It seems like every time a challenging game is released the argument over difficulty starts again. This time it was Cuphead, and developers arguing regarding whether high difficulty is a feature or limiting. Extreme difficulty by itself is never good, but difficulty does have an important purpose.
The Game Developer's Contract:
When it comes to Video Games and Game Design, I prescribe to the following philosophy. There is a non-verbal contract between developer and consumer for any video game.
The developer's responsibility is to create a unique experience built on a set of rules and mechanics. The consumer must accept the rules and limitations of the design if they wish to see the game through to the end.
At the end of the day, once a game is released, any and all discussions about the game must be centered on the experience at hand. You can't fault a First Person Shooter because you were expecting to have visual novel cutscenes for instance.
The intended experience for a game is obviously varied based on the design and intent of the developer. Experience and audience are always intertwined, and one of the most polarized examples of this had to do with difficulty.
The Difficulty Wall:
The implementation of difficulty in game design has changed over the years. In the old days, extreme difficulty was used to emulate arcade design and punishment. As home platforms evolved and game design grew, developers moved away from the punishing design of yesteryear.
We have talked many times about difficulty in game design. I've never been a fan of developer-defined difficulty settings in games, because they most often break the experience in one way or the other.
If you make the game too easy, then you dilute or destroy the experience of playing the game. However, making a game too hard can break the design and balance of the game. Many games that have a "hard" mode require the player to only play the game one way, and render any other choices or decision-making obsolete.
The reason I like single difficulty games is that they are the purest in terms of developer intent. I know going into a game like Dark Souls, or even Super Mario Galaxy, what the developer's expectation of player skill were at any point in the game.
Going back to the contract from above, the consumer must agree to adhere to the developer's intent in terms of design. With that said, let's get to the tricky point.
The Dark Souls of Difficulty Design:
The rise of Dark Souls and "Souls-Like"-styled games has been a renaissance for high skill-based games. I'll be talking more about Dark Souls' design in an upcoming post, so we won't go into specifics here.
Dark Souls was also one of the first games in recent years to have critics saying that the game would have been better with difficulty settings. One of the key points about Dark Souls' Design was the baseline experience.
Dark Souls expects everyone to be at a certain level of knowledge and skill in order to take on the challenges ahead. This is why the beginnings of the Souls games are the hardest in terms of overall difficulty. Making the beginning of the game easier won't do any favors when players who haven't hit the baseline get to the next challenge.
The combination of player and abstracted progression created an experience that gets easier over time for the people who figure out how the game works. These games were explicitly designed around one experience, and trying to make it easier or harder (not counting new game+) would have broken it.
For games where the designer intends on the player having a specific level of mastery to win, it's not fair to criticize it for not accommodating more players. Conversely, this is why many skill-based games are considered niche.
I can think of plenty of games whose experience did not work for me and I stopped playing, and that's perfectly alright: A game designed for everybody is a game designed for nobody. If you don't have an intended audience for your game, then you don't have a solid idea of what your game is about. With that said, there's one final point.
Accessible vs. Accessibility:
Whenever we have talks about difficulty in game design, the topic of accessibility comes in. There was an entire discussion on Twitter by developers arguing that difficulty sliders/settings were on par with options like color blind mode, subtitles and more.
I can't disagree more with that opinion. People who feel that difficulty settings are easy to design sit next to those who say that multiplayer modes can be done in a week. Accessibility options are not the same as rebuilding your gameplay.
For a designer, adjusting gameplay difficulty while keeping the balance of your design is akin to making a second or third game.
Being a part of the design process from the start is different than building it at the last minute; just like multiplayer. If a game from day one has multiple difficulty settings then that's just as fine as a game with just a single setting.
No matter the design, there is always a breaking point when trying to scale the game away from the baseline experience.
You can certainly argue that any form of accommodations would make a game more accessible, but how far should a developer be expected to go? If I design my game around X game system, and you can't or refuse to do X, then should you be able to beat my game?
There are many ways of making a game accessible without changing the gameplay such as better UI design, tutorial Design, and playtesting. However, those examples are during the development process, not post-release.
Letting the Chips Fall Where They Lie:
Once a game is out, discussion and debates over what it should and shouldn't have are over. You have to judge the game on the material presented; nothing more, nothing less.
A great experience is not the same as an accessible one. Some of the best games ever made were designed around a specific intent and audience. And once again: Just because one game does X, doesn't mean that every game can and should do it.