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…
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.