Set Your Difficulty Higher…

I like suc­cess. It’s like cake. But I can’t learn any­thing from cake. I can learn from the stack of bro­ken crates, though, and the oth­er fail­ures.

Painful lessons seem to be the ones that teach the most, what­ev­er the sub­ject. Pain pro­vides moti­va­tion to find a path that leads to suc­cess. I remem­ber the first time I waved a bat as a base­ball sailed on by. It was an ugly swing. And my coach let me hear it, in front of all my friends. In fact, my coach would say my swing nev­er was pret­ty. But his pub­lic haz­ing did make me work hard at improv­ing it.

When it comes to video games, dif­fi­cul­ty will always be a charged issue. Pres­sure comes from all sides: to appeal to a wide audi­ence, to appeal to the hard­core, to appeal to casu­al play­er. What­ev­er those clas­si­fi­ca­tions mean in the real world (maybe noth­ing), game dif­fi­cul­ty is some­thing every­one has an opin­ion about.

I don’t pre­tend to know how hard you should make your game. Recent­ly, though, I’ve come to think that as game design­ers, we should be play­ing with our dials turned up.

How did I get there? When play­ing Mass Effect 2, I start­ed with a medi­um set­ting (“Vet­er­an”), and played through the game rather hap­pi­ly and eas­i­ly. I pre­dictably found that I was play­ing the game for its sto­ry con­tent, not for its game­play. Shoot­ing just filled the time until the next cin­e­mat­ic or dia­logue moment. I wasn’t enjoy­ing it espe­cial­ly, and I cer­tain­ly wasn’t learn­ing any­thing from it. Ene­mies could be defeat­ed with just about any weapon, tac­tic, or char­ac­ter abil­i­ty, and I could engage them head on, ignor­ing the cov­er mechan­ic and suc­ceed. Of course, when you can defeat your foes any way you want to, the deci­sion of how to win becomes emp­ty of mean­ing. Emp­ty of lessons to learn.

After fin­ish­ing the game, I start­ed a sec­ond playthrough. This was my “evil bitch” expe­ri­ence, and wow, is the female Shep­herd a supe­ri­or voice actress. This time, I set the dif­fi­cul­ty to its high­est set­ting — “Insan­i­ty.” And in terms of the moment-to-moment, I dis­cov­ered a whole new game. Ene­mies, even stock ones, posed a major threat. My allies need­ed to be man­aged and con­trolled lest they die — repeat­ed­ly. In order to sur­vive myself, I had to find weak­ness­es in my oppo­nents or vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in the lev­el design. Each com­bat formed a bat­tle com­bin­ing ally man­age­ment, refresh man­age­ment, and a search for any­thing that could give me an edge. Some of these ele­ments (vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to ammo types or to cer­tain pow­ers) were intend­ed by the game design­ers. Some (an inabil­i­ty to deal with play­er traps in pathing) were not. My tac­tics bor­dered on exploits. In any event, I learned what my char­ac­ter could do, what each AI was capa­ble of, and how I could win in dif­fer­ent encoun­ters. In short, I knew the game far bet­ter than I did before.

The ques­tion of “is that an exploit or a good tac­tic?” is a good one, espe­cial­ly in online games where your play can affect oth­ers. I remem­ber ear­ly days of MMO play, when we won­dered if reverse kit­ing, send­ing tells to deter­mine spawns, or FD-camp­ing mon­sters rep­re­sent­ed an exploit. EverQuest sup­port­ed lots of unfore­seen play, as a result of the game’s steep dif­fi­cul­ty curve. Solo­ing in spe­cif­ic stood out as ridicu­lous­ly hard. Play­ers had to find a way to avoid the hard com­bat math the game’s design­ers had forged: they had to find a way not to get hit. With­out find­ing gaps in the sys­tem or the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties of the AI, the play­er couldn’t suc­ceed on his own. Back then, of course, the game’s harsh penal­ties of fail­ure and death didn’t stick out like the sore thumbs they would today.

More recent­ly, on a dare I took to play­ing Dark­siders on its hard­est set­ting, appro­pri­ate­ly named Apoc­a­lyp­tic. Twen­ty-odd hours lat­er, more than three thou­sand gal­lons of blood has been spilled beneath my blade and scythe (accord­ing to this). And because I played the game at such an unfor­giv­ing lev­el, the aver­age hit from a demon shed half of my char­ac­ters health. Learn­ing the game’s rhythms, the pace of when to attack and when to evade, was the dif­fer­ence between life and death.

Los­ing fifty per­cent of your char­ac­ter hit points with a sin­gle blow sounds painful, doesn’t it? What I found though, was thanks to the mild penal­ties (fast reloads, fre­quent check­points), I rel­ished the chal­lenge. More impor­tant­ly, I came to know what defense I had to employ against each AI type, who to kill first in group encoun­ters, and when in each encounter I need­ed to fire off my pan­ic and powerup but­tons.

I’m not sure that “hard is the new good” when it comes to play­er expe­ri­ence — cer­tain­ly not for all games or all play­ers. But for game design­ers, I think it’s invalu­able. If you want to play a game at its most pure — not for the sto­ry, not even for a good time — tune the dif­fi­cul­ty up. Make your­self defeat the game where the mar­gin for error is razor thin. You may learn some­thing.

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