At this year's Game Developer's Conference, Sid Meier gave a keynote titled "Psychology of Game Design: Everything you Know is Wrong." While I disagree with the vast majority of what Sid had to say, one of his statements did pique my interest. "I once gave a talk on how games should be split into four different difficulty levels." Meier said. "I was wrong. Now, Civilization V has nine difficulty levels."
Nine might sound a little preposterous. What could possibly be different to justify nine separate ranks of difficulty? Most often, changes in difficultly affect a few specific and easily predicted game elements. This is unsatisfactory. Meier might be on to something. While there is no game mode magic number, tiers of difficulty should still be far more varied and much more transparent than they are.
Different modes of difficulty exist, understandably, to account for the numerous levels of player experience. An easy task for a gamer veteran could be extremely arduous for someone new to the medium. Accordingly, we adjust how forgiving the game is for these inexperienced players.
When we talk about difficulty, we are really talking about one aspect of pacing. Players should progress at just the right speed. Depending on the feelings designers are trying to evoke, players should feel challenged but also empowered to overcome these challenges fairly. They should also be learning, and applying their knowledge to the obstacles ahead. Good narratives, be they story or mechanically based, should feel rhythmic and natural.
Difficulty is subservient to pacing. Take a look at Super Meat Boy or its Meat Boy predecessor. These games are brutally difficult. Surpassing a level is a personal feat of epic proportions. Regardless, the pacing is superb. When Meat Boy dies, he starts at the beginning of the level. But all the levels are incredibly short, never longer than thirty seconds. He also respawns incredibly quickly, letting the player kill off her Meat Boy hundreds of times in just minutes.
For the Meat Boy games, one difficulty is fine. But for longer titles, particularly story driven affairs, more is better. As it stands, there are usually three to four ranks - easy, medium, and hard, and occasionally hardest. Medium is the norm, what players familiar with games usually select. Hard is an extra challenge for the most experienced player. Hardest is mostly for those so enamored with the game, they will play through it twice. Which means of the four levels of difficulty, only one is meant for anyone with a skill level below the gamer average. That does not seem exactly fair, does it?
Rock Band offers an interesting ideal, despite having only four levels of difficulty. Easy and medium use three fret buttons - green, red and yellow. When compared to the same song, the latter is significantly harder, with a higher note count and increased complexity. Moving to hard is an even greater leap with the addition of the blue fret button. Again, moving to Extreme does it again with an extra orange button.
Rock Band is a useful example because, although the basic idea is the same, the play experience is so drastically different between difficulties. It is absolutely reasonable for someone who has never played a videogame in their life to play Rock Band on easy. At the same time, higher levels on extreme are nearly impossible for even the most experienced player. Also, progression through the campaign on each difficulty is well paced enough to encourage players to move between ranks.
What would such variance look like in a traditional game? It would have to fundamentally change how the game is played. So in New Super Mario Bros. Wii for example, the easiest mode might remove player collisions, allowing players to stack up on each other. Or, perhaps a first-person shooter of your choosing would give the newest players infinite ammo, or provide more cover objects during difficult scenes. As it stands, most FPS games just make enemies easier to kill and slightly increase player health.
But that would change gameplay completely you might say. So what? Understandably, vast changes require careful implementation and playtesting. That aside, what should we be so concerned about? Both console versions of Dragon Age: Origins and Red Faction Guerrilla create distinctive play experiences on easy, and are better for it. Their stories are better paced, opening the adventure to more players.
If the pacing ever becomes too fast, a player can easily upgrade to a higher difficulty. It should also be feasible for any game to naturally usher a new player into its harder levels. This upgrade should be completely transparent. Players should know exactly what "slightly harder" actually means. "Only for the most hardcore l33t players" is just not descriptive enough. I commend Heavy Rain for so explicitly tying the game's difficulty to familiarity with the PS3 controller..
For the most part, game difficulty rankings are not representative of many potential players. They are primarily designed for those already playing the game, offering minor adjustments to keep frustrated players appeased. They actually offer an opportunity to teach and provide a variety of play styles, becoming more inclusive of the non-gamer community in the process. Seizing that opportunity is worthwhile, no matter the difficulty.