Most art forms have kind of a no rules concept behind whatever is being created, and I think that is true with gaming too. There are so many aspects of gaming that we usually don’t take into consideration when we are deciding whether or not we adorn a game with the word “good,” or “great,” etc. Normally we don’t discuss things like how well the difficulty mechanics were used or how the save system works. I think all of these things could be uniquely shaped for a game and utilized in a way that would make a game stand out.
With all that said, my point is that the difficulty mechanic used in the majority of games today is much too generic. It is just a scale, nothing more. There are many more ways that difficulty can be used and can change the game, which developers opt out of or don’t think about. Those games follow the same basic scale. Increasing difficulty will increase enemies’ health, armor/defense, and attack/strength. And maybe, but this is more rare, an enemy or two may get a new kind of ability/weapon, or some kind of modified version of an original ability/weapon.
First I want to tackle the question as to why some developers may be less inclined to be more creative in this regard. Well, let’s say for example, that when a difficulty is increased a new enemy is introduced that is a little more difficult than the others and definitely changes your strategy as the player. That sounds pretty neat to have that sort of dynamism, of course. However, some may see this as restricting content from some players. That, if the developer is going to spend time creating some kind of enemy, but it is only used in a certain difficulty level or higher, many people will miss out on it, so why should it be worth their time?
I think it is fair to assume that the majority of people play games on the “normal” difficulty, or the equivalent of that, when prompted to, unless they are familiar with the franchise/game and are playing it on a higher difficulty. It is probably also safe to assume that the number of those that choose the higher difficulties is much smaller. If a developer is going to spend money creating something, they want it to be seen, so it makes sense as to why they may decide against a more dynamic difficulty scale.
I don’t think that this is necessarily a wild claim recently, especially with many of the “hardcore” gamers in the gaming community complaining about too many games being casual. In some respect, I would have to agree. I think the biggest claim for this that actually has any merit is the fact that many new games don’t even have a basic difficulty selection. Games like Assassin’s Creed III, Pokemon (although the newest versions do have a difficulty selection, however, it takes a hell of a lot to unlock it, so it might as well be nonexistent), and Borderlands 2.
Games are now designed so literally anyone with reasonable gaming knowledge, or even none, can make it through a game. While that is fine, it just seems that there is a distinct lack of an alternative that is creative in any way. And this is, again, to cater to the largest audience possible, when sometimes a more creative difficulty mechanic may close that kind of audience. So, if I wanted to experience a more difficult Pokemon for example, I would have to be the creative one and create my own kind of rules. This has led to some amusing things, like the Nuzlocke Challenge. While that is definitely adding a new type of depth to the game, none of it can be attributed to the original creator of the game.
Now, don’t get that criticism confused and say “well you can say the same things about mods,” because you can’t. In many cases, the ability to mod a game is provided by a developer and fostered by the developer to allow people to do what they want to modify the game. The developer makes a conscious decision to provide the tools for modifications to happen and then creates a way for those modifications to be created by others. When those tools are not provided for modification, or there is a distinct lack of a difficulty mechanic, we are left to our own imagination and have to work within the rules and mechanics already in place by whatever game it is we are playing; we can’t change those mechanics, like in modding.
Are there examples of good uses of difficulty? Definitely. It is really difficult to think of a game where a kind of difficulty mechanic is creative because there are so few. In saying that though, I think there is one game that exemplifies a creative difficulty setting quite well: Defense Grid. For those of you that are unfamiliar with Defense Grid, it is a tower defense game where you have to defend “cores” that are being attacked by aliens. Get this out of your heads though, gaming difficulty is not limited to some kind of slider that increases or decreases depending on the level you choose. Defense Grid takes an entirely different route.
Each level kind of has a basic difficulty addition to it, like most other games, where the aliens are much more difficult to kill. Defense Grid differs in that it offers a variety of other kinds of “modes” or “difficulties” that allow you to play the game in different ways. One mode is called “Frozen Core,” where the cores that the aliens pick up, which are essentially your lives, don’t return back to where they were originally held like usual. Instead, when you kill an alien carrying a core, the core stays where it was. So, it makes it much more difficult and you have to adjust your strategy in a way that the aliens, more or less, can’t make it to the cores at all, or at least can’t get past a certain point after grabbing a core.
That is just one example of a more difficult way to play. There are many more modes, like a mode that limits the amount of towers you can build, one that limits the amount of resources you have to build towers, one that doesn’t allow you to upgrade your towers, one that limits what kind of towers you can build, and many more. Defense Grid went above and beyond in this regard, and I don’t think that this level of variety is necessary to have something deemed as a “good” difficulty mechanic.
Now, I will concede that Defense Grid is a tower defense, which allows for these kinds of modes and difficulties to be created relatively easily. Other kinds of genres will have a much more difficult time in trying to create a creative difficulty mechanic that is, at the same time, practical. Again, let me emphasize the fact that Defense Grid is above and beyond the expectations for a good difficulty mechanic. Other genres of games can’t really get to that level without creating multiple versions of the same game.
I can really only think of a few games that have great difficulty mechanics. Another is Halo, which significantly changed the game depending on the difficulty setting. There are more for sure, but I am still somewhat at a loss, and I think there are still many more that can benefit from a much better mechanic. For example, anyone who played Call of Duty: World at War on the hardest difficulty will tell you that the game basically became “run from the grenade.” Treyarch’s idea of a really hard difficulty was grenade spam basically. Instead, why not introduce some more versatile enemies in a level while at the same time making their AI better? Couldn’t the addition of some snipers and other kinds of units change the dynamic of a level? Surely it could; I know my strategy would have changed drastically.
Again, I think that some types of games will have a much more difficult time creating a better difficulty level, even if they wanted to. I don’t necessarily have an answer to what they should do because I don’t know what kind of game it is. There is no real “good” definition to the kind of a difficulty mechanic because each are unique to whatever game it is that has been created. However, I still think it can be judged on how creative or how well-suited it is to the game.
Now the all important question, why does it matter? You may be thinking, “This is kind of a trivial and small factor in gaming, why should we care about it at all?” Maybe I am over-thinking or over-emphasizing a small part of a game, but what makes a truly great game is some kind of attention to detail. Some of that attention may be well-suited towards creating a better difficulty mechanic, but, again, it really depends on the type of game. I do not think that every game needs to have some kind of difficulty level or something like that. The Final Fantasy games would not benefit from a difficulty indicator; they work the way they are.
There are still many kinds of games that would benefit from a more dynamic difficulty mechanic, though. Games like tower defenses, certain FPS games, action RPGs like Diablo and Torchlight, and many more. Some kind of unique difficulty system can help to define a game. So a difficulty system may be trivial to one game, but could mean a lot to others, like Defense Grid. Defense Grid would have just been an alright tower defense without this kind of variety.
The difficulty system just seems, at least to me, to be a vastly underutilized tool that can really make a game much, much better. Not all games need to take it into consideration, especially when you look at why people play games in the first place. Some play for the story of a game, like The Walking Dead, and some play for the challenge of a game, like Super Meat Boy (those are both superficial and general definitions, but are basic enough to cover a lot of people). Developers just need to understand when a difficulty system will benefit their game, and then actually use it. As it is right now, the difficulty mechanic for many games is just taken for granted. The opportunity is right there; they just need to realize it.