If you’ve ever played a shooter or RPG, you’ll have probably noticed something like the picture above. You start a new game, and suddenly you’re taken out of your immersion and told “OH BY THE WAY PLEASE TELL US HOW YOU WANT YOUR ENEMIES TO TREAT YOU”. You choose your difficulty from the four options (and it’s almost always four) and jump in to either have no challenge at all or get destroyed.
For some reason, shooters love this method of difficulty more than absolutely any other genre. Most of them even have a formula similar to the one I’ve charted below:
“Easiest” Difficulty – 150% Player Power, %50 Enemy Power
“Easy” Difficulty – 125% Player Power, 75% Enemy Power
“Hard” Difficulty – 100% Player Power, 100% Enemy Power
“Hardest” Difficulty – 50% Player Power, 150% Enemy Power
For some reason, everyone has decided that this is the best way to handle difficulty. Unfortunately, this difficulty choice should be narrowed down two three options: Easy, Medium, and Hard.
Easy mode is for the people who want to enjoy the story or don’t want to repeat sections more than once or twice. Medium is for the people who enjoy being challenged, but intend to finish the game within the average completion time for the genre/franchise. Hard is for the people who hate themselves and the people around them. With four options, you’ve got a problem wherein the two “middle difficulties” are either too similar or unimportant. Playing on Hardened in Call of Duty, for instance, is mostly worthless. You don’t get the fullest challenge of Veteran and you don’t get the relative cakewalk of Regular, but there’s no real drive either way. Add to the fact that most of these shooters treat their respective “Hardened” very poorly, often not giving special achievements for completing the game on said difficulty. Call of Duty is the worst contender for this, offering achievements for completing handfuls of missions on “either Hardened or Veteran” but only giving story completion for “completed on Veteran”. This forces people into giving in and playing on Veteran so they can get their accomplishments confirmed by the game.
As an aside to playing on Veteran difficulty of Call of Duty games, let’s talk for a moment about fairness with difficulty. For some people, Difficulty isn’t about fairness. Certain masochists want their game to be so hard they’ll only eve be able to chip away at the game over the course of a year or more. But then you’ve got the people (myself included) that love the challenge of finishing the game on all difficulties. Unfortunately, you’ve got Call of Duty. COD’s Veteran difficulty is the difficulty that’s just easy enough to finish, but just ridiculous enough to make you stop playing. I’ve recently grabbed COD:4 Remastered (and fuck that process, which I don’t even need to review) and after finishing the first mission on regular, went back through the entire game on Veteran. Most missions were surprisingly simple, and I didn’t begin to die until I approached the final Act of the game. But then I reached the Mountain. The Mountain consists of Safehouse, One Shot, One Kill, and Heat. each of these missions make up the entire difficulty spike of the game.
Final Mission? Not terrible at all. Final fight? Nope.
Heat requires you to almost singlehandedly fight your way to the bottom of a hill on a three minute timer, all the while facing at least two hundred enemy soldiers spread across mostly open fields. Add to the fact that they only spawn once you reach certain points, which means you can’t just wait for them to come to you, and you have a recipe for disaster. I was stuck on that mission alone for over two hours. Luckily, I managed to accidentally de-spawn a few waves of enemies, and got to a part of the map where the other half of the enemies didn’t detect me.
The difficulty didn’t come from the enemies directly, though. I mowed through them, only dying when I stuck my head out. The difficulty of COD games comes from the idea that getting hit means instant death. Three shots with a pistol? Dead. I wounded a guy near the very beginning of my run, and watched him crawl away. A minute later, I saw him on the other end of the field, easily a hundred yards away, as he headshotted me with a handgun and forced me to restart from a checkpoint. That’s not difficult, it’s unfair. Having enemies with the accuracy of a computer satellite doesn’t make the game challenging in any meaningful sense. Hiding behind objects while your AI does most of the work makes you more of a baby than your performance on the prior difficulties. But enough about unfair difficulty. Let’s talk about the flipside:
Halo: Reach – The Golden Difficulty
After about six months of owning Halo: Reach, I decided to give Legendary Difficulty a go. What followed was an incredibly difficult experience that took me about twelve hours to beat. But for that twelve hours. there were only a few times where I felt like the game was unfair. The reason I bring up Halo as the Golden Difficulty experience is because of their focus: Bungie developed Halo from the perspective of it’s “Heroic” Difficulty (the Hardened of Halo). Bungie goes on record of saying “Hard Like Heroic”, in the sense that it’s believed the ultimate experience is that difficulty. And they’re correct. Having beaten the entire franchise at least once on Heroic, I can confirm that at no point did the game feel unfair. Yet this had an overall positive effect on their highest difficulty: because their focus was near the top (and not on the top), Legendary felt like neither a huge difficulty spike nor a walk in the park. The encounters weren’t designed with the easiest difficulty in mind, yet they weren’t designed specifically for the highest difficulty, which provides both a challenge and a fair fight.
Some of the above also has to do with the way Halo handles difficulty. Sure, it gets to where enemies are doing more equal damage to you, but they keep in mind the idea of “hard kills”, where certain things guarantee a kill. If an enemy loses their energy shield, a headshot will kill them (unless they’re wearing a helmet). This is fantastic, because it gives people a focus: don’t attack fast, attack with precision. It rewards careful thinking.
Then, they work on the AI response. In COD, they make the AI unfair, whereas in Halo, Bungie makes the AI smarter whilst not making them godlike. They’ll be more courageous, or less prone to fleeing. Grunts will suicide bomb more often instead of running away. They’ll attempt to run you over in vehicles if they need to, and will duck behind cover when their shields go down. They’l throw their grenades in an intelligent way, not just spamming them (here’s looking at you, COD). It’s an overall enjoyable experience.
Fixing Difficulty – Conclusion
Head more on the side of Halo than COD when designing difficulty options, or better yet, forego them. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain didn’t have a single difficulty option, electing instead to create a fair environment that had certain gameplay items to reduce difficulty at the cost of Mission Ranks (you don’t get to gloat as much). If you do have options for difficulty, make each difficulty seem worthwhile during your game design. Don’t make the game a slogfest unless that’s the point, and don’t make the AI unfair. Finally, keep people from feeling worthless. Give them a reward, regardless of difficulty. It means all the more to people that way.