Spinks comments, inspired by Pete:

I’m firmly in this camp where feeling overly threatened by a game just makes me turn it off. When I see a hard mode, I automatically think, “Oh it’ll be too hard for me,” and switch it to normal (or easier) even though I’m a fairly experienced gamer.

Pete suggests that he is old and the reflexes are failing, but I submit another explanation: anyone in that age bracket grew up with Nintendo hard games that featured a lot of fake difficulty, and since everything has “RPG elements” now, fake longevity. We have seen “hard” done badly hundreds of times, versus some smaller number of good challenges.

If you tell me that this next mission is really hard, it could be because the developers have an interesting encounter that will force me to re-examine my usual tactics, react quickly, and understand complex patterns. It could also be that this next mission expects me to grind levels/gear for hours, memorize a Battletoads-like series of arbitrary dance moves, escort fast and suicidal NPCs, deal with a drunken camera, and/or guess the one trick someone thought would be a “clever puzzle.” Unless a trusted source tells me otherwise, I am likely to assume that “hard” means “unfair.” Someone has already consumed the benefit of that doubt a dozen times over.

: Zubon

35 thoughts on “Difficulty”

  1. I think there is a lot of psychology / mental state involved here. “Feeling old” in regards of “gaming fitness” might come rather from being jaded and bored than from a physical condition.

    Then our gaming culture changed. Many gamers in “that age bracket” played arcade-style games before they became MMO junkies. I’m talking about myself atm. ;)

    We were used to failing, getting killed, all that. We are no more!

    If nothing else helped you could use cheat codes if you wanted. But our contemporary MMO world changed: Can anyone still imagine getting “clean” looted like in Ultima Online or other early games that did not separate PvE and PvP? The horror!

    I think the PENALTY for failing got almost removed completely. But unfortunately also the CHALLENGE of the… well, challenge.

    Failing is something we are not used to anymore. Online games / MMOs changed a lot in this regard. I can’t imagine groups trying certain Guild Wars missions so often over and over and over till we finally made it anymore. The game got extra buff/”cheat” items and was made a lot easier than it was right after release by now. I can’t help but with the challenge also something got lost.

    We have a trend to scripted, semi-interactive MMOs by now. Even some new WoW quests tend to go this route. I wonder how SWTOR will turn out, I doubt it will have as much dialogue and scripted and story driven gameplay as Mass Effect 2 / Dragon Age 2. But I wonder how much the gameplay will be an easy failure proof vehicle to deliver a scripted storyline.

    1. First, I would argue that if you can remove the challenge by removing the penalty, it wasn’t a challenge to begin with. Challenge is determined by how hard it is to win, not by how much you lose if you fail. The danger of losing something isn’t bad per se, it ups the stakes, it makes success more satisfying. But that is not what makes it challenging.

      Second. Think of Heavy Rain and how they “penalized” failing a challenge. Think of what GuildWars 2 does with their events, and what happens if you fail to “win” one. We’re seeing more game designs now where failing doesn’t result in “try again”, but in “live with the consequences”, which is a different way to make people not want to lose. We’ll see if it is also a better way.

      1. I’m not sure how I feel about the GW2 events. If I can’t figure a challenge out by failing it and trying again then how am I supposed to learn how to beat it? Reading websites?

        1. That’s the whole point. Failure is not a showstopper, it actually is an option of progression. Repeating it until you beat it is not the way it’s going to happen.
          You may figure out how to beat it by observing carefully and make the right ad-hoc decision, or you may not. Either outcome will cause an appropriate follow-up event. In fairness though, what we’ve seen so far is mostly variations of “kill enough of x” or “survive for y amount of time”, so it’s not quite the same as figuring out a raid boss strategy.
          Also at some point, an event chain will recycle and tha particular event will happen again. They are not one-time-only.

          The trial-and-error gameplay is still present in instances in GW2, if that’s really where your heart is. Compared to the event dynamics, that appears rather uninteresting to me though. I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve played it, but the concept seems fresh enough.

          1. That’s going to work right up until beta, when a website is going to document which path of success/failure leads to the best reward, and that path will become the norm. Anyone not following it will be shunned. Hell people looked for such info in DA:O, and that’s a single player game…

            Stuff like that sounds amazing and dynamic until the first player logs in, then reality hits, and it only takes a small subset of the min/max crowd to set the rules going forward. Most just follow those few.

            1. Luckyly the developers are gamers too, and as such are aware that the first thing people are going to do is trying to exploit the system. They took steps to prevent that. You can find various Q&A sessions on youtube or the GDC archive where they go into details about this.
              I think we’re seriously derailing now. Back on topic, maybe?

            2. It’s ok to derail when you have threaded comments :) DA:O had issues due to being overtuned.

              a) normal genuinely was a bit on the hard side, at least for a game that was billed as a story based RPG (which implies to me that you could pick your character/ group based on story preference and still beat it with similar difficulty.)

              b) classes were v unbalanced. Mages were uber and knowing this in advance would make your game a lot easier. But I do agree that people reading minmaxing guides for DAO boggles my mind. I am sure I had way more fun just playing the damn thing and turning the difficulty down when it annoyed me.

            3. I’m still amazed people call DA:O hard on normal. Is it a cakewalk? No, but come on, it’s not HARD. It’s not like you would hit parts and get seriously stuck, even with a sub-par party (my main was a rogue, only one mage). Compared to Baldur’s Gate, DA:O on normal is pretty tame, and I don’t remember people complaining about BG being too tough.

            4. IIRC quite a lot of reviewers (including John Walker’s review for PC Gamer) commented on the difficulty on normal mode.

            5. Start DA:O and make an elf fighter that spends all his points in bow skills (flavor I thought).

              Now make poor choices and kill/alienate any mages that try to join with one exception (Morgaine) – and you have a final party of – a dps mage, a dps rogue, a fighter, and an archer.

              Now even with making potions – unless you cheat you run out of the ability to self heal.

              Normal becomes a nightmare – I ended up not finishing the game because it just got to be frustrating.

              My wife on the other hand – who is a much more casual gamer and about 90% less likely to finish *any* game – made a mage to start – and finished the game with only one very hard fight (the first ogre).

              DA:O expected you to either heal – or have a healer in the group – and didn’t really stop you from murdering the only NPC that would do healing.

            6. DA:O is also really hard if you try to tank with a mage. Solo. Naked (flavor).

              And in what fantasy RPG is healing NOT critical? From console games (FF, DQ, BoF, etc) to comp games (D&D, Ultima), healing is always key. And DA:O provides more than one option for that, along with the ability to switch up your party as well.

              I’m sorry, if ‘hard’ today is having to figure out that you might need healing in a fantasy setting,or that the guy in heavy armor is best at taking hits, we have fallen a long way from Nintendo-hard.

            7. It’s very hard if you use a fighter and then go for Reaver. Because the “good” characters sure won’t help you. It’s very easy to lose your only healer.

              But if you make a mage, it’s a cakewalk.

              That is … kind of silly. Since it’s not an mmo, you don’t really think “I have to have the trinity” and you don’t think ” i have to make all the good choices so this healer will stick with me” since you don’t even know she is the only one who will heal you. I found the limiting of my choices very annoying and artificial.

              I loaded M. with some heals but she performed rather poorly relative to the old lady. (I can’t remember their names anymore)

              What’s worse to me, is hard modes are basically “double hp and double damage”. that is also I think a form of cheating. I thought Mass effect 2 did a lot better job.

            8. “I’m sorry, if ‘hard’ today is having to figure out that you might need healing ”

              I didn’t say Hard.

              I said frustrating and I stopped playing.

              I didn’t buy the sequel.

              Bad design is bad design – and I’ve never played a single player game before that let you make a single bad choice (kill the only healer in the game without a second thought – when it’s *not* obvious mages are healers at that point in the game) ruin the entire game.

              Bad design is “you give the players 4 choices – if they choose these 3 (and any of the subtypes) they *MUST* take one NPC but we won’t tell them who!” – if you choose the last one you walk through the game like a god.

              I don’t mind hard. I do mind stupid design.

  2. I’m pre-Nintendo. My first games console was something I no longer remember the name of, which played Pong. Just Pong. Then I had an Atari 2600, which I played the hell out of. To put even that in perspective, I bought the Atari after I’d left university and got married.

    Throughout the 80s I played ZXSpectrum and Amiga games pretty heavily, but I almost never played any games that were “hard”. I absolutely hated that “fail until you win” thing. I still hate it now.

    Like Spinks, I would never even consider playing anything on “Hard” mode. Perhaps oddly, though, I also won’t play anythign on “Easy” mode. For me, it has always had to be “Normal” mode, because that’s the “real” version. Anything else is cheating, just like changing the rules in tennis would be cheating, whether you changed them to make it harder or easier.

    Longasc’s Guild Wars reference above is interesting, though. I played Guild Wars from launch and I did indeed do several missions over and over until I succeeded. It annoyed the hell out of me at the time, but somehow, because it was about finding *a* way to beat them, not perfecting *the* way, I kept at it without feeling it was a total waste of my time.

    I don’t want to do it again, though. Ever.

  3. I don’t think you need to have grown up with Nintendo games to think of “hard” as being either “fake difficulty”, or at very least “a kind of difficulty I don’t like”.

    I am in that age bracket you mention, but my hate of sub-second reaction time requirements as difficulty is twofold: Not only do I believe I have slower reflexes than a teenager, but also I don’t feel any sense of accomplishment if I get it right. Pressing a predefined button a hundred milliseconds faster is no achievement to me, while developing a good strategy or tactic is.

  4. I agree with a number of the above commenters posts but I think I swerve off from them notably at a couple of points.

    First off, I was a megadrive man – not a Nintendo man. But the concept is the same; no saved games. So, you either played the game through or you started again each time. Unless you knew the codes for each level (or could press up, down, left, right, hold A + press start). Technology has progressed such that we now have autosave features, endless saved games, ambient saves (like most MMOs which save the game at whatever point you left off) the penalty for failure is reduced tenfold.

    Bringing up GW2 and the dynamic events is interesting, because it does bring in the idea that instead of just trying again – you have to deal with the consequences. If you think about it, it’s a far more realistic punishment than “oops, try again!”. And more often than not realism is what MMOs strive for – a “realistic, believable world”.

    Of course, there is a line to be drawn between “hard” and “difficult”. Hard is something which is trying on the player, it can be a complex puzzle, a long endurance test or simply having to do something new. Something “difficult”, in my opinion, is something which is unnecessary obtuse in order to create an arbitrary barrier. Think of when you describe a person as being “difficult” – they are being unnecessarily stoic and stubborn.

    Guild Wars Hard Mode is not hard. It’s difficult. It increases enemy attack/run speed as well as their attributes – it doesn’t change their AI or introduce any new elements or puzzles. Thats why when you throw enough firepower at it (running 7 heroes) it ceases to be difficult. If it was hard, it wouldn’t matter how many heroes you brought, your success would hinge upon how skilled you are.

    Games must at all time avoid being difficult, but try very hard to be hard.

    1. Little correction at the point of Guild Wars Hard Mode:
      It does change the AI. In Normal Mode, enemies do not flee from dot-aoe attacks like fire storm or ray of judgement. In Hard Mode, they do. I know it’s just a small adjustment, but it is a change in AI.

  5. I think the ongoing problem in the industry (especially in MMORPGs) is that developers seem to only be able to imagine two possibilities… a game is either “hard” – as in tedious, full of time sinks, full loot open PvP, and artificial progress gates, or else it’s a preschool, no-learning-curve, everybody wins festival of instant gratification.

    I would love to see more than a straight line between those two points with all game design falling somewhere on it.

    As has been pointed out, it is definitely possible to create challenge and depth in thought-provoking and complex ways without sacrificing accessibility. Where’s the Myst in my MMO? Where’s the physical puzzles like Portal?

    If designing games had difficulty levels, I’m sure what I’m asking for would be “hard mode” on the game design scale. I’m sure it’s much easier and simpler to create games based on some extremely narrow view of “hard” vs “carebear”. Then again, they want my money, so I’d like to see them not always take the easy way out. ;-)

  6. I have noticed a disturbing trend recently where some games offer a “Hard Mode” that is the same game but with the user interface crippled in some way. For example you no longer get on screen cross hairs and ammo or health indicators in hard mode.

    This type of hard mode is obviously cheap to put in but it is also silly – making you play a game in a way that it wasn’t deigned to be played.

  7. On the other hand, the raise of games like Super Meat Boy suggests that there IS a market for Nintendo-hard games. There is a certain purity to playing a level over and over again and ‘grinding’ out the little details until everything comes together. It’s not my personal preference, but I can understand the appeal, and if forced to choose between that or killing 10,000 enemies who can’t fight back to progress, Nintendo-hard seems pretty reasonable.

    The biggest trap in the MMO genre though is when developers give the players what the players THINK they want. “UO/EQ were too hard, make it easier!” Shinies for everyone, and today content gets consumed before it leaves the test server, and we are left trying to kill a boss while standing in his fire because a zero-value achievement is the only ‘content’ left.

    Condition the majority with that style of gameplay for 5-6 years, and it’s not surprising that so many reject even the slightest notion of challenge in the next game.

    1. The removal of fake difficulty opened up the genre to a playerbase 100 times as large as in UO/EQ times.
      I don’t think people reject a challenge, they reject a stupid challenge.

        1. Bad choice of example, UO is kind of an outlier. Then again, did the prospect of losing all your belongings make a fight more difficult? Or did it merely make losing more frustrating?

          1. More difficult.

            I did not run around with my vanq hally 24/7, so dungeon mobs that would be cake fully geared out where more difficult when using normal gear. I did not carry around 200 of each reg at all times, so long trips required better reg management.

            I also did not run headfirst into PvP thinking “if I die, respawn and try again!”. Same for PvE since gear stayed on your corpse.

            None of that is ‘fake difficult’ to me, it’s making choices with regards to the consequences, and risking what you are comfortable risking. It also made the high of a victory more than just a bit of xp and some vendor trash.

            UO was not an outlier, it was a well-designed MMORPG.

            1. “None of that is ‘fake difficult’ to me”

              Difficult : disadvantageous; trying; hampering

              You are correct – being a chicken about your stuff, and thus gimping your character makes things difficult.

              I’m not sure how that makes it good design.

  8. I’m approaching the upper end of the youthful demographic, pretty much only play RPGs (including MMORPGs of course) AND pretty much only play on normal-to-easy when difficulty settings are presented… but not for the same reasons.

    I certainly don’t like it when the computer opposition has advantages that make combat unfair and/or tedious, but increasingly I just don’t like playing games in the obviously efficient way.

    When I’m playing an RPG solely for the storytelling (*cough DA2 cough*), it’s perfectly obvious with all my gaming experience which skills are sub-par and which builds the game is slanted for – nuke good, debuff bad, always need an aggro amplifying meat-shield up front etc.

    If I just don’t feel like conforming though – say I want to spec for necromancy even though it’s lame, or take the 3 most endearing NPCs rather than a balanced team – I simply knock the difficulty down a level and play however amuses me.

    Not sure if it’s me ageing or a trend of modern RPGs absorbing some of the least fun combat elements of old-school MMOs (aggro management has no place in single-player games!), but nowadays I use difficulty settings to challenge the games themselves to meet my needs rather than the reverse.

    1. Well said! What you describe is how I played through Prophecies in GW: load up my team with heroes early on – essentially activating “easy mode” – and then proceed to give my character and heroes silly builds.

      I imagined my warrior as a sort of warrior-dandy, and thus my fearsome warrior/mesmer was born. Completely useless in terms of damage output, I still had a ton of fun tanking for my AI buddies while also bringing multiple interrupts or weird shutdown combos.

      Perhaps unsurprisingly, once I got to the “endgame” and felt compelled to optimize my build, I quickly lost interest. In the “hard” content, my character was expected to stop being a dynamic hybrid with multiple tasks in a fight, and instead focus in on one narrow job and min/max to do that job at 110% efficiency. It seemed like a very boring switch to make…

  9. I do agree that “hard” means “unfair” in some games. Like in a tower defense I recently played, called Cursed Treasure (a flash game). Where the developers made very well in the strategy range, but they has been destroyed the entire fun doing a bunch of “fake hard boss encounters”. Where you are forced to kill a quicker boss with stealth skill to gain the title “brilhant”. So, it doesn’t mean how strong are your towers. It doesn’t mean how intelligent are you. It only cares with how fast are your fingers when clicking in a skill called “meteor” whose can hit the hiden enemies. That was only a example for give a enphasis to some arguments present here. I’m creating a TD defense game and I’m stuck in how I will define my game difficult. That’s why I’m playing lot of Tower Defense ones.

  10. I wish more ‘hard’ missions/encounters forced you to change your strategy… or actually involved strategy.

    Halfus could have been a step in that direction, but I don’t think it was enough of a step. And a good number of people don’t like it because it can change (or it’s too complicated).

    The encounter varies (within a defined set) from week to week forcing you to adjust some tactics, not always all, but mainly how you deal with the boss. In some sets you ping pong the boss between tanks while in others you don’t need to do that and it’s easier for it.

    Like I said, it’s a small step.

    Most of the other raid encounters or hard modes involve making it more difficult to stay out of the bad either by increasing ‘bad’ sizes, frequency or adding in extra.

    It’s definitely a magician-like step towards difficulty. “And now the raid party will fight this boss suspended from the ceiling above the fiery circle of doom!”

  11. The idea of difficult encounters really hits on a fundamental problem with MMORPG design (and the design of most games these days thanks to the concept of RPG elements) – replaying the same content repeatedly, especially long after it’s worn out its welcome.

    I see it this way: if my group can beat your standard my-numbers-are-higher-than-yours raid boss, we’ve proven that we can do it. Hell, make us do it three times if you really require that proof. Either way, there’s no reason we shouldn’t just acquire all the worthwhile loot and gear from that boss right then and there. We’ve won. We’ll continue to win. It’s a matter of time before we get everything, so instead of transparently dragging out our experience, just give us everything right there and let us move on.

    With challenging or unusual encounters, though, where there’s more going on than just a battle of the numbers, this is less relevant; there’s a chance we might not always win! Sure, this probably wanes after the first few times we run the encounter, but for a few glorious moments there’s uncertainty and a sense of risk – the game is a game rather than a job. I still don’t believe players should have to run a boss tens of times to get all the gear they need to continue to new content, but in the case of a more challenging boss, the number of times they’d have to run it to prove they’re capable of winning might be higher.

    I understand that this is an unrealistic idea. Priority one for subscription MMO developers is to keep players playing for as long as possible by whatever means necessary; priority one for cash shop MMO developers is to get players spending in the cash shop by whatever means necessary. Making a “good” game is secondary. Still, in a perfect world I think this would go a long way toward making MMOs a lot more playable and fun.

    1. Unfortunately I must agree with your statements. With the loss of any major difficulty the whole “game” of the game gets lost.

  12. I agree with Oatmealpacket’s assessment above. I have grown to hate grinding the same instances for RNG loot – it’s the very worst possible lazy content design.

    On a related note, my experiences with DDO (pre-FTP in 2009). At first I thought this was a genius game. They have traps, puzzles, very interesting dungeon designs. BUT Turbine loves the grind as much as any other developer. In DDO you can play dungeons on many different difficulty levels, not just two. So to create barriers to rapid progressions you have rep/faction grinds which are completed by running the dungeons on different (or all) difficulty levels. There’s also of course the RNG loot reason for repeating as well.

    Also the traps and puzzles are static, so through all those repetitions of the dungeons you quickly learn where all the obstacles are and how to overcome them negating their value. Dynamic content here would have made such a difference!

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