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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