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Gamer’s Thoughts: Difficulty in games

downloadToday I want to talk about something extremely objective subjective. Something not a lot of people agrees on. That subject is the difficulty in games. This isn’t unique to video gaming since other entertainment mediums can be difficult to understand, analyze or appreciate. But, the difficulty is one of the most important factors in gaming. In order to write this article, I have asked in various groups what their opinions about game difficulty are. Are games today too easy? Are difficult games fun to play? Are old school games too difficult? I got some extremely interesting replies. Now, if you have your own opinion on this subject, I would love to talk about it in the comment section down below. Of course, keep it civil down there, everybody has a different opinion.

My own views on game difficulty.

Keep in mind that the following thoughts and opinions are mine. It’s quite possible that you think in a different way due to your different experiences in gaming and/or life. Like I said in the introduction of this article, feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts and opinions on the content of this article and or the subject. With that out of the way, on with the show.

Now, with such a broad subject as game difficulty, it’s quite tricky to give a full opinion. In the introduction alone, I gave a few different angles I could take this article. In addition to that, this subject is extremely subjective. For example, I’m not rhythmic at all. When I talk about the DS, a lot of people talk about games like Elite Beat Agents, a rhythm game. I have to admit that I find this game too difficult.

pokemon goFirst of all, let’s talk about a sentence you often hear us older players say: “Games today are too easy.” Are they really too easy? Well, they became easier in one way but more challenging too. For example, take the Pokémon games. When Game Freak remade the 3rd generation on Nintendo 3DS, one of the biggest complaints was that the game was too easy. And yes, I finished the game without losing 3 battles during the whole playthrough and 2 of these loses were because I wasn’t paying attention during the battle and forgot to heal my Pokémon and the other loss was because I forgot that grass was weak to flying and I most had grass Pokémon in a flying gym. Whoops.

photoNow, why do I think that games can be too easy nowadays? That’s has two reasons. The first reason is that games just got more accessible. Because of the growth of the hobby, a lot more people play video games. So, there need to be ways for every style of player to play video games, even the youngest ones. Thankfully, you have difficulty options that can provide the other players with some additional challenges. Sadly enough, not all games do this. In most games, the difficulty settings have a small explanation of what each level means.

And this brings me to the second reason why games are too easy nowadays and that’s a skill. I have been playing games since I was a young lad. I started playing games give or take 21 years ago. During these years, I have played a TON of games and got a TON of different experiences. That means I have seen quite a lot and the chances of a puzzle stumping me or a fight being too difficult to get slimmer with every game I play.

Is this a bad thing? It depends on what you are looking for in a game. Do you want a game that challenges your strategizing skills or the ability to solve puzzles than the lower difficulty can be a problem? If you are looking for a game to play to pass the time, in that case, the drop in difficulty shouldn’t matter that much.

resident evil 4It’s always a difficult balancing act in how difficult you make your game. Since if a game is too difficult, people will stop playing. A great example for me is Resident Evil 4. There is a section in that game where during an already hectic fight, two chainsaw enemies spawn that kill you instantly when they come to close. There were three times that one of those enemies actually spawned right behind me, giving me no time nor room to turn around and defend myself. These moments I actually rage quitted the game. Another example is Atelier Rorona. The amount of depth in this game is just insane. You have to think about so many things like the freshness of ingredients, how long it takes to collect them and get them home, the amount of MP you have to fight and or craft… It was quite challenging to balance all of these things.

EuropaUniversalisIV_Packshot_editedThat brings me to the question, what makes a game difficult and how difficult should a game be? It speaks for itself that how more layers of gameplay and mechanics you add, the more difficult a game becomes. Take Europa Universalis 4 for example. In this grand strategy game, there are so many mechanics; it’s not even funny anymore. The complexity of a game can turn some people off. I would love to play Europe Universalis 4 with more people but most of my friends don’t understand how the game works or get too scared when they hear how many things they need to think about while playing the game.

In a way, the difficulty of a game can limit your audience. I would love to play a game like Cuphead, but from what I have seen and tried, the game is a bit too much for me. I don’t really like games that depend on memorization or trying over and over again. This makes the game boring and repetitive in my eyes. For me personally, I want to have a great time while I’m playing games. I want some parts to be challenging and test the skills I learned during the game and I want some sections to be easy to play through so I can relax and enjoy the game.

SI_NDS_NewSuperMarioBrosDS_image1600wA game series that nailed difficulty, in my opinion, is the Super Mario World games. In these games, you learn by playing the game. You might have heard this explanation in various other videos or articles but if you haven’t heard it yet, allow me to explain. At the start of the level, you are able to experiment with a new level mechanic in a safe area. One where you can easily avoid the enemies and you don’t have death pits. And the further you go in the level, the more challenging the mechanic or level gimmick becomes. And during the later and last stages of the game, all the challenges are combined into one big final set of levels that test your skills and what you learned through the game. In a way, you can compare it to school. The early levels and sections are the classes while the later levels and finale of the game are the final test/exam.

Now, should games become “NES-hard” again? To be honest, I think we shouldn’t do that. In the current gaming climate, we get a lot of games inspired by the more challenging nature of older games and we also get easier games. That means we have options. Now, we’re all old school games difficult? Were games more challenging in the past? Well, that’s a tricky question to answer.

Tomb Raider LegendFor example, I grew up with the original Tomb Raider games. When I play these games today, I don’t have a lot of trouble with jumping from platform to platform. Of course, due to the limitations of the systems at the time, it wasn’t always clear to which ledge you should jump and how you should make that jump. In more recent games, a better visual presentation helps out with that problem a lot. This “issue” became clear when I did the Tomb Raider project. Some people in that collaboration had never played an old school Tomb Raider game and gave it a try for the first time. And because they were more used to the newer style of the series or the newer style of play in more modern games, they had trouble during the game.

Something I often got during my search for writers in the Tomb Raider project was: “Also the old Tomb Raider games that aged poorly?” or something similar. I completely agree that the original Tomb Raider games aged poorly. The newer Tomb Raider games, and not per se the more modern games, play better because the developers improved their craft and learned a lot from developing the previous entries in the series.

I don’t find all retro-inspired games that difficult. I was able to beat some without much trouble like Blossom Tales or Retro Game Challenge. While I did had some trouble in Shovel Knight because I haven’t played a lot of games similar to that.

When I was researching and brainstorming for this article, I came to the conclusion that there are 4 types of difficulty in my eyes.

The first type is the intended difficulty. This is planned by the developers to challenge you during the game. Think about a Zelda dungeon where you get a new item in a dungeon and you have to learn to use it or remember the places where you were unable to progress and needed to use the item.

The second type is an unintended difficulty. This was an unplanned difficulty due to bugs, randomness (like RNG or random generation) or just plain bad game design. Or it can be because of things like certain mechanics. For example, a lot of people complained when Super Mario 64 DS came out. While it’s a good remake, the controls weren’t loved by various reviews because the original game was designed with a joystick in mind while the DS didn’t have a joystick.

The first two types can be mixed with the other two types.

The third type is a fair difficulty. With this I mean, the game provides you with a challenging and rewarding experience. Like, you finally figured out how to beat that one puzzle or beat that one boss.

The fourth type of difficulty is, you guessed it, unfair difficulty. Now, this can be because of bad and or lazy game design but this can also be a huge spike in difficulty. A great example is Suikoden Tierkreis for me. Overall, the game is somewhat easy. If you don’t skip too many battles and pay attention to what you are doing, the game isn’t all too challenging. I rarely to never saw the game over screen. Until I came to the final boss. This annoying battle gets such a difficulty spike that made me not fully finish the game and actually look up the ending online. Now, while writing this article, I actually restarted playing the game and I’m hell-bent in finally beating the game this time.

The more difficulty of type 2 and 4 you have, the worse it becomes for your game. One time a developer asked me to review an Android game. In this game, you had to feed various foods to some customers. The issue was, all of the dishes were based on Asian dishes and I’m European. I barely know anything about Asian cuisine. The unfair difficulty in this game is that almost nothing was explained in the game about the foods themselves. So, I was unable to figure out which food was what, so it became a guessing game.

Another example of unfair difficulty is more recent. A developer asked me to review a Switch game they just released. The game is a twin-stick shooter and in the shooting tutorial, there were two spawners in the room that spawned so many enemies so quickly, it became overwhelming. You shouldn’t put so many enemies in the first level of your game while the player is still learning the basic mechanics of the game. That’s unfair.

headerDoes a game like Dark Souls have unfair difficulty? Well no, the game is quite balanced in my opinion. There is a lot of risk and reward gameplay, the punishment is just a bit too harsh in my opinion. But the game becomes beatable when you learn the finer details of the game and get used to the inner workings of the game.

The line and difference between the four types are really thin and make it still personal. Speaking of personal, some people talk proudly when they were able to beat a certain game on the highest difficulty. While that is impressive, you shouldn’t look down upon people having trouble on the lower difficulties. While my gaming buddy MiseryLC can beat the AI in Europe Universalis IV on hard, I feel that the normal difficulty provides just enough challenge for me.

I think it would be a great development if all games have difficulty sliders. The more you can adjust the difficulty, the better. Something I really loved in the Etrian Odyssey series is that you can change the difficulty setting when you are in the town without any other punishments. This is great because when I was unable to beat a certain boss and almost stopped playing, I was able to lower the difficulty a bit so I was able to beat the boss and move on. After I had beaten the boss, I set the difficulty back on normal. This is a perfect system since people can choose how easy or hard you want the game to be.

Now, I have said quite a lot about the topic now. To avoid this article becoming a bit too long or having too much rambling, I think it’s time to let some of my friends talk. I want to thank everybody for their input since they helped me quite a lot while putting my thoughts together for this article.

How others think about difficulty.

Now, I asked around on various groups on Discord and Facebook on their opinions on game difficulty. Here is what they have to say. Note, some quotes I translated from Dutch to English. Some quotes had minor edits since sometimes contained an answer to another topic in the conversation or something in those lines.

The following quotes come from a Facebook group where Belgian retro game collectors gather.

Ward: “Some games are pretty challenging due to their difficulty like Slain and Cuphead. But other games hold your hand, but that doesn’t always take away from the fun of the game. It really depends on the game and how enjoyable the story is.”

Hakim: “Sometimes a too difficult game can be really frustrating. And out of this frustration, the game can go on my shelves to be never played again.”

Kenny: “Personally, I think that the player should have a choice how difficult the game should be. Some games I play personally for the story and not for an extreme challenge.”

Mayu: “For me, a game can never be too difficult. I’ll play until the end as long as the difficulty, challenge, story and such are fun. It already happened that I was disappointed when I bought a new game and I finished it without issue. The solution for this is lately, collection or completion rewards. Some of them are really letdowns. In the past, gaming was a very niche hobby. When a game was too difficult, you just had to try and try again. But, now that gaming isn’t a niche hobby anymore, the difficult games don’t sell that well anymore. And with companies trying to make as much profit as possible…”

Koen: “Making a game extremely difficult is no issue for me. As long as all the elements of the game are fun, it doesn’t matter to me. I really enjoy the rewarding feeling of finally being able to beat a game at the highest difficult setting after trying on it for weeks and seeing the real/true ending. But, when the story is garbage and I have to replay the game on a harder difficulty setting, I won’t be spending my time on a new playthrough.”

Niels: “As long as a game stays fair, it’s worth my time. Nowadays, there are a lot of games that are too easy for everybody to play. From endless tutorial sections to special power-ups when you die a lot and sometimes even a skip button, these are just a few things that you find more and more in modern games. Now, there is nothing wrong with that, as long as they are optional or are disabled by higher difficulty settings. Something I really want to stress, a game that is too difficult thanks to bad enemy placement, terrible controls or bad decisions is a bad game.”

Xavier: “I prefer easier games. There are a lot of games that are quite enjoyable to play. It doesn’t matter to me if games are shorter, I usually buy them at a lower price after they have been released for a while. It’s better then having to play a game where you have to retry a section 20 times to finish it.”

Dennis: “I usually start a game on normal mode. Depending on my experience, I raise or lower the difficulty. So, this means that I play some games on easy, some on normal and some on the hardest difficulty. I don’t really enjoy games where you respawn a thousand times before you can continue and especially when you have the same issue 10 minutes later in the next section. If I enjoyed the game enough, I might replay it on a higher difficulty setting. Most of the games interest me for somewhere between 10 to 20 hours. But, this is absolutely not the case for me with Final Fantasy games.”

The following opinions are from fellow bloggers or friends in the blogging world.

Aiphafemaie: “A couple thoughts – I think games felt more difficult in the past because you had to rely more on yourself to figure out how to pass levels or quests. Or printing out walkthroughs from GameFaqs.com lmao.  Now when you’re stuck, you can just to YouTube and see how it’s done. I don’t think games were more difficult in the past, but “difficult” is a subjective word.  Today’s games do have varying difficulty modes, in comparison to the past. Before most games could only be played on default.”

TwoTall4uFool: “I think there was a lot of trial and error with games back in the 80’s and 90’s. Even in the 2000’s. Aiphafemaie you bring up a great point about GameFaqs but there are some games out there that I would’ve never beaten if it wasn’t for Game Genie/Gameshark. Today in games you have tutorials and of course there is YouTube. And even with plug and plays such as the SNES Classic you can rewind and try a part again if you fail. And plus suspend you point. So emulating older games have made them easier ….. sort of.”

ReaperInteractive: “I agree with @aiphafemaie . Games in the past had no clear instructions or clear, “Go here to pass to the next level.” Games nowadays are a lot more direct and I feel that developers intentianally make these instructions extremely clear as to make the game as playable and prevent people from giving up midway. A little more on the note. There have been games where the instructions were so unclear that I literally had no clue what to do and ended up giving up. Another reason I feel that games nowadays are a lot easier is because we’ve played the same basic mechanic over and over again as to games in the past, there were hundreds of different mechanics. Most games nowadays can be grouped into a couple dozen genres with the same mechanic and controls. Contrary to this, I feel that games in the past are composed of hundreds of different genres, some completely new to the people hence why I feel that why games in the past are a tad more difficult than those of our age.”

The Well Red Mage: “I think that games can still pretty hard now, some of them, but there are new varieties of games now. There are brutal platformers as a subgenre now that are built on difficulty, but then there are also walking simulators and interactive movies now that eschew difficulty almost entirely. I think some would say that the difficulty of retro games was such that it was unfair, but I think that the lives systems and the memorization of patterns (two very retro-centric ideas of difficulty) are perfectly valid; we maybe just don’t have the toleration for them that we used to. Those games were still demanding something of the player (memory or timing). So I think this is a conversation that benefits from specifics like specific games and specific features in those games that bring difficulty into the equation (memorization, level design, limited options or limited chances to complete a challenge, longer periods without save features, increasing speed, item management, enemy AI… all those things are specific features that games then and now used and use to create difficulty).”

The Badly Backlogged Mage/MrBacklog: “I think the obvious-but-unhelpful answer is “as difficult as they need to be to convey the desired experience”. Dark Souls, the Walking Dead and Mario Party are all different in terms of difficulty because they’re going for different experiences.”

OverThinkerY: “I think there are different ways of adding difficulty – Backlogged makes a good point about those games being difficult in different ways as part of the experience. There’s perhaps the most classic sort of difficulty, which is reacting and executing the right series of inputs quickly enough to proceed, and then there are things more dependent on memory, ingenuity, or sheer emotional fortitude. I think there are more examples these days of different sorts of difficulty other than simply pressing buttons accurately, which might be down to better tech or just natural progression, but it enables different kinds of experiences to be made effective in that way.”

Mail Order Ninja Mage/Daniel Flatt: “Difficulty is the hardest thing to get right in video games. If you push back too hard you lose all but your most dedicated player, if you don’t present any challenge then moderately skilled players become bored. Like everyone said above it is drastically different depending on the game and furthermore the individual playing.

That being said games aren’t necessarily easier than they were before, but they have become better at not wasting our time. Games previously were artificially hard, first because checkpoints and saves weren’t a thing, and then because many NES games are a handful of hours long without constantly starting over. They had to have that difficulty to make the game worth it, can’t have Billy coming to you after an hour and asking for a new game. I dare anyone to play B side levels of Celeste and say games are easier, but the difference is you don’t have to play through the same 30 minutes over and over to finally get through something and die 20 seconds later to start all over.

The best games have difficulty determined by the player, Nintendo excels at this, but one of the best examples is Ori. It has a function where you basically create your own checkpoints or don’t, depending on your preference. It could be brutally hard, but if I get to try again right away for a certain section it wasn’t wasting my time making me play the same section a hundred times.”

Now, as you can read, the opinions are extremely diverse when it comes to difficulty. This brainstorm was extremely interesting to do. I honestly think that I’ll return to this topic in the future. Before I close this article, I want to point you to an article created by Rob “I Played The Game” Covell that he wrote in 2017 about the same subject. “A Difficult Conversation”.

Closing off

Like I said in the previous paragraph, the conversation of how difficult a game could be or if games are too easy nowadays gets quite diverse opinions. While this topic could be discussed for hours and the opinions will go in various directions, I think I’ll close off this article here. I’m quite curious about what everybody thinks. Maybe I’ll revisit this topic at a later date.

If you have written or talked about this subject in the past or know a great resource like another article or video, feel free to send me a message with the link. Maybe I’ll include it in the next article. And with that said, I think I’ll really end off this article. Thank you, everybody, for helping me put this article together. It was a blast. Thank you for reading this article and I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I hope to be able to welcome you in another article but until then, have a great rest of your day and take care.