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.

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.


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