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How should video games craft their difficulty levels?

With difficult games getting the spotlight recently, the gaming community at large has been discussing difficulty and accessibility. This topic is very nuanced because while games should be challenging, they should also be accessible. I would like to be able to develop a mastery of a game and be rewarded for it as well as at the same time, being able to share that experience with friends who need the game to be made more accessible to them. There are many great case studies for this, but the one I want to discuss is Kingdom Hearts.

Let’s start with the difficulty settings. “Critical mode”, the hardest difficult setting in Kingdom Hearts 2, doesn’t just decrease your health and increase the amount of damage you receive, but it also grants abilities and stat increases early on. Instead of just making the AI smarter, or timings stricter, the way the player must approach the game changes as well. There is less room for error but the number of routes you can take has increased. I would say this is a better way of making the player feel challenged.

Image: IGDB

Furthermore, in the hardest difficulty, the player can equip the “EXP Zero” ability from the start, meaning you and your party will stay at level 1, to provide an additional challenge. This translates to you being a lot more fragile, to the point of only being able to take a handful of hits. Your damage output also decreases, meaning you’re going to need to utilise the game’s parry mechanics and magic to find specific counters to certain enemies. Lastly, you don’t have abilities which provide luxuries such as special combo finishers or seeing the enemy’s health bar. You are in control, and can tailor-make a difficulty setting that you want.

While most of the combat in Kingdom Hearts is conventional, there is system for optional experience points (tech points). These are earned by parrying an opponent’s melee attack, reflecting a projectile to hit an enemy or using a special attack which the enemy is weak to. Why this system is so effective in comparison to other executions is because tech points are awarded during the fight, as opposed to on a grading screen after the fact. By playing the way the developers intended, you are more dominant in the fights, they are faster paced, and as a result you progress faster. There is a direct reward for mastering the game, with no cheap tricks from the developers to punish you needlessly.

I’m sure we’ve come across players who will always go for the easiest settings because they don’t believe they’ll be able to put in the time or effort for a challenging game

Kingdom Hearts isn’t perfect of course. Both the tech point systems and the uniquely designed difficulty settings can fall short because the games communicate poorly with the player. Also, difficulty modes in all games have the fundamental problem of relying on the player to make a choice in their gameplay experience when they have no context. I’m sure we’ve come across players who will always go for the easiest settings because they don’t believe they’ll be able to put in the time or effort for a challenging game, or players who struggle through the hardest difficulty just to be able to say they play games on the toughest settings. Yet, the difficulty modes in Kingdom Hearts are handled so well that these can offer genuinely better experiences than simply opting for the easiest setting. This robs the players of the best experience they could have.

Image: IGDB

A good example of better communication would be the game Celeste. It doesn’t have difficulty settings, but has an assist mode which you can toggle. The designers make it clear that the game is not meant to be played with assist mode, however, if you need it, it is there. Kingdom Hearts could learn from this by providing more detail of what the game will be like and how they expect you to play within the menu to begin with. This leaves a lot less room for misinterpretation, and doesn’t make the player feel bad for choosing an easier difficulty – looking at you Wolfenstein. By choosing the correct difficulty setting another problem that could be circumvented is players ignoring the tech point system all together and just grinding because “it is an RPG after all.”

To conclude, be creative, communicate properly so that people aren’t left feeling…

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