Optional Difficulty

I am finding myself with conflicting opinions on optional difficulty.

On the one hand, options are good. The distribution of peoples’ skill levels is a gradient, and not usually well-served by binary distinctions. We can easily imagine someone not being challenged at Normal difficulty, but perhaps overwhelmed when the switch is flipped to Hard – doubling monster HP and the like is overkill when all the person needed was +50%.

On the other hand… I might have become a bit corrupted by years of extrinsic MMO rewards.

You see, I just finished playing A Valley Without Wind, which I found to be fairly easy overall. The game actually features one of the most generously granular difficulty options I have ever seen though: it features 5+ different difficulty settings in three independent categories. At any time, you can boost the platforming difficulty up a few notches while lowering the actual fighting bits, or raising the “city-building” aspect to maximum while all but removing everything else.

Despite feeling like the game was a bit easy, I did not change the difficulty at all. “Why would I? It’s not like I get any better items or anything.” Oh. Oh my.

To be fair (to myself), this attitude changes depending on the game. I played on the highest difficulty in Magic 2013, for example, and couldn’t imagine playing on anything lower. X-COM was completed on Normal Ironman, as I imagined that at least Ironman was the “intended” difficulty. And actually, that is my usual metric: what did the designers intend to be the “real” difficulty? “Whatever is appropriate to you” is not a real answer to the question, as most times the difficulty is “Base +/- 100%.” I want to know what the Base is, and judge from there.

Now, it is also possible this is a specific game issue, e.g. I just don’t care all that much about AVWW. I had no problem with turning on Hardcore mode in my second playthrough of Fallout: New Vegas, for example, and actually felt like it made the game more interesting/fun when you couldn’t carry around 1000+ rounds of every ammunition type. Conversely, I did not see how mobs having more HP in AVWW was going to improve the gaming experience at all – left-clicking a few more times while you continue kiting isn’t really more fun.

In any event, this scenario has given me a somewhat greater appreciation for the “forced” difficulty games out there… at least the ones that fall within my natural ability, of course. While I still believe it is better overall to tune a game to cover a wide range of personal abilities, I hate having to arbitrarily decide what is an appropriate challenge to me. I don’t want easy games, but I don’t necessarily want a more tedious experience either (i.e. everything takes longer to kill + you’re more likely to die). Just give me a challenging game and let me figure out how to beat it on my own, without tempting me to cheese it with metagaming.

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Posted on July 11, 2013, in Commentary and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. An additional annoyance presents itself when higher difficulties seriously constrain or shift the problem space.

    I generally try to go for the highest difficulty, following a rationale similar to yours: it has been tested and still found viable, and that is the best challenge the developers have on offer.

    However, in something like vanilla Civ V, there are only a few paths to a Deity win, and most involve money and science tricks (National College rush, abuse of resource/luxury trading with cash-flush Deity AIs, etc.) It is not only a harder game than Prince or King, but a qualitatively different one, and one I am not sure I prefer. Similarly, while I have not played X-COM, it apparently has that detailed, specific recipe for victory at its highest level, and that kind of thing is a disappointment.

    I suppose what I am trying to say is that there is certainly a place for the crack-the-systems, play-to-win difficulty, which forces you to make the Correct Choice and trim away large swaths of the game on account of inefficiency. I make no negative judgement on that; I enjoy it, too. However, I think there is value in preserving the easier levels that allow you to treat the game in a more sandboxy fashion, including playing around with self-imposed rules and constraints.

    • My other problem with going for maximum difficulty is a simple one: there is nowhere else to go. I don’t replay games very often (I have too many of them, honestly), but if I do, playing on a harder difficulty can usually change the gameplay experience, as you noted. If you have already seen the hardest the devs have to offer, will you be satisfied with a game that is clearly below your skill level?

      In any case: excellent point.