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How should a game handle difficulty?


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Halo is probably the poster child for how a game handles difficulty. Nothing locked away (save maybe a small extra cut scene for legendary) except accolades for beating the game at higher levels.

 

It also handles enemy AI differently rather than just a very basic adding more health and damage.

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3 hours ago, Parksey said:

Oh one thing I do absolutely hate, is games asking you to pick the difficulty setting as soon as you start the game. 

 

How are you supposed to judge this, when you've just pressed start and are yet to engage with the game on any meaningful level? 


I like Halo's approach to this by telling you what the intended experience is at the difficulty select screen (if there is in fact a developer intent).

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5 minutes ago, Strafe said:

Halo is probably the poster child for how a game handles difficulty. Nothing locked away (save maybe a small extra cut scene for legendary) except accolades for beating the game at higher levels.

 

It also handles enemy AI differently rather than just a very basic adding more health and damage.

 

I agree with the first bit, but the AI is apparently exactly the same on all difficulty levels. In the original game, anyway. There was a presentation by some Bungie people ages ago where they explained why the AI seemed better on the harder difficulty levels - partly because you have a tendency to equate hard opponents with good AI, and mainly because the AI just survives longer on Legendary, so you've got more chance of seeing more behaviours that you might not have noticed on the lower levels.

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5 minutes ago, K said:

 

I agree with the first bit, but the AI is apparently exactly the same on all difficulty levels. In the original game, anyway. There was a presentation by some Bungie people ages ago where they explained why the AI seemed better on the harder difficulty levels - partly because you have a tendency to equate hard opponents with good AI, and mainly because the AI just survives longer on Legendary, so you've got more chance of seeing more behaviours that you might not have noticed on the lower levels.

 

This kinda ties in with my opinion that RE4 is totally broken on Wii (yet still lots of fun) and absolutely not the best version. 
The design intention is you should be ammo conserving and take your time with your shots, it's a risk/reward system. There's weapon sway dependant on what weapon or stock you've got equipped, making weapon choice for situation imperative. 
If you take too long to pull the trigger, the baddies will do cool things like side-step, duck or even put their arms up to cover their faces. 

The Wii version basically enables you to pull off headshots with the pistol from miles away and - just like Halo on easy - you don't see any of these cool AI behaviours because everything is immediately dead. 

Also that huge dumb reticle covers up all the cool gibs. 

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3 hours ago, Fry Crayola said:

Anyway, away from plastic instruments, one thing I've always felt is that difficulty modes should inform the player in some way about what it is that they're affecting, in whatever way makes sense for the game at hand. In many games this only needs to be a simple note that I'll have more health, or face more enemies, but also if it means I'll play less of the game (Resident Evil 4's decision to bypass areas altogether on easy mode would therefore be explicitly stated). More importantly, in games like strategy or sport where I'm generally playing against the AI, I want to know in what areas they're nerfed or artificially boosted in order to affect the challenge on offer. I prefer not to play my football games on difficulty modes where the opposition spam tricks, have unerring accuracy and run faster than they should, thanks.

 

I agree with this.

 

There's a thread in Retro at the moment, started by @Anne Summers, about how poorly-documented the dip switch settings for difficulty in arcade games are:

 

 

 

Quote

As you can see they all have a number of difficulty settings but what does this mean? Are there more enemies on harder levels? Less health? Tougher baddies? I guess some of you might know, just by virtue of having expert knowledge of one or more of these games. But I'm also curious to know why something as significant as this hasn't been documented. 

 

Considering how thoroughly documented many things about video games are by fans online, the specifics of how difficulty levels change rarely seem to receive the same scrutiny.

 

Ideally, in addition to the developers explaining what varies between Easy/Normal/Hard difficulty levels, they should also document any changes made for a game's re-releases.

 

Three examples of how hard it can be to find out the truth about how difficulty changed between different versions:

 

Halo

 

I've played through Halo CE on PAL Xbox (completed on Legendary), on Halo Anniversary on Xbox 360 (completed on Legendary), and - just a few months ago - on Master Chief Collection on Xbox One (started on Legendary; switched down to Heroic after Silent Cartographer).

 

Subjectively, on that recent MCC playthrough, I found Truth & Reconciliation on Legendary a hell of a lot harder than I ever remember it being on the original Xbox. Is that because I'm nearly 15 years older and my reactions are worse? (It's possible!) Is it because PAL Xbox slowed the gameplay down (i.e. not just worse framerate, but slower gameplay), giving me more time to react, which is not a luxury I have on the Xbox 360 and Xbox One versions? Or do the Anniversary and MCC versions have different behaviour for things like calculating damage and AI rate of fire? (In some games, higher framerate is linked to a higher internal tick rate -> damage gets calculated applied more frequently when in contact with hazards -> player dies quicker.)

 

Or is there no difference at all, and I'm just misremembering how many times I died on that level on the original Xbox?

 

I'd love to know for sure. But is there anything online that documents changes in difficulty when playing Legendary on different versions of the original Halo? Not that I've found!

 

 

Devil May Cry 3

 

This provides a good example of how confusing difficulty settings can be, when "Normal" can mean different things depending on whether you're playing the JP/US/EU version, or the original release or SE. I believe the summary on this page untangles it all, but until fans figured it out, lots of misinformation spread online about it over the years! https://platinumparagon.wordpress.com/2018/03/12/why-devil-may-cry-3-was-harder-in-america/

 

 

Ninja Gaiden

 

We recently had a discussion of the 3D Ninja Gaiden series (I think in the GamePass thread), where I linked to the player JayTB123's video series on the differences between the original 2004 release, and Ninja Gaiden Black. It's a video series that he's only put online within the last six months - before then, if you wanted to look up details about the differences that affected the difficulty, you had to go digging through posts on fan forums.

 

 

 

And that's just the differences between 04 and Black; if you bring in the various versions of Sigma, that adds even more things to compare!

 

I'd started replaying Ninja Gaiden Black a few months ago. Seeing that Sigma was added to GamePass prompted me to continue that run. I got to Alma (a boss that gave me a lot of trouble back in the day), and it took me 12 attempts to defeat her. (It doesn't help that every time you reload the checkpoint, you have to go through a really tedious swimming section before you can fight her.)

 

Then I started NG Sigma. It does have a lot of little differences from Black, many of which make it easier (extra save points etc). When I reached Alma... I killed her first try. :lol: Did I find her so easy because of the experience I'd gained fighting her on Black? Or because my character's status was different (a longer health bar and a bigger stock of healing items)? Or was there some other change from Black to Sigma that made her easier?

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Mark Brown, as ever, has a good video that's related to this very subject. Although ostensibly about Celeste, it's mainly about the problem designers may have in allowing difficulty options in a game, where doing so runs counter to the original design intent. 

 

The key thing he notes is that the modes offered in games like Celeste, Darkest Dungeon and Heat Signature make it clear that they're there if you need them, if you want to play that way, but they're not the intended experience. They let more people play the game who may otherwise be unable, or just not enjoy it as is, but at the same time let other players know what the game is supposed to be like, and generally recommend you try that first before toggling some of the options.

 

I think this is a good idea for games where challenge is key, or where only one difficulty is ever intended by virtue of the game's design. Other games will require other solutions but the concepts in the video can still be lifted on occasion.

 

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3 hours ago, Gabe said:

You say you don't like got gud gatekeeping but then go on to talk about how you essentially think it should still have git gud gatekeeping (the bolded bits).

 

Maybe we mean different things by gatekeeping, because I don't think that's what I was doing with my comments in bold.

 

What I meant by that was that I didn't want my comment ("a specific challenge, with specific rules and conditions, laid down by the developer, and it's the player's job to meet that challenge") to be misread as the argument that's often brought up by fans of notoriously challenging games ("Dark Souls, Cuphead, and Sifu have been set up by the developers to have a certain level of challenge, and giving them an optional lower difficulty setting would dilute that intended experience").

 

I have nothing against adding lowest difficulty settings and accessibility options that make the game so easy you can breeze through them on autopilot. My point is that if I've chosen to play on a particular difficulty setting, that's the challenge I want to overcome; if I die too many times, don't invisibly tweak the difficulty to make it more like the next difficulty level down, without my knowledge!

 

 

 

I'll put it another way:

 

Let's say a game has a feature called "Easier Enemies" that alters foes to become a bit less accurate, deal a bit less damage, and have shorter health bars. The developers have four different ideas about how to implement this:

 

1) Include it as a menu option you can enable at any time. So if you're on the Very Very Easy difficulty and still struggling to get past a difficulty spike, you can enable the Easier Enemies option so that you can get past it and complete the game.

- Great, I'm all in favour of this!

 

2) Automatically apply the Easier Enemies difficulty tweaks whenever the player drops below 15% HP. This makes the game more exciting because it extends the time the player has low health, and makes it more likely that the player will survive by the skin of their teeth.

- OK, I'm fine with this too!

 

3) You die three times and the game asks if you would like to enable the Easier Enemies option.

- That's OK with me too!

 

4) You die three times and the game automatically enables Easier Enemies (either temporarily or permanently), but doesn't tell you.

- That's what I don't want! Because it means that on life #4 I'm not facing the same challenge that I faced on life #1.

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If you don't know the difficulty is changing, why is it bothering you? You overcome the challenge and never find out (as long as you don't watch GDC or long form youtube videos). The devs can't tell the difference between someone playing to overcome the challenge no matter what and someone increasingly frustrated with it.

 

Did you enjoy the game? 

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14 minutes ago, SMD said:

If you don't know the difficulty is changing, why is it bothering you? You overcome the challenge and never find out (as long as you don't watch GDC or long form youtube videos). The devs can't tell the difference between someone playing to overcome the challenge no matter what and someone increasingly frustrated with it.

 

Did you enjoy the game? 

 

Because when it's poorly tuned it removes the challenge he wanted. Finding it really tough and then suddenly very easy makes it obvious.

 

Now it can be more subtle but that's the danger of the dev doing it under the table.

 

I think the alternative of giving you more tools is interesting in some circumstances. More health or shield consumables (as an option). Maybe I take them. Maybe I don't. But the choice is mine.

 

(Caveat I only play one easy because I haven't the time of inclination for any challenge).

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All main Resident Evils since 4 have dynamic difficulty.  It's not drastically dynamic ; there's an upper and lower limit to the DD value for each selectable skill level.  From memory, if you play on Assisted, the zombie behaviour could switch up to the next level (standard) but you won't lose the auto aim, the health recovery etc.  If you start on Inferno, poor performance will make the game become easier, but still within the range of the inferno ballpark.

 

I'm thinking some sort of practice menu, and an in game option when you're stuck. For example you fail to beat a boss ten times the game pops up with options - keep trying, make it easier or skip entirely. Whatever you choose the bit you're stuck on gets added to the practice menu. 

 

This could be linked to achievements. You'd need to legitimately complete the game in its entirety to get the achievement.  If you start on hard, but drop it to standard midway you'd only get the standard achievement. This way you would get to see the whole game but you couldn't platinum it without playing it properly.

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