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The New Face of Difficulty Levels

by Ben Sullivan on 08/29/11 01:35:00 pm

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.

 
Deus Ex Difficulties

In Deus Ex: Human Revolution players are asked what kind of game they want to play, not how hard they want it to be

Deus Ex: Human Revolution, like its predecessors, is all about choice. It is the latest iteration on the Deus Ex franchise, a series long applauded for its innovative gameplay and giving the player the choice of how to complete its various missions. Human Revolution continues with this philosophy allowing players to hack, sneak, kill or simply knock out the obstacles in the way of their objectives. Human Revolution offers another choice as well – at the beginning of the game the player is asked what kind of game they want to play.

  • Tell Me A Story – The lowest “difficulty” level encourages players to play for the sake of the story and experience the world while muting the competitive aspects of gameplay. While most games shame players for taking the “easy” route, Deus Ex encourages this as a valid play style instead of accusing players of being “content tourists”.
  • Give Me A Challange – The moderate choice is the way the designers focused on balancing the game. This level is intended for the typical gamer that finds the game’s challenge to be a core component of the experience.
  • Give Me Deus Ex – The hardest level of “difficulty” is intended for players who consider the challenge to be the core experience and miss the days of the original Deus Ex when games were considerably harder by most modern standards.

It’s clear enough that these titles and descriptions are simply reinterpretations of the classic easy, medium and hard difficulties, but the important concept to remember is that a different question is being asked than “how hard do you want the game to be”. Instead the player is being asked “what kind of game do you want to play”? Do you want to play a game that tells a great story and doesn’t hold back important events solely based on your ability to progress? Or would you rather play a game that fights you tooth and nail to earn completion.

This philosophy of game difficulty has been increasing in popularity over the last few years. The days of “difficulty” being only a tuning of damage and health values are finally nearing an end. Developers now recognize that difficulty is a tool that can be used to make their game reach a wider audience, encourage different play styles and improve replayability.

Fallout: New VegasFallout: New Vegas offers another take on this choice. While also offering the usual easy/medium/hard difficulty levels players are also asked whether they want to play in “hardcore” mode. While not directly modifying game tuning (a player could play “hardcore easy” if they choose) hardcore mode adds a new aspect to the game – the need to rest, drink and eat. Penalties are incurred for ignoring these basic needs, but the real effect of this mode is that players are forced to make harder decisions about where they travel and the distance they need to traverse.

Most people would consider hardcore mode to be “harder” than regular mode, but the point is that difficulty was added due to the inclusion of new systems and different perspectives on the game. Many games do similar things with varying degrees of auto-aim or changing healing requirements to make the game more realistic, not at the exclusion of traditional health/damage tuning but in addition to it.

These developments in game design underscore the deeper point – modern games are more about experiences than they are about challenge. To each gamer that is going to look differently – some will demand challenge as part of their experience, and some won’t, and we need to ask them what kind of game they want to play.


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