I spend more time than most with people new to gaming. Recently, this has made me question why games have to get harder as you play through them. It seems to be written into the fabric of our hobby that it must begin with painfully easy tutorials and end with ridiculously difficult boss battles. So much so that to even suggest that maybe this is a mistake often draws looks of incredulity – or maybe that’s just me.
Card games, board games and sports don’t find the need to increase the difficulty as the end draws near. The best cards don’t start disappearing just as you are about to win, the snakes don’t start multiplying as you approach the last square, and the goals don’t get smaller as the final whistle approaches.
But videogames seem to pull all these tricks at once to provide a challenge to the hardcore player. Not surprisingly, those that have turned up to play their first proper game on next generation hardware are soon frustrated. Just because videogames can change their gameplay as they go – as opposed to more static physical media – doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the right thing to do for the player.
Even on the Wii, beloved of the newcomer, many games ramp up pretty fast. Showing off Super Mario Galaxy 2 to the family last weekend, they were all enraptured by the way it looked and played. The younger ones among us were soon at the controls and doing well. But fast forward even 15 minutes and they were really struggling with some pretty tricky jumps and enemies.
The enhanced assistance mode helped a little, but again it wasn’t long before the main player had to go it alone. My initial solution to this was to put the novice on the second Wii Remote, collecting and stunning enemies, leaving the meat of the game to the more experienced. However, as the difficulty increased even this soon proved frustrating – in fact, the novice player became more of a hindrance than a help as they struggled to collect items and paused enemies at just the wrong time.
We know that games have to service a market of ever more competent players, and that to make their experiences worth their price they must last long enough. But I’d happily take some more repetition over difficulty to extent things.
I think I’m in a minority here. I, for one, have no issue with Assassin’s Creed‘s repetitious approach. To my eye, this enabled them to ramp up the difficulty much more slowly which meant I could better keep up. In fact, by making much of this repetition optional they cleverly served both the hardcore and more casual players – although drawing mixed reviews.
I like simulation games in this respect, too. Once you have the basic mechanics understood these games don’t ramp up as fast. Sure, things get more complex but it is usually down to the player how quickly this happens. Sports games are an interesting example here, although the bar can be quite high to start playing, once you have the basics down they don’t ramp the difficulty too quickly. FIFA or PES are both about using the controls to execute imaginative play rather than facing a spiraling difficulty setting.
Recently, while setting the difficulty of a game, I had a eureka moment. All I was offered was a choice of how quickly the game got harder, but I wanted to change the difficulty in a different way – I wanted to specify whether the game would get more difficult or stay at the same level.
I like this example of an alternative volume control David Friedman created on his excellent Ironic Sans blog. Think about how you adjust the volume slider on a computer. What if that slider altered how loud the music was sung rather than just scaling back the amplification? It sounds crazy but it makes sense when you experience Friedman’s creation.
We need a version of this for the difficulty settings in videogames. As well as how hard it is to kill enemies, we could also be able to decide whether they get harder as we level: stay the same or even get easier.
I know it’s a minor point, and something we all take for granted, but it’s these minor aspects of gaming that can make a big difference to our experience. It’s easy to exclude people from the fun we are having because they have different skills or abilities.
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