Degree of Difficulty

On July 24, 2007, in Games, by psu

I’ve been happily playing through the opening chapters of Resistance. The game is as good a straight up shooter as I’ve played in a while. The presentation is strong, the level of polish is high. Even if the game doesn’t quite reach a Halo-like sense of place and atmosphere, the game does present enemies that are enjoyable to shoot in a world that is mostly enjoyable to look at. Here is the one problem though.

I started on Medium, and I should have started on Easy.

This happens to me with action games and with shooters. The problem is that at the beginning of the game, I am overconfident. Even though I know I’m really not that good I think I will be better this time. But it is never the case. So I start the game on Medium difficulty and I’m OK for the first two or three areas and then I start getting stomped. If the game is a checkpoint game, I find myself playing the same area five or six or ten times. Then I wish I could change to Easy. This is where I am with Resistance. I got there with Halo, although I made it through that game on Normal. I got there with God of War and slogged through. With Devil May Cry and God of War 2 and Gears of War I got smart and went right to Easy.

The developers of Devil May Cry and God of War 2 were at least perceptive enough to put code in to insult your manhood and offer the Easy mode once you died a few times in the same area. Macho insults aside, I found this to be a gracious gesture. Most games are not so nice to you. Resistance gives you two choices. Either slog through to the end, suffering with a difficulty level that is ok most of the time but very frustrating on occasion or start the entire game from the beginning in order to reset the difficulty. This seems terribly inflexible, and this lack of flexbility might make me give up on a game that I am otherwise enjoying. To me, this is too bad.

This problem with difficulty seems to me to be isolated in the Action Game genre. I guess the marketing people think that only the hard core guys like action games, and so they make their games “challenging” so that the hard core player can wave his penis around when he beats the game. Resident Evil 4 is a happy exception to this rule. It only has one difficulty level and it is perfectly tuned. Maybe that means normal hard core players find it too easy. That’s too bad for them. They probably figure that since it was originally a GameCube game, it’s too kiddie anyway.

For some reason most RPGs don’t suffer from difficulty problems. The only one I can remember having trouble with was Oblivion and it was easy to tweak the sliders to fix that problem. I seem to recall that a lot of people look down their noses at such shenanigans. These people are either masochistic or stupid and should be ignored. Many RPGs and other games that feature a progression of player power also have a built in manual way to tune the difficulty. You can just grind until you are more powerful and then the game is easier. My other favorite Insomniac game, the Ratchet series is a good example of a non-RPG that does this.

Ideally, of course, the game would tune itself. If I die too much in a given area, the game could make the enemies imperceptibly easier to kill, or slightly slower, or make my armor or weapons slightly more effective until I manage to survive. This is easier to say than to do, but it’s surprising to me that more games don’t at least take a shot at it. The trickiest part is doing it in a way that is not noticable to the hard core set. It seems to me that nothing upsets them more than little in-game assists like auto-aim or adjustable difficulty. Such devices make your penis smaller, you see.

Meanwhile, I think I’ll take a night off from the fight against the alien hordes and watch The Fifth Element again in Blu-Ray. Maybe while I watch the movie I’ll figure out how to start the game from my previous checkpoint in Easy mode.


11 Responses to “Degree of Difficulty”

  1. arixey says:

    One thing I really liked was in old Treasure games (such as Gunstar Heroes on the Genesis), the different difficulty levels were almost completely different games. You could get your teeth wet on easy level, then go on to medium and find out that the enemies and attack patterns were more difficult. For instance, on easy you’d fight the transforming robot in three random forms, but on medium you’d have to fight all seven forms. On hard you’d have to fight all seven forms, the attacks would be faster, and there would be new attacks.

    I guess it’s more work for the developers, but I vastly prefer that sort of difficulty scaling compared to 99.99% of games today, which boil down to “exactly the same game, but enemies have more hit points and you have less, and if it’s a shooting game they get automatic head shots on you”.

  2. Dekarte says:

    Self-tuning difficulty? That would kill me.

    The problem is that I lost my gaming cherry to Mega Man, where a good 90% of the game was getting hit until you recognized the pattern and could move on to the next pattern. The idea of having the pattern change on me because I died a couple times is incredibly disturbing – how can I say that I beat the game if it just changed to become easier?

    Of course, I would have no complaints with an optional self-correcting difficulty system.

  3. Jeremy says:

    I have exactly the same problem. I always figure that I’ll have the time and/or patience to get through a game on Medium

    The best example I can think of was Metal Arms on the Xbox. I really liked the game, but only got to the 10th level or so because it took me so many tries just to pass the levels. And now it sits on my shelf collecting dust…

  4. CordableTuna says:

    It seems like we view games very differently. You seem to see them as movies, where failing causes rewinding and you have to watch the same bloody scene again. Therefore the game is bad if it’s too difficult for you. The game needs to let you win.

    I consider most games challenges to overcome. I love the sense of achievement I get when winning a tough game. And for me, the game has to be challenging and fair. I don’t care much about seeing the plot to the end usually, since games are hardly masterpieces in that regard.

    Automatic difficulty adjustment works well for your point of view, but it’s an absolute abomination to me. All sense of accomplishment flies out of the window if I know the game bent over backwards to let me win. It’s pretty hard to feel anything except disappointment if the final battle turns out to be a triumph over small inconveniences.

    I had one particularly horrible experience. Ikaruga, a shmup of rather brutal difficulty level, has a difficulty adjustment of sorts. Basically, when you keep failing, the game starts to give you more continues to use. In the end it gives you infinite continues. When you die in Ikaruga, you don’t end up at the start of the level, you start again from where you die. So, when you have infinite continues, you don’t have to play at all. You’ll win Ikaruga by waiting until you reach the end. You can’t turn this adjustment off, by the way, so to get to the challenge, you need to resort to all sorts of trickery. Deleting save games, always quitting on continue, that sort of thing.

    By the way, Resident Evil 4 has three difficulty levels in Europe, two in the US. But like in most Capcom games, the Professional difficulty level only opens up after completing the main game. I’ve never understood why.

  5. psu says:

    Lego Star Wars had a similar way of restarting exactly where you died. It was one of the best games I ever played.

    Being old and slow and having a limited amount of time to play does give you a different perspective on the notion of “difficulty” and “accomplishment” with respect to video games. I guess my sense of self-esteem is at this point too well developed for it to get a kick in the pants because I “beat” Deathspank 2: Bloodsport on Hard.

    All that being said, I don’t see why the game can’t be adjustable with save anywhere for me and not adjustable with one savepoint per entire chapter for you. Except that it’s software, and that sort of thing never works out for software.

    BTW, if a game is good enough, I’ll play it on hard. I did that for RE4 (twice) and also for the Halo games. Most games are not good enough for that though.

  6. Alex Groce says:

    This isn’t totally inapplicable to RPG-style games. Fire Emblem on GB and Gamecube has difficulty levels, and you have to start over if you picked the wrong one. I guess strategy RPGs are different, in that you can’t just level up in most of them, however.

    Advance Wars DS (I don’t know about GB ones) makes you finish the campaign in normal mode before it opens up the hard version — but in the hard version, you get to choose your outrageously overpowered Commanding Officer, so maybe it isn’t harder after all?

  7. CordableTuna says:

    “I guess my sense of self-esteem is at this point too well developed for it to get a kick in the pants because I “beat” Deathspank 2: Bloodsport on Hard.”

    You think people who get the sense of accomplishment while playing a game have self-esteem issues? I get a sense of accomplishment from all sorts of trivial things like taking out the trash. I don’t think I have a low self-esteem, though.

    Anyway, my original point is that the automatic difficulty adjustment is hardly an ideal solution, because I want the game to give me a set challenge. In Ikaruga, Oblivion or, say, Max Payne, I don’t have that choice. The game is there to hold my hand no matter what I do. Quicksaving however, is a choice.

    I guess the trouble with automatic difficulty is that once it’s implemented in the game, it’s really hard to disable it. It would still work with Max Payne’s painkillers, but I think Oblivion would need major restructuring, since the game adjusts so many things, like what enemies you meet and items you get.

    RE4 did saving pretty much perfectly without quicksaves. You always got a restart point when entering a room, plus sometimes between phases of the current battle. And you usually had access to the last typewriter without respawns.

    Hmm, Half Life 2 had both quicksaves and save points.

  8. psu says:

    I did not mean to imply psychological damage on your part. I just meant to say that “accomplishment” is not why I play games. I was overly flippant, of course.

  9. Jon Mann says:

    I recently played through Call of Duty 2 on the ‘Veteran’ difficulty, which was brutally hard. On the other hand, it did show me how the game was meant to be played – since mistakes that the easier modes would let you get away with (running through open areas, returning fire on machine gun nests, etc) tended to lead to immediate death. I had similar experiences with Gears of War and God of War 2 – game mechanics being revealed by trial and error. It’s obviously not for everybody – isn’t this the ‘Fiero’ play type?

  10. Doug says:

    I used to play games for the accomplishment feeling. Now I play them for fun. I find I like 1 in 10 games I buy now, the other 9 make me work too much for my fun.

  11. Eli Mordino says:

    I find games are a lot easier now than back in the day (I’m talking Commodore 64-era). Not ALL of them – eg, as Jon said, CoD 2 on Veteran is brain-meltingly difficult.

    Maybe I’m just better at games than I was, but it seems to me that most modern games aren’t inherently difficult as such, it’s just a case of learning the game’s “tricks”. If I really want a challenge I play something like N, which at times is good old-fashioned borderline-too-frustrating-to-play difficult.