Why So Serious? Video Games Are Too Difficult!

Do you consider yourself to be good at playing video games? Then what setting do you choose when starting a new game? Are games developers just lazy when they code different difficulties?

Until recently I have always chosen the highest difficulty for sports games, in particular football (soccer) games i.e. FIFA or Pro Evolution, and medium difficulty for most other games but I now find myself challenging that decision and if you read on you’ll find out why I now believe that games should not allow the gamer to choose the difficulty setting.

Call it a pride thing if you like but making the choice to start a game on the easiest difficulty setting is an embarrassing choice to make and the developers remind you with the descriptions they give the easiest setting. They taunt you by claiming that only those who have never played the genre of game you starting should be selecting the easy setting, which may be a fair comment but until you play the game you don’t know if the medium or high setting is too difficult or not and by that stage you could have invested several hours already in the game. A recent example of this is Darksiders, a hack and slash adventure game released at the start of 2010. One of my colleagues here at Platform Nation praised the game highly when he started to play it and gave it a glowing recommendation on the Lock and Load podcast. His recommendation and description of the game were major factors in my decision to purchase the game but I did not start playing it for two weeks after buying it and as it turns out, that was a good decision on my part. During these two weeks, his recommendation had turned into frustration and it even got to the point where the same person that was praising Darksiders ended up giving up on the game and telling others that it was just too difficult in parts. He was around 20 hours into the game and was playing it on normal difficulty but he had reached an end of level boss that was proving too hard to get past. Unfortunately the only way to change the difficulty settings is to restart the game! It’s hard to imagine that person replaying those 20 hours ago on the easy setting, therefore the developers had created a situation where a recommendation to buy turned into a recommendation to stay away. As a result of this story I started the game on the Easy difficulty and just finished the game last week and I have to stress that I am glad I selected Easy as it was tough enough at times. I enjoyed the game but it was only due to the experience of my colleague that I was able to, thanks to the easy difficulty setting.

One solution that Darksiders could have offered was to allow the gamer to change the difficulty setting without having to restart. OK this is open to abuse but it would mean gamers could progress past parts that they had tried repeatedly to beat without success.

An even better solution and this is one that I believe all games should have is where artificial intelligence in a game is smart enough to detect when a gamer is struggling or flying through a game with ease, and then to adapt the difficulty accordingly. Adapt is a key word in that last sentence, as the gamer will display characteristics that the AI could interpret dynamically and make the enemies smarter or more difficult to kill. Left4Dead2 has The AI Director to cater the game according to the players’ ability and Alan Wake is another game that promises to deliver on this and I have to stop and applaud the developers for going down this route as it increases the chance for more gamers to enjoy the game and then see the storyline to a conclusion.

Did you pick up in that last paragraph on how I said gamers could enjoy the game if adaptive AI was implemented? For me enjoyment of a game is fundamental, they should not be a chore. Why do I sometimes feel like I’ve done a full days work after a gaming session? Most of the time it’s because I’m battling through a part that is do damn hard that i feel like I need to save the game after every enemy kill. The frustration of being killed by the same enemy countless times in a row means I am more than likely to open the disc try, put the game back in its box and never play the game again. There are just too many games available to the gamer that more and more games will end up on the shelves as uncompleted and the archaic difficulty setting is the culprit a lot of the time. Playing through a game on Easy where it feels like the main character is almost invincible is the other extreme and equally pointless.  According to recent statistics, the average gamer is 35 years old. Chances are that very same 35 year old has a job of some description and possibly a family life. They’ll play games as escapism and general enjoyment; it shouldn’t be a grind or a chore.

Some gamers simply want to get through one game as quickly as possible to complete it and move onto the next one and one of the senior members of our Platform Nation family made that very point on the Lock and Load podcast in regards to BattleField: Bad Company 2. He simply wanted to play the game, complete it and get onto the next game. After starting the game on normal and dying within seconds, he quickly made the decision to restart on Easy.

Achievements and trophies have clouded this argument (an argument I’ll be exploring in a near future article) further thanks to those who simply choose the easiest setting just so they can blast through a game to collect gamer score as quick as possible. Game developers have tried to address this by awarding specific achievements/trophies for completion on higher difficulty settings but it still doesn’t get away from the point where I state that the gamer should not be the one choosing the difficulty setting. There is always the learning curve to take into this equation and after a few hours of playing the game, your skill levels will have increased and the easy setting you HAD to choose at the start is now too easy and the game becomes a walk in the park.

The fact that not all games offer a difficulty setting further proves my point that the good old difficulty setting in not universally accepted and dynamic adaptive AI is what we should be seeing in all games. As with all opinions there is always more than one side to the argument and here at Platform Nation, we really want to hear your views on this topic so please leave your comments below or contact us on the Lock and Load podcast. In conclusion I will leave you with a few games you may have heard of that (from memory) did not have a difficulty setting to see if it helps you to make up your mind on the usefulness of the difficulty choice. Mario series, Zelda series, Final Fantasy series, Far Cry, Grand Theft Auto.

Thanks for reading.

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  • Chris

    Bethesda already does it with Fallout 3 great feature.

  • I just finished Dragon Age on Nightmare and I beat Demons Souls without dying once and raided Naxxaramas at level 60. I am an amazing gamer even amongst amazing gamers. But, all games should be played on the normal or easiest difficulty setting before any other. I have a friend who tries to save time by pumping up the difficulty so he can beat the game on the hardest difficulty and beat the game at all, in one fell swoop. I doubt many people are surprised, he does not finish many games.

    Also, F3 has a sliding difficulty bar which directly raises enemy HP and damage, while lowering the players. I do not think, in my 300+ hours of playing F3, I have noticed an AI controlled increase or decrease in difficulty.

  • I think the settings are a good thing, just depends on how you go about it. I personally would always start on “normal” then if I wanted to play it again I would. Things aren’t unbeatable… Someone, somewhere can beat them.