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Are Difficulty Settings Necessary?

The pursuit of a challenge can be a driving force in life. The accomplishment of something thought to be unobtainable has a certain allure which some find irresistible. Game designers tend to play off of this concept, creating challenges that seem insurmountable in the context of the game world. Typically there will be an option for the player to affect the likelihood of beating the odds through game difficulty. As a designer, the proper implementation of difficulty, in my opinion, is instituting a learning curve and building from there. Once the player has gleaned the knowledge the game has presented, the designer is free to introduce complex obstacles that utilize this knowledge in varying ways. Approaching the difficulty question from this angle allows designers to create more involving situations during the progression of the game. This concept of “learning in order to succeed” seems to eradicate the necessity of a difficulty option altogether.

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The Difference Between “Hard” and “Frustrating”

I would like to preface this by saying I love hard games. I love Demon’s Souls and most Atlus games. I play Touhou, though I have only beaten one of them and only on easy mode. I measure difficulty in ‘Megamans’. I do not believe those who play easier games are lesser or inferior, I just like hard games. The thing is, “hard” is an ambiguous word. A game can be hard for a lot of reasons, but as far as I am concerned, there are two kinds of difficult games: those that are “hard” and those that are “frustrating.” As a final preface note, unless stated otherwise, everything discussed in this article is set to the “normal” difficulty.

“Hard” games are deliberately hard. They are designed to be difficult, and make you work to complete a level, to get an item, to win a fight or complete a puzzle. They are games like Super Meat Boy that kill you a lot but keep death a quick thing and don’t make a big deal about it, or games like Persona or Megaman that are simply difficult. They are nothing short of challenging, and despite the difficulty I rarely find myself frustrated when playing them. Dying a lot, for example, does not have to be a source of frustration, especially when handled correctly. Demon’s Souls is a great example of this. Death is so frequent it is actually part of the narrative and, more importantly, it is quick. There is no long game over upon death. The character simply falls over and respawns at the beginning of the level. All you lose are your “souls,” the sort of all-purpose currency/experience you have on hand, and you can always go back to where you died and recollect them.

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Surviving The Horror: Dead Space 2’s Hard Core Difficulty

When humans get scared, our bodies prepare to take action. Adrenaline courses through our systems, our heart rates skyrocket, and certain bodily functions like digestion get suspended entirely. This is commonly known as the body’s “fight or flight” response. But while “fight or flight” may have a nice ring to it, the terms suggest a simple duality that doesn’t quite mesh with the reality: our fear response covers not just fight OR flight, but every combination of the two. Furthermore, the fear response varies between people. How you react to something scary may not be how I react to it.

Horror game developers are aware of this range of response, and they design their titles to fit a certain segment of it. Some horror fans prefer games that trigger their “fight” reaction. Others prefer games that trigger their “flight” response. Neither is a more valid horror experience than the other, and, contrary to popular belief, titles like Resident Evil 5 and Amnesia can occupy the same market space.

Enter the Dead Space series. The first game appealed to both “fight” and “flight” enthusiasts with its mix of extreme player vulnerability and engaging dismemberment. The second game ramped up the intensity in all respects. The hero, Isaac Clarke, is faster and deadlier, but so are the bladed undead necromorphs he faces. With added environmental hazards, the player is thrust into situations that constantly challenge him or her. Despite all these new features, the developers at Visceral knew they needed something extra to combat the greatest enemy of fear: familiarity. As the second game in the series, Dead Space 2 would automatically start off in a weaker position. Thus, a new difficulty was included. Hard Core mode would give the player only three saves for the entire game. Checkpoints would be disabled, and death would return the player to his last save, regardless if that was 5 chapters ago.

Hard Core offers players quite a different experience than usual. The cost of failure is not a few rooms’ worth of progress, but rather, entire chapters and multiple hours of gameplay. Similar difficulty modes have appeared in other games, but it’s particularly suited to the survival horror genre. The player is already used to being extra careful about enemy encounters, and the more serious consequences serve to heighten the tension. All this is just fluffy theory until you actually screw up, however.

Then the game changes.

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The Complexity of SeeD

The trend in gaming has been to simplify, simplify, simplify. If games are easier, more people will want to play them. If games are less complex, fewer people will quit them midway through, and the more people who beat games, the more people will play more games, more sequels.

Simpler games mean more money, put simply.

Complexity in games is certainly different from difficulty, the subject of this month’s omnitopic, though the two are often related. The earliest games were extremely difficult, but most featured two buttons and few had even the most rudimentary concepts of player progression and development. In Super Mario Brothers the only way to get better was through trial and error, and the tutorial was the first goomba, walking at you. In Final Fantasy, you improved by leveling up, but the concept of leveling up was not much more complex that killing enough monsters to get more hit points. It was Mario’s trial and error codified into a straight, simple progression, mostly because you couldn’t get much better at hitting the attack button. Contrast this to modern games, where tutorials are all consuming but the games themselves are easier than ever. In fact, they are designed so anyone can complete them.

During the Super Nintendo days, when all games came out of Japan, none of the truly complicated ones ever made it over to America. People look at me funny when I say the SNES had some brilliantly complicated games, and they remember Mario World, Super Metroid, and Final Fantasy VI*. My first reaction to this is always to claim Final Fantasy VI is secretly a very complicated game, with arcane, unexplained mechanics that allow you to completely break your party, but then they retort by saying they never understood any of them and still beat the game. Fine, I respond, and list off a string of titles: Final Fantasy V, Bahamut Lagoon, Romancing SaGa, Shin Megami Tensei. All very complicated games.

All very Japan only, too.
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Omnitopic: Difficulty

(The imaginatively named Omnitopic is our attempt at community; bow before the might of community, petty mortals! It is a collection of posts circling around a specific topic, floating like a boxer and stinging like a nail through the forearm. It is a combination of opinions into a collection of packages.)

The month of May makes me think of flowers, showers and absurdly difficult games.

What makes a game difficult? There’s no central criteria. Difficulty comes in many forms. Some of these forms are as hard as trying to beat Mega Man 2 as a five year old. Others are games you positively cannot get into, that you try and try to enjoy and eventually find your way in to a new favorite. Some are complicated and arcane, not especially challenging but presenting a difficult front to keep out casual gamers.

And others? Others are just plain easy.

Difficulty in games is a heady topic, one which has spawned countless casual vs. hardcore debates, heated rants, and broken controllers. So this makes it a fantastic pick to revive our long dormant collaborative post series, dead since last May, because it’s a topic with so many avenues of access. Easy and hard are just one of many: complexity, obtuseness, and intense player communities are definite options, and even ones I haven’t thought of in my very limited wisdom.

We will be posting our responses as the month goes along, but we also want to open it up to the community, too. So! Here’s the deal. We’re going to open up the Omnitopic to you, the readers. Submit your own responses to the Omnitopic this month to us via email at nightmaremode AT, and the best response will not only get published, but the author will also get his or her choice from the following games via Steam: Capsized, Yar’s Revenge or Anomaly: Warzone Earth. The only stipulations are that you are not currently a writer at Nightmare Mode, and that the entry is at least 3 paragraphs long.

So good hunting, everyone, and don’t let the difficulty get you down.

Team Meat: Games Today Provide Empty Happiness; Expansion Plans

In an excellent interview over at GameReactor (part 1 here, part 2 here ) Team Meat reveals their thoughts on modern game’s difficulty. Can you guess why they think that the industry is catering to a  larger audience?

“It’s 100% business. It’s a logical business plan. If you want to be able to make as many people as happy as possible, even if it means an empty happiness. So that’s why every single game has super in-depth tutorials that teach the player so they can’t make any mistakes. Everyone’s trying to make sure no-one gets discouraged in any way possible and they make their way through to the end. Because videogames right now are treated like movies. In order to get the whole experience you need to finish every aspect of the game so they want to make it so everyone can do that. And that’s business. It makes business sense.”

This viewpoint comes  to no surprise  for SMB players, I’m sure. Still, it’s great to see that some people in the industry get it, you know? After all, as Edmund states, “not every game in the world should be easily beaten.”

And now, with a hit game on their hands, money, fame, fortune (except not…they haven’t been paid in years), Team Meat will probably look to expand, right? Wrong. On the subject of expansion, Team Meat said the following: “NEVER! Never ever. The very idea of paying someone a salary and insurance and making sure…the idea of someone’s livelihood relying on me is fearful. I don’t like it. I couldn’t raise a child right now.

Whenever any independent gets any sort of money they feel like they have to expand. And in order to make new games they have to expand. This isn’t not every independent, obviously there are always exceptions. But a lot of them do. They got to get these fourteen artists, they got to get this and that but when you get to that point you’re not so much creating games anymore as more you’re trying to find work to pay your employees. And I’ve done that. I’ve been there, in a situation where I’ve looked for contract work and that was a miserable time in my life. I had a shitload of money but that’s not fun. It wasn’t working on what I wanted to. If we hire people we have to find work, find them work, find money and have to make the next ‘whatever’ game. I don’t want to do that but I have to because I’ve five people to pay. It’s scary.”

Of course we all know the real reason they’re not expanding is because they want to keep their sexual friendship intact. Anyway, make sure to read the interview in full–there’s a lot of meaty stuff in there, including how Team Meat got together, a very expensive Coke Zero bottle, and what Team Meat thinks about the new-fangled motion controllers.



Shinji Mikami on Vanquish

Andriasang has an interview with Vanquish’s director, Shinji Mikami that elucidates on some interesting new details about the game. As per usual, we bring these details to you!

The game, unsurprisingly, has its own take on bullet time/witch time/pig tiems. It’s called AR time, and using it will heat up your suit. We have no idea what AR stands for, but since mullet time is almost always cheating–I mean, cmon, people can’t keep up with you!–we’re going to call it “Action Replay.” You can equip up to three weapons, and these weapons can be ranked up. One such way, one weird way, might I add, is that once your ammo is at full capacity, any extra ammo that you pick up will go toward the increase of the weapon’s rank.

The game will be largely inorganic, Shinji stating that the closest thing to a more natural setting is something that “resembles” a forest.  Actually, it’s probably the Amazon forest in the future. Someone owes me something if I’m right. Other more natural elements will be visible during play, though, it just doesn’t sound as if they will be a setting for you to explore.

Shinji warned that people who look for getting a high score on “medium” enemies should note that they will probably not come out of those encounters alive. “You won’t have time to look at score while you play,” he said. That sounds a bit…lame, then, because why make it take up precious HUD space if it’s not something we’ll have time to look at? Shinji also tells us that there is no aim-assist on normal–that’s something only available on easy. He says that “We felt that this game would be more suited to a more difficult setting rather than something that can be played easily.” Hey, sounds fine to me. The game is made for people who play a lot of games, and while this approach is exclusive to “normal” folks, with such a huge focus toward casual gamers in the industry as of late, I’ll take anything I can get.

In a more “cooler” note, and I say cooler because we all know that people who smoke are cool, one of the game’s…features? Let’s say features. One of the game’s features is that you can smoke during combat. It doesn’t sound as if smoking will damage your health, ala MGS, but it still has an effect. When you toss a cigarette, enemy robots will react to it for some strange reason and try to attack you. So really, it’s like an aggro stick or something for the more douchey among us. You can smoke up to three times per stage, though Shinji says that “”When actually playing the game, I don’t think you’ll have time to smoke a cigarette.” Well, fuck that. I’m smoking my damn cigarettes because I’m a smooth motherfucker. Persona 3 said so.

Stay tuned as we bring you more details on Vanquish!