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I’m a firm believer in an easy video game. The challenge isn’t what drives me. And that’s what I want to focus on in this video. Video games aren’t simply a vehicle for challenge. And if we can accept that, then the rest of the video should be easy as pie

What are your thoughts on game difficulty? Should games have variable difficulty selections or should games ship with a single difficulty inherent to the experience?

Transcript(ish)

Hey Future Caleb, being the likely head-in-a-jar that you are in the year 2078-as discussed in previous videos–your concept of an easy game might be different than the concept of other, two armed, ten-fingered individuals. What those ten-fingered normies might consider easy, you would consider impossible, as the the game assumes existence of, and full use of, ten fingers. The important point here, one that I’ll come back to, is that difficulty level, though occupying specific intervals on a game’s menu screen–easy, medium, hard, etc–is actually a very malleable experience fully dependent upon not just the skill of the developer to properly interpret the user base’s general concept of difficulty but also upon the skill and ability of the players themselves. Which, is a difficult problem that I do not envy.

As you know, Future Caleb, I’m a firm believer in an easy video game. The challenge isn’t what drives me. And that’s what I want to focus on in this video. Video games aren’t simply a vehicle for challenge. And if we can accept that, then the rest of the video should be easy as pie…assuming you have the arms and fingers necessary to make said pie.

Some players–and developers–contest that an easy mode ruins the game, that it takes away from the developer’s intentional experience. Putting aside for a moment that such logic also indicates that any mode outside of a normal mode, including a hard mode, would do the same, so how is it possible to simultaneously dismiss and brag about ruining the developer’s intentional experience? I don’t know. But putting that aside, I do believe that if a developer’s intent is to gate a portion, sometimes a substantial portion, of their game via the game’s inherent difficulty, then that’s the developer’s prerogative. They have to understand, then, that this means head-in-a-jar players such as you, Future Caleb, won’t be able to experience the game. Such developers are reducing their potential audience. That’s a business decision. But, I do think, it can be an artistic decision as well. Exclusion is a statement as much as inclusion is.

So, it sounds like I’m taking two opposing stances. Easy modes should be included and it’s okay if easy modes are not included.

Maybe it’s important to take a step back and discuss intent. I discussed authorial intent quite a bit in my Yooka-Laylee defense video, which if you like my brand of meaningless drivel, then I suggest you check it out.

So, every piece of art, a category in which I include video games–though not all developers do–Kojima–has at least three inherent personas or characters that must be considered. The author (or developer, designer, basically the people responsible for creating the art), the subject (generally, the protagonist and other characters in the game or book), and the audience. These three elements ALWAYS exist, and because they exist, any discussion about how art is perceived–or interacted with–MUST be cognizant of these elements. To ignore any of them is irresponsible.

I first learned about this idea of the three personas in either Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction, Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct, or Umberto Eco’s On Literature. I can’t find my original notes. If anyone out there want’s to parse these pages for a proper citation, please do. Then call me so we can arrange a nerdy conversation over beers at a dive bar.

Said another way, developers (the author role, in my aforementioned triad) articulate most of the experience, including the protagonist, but they cannot deliver the full experience. Even procedurally generated game assets–whether just enemy characters or entire levels–are still generated based on the logic of game programmers. The randomness is intentional. A critical component that the developers cannot control is the player (or, the audience, in my triad). The player is–despite how targeted your marketing is or how well-defined the game’s genre is–an unpredictable element. I understand that even after marketing or defining a game’s genre, once the game is in the player’s hands, yes, developers do guide the progression of players using affordance, gaming conventions, and strong level design, but ultimately the player is an X factor. We don’t know what’s going on in the player’s life. We don’t know how much outside stress the player is under. We don’t know how many arms or fingers the player has. We don’t know how clean the player’s head-jar is.

Games seem to be increasingly embracing this idea. Trends toward open-world gaming and procedurally generated rogue-likes actively tell us, the players, to play as we want and to accept unpredictability.

So, I ask, how different, really, is choosing a difficulty setting compared to, for example, choosing the left prong over the right when presented with a forking path in a video game?

There are some differences, sure. Difficulty settings don’t generally gate assets (I hate when they do), so the experiences from a story perspective are often the same. But changing a difficulty setting is a choice in the same way that building an avatar is a set of choices or deciding which NPC characters to speak with are choices or choosing which side quests you accept are choices.

If you can accept that challenge ISN’T the sole purpose of a video game experience, then you can accept the important role variable difficulty settings play.

I personally do consider the normal difficulty setting the default setting, the setting developers use to define what they consider an as close to ideal experience as possible. And when easy or hard modes don’t exist as player choices, I take that as a sign that developers want to control the experience as much as they can. And despite all that I’ve said, I do believe that is a valid choice for a developer to make. When you pour your heart and soul into art, you, the artist, should get to determine–as much as you can outside of business obligations–how that art is presented.

But developers must understand that for every degree increase that they control presentation they are limiting the wonderful possibilities of player unpredictability. The milk man, the paperboy, even TV. Wait what. (clip)

Perhaps the closest we can get to a truly expected, ideal experience is with linear platformers. Let’s use Super Mario Bros. as an example. There are countless videos online about how well SMB guides the player to a specific outcome. I won’t rehash them here. I’ll put some links to my favorites in the description below. Warp pipes and hidden coin rooms aside (which just putting those aside should already clue you into realizing the practical impossibility of a simultaneous engaging but linear experience), those things aside, SMB restricts the player to a very narrow progression and outcome. So would the inclusion of a difficulty setting in a game like SMB, break the game?

That’s a question I’ll leave you with. I’d love to know your thoughts. Perhaps I’ll read those thoughts on a future video.

Please like, subscribe, and click the Bell icon to make sure you don’t miss future videos. I’m trying to get the average views per video up to 100 by the end of the year. Sharing this video with your gaming friends helps a lot toward that goal. And if you are still watching this video, you obviously like it, right? So, please share.

Thank you for watching.

And to you future Caleb, say hi to your grandkids for me.

Mentioned

The following are YouTube videos licensed under CC BY 3.0

Music Credits

8bit Dungeon Level Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com), Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

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