Creating difficulty in your game is a choice; make no mistake. It’s much easier to write a straight line from one end of your game to another. Stringing along the player to make all of the right moves and not to bump into the guardrails. It’s simpler to write an interactive novel that just has the player taking their time and enjoying the scenery.
Difficulty is hard. Difficulty takes time and can done wrong. Difficulty can appeal to a small group of dedicated gamers that strive to rise to the challenge. Or it could be a laughing stock among the community. Or it could simply be nothing.
On the surface, difficulty levels vary between quantity and quality.
Quantity relies on repeated playthroughs giving the player a chance to memorize enemy placements, powerups, and where all those damn keys are. It gives the player a sense of what’s to come: more of this. It’s on and off like a switch. First they’re here then they’re not. But what does quantity really add to the experience of the game?
It does add challenge, no doubt. Opening a door in Doom seeing only an Imp is hardly a challenge until you bump up the difficulty. Now opening that door shows three Imps and they are pissed. You find yourself grinding out the solution. Brute forcing your way through it because, although it is harder, the game is just a collection of processes at this point. Instead of managing two enemies here, there’s three. Or it’s three level 2 skeletons and one level 4 wizard. Once the mind discovers the patterns and the behaviors, it can beat it. It’s a simple straight line from beginning to end. It could remove features all together. In the Last of Us, playing on Survivor mode makes finding supplies much problematic and your Listen mode becomes unavailable.
Quality, on the other hand, takes more time to develop. It shows improvement over the old. It changes the game in a sense. That enemy that you’ve encountered again and again, now has a different move set to choose from that you aren’t prepared for. Rather than just slashing at you, it throws a fireball from a distance. Or the difficulty may introduce an entirely new area of the game that is only accessible in hard mode like Castlevania: Chronicles of Sorrow.
Difficulty can also give you a fair head start with New Game Plus. This mode allows you to keep all of your upgrades and level ups at the start of a brand new game. It’s an interesting trade off. You start this New Game Plus with the thoughts of being overpowered only to discover that your enemies have learned a new trick or two as well in between games.
Difficulty in video games is a strange thing. It can be presented on a curve or turned on like a switch. It creates repeat playthroughs, impressive speedrun attempts, and bragging rights. It’s important to take something like difficulty seriously especially for your dedicated fanbase. Sure it’s a very niche gaming aspect, but that’s why we got into this business in the first place, right?
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