Striking a Balance - Video Game Difficulty

Take a glance at any video game message board and you will see a plethora of topics along the lines of “xxx is too difficult” or “Why is xxx so easy?”. Video games walk a fine line when it comes to difficulty levels, something which I touched upon in a recent set of Weekly Recommendations . Make a game too easy and gamers may shun it, yet make it too challenging and you risk alienating the casual gamers, who make up a large portion of the market.

One argument that has been flogged to death is that older games are much more challenging than those of today. Of course, this is a massively sweeping statement, but one that many gamers hold true. I have no intention of discussing the validity of that argument here, but I think the most interesting aspect of such a discussion is the implicit suggestion that more difficult equals better.

To consider this argument, one must look at the different types of difficulty. For example, some games are difficult in a way that make them challenging, and ultimately more rewarding, whereas others are difficult in the frustrating sense, leading the gamer to give up and possibly throw his/her controller at a wall/person/themselves. It’s very important to make this distinction when discussing the relationship between a games level of difficulty, and whether it’s actually any good or not.

Valkyria Chronicles, an excellent strategy/RPG that has spawned two sequels on the PSP, demonstrates an unusual balance between both kinds of difficulty. On the one hand, it really keeps you on your toes, forcing you to think multiple moves ahead. Much like Demon's Souls, you never make the same mistake twice, as it forces you to adjust your strategy accordingly to ensure victory. The result is a real sense of satisfaction when you complete, what can be, very time consuming battles.

However, Valkyria Chronicles also demonstrates some less enviable traits. A couple of the battles are near impossible to complete on the first attempt, without pre-existing knowledge of what to expect. I found myself beyond frustrated when, nearing the end of a battle that had taken the best part of an hour, an enemy reinforcement arrived without warning and proceeded to kill my main unit in one shot. Cue game over screen. My character was simply standing in the wrong place at the wrong time and, suffice to say, I didn’t make that mistake again. Introducing such random elements into a game of strategy, where the whole premise is to keep planning two steps ahead, is a prime example of frustrating, and ill thought out difficulty.

Deciding on a level of difficulty when developing a game must be a thankless task. Hence, it would seem to be in everyone’s best interest to make games with selectable, highly customizable levels of difficulty. The arcade portion of Street Fighter IV is a great example of this, as the player is allowed to choose from numerous levels of difficulty, ranging from easiest to the very hardest. This is an excellent idea in theory, allowing the gamer to customize their experience according to skill level and what they hope to derive from the game. However, in practice, Capcom got it wrong. Though patches have improved things, there was initially little to no difference between the final boss, Seth, on easiest or normal settings, defeating the point of providing such exhaustive levels of difficulty in the first place. If you are going to include an easiest option, then best make sure it’s easy.

If you were to mention this on a Street Fighter message board, you are likely to be inundated with people moaning about your noob status, and inability to play video games. It’s all well and good having mastered the ins and outs of Street Fighter 4, or any game for that matter, but such gamers are very much in the minority. It’s the casual gamer who dictates whether a game will ultimately succeed or not, and they are likely to be put off by punishing levels of difficulty. Street Fighter 4 is an unusual case, as due to name recognition and a rich history, it was always destined for huge success either way. However, I certainly didn't invest in any DLC or upgrade to Super Street Fighter 4 as I was so put off by the games inconsistent difficulty.

When discussing trends in the difficulty of video games, it’s vital to look at the success of the Wii and the rise of the casual gamer. Though it is now nearing the end of its life cycle, the Wii has been more successful than even the most optimistic of commentator could have predicted, and has put a video game console into the hands of people who otherwise wouldn’t know Solid Snake from Link and has also led to a rethink in game design and difficulty. A casual gamer is much less likely to invest hours in trying to overcome a challenging boss, and I think that’s reflected somewhat in the kind of games we see being released. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the more the video game industry diversifies its product, the more successful it will become.

The perceived difficulty of video games will always be a hot topic. But, when games successfully offer a range of difficulty levels that do cater for all abilities, it can become a relatively mute point. Like most gamers, I want to be challenged by my games, and to have the ability to vary that challenge as I see fit. However, I don’t want to spend hours scouring through Gamefaqs, holding back the tears, looking for the best way to kill a cheap boss. I want to be pushed, but not too hard.

We want the moon on a stick, and that's why difficulty levels will always be problematic.


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