Jun 242013

I’ve been thinking about this for a while and I don’t think we’re going to have a difficulty in our next game that’s called “Normal.” Instead, I think we’ll do something like this:

Easy-going Difficulty – For the player who wants to focus on story & coast through the gameplay aspects as well as people who are brand new to RPGs. Would probably be somewhere between Easy & Normal in our previous games.
Challenging Difficulty – A modest challenge. Enough to keep the player’s attention and maybe have to rethink their strategies occasionally but they should still be able to finish the core story-path of the game without too much trouble if they keep at it (although optional content will probably prove more difficult). Somewhere between Normal & Hard in our previous games.
Maddening Difficulty – A strong challenge. For the players who really likes to min-max their strategies, dig deep into the game mechanics, and doesn’t mind learning from failure. Akin to Insane in our most recent games.

“But how is this be any different than just having three difficulties and calling them Easy, Normal, and Hard?” Glad you asked.

By including a difficulty called “Normal,” we allow players to abdicate responsibility for their own enjoyment. When presented with difficulty options, they don’t have to make a choice – they can just go with the default with the idea that “That’s how the developer meant the game to be played.” Except, that that’s not how we meant the game to be played – if we thought that there was one proper way to play through our games, we wouldn’t go to the bother of making & testing various difficulties. There is no one “right” way to play through our games; everyone’s experiences & expectations are different. For example, I personally find most of our games most enjoyable on the highest difficulty setting but if we made that the default, I think many people would be upset. And it’s especially frustrating to read people complain about one of our games when the nature of their complaints reveals that they would have had a much better experience if they had just bothered to raise or lowered the difficulty.

In short, I hope that by removing the label of “Normal” from the difficulty selection menu, we can force the player to really think about what kind of experience they want out of our games. And when they realize what they want, they’re more likely to get that.

EDIT: We might even go one step further and also offer a Custom difficulty option that would allow players to really fine-tune their experience if they wanted to. For example, such a system might allow you to adjust…

Enemy difficulty
Frequency of enemy encounters
Rate of gaining XP
Rate of gaining money

…and more. I’ve seen similar systems used in games like Silent Hill 2 (where you could adjust enemy & puzzle difficulty independently) and Persona 4 Golden (after beating the game, you can adjust various aspects of the difficulty) and it seemed to work out well.

 Posted by at 9:48 am

  31 Responses to “Why I don’t think our next game will have a “Normal” difficulty setting”

  1. Amen,Jenna Elf. I want to enjoy playing the game,and see the story. It’s part of the reason why I didn’t get MM9. It looks fun,but I’d rather play MM10,with its A. Easy mode and B. Bass.

  2. Sliders would be amazing. I always feel like in shooters that I want to play on higher difficulties so I can fight against smarter AI and in larger numbers, but the bump up in enemy health always ends up bugging me. If I could have enemies on “easy” or “normal” health and “very hard” intelligence and numbers, then I’d be happy as Larry 😀

  3. I’m attached to the idea voiced by some previous posters, that different game difficulties should feature different content- even to the point of altering the story. How cool would it be if, at harder difficulties, the threat of the Antagonist actually increased in discrete, palpable ways? A central NPC is killed off at 2/3 story progress, the player confronts new tiers of scarier monsters, what was a library with straight rows of shelves on ‘Easy’ is a small maze on ‘Stimulating’ and a shifting-labyrinth puzzle room on ‘Challenging’ …?

    Additionally, I have always been a fan of more esoterically defined strength/toughness for enemy characters and creatures; the elemental damage model works well for this, through whatever device it’s implemented, but what if enemies also responded to more subtle aspects of player characters and parties? In my idea of a more difficult game, enemies don’t necessarily have more HP or damage resistance, but make smarter decisions based on character status, such as HP, MP (where applicable), and armor. If devs took a note from popular TCGs and limited attacking to certain contexts, while simultaneously attaching ads and disads to certain decisions, it would evolve a complex, robust combat engine that revolves around decision making.

    Most importantly, great article- I’ll be very intrigued to see what Zeboyd Games does in future titles!

  4. I think this is profoundly misguided. I think games suffer these days from this notion of difficulty levels and adapting to players. Games should be balanced so that they work. Not so that some masochist can relish in broken bones and repetition, not so that everyone can get through on the first go, but so that it works.

    The “normal” difficulty should be this difficulty, and ideally, the only difficulty. But often it’s simply easy under another name instead. I recently read an article on the new XCOM game about this, they started out by designing the “baseline” difficulty and balancing everything around this. Then this baseline was made easier so that playtesters could more easily complete it and give a good experience with little difficulty to casual players, this became “normal” aka easy. And the difficulty was ramped up, in some ways significantly, for classic to appeal to the more hardcore nostalgia crowd.

    The end result is that the mode the game was designed for cannot be played.

    You can alternatively include options for tuning the difficulty yourself. But this only serves the purpose of making me, the player, put on my designer hat simply because you couldn’t yourself be bothered to. Design by options isn’t design at all.

    The idea of adapting difficulties are even worse, eliminating all pretense of challenge by having the game remove challenge that is considered to be too great by some arbitrary standard, often whenever the player stubs his toe. Why not just make the game easy to begin with if that’s what you want?

  5. An amazing game that does an outstanding job of implementing granular difficulty is AI War (by Arcen games). It’s a grand strategy / space game that is certainly not for everyone, but the number of things you can turn on/off, or adjust on a sliding scale from 1-10, is nuts, and it all comes together to let you customize both the difficulty and the feel of each galaxy.

    If you want to see a model in action it’s well worth a look

  6. In old school turn based rpgs the only reason to even HAVE a difficulty setting in my opinion, is if the developer’s insist on making grinding impossible. To me, turn based rpgs were great in that they always allowed you to set your own difficulty. If you wanted it hard explore freely and move on without leveling. But if you wanted to feel like a badass, you invested the time in overleveling your character until you were a force to be reckoned with.

    If you are going to make turn based games that strip the ability to grind then I would definitely support custom difficulties though. Preferably changeable on the fly if a dungeon proved so difficult you were about to abandon he game.

    Also, I think the opinion some have expressed of “make your game hard, who cares if everyone doesn’t like it” is the worst sort of way to look at games. It’s exclusionary and awful.

  7. I’m a gamer who plays everything on the highest difficulty setting, and I’m waiting as patiently as I can for Dark Souls II to come out so that I have something new to sink my teeth into.

    I think your perspective is interesting, and I appreciate the way you are disrupting the normal thoughts on game difficulty. I think by making it explicit that you have tuned the game multiple ways for different audiences it will really help people find the experience they are looking for.

    So, bravo!

  8. I don’t like the concept of custom difficulty, at least not on first playthrough. i believe players often think they want that kind of customization but more often than not they are going to destroy the experience for themselves when they set things irresponsibly. Further more i think it’s lazy on the designers part. don’t force your players to design the difficulty, that’s the job of the game developer. If you design a well balanced game you won’t need to rely on custom difficulty settings. (which would break balance anyway)

    Secondly i don’t even like difficulty selections all that much. Games are more effectively designed when they are developed with a single playthrough in mind. (a single difficulty setting) This is one of the things that makes Dark Souls so great. Creating a game with different difficulties is often done so lazily that it’s pointless. it’s obvious developers design the game with Normal in mind and then latter slap in Easy and Hard. Both of those modes are unbalanced messes in many many games. In an RPG this often translates poorly as well. Of course Zeboyd Games fixes it with automatic healing but that’s a whole other subject.

    Since I know you’s are going for the multiple difficulty options, at least try to make them more interesting and different from one another. spend more time on the feel of each mode. In practice each difficulty mode should be treated as a different experience, maybe even a different game. things need to change, enemies, ai, obstacles, everything needs to be designed from the ground up. if a game has a hard mode, don’t just increase the ATK of an enemy. sure it makes it slightly harder but it isn’t truly more challenging then that same enemy on normal. The enemies need to change in their tactics, they need to utilize more challenging strategies and force the player to have to think in a more efficient and intelligent way.

    Try to avoid cheap difficulty practices, think about a normal Mario level, world 1-1. Pretty easy right? Well take that same level and remove all coins and mushrooms. that makes it harder but it is still the same level. a player who can beat that level usually won’t find it much harder. even cheaper, just increase the number of enemies. again, harder but not much has changed in the design of the level, or the skill it takes to overcome individual obstacles. This would be a bad difficulty practice. A good one would require a completely different set of levels, ones that are more difficult in design. Mushrooms and coins should still be there and even with plenty of those, a hard level would still be hard. don’t be cheap, is all i’m saying.

  9. System Shock 1 is another that did this well; you could choose 4 levels of difficulty (0 to 3) for Combat, Puzzles, Cyberspace, and Plot. This covered a wide range of difficulties – settng Puzzles to 0 meant they autosolved, Combat to 0 meant enemies did not return fire, and setting Plot to 0 turned the plot of the game of and permitted the player to wander at will. (On the other hand, setting Plot to 3 meant you had 7 hours to complete the entire game!)

  10. What I love about your proposal for difficulty levels is how user-centric they sound. In this context, “Normal” sounds very opaque – what does it represent exactly beyond “this is the developer’s belief as to how the game should be played”?

    WIth the terms you proposed, it just sounds much more approachable to the user.

  11. I don’t like the idea of easy/normal/hard as a general rule, but what I have seen as successful in games is when you are defeated by the boss 2 times, the game asks if you’d like to try again on an easier difficulty… that way the user can decline and try again as normal or punk out and breeze through the encounter.

    Sometimes there is also an achievement for not using easy-mode on bosses, which would encourage playing the game as intended.

  12. I, too, like the idea of custom difficulties. Like, in my book, from your games explicitly, I want fewer, harder encounters, because that where I have the most fun and what engages me most. PA3 has enough frustratingly simple fights (I’ve had less of that with PA4, which I’m in the thick of) to tucker me out at times, and I’d love to be able to set it for me: half the fights, twice as difficult, twice the reward, so every encounter is worthwhile and difficult.

  13. Just abandon difficulty settings. Let the game be what the game is, and balance it to that. Not everybody has to beat every game.

  14. I think this is a great idea especially with the custom difficulty. Most of the time I spend hours searching and tuning mods for RPGs to make the game feel more challenging but not overbearing or unfair while playing. Having three defined difficulties will give player a simple choice to make when they start knowing their game will either be story driven, challenging, yet fun or a struggle to overcome.

  15. A custom difficulty would be exponentially fantastic. I myself like games to be a pleasant experience in both gameplay and story. If I get caught in a difficult area, the story slows right down and I get very bored. So when the action revs up a little slower, I rarely find my skill growing inadequately, and I can enjoy the game a lot more.

  16. For the custom difficulty options, I think we’d probably save that as an unlock after you’ve already beaten the game once. Have the player play the game with some semblance of balance before they get a chance to really tinker with all the nitty-gritty settings. 🙂

  17. I’m just happy that you’re keeping the equivalent of Insane difficulty, because that’s by far my favorite in your games. I’m not sure renaming the difficulties is that big a deal, but I’m all for going down to three choices instead of four. Fine-tuning four difficulties instead of three sounds like extra work that’s probably unnecessary.

  18. I like it in principal, but honestly I don’t know if removing the terminology “normal” will make much difference. Most of us are trained to look at the center option as the “normal”, and which one the pointer starts out on is often the default “normal”.

    The custom options are intriguing, but it sounds like you are setting yourself up for an extended stay in QA land, trying to find a proper balance to the game. Unless “Custom” means “I don’t give a damn about balance”, which I can see. Although there are other options. I personally like how Tales games often have a NG+ grade shop that lets you tweak custom settings more than just a difficulty option change. On the other hand, there is also the Elder Scrolls difficulty slider as an option (although I wish it were more verbose about what it changes).

  19. I agree with your decision but I don’t like custom difficulty too much. It seems so…false.

  20. What a great concept! Whats even more intriguing is the custom difficulty mentioned. What an interesting idea.

  21. I am 100% on board with these ideas, but I am most particularly enthusiastic about the “Custom” difficulty option.

  22. Custom difficulty would be so sweet, especially after first playthrough, would shorten the possible grinding so much. Especially with someone like me who must buy x+1 amount of equipment if game allows that (X being the amount of people capable wearing/using it) and so on.

    Also I wonder if adaptive difficulty would work on RPGs, like the stuff on RE4, play good and you get less drops and enemies are stronger, and vice versa when you play horrible.

  23. Since I enjoy your games the way one enjoys a fine wine, I really enjoyed reading your perspective. In particular, I certainly DID choose normal on your games because I assumed that would be the “designer’s intent.” From now on, I’ll play at higher difficulty settings.

  24. Mass Effect 3 did that in a good way:

    Essentially they asked you if you want Action, Role Playing or Story, where different gameplay elements were adjusted. Granted, this isn’t applicable 1:1, but I don’t think Easy/Normal/Hard ever really applied to RPGs anyway. Some people just want an interactive movie with good narration, but there are others who really like to get into the numbers and know that an attack with 43 base damage that is boosted with a +5 and is strong against fire will two-shot an enemy with 127 damage and want that challenge.

  25. I think it’d be interesting to have a difficulty level in which the player couldn’t actually lose, yet still feel as though he/she had earned every bit of progress that he/she had experienced. For example, maybe offload certain commands to the CPU and make it seem as though things just happen to work out for the player, but it actually feels like it’s really tense and difficult.

    Maybe have it so bosses have their characters down to nothing, only to miss during some big attack and have the CPU-controlled party members keep the other characters healed just enough so they survive each attack. After all, there are plenty of people who enjoy stories, but really don’t want to have to work for them.

  26. I usually like to play on the hardest difficulty 🙂 Although, I did lower it for the arena in Precipice 3.

  27. Can’t go with percentage like you suggest, Invariel, or it suffers the same problem – 100% is just the same as “Normal.”

  28. That’s a good idea. For some games I really do just want to play the story and not get frustrated by dying all the time. And other times I want a challenge. Labeling the difficulty settings in this way makes it easier for players to find the amount of challenge they’re looking for.

  29. I was actually thinking about this while stuck on one of the fights in Precipice 4. The way your games work, you might be better off calling the difficulties “60%, 100%, 140%, 180%” or whatever, clearly indicating the relative challenge of the monsters.

    I remember one of the Silent Hill games asking me if I wanted easy/normal/hard combat and easy/normal/hard puzzles, and, reflecting on that now, I really appreciated that system.

    It’s entirely valid for a player to think, “Normal is how the developer meant the game to be played,” when what they actually mean is, “Normal is what the developer had in mind for an average challenge for this particular game type, trying to consider the average player of such a game.” Normal for a shmup would be very different than normal for a bullet hell game, for example, but the shmup player might find ‘normal’ too challenging when playing bullet hell, and the bullet hell player would likely yawn at a shmup’s ‘normal’.

    I agree with trying to give terminology to the player that indicates what each challenge level means, and I applaud efforts in that direction. Communication is important, and that communication starts as early as the difficulty selection screen.

  30. Smart move. I dig it.

  31. I love your thinking here. I used to get very defensive when I’d play a game through the first time on the easiest setting (some games, I just want to see the story arc). “That’s not how they meant it to be played” is the bane of any free-willed gamer’s existence.

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