Saturday, December 15, 2007

More Difficulty Problems

This should be the end of my trilogy of blog posts regarding difficulty in videogames. I have recently been playing Devil May Cry 3 again. It is a lot of fun, but it is very, very hard. Right now, I am stuck trying to defeat the Doppelganger on Normal Mode. I already went through the entire game in Easy mode, and have built up my health to about 80% of max and built up every weapon. Doppelganger is still extremely tough. I swear that it is impossible to beat Normal mode without building up first in Easy mode. It is no wonder that Normal difficulty became the Hard difficulty setting in the Devil May Cry 3 Special Edition rerelease.

To me, this is a good example of an inherent problem of difficulty settings: they are not very consistent between different games. Some games, like Kingdom Hearts 2, are extremely easy on their lower difficulty settings. Other games, like Devil May Cry 3, can be very difficult and nerve wracking on their lower difficulty settings. It is not even consistent within games of the same series. For example, I considered Metroid Prime 1 and 2 to be a satisfying challenge on Normal Difficulty. I was never able to beat the Elite Pirate in Metroid Prime 1 on Hard difficulty. With this experience, I chose Normal difficulty when I played Metroid Prime 3. However, I only died twice in the entire game, and both times were caused when I made silly mistakes in Corrupted Hypermode caused by pirate EMP grenades, rather than from normal life drain. I even survived a stupid suicide trip through a lava waterfall to collect a power-up somewhat out of sequence. Normal mode in Prime 3 was noticeably easier than Normal mode in 1 and 2.

It would be best if games could create some kind of unified standard for how hard the standard Easy, Normal, Hard, and Maniac difficulty settings should be. Unfortunately, creating some kind of industry standard may be completely impractical, if not impossible. In any case, developers may need to turn to other solutions.

One thing Devil May Cry 3 does is offer a switch from Normal Mode to Easy Mode if the player dies too much. This is a reasonable solution that is being used by many other games, but I don't think it is perfect. When DMC3 first made the offer, after I had lost several times to the first boss, I declined. Being offered a switch to a lower difficulty setting hurt my pride. By the time the offer was made, I had easily cleared the first two stages of the game, and had little problems getting to the first boss. As an experienced gamer, I have long since learned that persistence s the key to getting through tough boss battles (something that is particularly true in DMC3). I figured that I could beat the boss with some persistence. I was wrong.

This highlights part of the problem in asking players to select a difficulty setting: it is hard to judge how hard a setting really is until you have played the game for a while. Most videogames start with the kid gloves on, and slowly stack on the challenge as the game progresses. This is true no matter what difficulty setting is selected. This means that first impressions of a setting's real difficulty can be wrong. This is compounded by the inability of the player to easily change difficulty setting. Some games like DMC3 let the player switch to an easier setting if they lose often, but few games let the player trade up in difficulty. For example, I was fairly deep in Kingdom Hearts 2 when I really decided that the game was to easy for my tastes, but in order to make the game harder, I had to start the game over again from the beginning, and lose hours of progress. So, I trudged onward through the game, and regretted my early choice of difficulty setting.

Allowing the player to more fluidly change difficulty setting within one play-through of the game may help these problems. I believe Odin Sphere had such an option. While the current system is invaluable, improvements still need to be made.

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