14 September 2013

Back in the day, I liked to play single player games at the hardest available difficulty setting. These days, I don’t really care anymore. The main reason being that I mostly play games for their story aspects, and a tough challenge usually gets in the way of the next story segment, and that just frustrates me. I still like a good challenge once in a while, so I usually settle for some “normal” or similar difficulty level. And I really don’t give a flying toss about what difficulty level you play on.

But it seems some people do care a lot. And they’ll even try to tell you how you should play a game. So I figured I’d talk about difficulty in games.

So, what is difficulty? My own home grown definition, and the one I’ll use for the purpose of this article, is that difficulty is the amount of skill that someone must display in order to overcome a particular challenge. Difficulty usually follows a curve, with the gap in required skills required at each challenge growing every time (said differently, the curve is exponential). That way, the further you go, not only does it get harder, but it gets harder even more quickly.

Historical difficulty

Older games, especially the Japanese ones, were arcade games. Arcade game was designed to force you to die as often as possible in order to get your hard earned money. When Japanese focus moved to consoles, most designers had only experience working on arcade titles. And that’s why the games were very difficult, with a heavy focus on pattern memorization. As gaming hit the mainstream and game design became better understood, such concepts fell out of use, and are now mostly found in “retro” titles, typically for the nostalgia factor.

In my opinion, those games were rather poorly designed, at least in today’s standards (back then, it was all we knew). Those games had the despicable tendency to force the player to resort to trial and error, and were usually more frustrating than challenging. Or, rather, you had the feeling that you lost not because you lacked appropriate skills, but because the designer wanted you to die as quickly as possible so that you could spend more coins to try again.

So I’m happy that we’ve moved on from that. Most games today are fairer. If you lose, it’s your own fault, and you usually have a clear idea of what changes you must bring to your strategy in order to succeed. And the fact that we have things like dynamic difficulty and more complex options means that anyone can have fun. “Anyone can have fun”. Isn’t that a cool concept? Games are more accessible now! But some people are pissed. If you hang out on online gaming communities, you’ll find people who really dislike what they call the “casualization” of games, that is, games becoming more accesible to people of different backgrounds. You no longer need to spend dozens of hours in order to get somewhere.

Difficulty and elitism

What pushed me to reflect on the whole “difficulty” thing is when someone brought to my attention that some reviewer, somewhere, gave a bad review to a game because he thought it was too hard. I think he’s in the right there: after all, a reviewer’s purpose is tell you how much he enjoyed a game, and if he can’t enjoy it because he keeps dying, then he’s allowed to mark it down. If difficulty isn’t an issue for you, then feel free to disgregard his review. Nobody’s forcing you to agree, after all.

But then I thought about all those elitists who think games getting easier is a bad thing. How interesting. When I see that (usually on /r/gaming), I can’t help but think about an old man shaking his stick and saying how youngsters have it so easy these days and how back in his youth he had to bleed nails to get anywhere. It’s like they think you should not be allowed to have fun if you don’t get frustrated beforehand.

This elitism boggles my mind. The fact that XCOM: Enemy Unknown has an “Easy” mode doesn’t change the fact that it also has an “Impossible” mode. And that someone can buy some thing with real money in the in-game store to make things easier doesn’t mean you have to buy it too, and it doesn’t make him a “fake” gamer no more than not using it makes you a “real” gamer. It’s not a competition, unless we’re talking about a competitive game, of course, so why should you feel threatened by the actions of other players? And you know what? Games are interactive. Think Twilight Princess was too easy? Try doing a three heart run of it. If you don’t think a game is challenging enough, create your own challenges.

But I don’t think anything I say here will make anyone change its mind. /v/ dwellers just want to whine about something. Games being “too casual” is just their current target. Anyway, what I’m saying is: less QQ, more pew pew. Want to be a real gamer? Just play games. That’s it. No need to judge others.