Lately I have been playing through the game Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and I can confirm that the rumors are true – this game is hard as heck. This is pretty much par for the course for FromSoftware, the makers of Sekiro, who are well known for making BloodBorne and the Dark Souls series. These games are so well known for their brutal difficulty that the phrase “as hard as Dark Souls” is often thrown around in game reviews, and the games rarely live up to it.
While some players revel in the obscene difficulty of these games, other players are less enthusiastic. They view this high level of difficulty not as a challenge to be overcome, but as a form of gatekeeping that prevents many players who simply don’t have the time or the desire to fight the same boss dozens of times back-to-back.
While the common response to any complaint about the difficulty of any game is usually to call that player a N0ob and tell them to “git gud”, I think these concerns are perfectly valid, and this topic is worthy of further consideration. While I personally am choosing to push through this game, I can recall a number of moments early on where I felt hopeless and considered quitting.
As much as I love the sound of a collaboration between FromSoftware and George R.R. Martin, if I hear reviews saying that “Eldenring is even harder than Sekiro! FromSoftware’s hardest game yet!”, I probably won’t play it. Nevertheless, there are some hardcore fans who definitely will pick it up regardless, and there are innumerable players who have already given up on this series forever.
Today, I want to talk about difficulty in games. Difficulty can be an incredible game design tool, and simply adjusting the difficulty of your game can have a drastic effect on how people play and how they feel about it. However, it can also be tough to get right, and if your game feels too difficult (or too easy) it can cause players to lose interest.
This is a pretty big topic, so today I’m going to look at two main questions – Are games too easy, and should you include difficulty settings in your game. Next week I will continue this topic by looking at a number of ways that difficulty can be done well, and how poor implementation of difficulty can ruin a game.
Are Games Today Too Easy?
One point of view about the difficulty of modern games is that they tend to be too easy, particularly when compared to games of the past. This point of view can be seen in the game Getting Over It with Bennet Foddy.
In this game players control a man inside a large cauldron carrying a hammer. Players must use the hammer to grab onto and hop over obstacles, climbing higher and higher over mountains of random objects until they finally reach the top. This game is known for its incredible difficulty, mostly due to its unusual control scheme, and for the fact that at any point during the game players can make a single mistake and lose most or all of their progress.
In interviews, and in the narration of the game itself, Foddy makes it clear that his design for Getting Over It is a direct response to modern game design, which (for the most part) has moved away from mechanics such as requiring players to start over at the very beginning when they die. He says that having to start over has gradually disappeared from games, but believes that there is still an audience that enjoys this type of experience.
Historically, however, the move away from requiring players to start over at the beginning of the game (and the corresponding reduction in overall difficulty) is connected to a much larger change in the games industry in general. Specifically, movement away from arcade cabinets to home consoles and advancements in technology have made this sort of design obsolete in most cases.
I believe that requiring players to start over at the beginning of the game when they lost was not so much a game design decision as it was a business and technical limitation. For an arcade game having a high level of difficulty was a necessity, because players were buying the game one quarter at a time. You don’t want players to beat the game too easily, because then they would start coming back. You also don’t want the average game to take too long, because the longer each game takes the slower the quarters would come in. You also have to start over from the beginning each time due to memory limitations, and the fact that the each time the game starts up a different person might be playing it.
When games migrated to home consoles, much of this design philosophy remained intact. Many early console games were direct ports of arcade classics, and even those that weren’t still drew inspiration from them. This led to most early console games having this same design – brutal difficulty, and no saving progress.
These games were also limited by the amount of memory that they had access to. Games often only had room for a few levels (the original Pac-man only has a single map, and Donkey Kong only had four), and would slowly increase the difficulty over time. If the games were too easy players would be able to see all the content the game had to offer right away and would quickly grow bored.
This all changed with the release of The Legend of Zelda in 1986. The Legend of Zelda is the first cartridge game to allow players to save on the cartridge. While previous games had implemented primitive save systems using passwords, Zelda was the first game to have a dedicated memory card to save the player’s progress, and this had a huge impact on the design of the game.
No longer were players limited by the amount of content that they could consume in a single sitting. Instead, it was now possible to create much larger experiences that players could enjoy over several sessions, without worrying about losing all of their progress.
I believe that this increase in memory space and the ability to save your game are one of the major reasons why modern games tend to be more forgiving than games from the late 70’s and early 80’s. But I also think there is another reason – the changing demographics among gamers.
In the early days video games were primarily targeted at kids and teenagers. These kids tended to have more free time, and fewer games to play. Because of this I believe that this audience was much more willing to play the same levels over and over to master them.
While many younger players still play games, these days many adults do as well. Adult players often don’t have the same amount of free time to play video games as younger players, and having to repeat the same portion of the game several times can feel like a waste of time. With so many games out there players are more likely to quit the game and move onto something else.
These factors have led to a general reduction in the overall difficulty of most games, which I don’t necessarily think is a bad thing. While there is a definite place in the market for masochistic games like Super Meat Boy, Cuphead and Getting Over It, I believe that there is nothing wrong with designing interactive experiences that take the player on a journey without pushing them to the limits of sanity and dexterity.
Should players be able to choose difficulty?
While many modern gamers play games to relax and unwind, many others do enjoy pushing their skills to the limit. Challenges that seem overwhelming to a portion of your audience might be a breeze to others, and what seems relaxing to many could also be viewed as boring.
There are a few ways around this issue. One possible solution is simply to have a clearly defined target audience, and stick to it throughout your design process. If your game is clearly marketed towards casual players it doesn’t matter whether the hardcore player thinks it’s boring. Similarly, if your game is solely aimed at the highly enfranchised competitive gamer it doesn’t necessarily need to be friendly to beginners.
This approach has a number of benefits, but also some drawbacks. On the one hand, having a clearly defined target market can help hone your game by making sure that every aspect of the game is designed for maximum appeal for that specific audience. At the same time, you are also potentially losing out on large segments of the gaming audience.
Another possible solution is to add different difficulty settings into your game, which allow players to choose what type of experience they want to have. This could potentially open up your game to a much wider audience of various skill levels, but it also comes with a number of potential pitfalls.
One of these potential pitfalls can be summarized by FromSoftware president Hidetaka Miyazaki. Miyazaki famously does not allow players to choose difficulty settings in his games, and when asked why he responded:
“We don’t want to include a difficulty selection because we want to bring everyone to the same level of discussion and the same level of enjoyment. So we want everyone … to first face that challenge and to overcome it in some way that suits them as a player. We want everyone to feel that sense of accomplishment. We want everyone to feel elated and to join that discussion on the same level. We feel if there’s different difficulties, that’s going to segment and fragment the user base.”
When you find out somebody also had to defeat Dancer of the Boreal Valley
On the one hand I do see his point – there is a certain comradery between players of FromSoftware games that comes from knowing that you have had to overcome the same struggles. However, while this strategy has certainly worked for his studio I don’t think it can necessarily be applied to all games.
Not every game is about facing overwhelming odds and conquering challenges. Some games are about exploring a world, experiencing a story, spending time with characters or creating your own fantasy. In a game such as Skyrim or Minecraft two players are never going to have the exact same experiences, and the entire goal is give players as much customization and freedom as possible. In these situations I believe that allowing players to choose their difficulty is a great addition to the game.
Another consideration to take into account when determining whether to include different difficulty levels is where the difficulty in your game comes from. In some games raising or lowering the difficulty can be as simple as giving the enemies lower health, or increasing the amount of damage that attacks do. In other games, however, it can be much more complicated.
Take a game like The Witness for example. This game allows players to explore an island environment and solve little puzzles along the way, all the while uncovering a much larger mystery. Some of the puzzles in this game are quite difficult, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many players gave up on them (or looked up the solution online). I wouldn’t blame some players for wanting an easier time, but in this type of game reducing the difficulty would be a massive ordeal.
Dozens or even hundreds of puzzles would have to be completely redone, and some entire areas of the world would have to redesigned. This would drastically increase the amount of time and money required to develop this game, and I think it is understandable why only a single level of difficulty was designed for this game.
Choosing whether to add customizable difficulty settings in your game is a big decision, and there are many factors to be weighed. However, if you do decide to include difficulty settings in your game do me a favor and DON’T SHAME YOUR PLAYERS FOR CHOOSING A LOWER DIFFICULTY!
This is one of my biggest pet-peeves that I see in games, and it frustrates me every time. Games that call the player a baby, or limit the amount of content that a player is allowed to see in the game purely based on their choice of difficulty. Any game will have players of all different ages, skill levels and life situations, and some of them just want to have fun without worrying about challenge. So please, don’t lock the “true ending” behind the highest difficulty setting – just respect your players and let them play how they want.
Until Next Time!
That is all I have for this week. If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Twitter, Youtube, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week for even more thoughts about the role of difficulty in games!