those companies used to make one sauce. But that industry figured out a long time ago that they were more successful making fifty niche flavors as opposed to making one perfect sauce.

The worst thing we can do is try to make all games be for everyone. What we will end up with is some bland crappy sauce.

Tom Battey
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You are right. I've written it a few times, but claiming that ALL games should be accessible was silly and it's not something I really mean. Hardcore games designed for hardcore audiences with no designs on a more casual market are just fine the way they are.

I just get annoyed when games come out that are just these big blobs of expensive flashy content hanging off a rigidly upward-shooting difficulty curve because they're trying to appeal to the mass market but still be a 'proper videogame' at the same time. You can't make a product that ALL THE PEOPLE like equally.

I guess what I'd say is that if you want to appeal to an audience that are not hardcore gamers - even if your game is Tomb Raider or Bioshock - then you need to seriously re-adjust your concept of a learning curve. And saying that, targeting a 'hardcore' audience isn't an excuse to be lazy with difficulty design, either. Challenge solely for challenge's sake is hard to justify.

Corey Cole
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Great article. I've been told I should play Bioshock Infinite for the story and interface (research, y'know), but I've been avoiding it. Most action games have jerky frame rates that get me seasick. And my tolerance for frustration has declined over the years. So yeah, I like God Modes. I like being able to experience a story and environment without having to pull out my blaster every few steps. In fact, I'm playing SWTOR pretty much entirely for the story and characters, and it's slightly annoying that I have to keep killing enemies to get to the next "good bit".

Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption will have a "game type" option instead of a difficulty option - The player can decide if they want a full RPG with significant combat, a full adventure game with no combat, or a hybrid game somewhere in-between. When I first posted this, some people posted negative comments, and I couldn't understand why they didn't want a choice. This article makes it clear that we are making the right decision.

Will we get every game mode as perfect as if we only had one? It's tough, but then we made Quest for Glory, we were told it was impossible to make a good game that was both an adventure and an RPG. And we made the design task at least twice as hard by having four playable character classes, each with unique abilities and puzzle solutions. But to us, games are all about player choices. We want players to play the kind of game they want to play.

Tom Battey
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I'd be very interested to play a game that can be played as an adventure game, or a combat-centric game, or both. If you can really pull that off, and make each of those modes feel significant - no one really wants a 'watch all the cutscenes' mode, I'm sure - then that's an impressive design achievement.

I applaud you for even taking such a challenge on. Good luck to you, sir, and I look forward to the results.

Evan Combs
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Brion you seem to be taking the name "video games" way too literally. The truth is we are making interactive entertainment. Sometimes that means we are making a game, sometimes a toy, others a narrative experience, and even simulations. Most often we are creating a mixture of these. Just because they are called games does not mean everyone is looking for the same experience as basketball or a carnival game. Some people are just looking for the experience, instead of a challenge. If you have a video game that is telling a story you probably aren't creating a game either, but an experience. Some people want challenge with that experience, others do not. You obviously want challenge with your experience, and that is all good. That doesn't mean everyone must have challenge with their experience.

People can still enjoy the combat of Halo or Mass Effect while not wanting it to be challenging. Maybe to them it makes the game part of the video game more enjoyable because they are not dieing all the time, and can play through the game at a pace they prefer.

Just because you want to enjoy something a specific way does not mean everyone has to. Since having an even easier mode does not affect your ability to play at extremely hard mode you arguments against it have no weight as all parties can enjoy the video game as they prefer to enjoy video games.

Wylie Garvin
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@Tom Battey:

"I'd be very interested to play a game that can be played as an adventure game, or a combat-centric game, or both."

Here you go: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jWj433uXa-c
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Half-Minute_Hero

(joke, joke!)

Tom Battey
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Ah, Half Minute Hero, that game is awesome. I think I got really far in it, and got a load of extra modes and stuff...I know I stopped playing way before I'd seen everything though. Gret game.

Jonathan Gersam Lopez
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@"seem to be taking the name "video games" way too literally"

(V.G.)
"Video Games" is becoming a charged term, should we treat the words by the book (Dictonary) or by what it is to today?

(A Random Encounter)
Fairly common story: I had a friend once arguing that RPGs should apply to basically everything. Mario's role was a plumber, Raccoon City's denizens were survivors, and Solid Snake's role was a spy. That was high school and I was so frustrated because I wasn't articulate enough to express my point of what defines an RPG.

Today, it would be hard to condense it to a one-sentence description that fits what it actually is. RPGs have a particular style of play / have elements of growth / have typical expected scales of grandiosity in world, setting, character and story / It has history, first coined to label the original tabletop games / It has broad divisions, MMOs, Westerns and Japanese / elements of it, particularly the pace of progression, are usually borrowed and remixed into other genres but still retain the RPG designation / etc…

(V.G.+)
I understand that redefining is much easier than renaming a thing, which is pretty much what I'm asking, but today it is what it is. Growth always treads on a path of least resistance. The generation born in the last 5 years will remember the term Video Games as describing the thing that we have _today_, and a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.

Erin OConnor
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How many of these games have you ever heard of?
How many of these games have you even played?
Which of the games is considered the "most accessible" to new players? (one would be surprised that just because the incredibly accessible and easy to play does not make it any less of a fun and enjoyable.)
Which of these games has no winners or losers? (and yet is still a game...)
Which games can be played alone? (there is more than 1, rules included)
Which of these games was first a board game and then made into a video game?
Which of these games was first a computer game and then made into a board game?
Which of these games has a "difficulty" setting?

Game list:
http://boardgamegeek.com/browse/boardgame

(if your looking for Monopoly its down around the 8000ish mark.)

Tom Battey
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Interesting. While my knowledge of board games is hugely limited, whenever I hear about 'some cool new board game idea' I get the sense that board games are just a lot better at this sort of thing than videogames.

Then again, board games have been around for a LOT longer. I look forward to a time when a similar list for videogames looks so impressively diverse.

Wylie Garvin
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Great article. I've got a good example of a game that took this to heart: Mass Effect 3. Bioware knows that a lot of Mass Effect players were expert console gamers, with 10-20 years of first-person shooter experience etc. so they offered the standard difficulty settings of "Normal", "Hardcore" and "Insanity". But they still included not only an easy mode called "Casual", but also an even easier mode called "Narrative".

"Narrative" difficulty is designed for players who want to experience the story of Mass Effect 3, who want to go around talking to everybody and doing the missions, but don't necessarily have the videogame combat skills to survive the experience at Normal or higher. They describe it as "a nonrepresentative Mass Effect 3 combat experience" -- thats a polite way of saying its almost impossible to die, and you can kill just about anything if you manage to hit it a few times.

I like moderately hard games myself, and when I like a game a lot I often play it all the way through on the hardest difficulty. But I have massive respect for Bioware for including these "easy" settings that hardcore fans would scoff at, so that a wider potential audience would be able to play through the game and enjoy the experience. (Also you can pause and adjust the difficulty at any time, so players stuck on a tough boss fight can temporarily lower it, and newbie players who start to find "Narrative" too easy can increase the challenge level themselves, when they feel comfortable doing so).

This is basic accessibility stuff that every game ought to support, unless there is a clear reason not to do so (e.g. Dark Souls).

[edit: I forgot that the Mass Effect games have always included an "auto level-up" option for players who don't care about the RPG skill-leveling side of things. And an "auto use powers" option for the computer-controlled squadmates, for players who prefer action and don't want to pause all the time to tell their squadmates what power to use. etc.]

Tom Battey
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I'll admit that I initially went 'wuh?' when Mass Effect 3 presented me with three whole separate options for playing the game. At the time I wondered why they didn't just build one cohesive game. It seemed they were uncertain what the appeal of Mass Effect actually was.

With Mass Effect a way behind me now, I see that Mass Effect could be different things to different people. In actuality, its lot of bits of narrative spaced at intervals down a long corridor of gunfights. Some people just want to get to the next bit of story. I'm sure some people wish all the characters would just shut up so they can get to the next shootout.

Allowing both extremes of gamer space to experience the game the way they like is both generous and inspired. If it actually worked, of course - I never actually played the Narrative mode - but it's a good idea of what more developers should be considering when designing games with a strong narrative focus.

Justin Speer
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Speaking to easy-automatic mode, I think that it's a wonderful gesture for a game to purposefully create an opportunity for inexperienced players to enjoy the game and potentially get better at it, but I don't think it's fair to expect it from every game. "Easy to difficult, hard to master" might be the Holy Grail for games, but certainly it's not something that every game can attain... and surely there are other quests worth pursuing. I think it's perfectly okay to say "I wish this game had an easy mode," but I don't think it should be an obligation for every creator.

If you're having trouble extracting meaning from a particular piece of media, you can either keep trying to penetrate it, or make the call that you're expending effort disproportionate to the potential value. This is a subjective call, and if you're not enjoying something you don't need to keep torturing yourself. If you're simply looking for entertainment, you can just pick up something else that feels more comfortable but still stimulates you in some way. If you want to improve your comprehension, keep trying, maybe take a break, or consume more of that type of media to further your understanding.

Eventually you might find that one game that made the difference... maybe it's a patient and gentle instructor that offers endless encouragement (Easy Automatic Mode), maybe it's a harsh disciplinarian that inspires you to rise to a steep challenge (Dark Souls). Maybe you have a series of various types of teachers and simply learn as you go.




Tom Battey
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You are right; my 'why can't ALL games do this!?' was written in an overblown moment of self-righteousness, and isn't something I really mean. Everyone mentions Dark Souls, and I'd deliver a falcon punch to the face of anyone who seriously suggested putting an Easy Mode in Dark Souls. Some games are just meant to be difficult, and are happy to occupy this hardcore niche.

My frustration is with the mainstream games that seem to stretch desperately away from the hardcore in search of the widest possible audience - I'm talking Dead Space 3 with its adoption of free-to-play elements and cover shooting, and Tomb Raider with its jettisoning of exploration and puzzling in favour of the action set piece and, yes, cover shooting. Even Bioshock Infinite, which tries so hard to elevate itself above the average shooter but still falls back on 'protect the thing from swarms of baddies until a thing has been achieved' as a way to inject challenge.

These games try to reach out to an audience outside the established gaming sphere, but are so blinded by the apparent necessity of a difficulty curve that they're actively turning new players away. These games would benefit from the shooter-equivalent of an 'Easy Auto' mode.

Dark Souls? Dark Souls knows its audience, and it's done just wonderfully as a result. Dark Souls can stay just the way it is.

John Flush
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If every game had a super easy mode I think my kids would finish more games. I have watched my middle child go from barely able to play to unlocking everything in multiple games now. It was an interesting transition as he had to play games that had easy modes to get good with the mechanics.

My wife is on the opposite spectrum, she doesn't really want to play games at all, but would love to watch the story of them. Other M was just one of those games - it was like watching a sci-fi flick to her, which she enjoyed. I enjoyed playing it, she enjoyed watching it.

Me personally, thought I loved the Thief series, I just don't have 2 hours to play every level these days, which is I have to do to sneak around and get everything on a bunch of the levels. I would gladly rewatch the games though as a Movie, just because I thought the story was so interesting.

Sometimes the 'easy' mode has little to do with teaching game mechanics but more about how much time I want to spend in the 'game' part of the game. To the person that was saying, "Well, just go watch TV or movies..." above, yeah, I think that is the problem. The industry is nose diving because many are taking your advice. How about a better plan of making it accessible to both parties? Then you have doubled (or more) your audience. It might be hard to justify to a "movie person" a $60 game, so maybe you sell the movie mode separate?

Regardless, more options the better. If your dev budget can handle it and it seems to make sense for the game you are working on, by all means provide the options.

John Flush
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@Michael - maybe a bad example as you can buy "Live" Theater showings and watch them on your TV. More options the better.

I'm not saying every game "needs" them, just as much as the author of this article isn't either. More as developers / game makers we could expand our market by considering such approaches as an 'Easy' mode. I took it a step further to say, many AAA games these days are highly cinematic, just make that available at a reasonable price and you might have another revenue stream.

I would love to watch Bioshock Infinite at this point instead of play it. You know why? I have time every night to mostly pay attention to a movie or TV while I work / browse the internet. When I get in those moods I do them. Just as an example, I wouldn't mind being able to 'finish' Bioshock infinite by watching at this point so I can read some of the articles about its story. Right now I just wait for the weekend so I can play another level hoping to finish it out sooner or later and hope some discussion is still around.

Jonathan Gersam Lopez
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Sometimes difficulty is an artifact of limitations - whether it be Gamepads, Keyboards, etc.

For sure, the Wiimotes, Kinects and touch screen gestures are more complex than the binary pressed/unpressed states of gamepad keys. But these complex input methods seem to be more easily grabbed by non-gamers, and can result in _similarly_ complex in-game actions.

Pretty much the cybernetic principle of "complexity can only be tackled with at least the same amount of complexity." (http://www.kybernetik.ch/en/fs_methmod.html). I feel the need to plug Far Cry Blood Dragon here jk.

The original article called out the Buttons, Left Sticks and Right Sticks as particular sore points for Tomb Raider. Oculus Rifts, whole body tracking, VR, and smart implementation should get us past these in a few decades.

Jonathan Gersam Lopez
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@ "Regardless, more options the better. If your dev budget can handle it and it seems to make sense for the game you are working on, by all means provide the options."

(Movie Analogue)
If I may cite the movie watching experience: everyone who watches a 120-min film gets two hours of content _minimum_. People will pay a few dollars for this amount of guaranteed experience. A few viewers (critics, those studied in cinematography, franchise/genre fans) won’t be part of the norm; for a great film, they would have received a value much greater than what others got for the same $.

(I Didn’t Want This)
If I put down 50 bucks for a game I could only experience for 5 mins due to a huge difficulty spike (I hear Witcher 2 had that), or only access the first 2 levels out of 20 due to not enough directions, I’d be pretty frustrated. I wouldn’t call it crap (that depends on other things), but I’m not rushing out to give 5 stars for its stellar art direction or outstanding soundtrack.
This is because mainly, we shell out $ for a game’s premise. Of quality, of story, of art design, of challenge, anything is valid. When MGS came out, I was going to be a spy. Mass Effect said I was going on an epic space adventure. Heck, Dark Souls ads blatantly told me "Prepare To Die", and that game got rave reviews, even though it's one of the most difficult experiences in recent history. Challenge seekers flocked to that one, and loved every minute of it.
"Give people what they want", and for people who shelled out the cash, what they want is what you and your ads promised them. All the cool Devil May Cry trailers promised me to be a trash-talking badass demon hunter, ridiculing the most humongous of foes. Now I beat that game plenty of times, but for someone that just got into gaming, DMC would be furiously hard. A promise unkept. MGS2 was a great game, but the Raiden switch spurred many heated discussions.

(Proposition SSS)
So my proposition is a structure for reward, not difficulty, where a base game experience is available to gamers of a certain level (to continue DMC analogy, B-Rank players). B-Rankers would get a minimum experience of the game's premise. Tear down demons without breaking a sweat! Adventure in the High Seas! Avenge your fallen comrades! Anything you can think of!
But A-Rank play would net you more stuff. Not just virtual currency and weapon unlocks, A-Rank play will let you explore hidden vistas, additional characters, and story threads. Absolutely no grinding should unlock these, because in the long run it simply burns patience, not skill.
After that, it's the S and SSS expert rankers. Let's have these as emotional high points. How many a noob player would train to bust out SSS level skill if it saved Aeris?
To me, DMC3 had 4 tiers: 1) Easy Automatic folks, A-Rank Normal and Hard mode players (Me), S-Rank Dante Must Die players, and finally, the SSS YouTube skill video crazies. Ok, so YouTube expert videos are a bit Meta, but that’s a pro-gamer experience right there, and no amount of grinding will get you that fun, even if you grinded your way to all the weapon and skill unlocks.
Instead of grinding to level up, or a menu choice or “experience” at the main menu. I propose gating content/reward thru sheer skill, like the hardcore demand. It’s already started with Achievements and Trophies, but that’s just a little icon and title to your name.

John Flush
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< deleted - sorry meant to reply to previous comment >

Andreas Ahlborn
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I´m astonished that nobody in this thread has mentioned trainers, freezer or cheat-codes which are practically available for every game out there in the wilderness. God-modes, infinite-health all left in the game from the devs for testing purposes.

So it might be this discourse is not as important as it seems ;-)

PS: I found this matter mentioned later in a comment above, so obviously "cheating" is considered by the die-hard "make everything easy for everybody" as not part of the game and so considerd "unethical" behavior.....ooooooookayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy....whatever

Lewis Wakeford
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Actually a lot of games don't have cheat codes these days. I have no idea why.

Richard Black
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I think there needs to be a distinction between 'difficulty' and 'time comsuming'.

Many games that people profess to being 'hard' have very little to distinguish them in terms of skill but are extremely time consuming or even punishing to play. The amount of time one invests into such games tends, I think, to make people want to derive some kind of accomplishment or prestige for having sunk so many hours into what could essentially be viewed as a waste of time if one was to be harsh. MMOs fall into this as well, as while all are designed to be time consuming to an extent, the ones that are most often bandied about as 'hard' don't seem to take much more skill to play than any other but punish you more for dying or require even more monotonous grinding or repetitive content.

Now my desire to be challenged often hinges on how much attention I want to pay to a game, especially when multitasking, but when I play on a harder difficulty I'd love to have smarter enemies with perhaps more options in their AI as opposed to what I usually get which is more of the same enemies or farther apart checkpoints. Both of the later just make me do the same thing only longer or more repetively, but they don't actually help me feel like I'm accomplishing anything more. I just largely feel like I've had more of my time wasted.

I want my skill challenged, not my patience.


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