The Easy Road …

So, I was playing The Old Republic this morning, with a massively overleveled character — who got that way due to my normal XP gaining tricks as well as the 12X story mission XP bonus that’s currently running — and started thinking about games and difficulty in general, and thought that the ideal sort of game in terms of difficulty is one where if you are slow, cautious, meticulous and willing to spend a lot of time playing, you can breeze through the game fairly easily, but if you want to take more risks and be more adventurous you can get through faster, but require more skill and are more likely to die if you screw up. Also, given that, it’d be nice if you could give little options to help casual gamers along, such as little ways to gain extra XP with a bit of a cost, or little things that can give an advantage, but that you actually have to deliberately aim for in order to succeed. And the theory, then, is that if you do this then the hardcore gamers can simply avoid using them and retain the challenge, while the casual gamers can use them to avoid having the game be too overwhelming for them. In theory, everyone wins.

There’s only one slight problem with that: a lot of the time, the hardcore gamers are the ones who actually use those tricks, while the casual gamers simply never learn about them. If you make them hard to figure out — ie you only figure out that they exist if you’re trying to find them — it’s the hardcore gamers who figure them out and the casual gamers don’t even know they exist. This means that the hardcore gamers learn all of the tricks to make the game easier, and the casual gamers don’t, which means that the hardcore gamers complain that the game is too easy and the casual gamers complain that the game is too hard. This is the exact opposite of what you wanted. On the other hand, if you make it very obvious, then the casual gamers find out the tricks and at least manage to reduce the challenge of the game to a manageable level for them … but the hardcore gamers also figure that out and still complain that it’s too easy. This isn’t what you wanted either; you were hoping to provide challenge for those gamers who wanted that while allowing those who didn’t want that much of a challenge a way out.

It’d be easy to simply tell those hardcore or challenge gamers that if they don’t want the game to be too easy they should just deliberately avoid taking advantage of the tricks, and in fact that’s what’s done a lot of the time. It’s an argument that I myself have made and found reasonable in the past. But I now think that the challenge gamers generally don’t like that argument because it comes across as saying that if they want the game to be challenging, they ought to deliberately play inefficiently and play deliberately less competently than they can. They have to deliberately hamstring themselves to have anything like a challenge in the game. But, they can protest, shouldn’t it be the game that sets the challenge, not them? I think that for them one of the main things that they take pride in is in playing the game by its own rules to the highest standard possible. That means that if the game puts in tricks to allow players to gain experience, items, money, powers or whatever more efficiently, they take pride in finding those tricks and exploiting them. If this makes the game too easy, telling them that they were free not to do that really misses the point of what they want out of a game. Essentially, it becomes a case of telling them to stop having fun because their having fun will eventually make it so that they’re bored to tears. It’s reasonable, when thought of that way, to say that that’s a problem with the game.

This is why the only way to make it work is, in fact, to present them as deliberate, conscious choices outside of the game, not in-game. So, difficulty levels, difficulty sliders or menu options work, because then the player isn’t, in fact, simply exploiting the rules in-game, but instead is determining what the rules of the game are. If a player decides to play on “Easy” and then complains that the game is too easy, it’s definitely reasonable to tell them to play on a higher difficulty level then. The same thing would apply to someone who, say, decided to activate a 25% increase in XP item that then means that they level faster than normal, as long as they had to purchase it. But something like Rest XP wouldn’t fit into that, because all that requires is stopping in the right places when you log out, and maybe cycling characters … all of which are exploiting things that are just in the game, not something that you consciously have to seek out.

At any rate, balancing the challenge of a game so that all players can enjoy the game and get what they want out of it is a monumentally difficult task. And game developers need to hit as broad an audience as they can in the age of the AAA blockbusters, so they can’t just make games for casual or for hardcore gamers (generally; there are still a lot of games that can focus on an audience). This is an issue that simply isn’t going to go away.

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One Response to “The Easy Road …”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Thank you. This has explained something I’ve noticed in my own behaviour. I generally don’t play games on the hardest difficulty level, and I think it’s because I’m more interested in the experience of playing the game rather than the challenge of excelling in the game.

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