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An Argument for Difficulty

What exactly is difficulty in games? Why do we feel obliged to offer difficulty settings in games, and who are they really for?

Nick Halme, Blogger

November 27, 2012

9 Min Read

The match begins, and I am running besides a gaggle of other players. All of us are Russian soldiers, and this is, I think, somewhere like Stalingrad. Somewhere across a snowy courtyard, in big distant buildings, hewn out of stern-looking Soviet concrete, there are players acting as German soldiers.

Sure enough, about thirty seconds in and my screen flashes red. I've been hit by a bullet. I'm not dead, so I duck down behind a low wall and bandage myself. I peak up above the barrier and watch one of my teammates exchange fire with the Germans from behind a defunct fountain until he is shot in the neck and crumples.

I stay behind my little wall, peeking up just long enough each time to hear a bullet whiz past or pit into concrete nearby. Soon I see the little black helmets of German soldiers, snaking through the far corners of the courtyard. They've stalled us here, and everyone is either brave and dead or scared and hunkered down in this courtyard. It was our job to advance on them, but now they're coming to finish us off.

Plumes of dirt and snow erupt nearby; the Germans are throwing their stielgranates (those old German grenades-on-a-stick that gamers know so well).

I have a sniper rifle - one of the few allowed on any team. I have not been doing my job, which should have been looking for the German snipers and riflemen. Maybe this situation could have been prevented if I had spent more time looking through my scope and less time keeping a low profile.

I crawl along the length of the low wall and pop my head up - I spot a German setting up a machinegun on the low wall opposite mine, on the other side of the courtyard. I hold the key to steady my "breathing" and send a bullet spiralling into his head, courtesy my mosin-nagant rifle.

I feel like I've helped. But I know I'm dead. They're closing in around me, and I'm sure I might be the only Russian soldier left on the field.

I get up and mantle over the low wall I've been using for cover, and start to sprint. Unfortunately I catch a bullet, and drop to the ground dead.

Red Orchestra (the second, in this case) is a prime example of the sort of fear that death creates. It's difficult to stay alive, and it's just as difficult to prevent your enemies from staying alive. Iron sights are small, you don't move like Superman, and you can't take a beating like the Man of Steel either. That's not to berate the sort of speed-freak gun-arena Call of Duty has become, but it's a sort of gameplay that puts an emphasis on death - not just failure but the real fear of being caught out of cover and ended.

All this gets me thinking of the futility that is "hard" difficulty in games. As part of my weaseling my way into design during my time at Relic, I ended up doing some difficulty tuning for Space Marine. Of course, difficulty was an afterthought - one of those things that's supposed to pop up on your user interface when you start the game. So we tinkered with weapon-based attributes - things like weapon effectiveness at different ranges, camera recoil per shot, lock-on stickiness, and all those sorts of things. I believe character health was locked, due to inherent values in mission scripts.

And this is along the lines of what most games do - shooters at least - in an effort to tune difficulty. You twist the dials and turn the knobs to try and develop a bit of a different feel - to cause the player to approach things differently on the different difficulty settings. Hopefully players selecting "Easy" will be able to run up to a bad guy and pump him full of lead. Players on "Normal" will have to be careful - but not too careful. And players using "Hard" will have to eliminate any sloppiness in their death-dealing.

I hope it worked for players, but I really don't know. I'm acutely aware that nothing organic existed to ratchet difficulty. That is, "Hard" was really just "Normal" with a different set of numbers being called.

What would have been ideal, if unrealistic given budget and time, is, essentially, a bit of a different game altogether. New enemy types. More enemies. No crosshair, or ammo display (this was proposed, actually).

I'm not one of those people who really gets off on difficulty and death. I played and enjoyed Super Meat Boy, but didnt finish it. I'll watch other people play Demon's Souls, but I won't play it (I'd have a heart attack, I think). My modus operandi is not "make everything really hard". But what does interest me is creating difficulty without relying soley on numbers. The numbers are vital, but they're only the beginning.

Of course part of the issue right now is: why invest more time and money into a difficulty setting - what returns are you getting by doing so? That's pretty muddy, and I have no idea, but that's not the point of this thought experiment.

I don't know about you, but these days, when I'm finished a single player game, I don't go back and restart the game on a higher difficulty. And I sure as hell don't begin the game on the highest difficulty.

I remember someone mentioning that Infinity Ward recommended playing their games on the harder diffculties. And I remember the counter-argument: "But the cinematic moments and the tension are gone, when you're dying and respawning every couple minutes. Play it on Normal, so you're constantly almost dying."

After all, it makes more sense - Call of Duty doesn't recognize death in its gameworld. The player's death is not acknowledged. As far as the game and its story are concerned, the elite operatives you play as don't get scratched up by all that ammunition being thrown their way. You die when the story tells you to die, not when you actually do.

So why would you strip away the illusion by cranking up the damage numbers, and improving enemy accuracy? You no longer feel elite - you're not Superman any more. You're frighteningly mortal in a battlefield set up for a Superman to conquer.

The problem with difficulty is inherent. More and more we are seeing games that are just difficult. Every system is maintained so as to produce difficulty - and as a result tension, satisfaction, fear, and probably a longer play-time.

It's a bit of a conundrum. The most effective way to increase difficulty is to change basic designs. Change animation times to make them more punitive. Make enemies inherently more dangerous. Just look at Demon's Souls - the modern game designer sees a broken game with a lot of user-experience problems. The result, however, is a fun experience for people who want to be challenged to learn a difficult, clunky system (and master it).

You can't really do this as a difficulty setting. All that additional data, and the work required to create it, may be untenable in terms of a real production schedule.

But maybe this means that modern game design really needs to re-think itself. We value user-experience over challenging design, which is really at the heart of any game. It's difficult to catch the person who is "It" in a game of tag. Scoring a goal in hockey is difficult. Blocking a goal in hockey is a challenging prospect. Hitting the ball in baseball is fear-inducing to me. But we don't generally look at these "real" games as overly difficult. Nobody worries that people will be scared to play on the company softball team because it's too difficult. To me, softball is exponentially more difficult than a game of Red Orchestra - but game publishers are pretty sure that Red Orchestra would scare the shit out of your "average" gamer.

I'd like to argue that, really, the solution is to make inherently more challenging games. People can handle it. And it's easier to make games easier, than it is to make an easy game more difficult.

We're really caught up with the idea of "immersion". Cut-scenes, scripted sequences, etc. But our brains are pretty simple machines when it comes to image processing. We aren't really that discerning - just watch someone become immersed in a game of Doom these days. It looks terribly unconvincing. But it's really, really goddamn hard when compared to most of today's games. That alone makes you forget that what you're staring at looks more like a highschool art class diorama than a real world depiction of demons and space stations. Look at how effective Hotline Miami is at roping you in, despite its crude graphics. The fact is, humans in general excel at learning and thinking in patterns. And that's what a "game" should really be.

A good example is looking at any Call of Duty's singleplayer campaign and then at its multiplayer component. Often the players who enjoy singleplayer don't venture into multiplayer, and the players using the game as their multiplayer fix might not even boot up the campaign. To a lot of people, Call of Duty is not its highly-scripted singleplayer but its insane multiplayer. In fact, those who remember CoD 1 and CoD 2 will remember that the singeplayer was really not the focus.

Tune into any match of CoD and you'll see hell on earth. I once charted a session of deathmatch on Shipment, which is a tiny box of a level broken up by nothing but smaller boxes (shipment containers).

My average time spent alive was very small, and if I recall correctly was somewhere under thirty seconds. Shipment is a hyperbolic level, but it's not so different. The game is very fast, and players in general are crack shots. In transitioning from singleplayer to multiplayer the game transforms from an illusory Disney ride into a world of wild-west quickdraws ad nauseam. Multiplayer is effectively the game's real "Hard" difficulty. And it's an entirely different beast. And maybe that's a more realistic way to think about difficulty - what it is, and how it really comes about in games.

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