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NikSG avatar 12:36 PM on 10.29.2011  (server time)
Difficult Difficulty Selection

As a kid, I would (and still do) get very excited after a game purchase, tearing off the plastic wrap and pouring through the manual as soon as I got in the car for the ride home. Before I even put the cartridge (and later, the disc) in the slot, I would know intimate details about the game's characters, settings, and controls. I couldn't wait to get home and start playing, but there is one thing that almost always got in the way - the difficulty selection screen.

Especially true for games where you go in not knowing anything about how they play, this can stop an eager player dead in their tracks. Games that present just 'Easy, Normal, Hard' are being lazy and straight up wrong. For giving you only three options, it's actually a lot of choice. Most games today are sufficiently complicated that this three option menu is far from ideal for representing the actual difficulty. What abilities or attributes are you losing by selecting 'Hard'? Do the levels change significantly, as in Mega Man 10? Do the enemies get improved, more intelligent A.I.? There are countless such aspects that make a modern game difficult.

An example of what not to do. Might as well have no description at all, if you provide no information other than the glaringly obvious.

I think of myself as a pretty skilled gamer. When presented with this option, I almost always choose hard. However, this can backfire severely in some situations. In most games, like the Resident Evil series for one, 'harder' means you die extremely fast and enemies are tough to kill, while ammo is scarce. As said, there are a lot of factors at work here that directly affect gameplay. Why limit the player to three options, when each option affects so many things? One should be able to pick and choose these factors individually, which would not be too hard to implement as they are able to be changed already (just as a group). There could even be presets, such as 'survival-horror', 'glass cannon' etc that would have these options set to a configuration that would make sense for the mode name.

For the examples above, the 'survival-horror' difficulty type could reduce ammo, make enemies stronger and the player weaker, while 'glass cannon' might move such sliders to have it so the player is extremely weak but able to dish out above average damage. Of course, 'custom' could also be an option letting the players fiddle with the sliders in a way that they would enjoy the game the most. Personally, I am not a huge fan of running low on ammo no matter what game I am playing - to the extent that I will sometimes not use a weapon in fear of wasting its precious ammo, only to complete the game and realize I never fired it once. I would set the sliders that would give me the most ammo, but lower my health to the minimum. That is the kind of challenge I prefer, and this mode of difficulty selection would allow players to truly play the game how they want to play it. The player can increase the challenge where it is fun for them, without being forced into something they might not want to change.

Ghost Recon: Sniper Elite had the right idea, letting the player see exactly what elements are being tuned.

Even a few sentences explicitly stating what the three main options of Easy / Normal / Hard do is a good step which many games are taking. I have been replaying Half Life 2 recently, and noticed exactly that in the menu. HL2 is also interesting in the way it handles difficulty, in that one is able to change it at any point in the game. I think this is great, but at a cost - if you are stuck, you can lower the difficulty and make a section easier to complete. Alternatively, you can increase the difficulty later as you get a better handle on the mechanics. However, with a method like this the player might forget it exists, especially if it is the case of moving up to a harder difficulty. A player might breeze through the game, having selected the easiest difficulty to begin with, and then feel less satisfied after completion having forgotten to ramp it up as they got better at the game. With all the statistics tracking in games these days, I don't think it would too hard to have the difficulty fluctuate based on performance (headshots, completion time, damage taken etc). I believe some games do this already, even. I know in the Devil May Cry series, there was a point where I died many times, and the game asked me if I wanted to switch to an easier mode having sensed my frustration.

In the end, it's up to the player to decide what they find difficult, or how they feel like tackling a game. Presenting more (customizable) options to the player is never a bad thing in my opinion, as long as there are simple defaults for those who care not for such things. More control over the game environment equals a higher maximum enjoyment a player is able to get out of the game. Everyone has slightly different opinions on what is enjoyable, and also what is challenging, and such a system could accommodate that. A criticism I can think of is the worry the player will move all the sliders to make it 'ultra easy' mode, but I feel it is already easy enough to do that. My guess is, most players don't, because the right amount of challenge is really one of the largest contributing factors to why people play games in the first place - fun.

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