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Difficulty in games has always been a reasonably contentious issue amongst gamers. Many would be quick to cry foul, exclaiming with much anger and remorse that games have become too easy, filtered and stripped to fit the time and attention spare mainstream gamer.

While others, probably more likely to be a little bit more balanced, would generally say that game difficulty has become less of an issue – as titles become more focused on multiplayer, and developers start to play around with multiple difficulty modes and scenarios.

But that leads to my question – How difficult should the average game be?

Games have undergone a fairly large range of new gameplay innovations in the past 10 years or so. Regenerative health, stealth focused play, to name a few. As gamers grow up, and games grow up with them, many seasoned players have started to complain that games are getting too easy. But what I find hard to believe in this argument is that the barriers to levels of difficulty can differ from game to game. Some games don’t even need to be brutally difficult, and for good reason.

As games move from a pastime to a passion, many gamers expect the titles they play to challenge them at every turn. Pushing what should be a fun experience into an almost punishing one. But we need to remember why we starting playing in the first place, and what we actually want to get out of a game. Do we really need to memorize sequences, guard placements, or rework useless stats and complicated weapons systems to get enjoyment? Similarly, does any of this contribute to the overall quality of a title?

Developers, though, have heeded the call from some gamers. Capcom, perhaps cheekily, made it’s recent 8-bit rebirth Mega Man 9 almost extraordinarily difficult, as a throwback to the originals. The recently released Velvet Assassin was so shockingly hard that the large majority of reviewers were not even able to, or honestly wanted to, complete it. As a result, it was critically rejected. IT didn’t succeed as a result of its obvious difficulty. If a game is unworkingly difficult, then noone will want to play it, other then the ultra hardcore.

As a self-styled veteran gamer, I appreciate a challenge. But when gamers are created to appeal to one, very minor, element of the hardcore, it removes all of the hard work put into development. “Normal” difficulty levels should be just that, average. Enough of a challenge to mount enjoyment, but also allowing most gamers the chance to actually finish the game.

To me, it comes down to balance, and choice. To some gamers who require a significant fight, harder difficulty levels are created. In these levels, the game is stripped of elements that provide advantage to the player, and sometimes elements are added that move that advantage to the opponent. Mega Man 9 was made almost impossible because it was pushed to this crowd. In these cases, I would find this acceptable.

But when It came to Velvet Assassin, it took what could have been a great idea and crumbled due to a lack of foresight. Metal Gear Solid succeeded in the same task because it allowed you to select a mode that suited your playstyle. It also gave you different ways to play, multiple paths to take, and didn’t force you to slog through what can only be considered an unattainable goal without constant trial and error.

I would like people to make sure not to confuse difficulty with strategy, or gameplay that is essential to a genre. Obviously, Disgaea requires a lot of micro-management, but this isn’t necessarily difficult, its just how the game is designed. But when systems like these are developed to impede or make games maniacally hard, like Fire Emblem, developers fail to understand the point of what makes something worth playing.

Take note developers – don’t make difficulty the entire point of your game. Take note of it, sure, but make sure it’s actually fun first. Because, as you might remember, that’s why people play games in the first place.

The Sunday Soapbox is an account of the writer’s personal opinions and not representative of Gamer Limit’s opinions as a whole.

  1. My short answer would be:
    Make a game decently hard on medium/normal, but not unbeatable.
    Make a “very hard”, or “extreme/death” difficulty that’s near impossible.

    Win/Win.

  2. I think any level of difficulty should be fine as the default. However! It’s the way you make a game difficult that matters.

    Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, for example, was a very hard RPG. It punished you for trying to play the game unstrategically at virtually any point in time. It punished you thoroughly for making mistakes and made no apologies for it. Still, I found this okay; the tone of the game’s story made it very clear that it was supposed to feel really tough, like you were fighting with the odds stacked heavily against you.

    Mega Man 9, I think, is really obnoxious in its difficulty, because it’s filled with a bunch of cheap death. There are a lot of outrageously hard jumps that require perfect precision, many obstacles that kill you instantly; and even something which, in my opinion, is the cardinal sin of platforming: sequences in which you have to have advance knowledge to avoid losing a life. There were a few things like this in other Mega Man games – as in, maybe 3-4 parts tops. Mega Man 9 has about two for each level at least. That’s not how Mega Man games used to be.

    Still, although both games were well-received by critics, most RPG fans hate BoF Dragon Quarter, and most platformer fans love Mega Man 9. The big reason for this, in opinion, is because Dragon Quarter defies its fans’ expectations (most RPGs don’t require any thinking until boss fights, which require only a moderate amount of strategy), while Mega Man 9 is exactly what fans wanted (people who played Mega Man back in the day remember it – and all old school games – being very hard, the truth probably being that we just sucked at them when we were younger).

    At the risk of sounding hypocritical due to my dislike of Mega Man 9, I think that if people come into a game with a more open mind concerning difficulty, but also keep games honest concerning the way they challenge their audiences, we could more easily enjoy a wider range of difficulty levels in games.

  3. The perfect example of a game that isn’t too hard, but not too easy, is Resident Evil 4. It combined so many different elements together that challenged the players instincts, reflexes, and forced gamers to employ strategic positioning (not so much at the end). As gamers, and journalists, I think we need to find out when developers are making a game intentionally hard (i.e Mega Man 9) and when their mechanics don’t work properly or are just plain unfair (i.e Resistance 1 and 2).

    Mega Man 9′s difficulty was catered towards a certain crowd and it utilized a lot of scenarios that can be deemed “Nintendo hard.” Blocks that disappear and reappear, one hit kill obstacles, and outstanding enemy placement. The game is hard because the first playthrough of any level is purely reactionary. You have to memorize patterns or rely purely on your reflexes and instincts. The game and it’s developers are self aware of the difficulty they implemented, and they lay it out for you from the beginning. They say “Ok, our game is hard. This is what you have to do to beat it.”

    Resistance is a poor example of a game being unfairly difficult because it’s difficulty doesn’t feel intentional. When you run into a large scale battle, the entire army seems to stop what it’s doing and focus fire on the player character. Enemies always know where you are at and their numbers are outrageous. The game presents you this large scale battle that seems to offer a lot of different possibilities, and in reality, your options are limited to the enemies uncanny senses. Why have the large scale battle in the first place if you are the only true enemy? The difficulty here is born from the AI’s uncanny ability to know exactly where you are, even if you don’t telegraph it, so it becomes unfair. They say “Ok, you need to infiltrate this battle and take out the enemies. Oh yeah, they already know exactly where you are and don’t care about killing anyone else but you.”

    However, difficulty is relative to the person playing the game. Some people may think that Resistance’s difficulty is perfect and that Mega Man 9 can jump in a lake. The developers need to intentionally challenge the gamer without isolating either crowd, and I think it is more than just finding the right combination of modes and challenges.

  4. avatar lee mitchell

    i actually find the difficulty to be fine as you can just take it slower,take out a few guys,take a breather and regenerate health or whatever but one thing that should be toned down is ridiculous button mashing…take wolverine for example…most is fine,havent played through on hard yet but just normal as im going for the dog tags…but the last part of the sentintial fight is crazy…when you have to push the chest piece off,that and the fight against the double sworded woman on PoP the two thrones…at the last part of that battle,actually have stitches from that battle as the sharp plastic sides and rapid slamming of my fist sliced open the side of my hand….i mean theres no need for it,its not proving any kind of skill

  5. avatar hello

    I think a great example of good difficulty design is the Halo series. Halo 3 on Heroic was challenging and I felt like I was accomplishing something. When I played the previous games on easier difficulties, I wasn’t as good at the game, but the difficulty I chose gave me an appropriate level of challenge and reward.

  6. @Jamie
    I’d say calling MM9 “cheap” is the reason why we get so many easy games nowadays. Honestly, 9 was a lot easier than a handful of the old Mega Mans (1!!). If you want to talk precision, some of those old games are much more taxing.

    Also, there was only 1 “disappearing box part”, in MM9, which was in Plug Man’s stage, and it was a joke (plus if you went in the correct order, you had the Rush Jet by then). Heat Man back in the day was near impossible, and is still hard: someone even made a song about how cheap it was.

    The thing Mega Man 9 did differently (and why it was better, and misconstrued as hard) is the fact that you generally should use your weapons in levels. I never, ever used the boss weapons in levels when I played 1-8, but in 9, I’ll be damned if I’m not going to abuse the gem shield.

  7. I agree that Mega Man 1 was hard, but it still did not have as many cheap deaths in it as MM9 did. Also, I don’t really find the ‘disappearing platforms’ to be that hard, and I usually do Heat Man’s infamous disappearing platforms section without the rocket, for example.

    I’m talking more about this: In Mega Man 1-4, you may have died a lot, sure – those games were definitely hard, maybe even harder than Mega Man 9. But, the way you died in those games was much less frustrating: enemy placement. In Mega Man 9, falling into spikes, falling off of cliffs, or hitting some sort of other one-hit-KO obstacle will make up 95-99% of your deaths. A deathtrap stage would be pretty cool (Like Tornado Man’s, for example), but they’re kind of all like that; if there’s any place in MM9 where the stage isn’t loaded with pits and spikes, it’s a breeze.

    What I did like, though, is that this problem was thoroughly rectified with the “Superhero Mode”, which made MM9 very fun, except for the one or two places where they added in a few MORE crazy-hard jumps (Galaxy Man, anyone?).

    Also, a thought on MM9′s special weapons: It’s true that probably no weapon will ever be more useful than Metal Blade; but, on the flipside, whereas most special weapons were near-useless in other MM games, MM9′s special weapons were just plain way_too_good.

  8. avatar Grave_Harry

    BRING IT ON! I beat COD:W@W on Veteran, and I beat Killzone 2 on the hardest difficulty. So SUCK EET! lol jk.

  9. avatar ZeRo-G

    This is why I enjoy the STALKER series so much. It actually challenges you. It’s all about good AI. =D

  10. avatar name

    but for the love of god dont pull a ninja gaiden 2 and make the easiest difficulty near impossiable.
    easy is called easy for a reason not hard, if you think games are so easy go try finish KZ2 on elite difficulty devil may cry series on son of sparta or ninja gaiden.
    yes some games are to easy but just make another difficulty setting after hard like KZ2 or resistance 2 did.
    easy should be easy made for people who havent played games before, medium should be for experienced players. hard should be for experienced players who want a challenge.
    than have another difficulty that realy sets the men from the boys.

  11. @name

    Spot on there mate, exactly what I was getting at. The easiest setting shouldn’t be nut-bustingly hard, since it defeats the purpose of even having the setting in the first place.

  12. @name/James
    Devil May Cry does, what I think, the best job of making easy easy and hard hard. Although Dante Must Die could be a lot more difficult, their “Easy Automatic” settings not only weaken the enemies, but make it easy for you to do cool combos with the press of a button.

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