Well, it looks like the general consensus of Titanfall 2 is that it’s turning out to be a flop. Despite some raving reviews across the board from critics and players alike, the game has essentially been another game to fall victim to the Sarlacc Pit of the game release schedule that is November 2016 –a time when the biggest hits of the year all seem to be coming out and devouring the wallets of all who approach it. With games like Watch_Dogs 2, Pokemon Sun and Moon and Final Fantasy XV on the very near horizon, most gamers appear to be letting Titanfall 2 fall to the wayside as they save their cash for the games they’ve been looking forward to. Either that or they’ve been enjoying Battlefield 1, released on the same day as Titanfall 2’s, to EA’s remorse I’m sure. To me, this was disappointing news to hear, especially since I was already interested in what the game had to offer after just watching the game’s tutorial.
Allow me to elaborate while you recover from the sudden topical whiplash I’m sure you suffered after starting this article with a miniature summary of the current status of Titanfall 2, instead of an article on difficulty as the title suggests. I haven’t played the game myself as of writing this article, primarily due to the same reason as I stated above – the Final Fantasy XV special edition on PS4 is hard to find, as it turns out. But thankfully, I’m a child of the YouTube era and a fan of wonderful content creators like the lads at RageSelect who play through brand new games for those of us who have to choose between buying new games and affording groceries for that week.
During RageSelect’s recent first impressions video for Titanfall 2, I noticed an interesting design choice that revolved around the game’s opening tutorial. After teaching the basics of movement, jetpack-parkour and shooting, the game presents you with an obstacle course to test your newly learned skills. What I found interesting was that at the end of the obstacle course, your performance would set your initial difficulty for the game, intelligently doing away with the traditional menu-based method of selecting difficulty – something that I think modern gaming really needs to get away from.
Even in 2016 we still see the standard “Easy”, “Medium”, and “Hard” options displayed on a screen before we even start up a game. While in the cases of more recent games these have at least changed to become more descriptive, displaying sub-headings that describe the easiest difficulty as one “for those who want to experience the story”, I still feel like this method is an awful and outdated way for a player to choose a game’s difficulty. After all, how would any player know what difficulty they want to experience a game on if they haven’t even played the game yet?
I hate this way of selecting difficulty because it lacks a necessary context that changes between each game. Before you’ve gotten into your first combat encounter, properly understood the game’s mechanics, or even made your first dialogue choice, this method expects the player to understand what each difficulty setting means within that game’s context. How is a player meant to understand which difficulty setting they’ll have the most fun with from that screen alone, with or without a vague descriptor?
From personal experience, I can tell you that this method definitely didn’t work in games like DmC: Devil May Cry and Kingdom Hearts 2 – both of which I feel are fantastic games, but were let down by my initial playthrough thanks to their menu-based difficulty selection. I’m a guy who likes to enjoy a mix of gameplay and story, to be challenged but not punished, so I would assume that “Normal” is the difficulty for me. But in the cases of both of these games, their version of “Normal” was actually fairly easy, giving very little in the way of any sort of challenge. And unfortunately, I had realised this far too late to start the games from the beginning on a harder difficulty.
In my mind, without a game’s context of what its own version of “Easy”, “Medium”, and “Hard” means in terms of gameplay, players can end up picking an experience that is personally unsatisfying. They may think that they shouldn’t pick an easier difficulty because it could make them think they aren’t getting the game’s true experience, which most of us believe a “Normal” difficulty would provide. Alternatively, players may avoid a harder difficulty because they worry the challenge may just be too frustrating when they just want to enjoy the game’s story – a similar thought process which led me to pick “Normal” difficulty in Kingdom Hearts 2 and DmC.
So if this method of difficulty selection can lead players to have unsatisfying experiences, what are other ways that games could implement their difficulty in a way that is easier to understand? Well, I can think of a couple ways that have popped up every now and again that could be better alternatives to the menu-based system: Dynamic difficulty and Adaptive Difficulty.
I’ve always been a big fan of dynamic difficulty. Personally, I think that the idea of adjusting a game’s difficulty on the fly depending on the player’s performance is a fantastic alternative to the current norm. When used correctly, it creates that amazing feeling of “flow”, which rides the sweet spot of difficulty that feels like the game is just challenging enough without being too frustrating, while also avoiding player boredom from being too easy. A dynamic difficulty does a better job at accounting for almost every type of gamer and their various levels of skill by providing a near constant optimal playing experience.
As I mentioned previously in my hidden mechanics article, Resident Evil 4 did this perfectly. Despite also having a menu-based difficulty selection at the game’s start, the game’s use of dynamic difficulty essentially solves that issue of the player picking the difficulty that isn’t right for them by adjusting to the player’s skill level as they play. Resident Evil 4 kept its “flow” by making the game more challenging if the player performed well by avoiding damage and shooting accurately. But if the player died too much or took too many hits, the game would ease off on the challenge. And this ultimately worked even better because the player wouldn’t even know about it unless they analysed multiple playthroughs to spot the differences. As a result, the player doesn’t feel like they’re being pitied for playing badly, or spited for doing well.
But sadly, while I think it may be the best method for implementing difficulty, the use of dynamic difficulty in most games isn’t perfect – it’s probably got a long way to go, actually. Nearly every game I’ve seen with some form of dynamic difficulty doesn’t focus on the same “flow” method seen in Resident Evil 4. Instead, they use a method that’s a lot more direct in telling to the player exactly what it’s doing.
The use of dynamic difficulty works as well as it does in Resident Evil 4 because the player doesn’t know about it, it makes them feel like they’re accomplishing the tasks and overcoming the challenges that the game throws at them. It works best when it’s completely under the hood and unseen by the player. Which is why it aggravates me to no end when I see games pushing it in the player’s face, front and centre, and always done so in the same, infuriating way.
Say you’ve died one too many times? Well then prepare for the game to stop everything and ask if you want to play the game on a lower difficulty. After all, this boss has been killing you a lot and the game wouldn’t want you to get cranky. Maybe you’ve died so much on a level that the game feels like taking pity on you and gives you an item to make the game insultingly easier. You know that feeling as well as I do when playing Super Mario 3D Land: seeing that invincible golden tanooki box sitting next to the checkpoint, mocking you for fucking up too many times. Even if these games don’t mean to, they’re insulting you and your skill as a player. What’s even worse is when games like Metal Gear Solid 5 or the more recent Ninja Gaiden reboot actually do insult the player for conceding to an easier difficulty setting.
Maybe we should use something that’s a little less easy to get wrong.
But even if dynamic difficulty may not be the most effective difficulty selection method out there at the moment, an adaptive difficulty method that could serve as a fantastic alternative – using the gameplay itself to help the player decide the difficulty that’s right for them. I think this concept of difficulty through gameplay works so well because it actually lets the player experience some of that missing context of difficulty found in the menu-based method.
Take that Titanfall 2 example I used at the beginning of this article. It allowed the player to get a hang of how the controls and mechanics work first, giving a recommended difficulty level after seeing how well the player handled them in a controlled environment. Even better was that this difficulty could still be changed mid-gameplay with a menu-based system if the player wanted to. This way, once players got the hang of how the game played after an hour or two, they would have the ability to modify the game’s challenge at their own pace if they felt the difficulty they had been given wasn’t suitable to their skill level.
Even Dark Souls 2 used a form of adaptive difficulty, as hard as it is to believe. From the game’s start, there are a number of mechanical ways that the player can set their own difficulty, in turn making the player feel clever for taking advantage of them. The player can use ranged weapons or spells that, when combined with the melee-focused enemy’s intentional pathing constraints and bugs, turn stressful fights into ones of patience and observation. There’s even a starting area item that can swap the game’s brutal death penalty of losing a chunk of total health and currency for one that’s a little less punishing – instead only forcing you to spend a portion of currency in exchange for keeping your health as it is. Because these were all optional choices for the player to make, a player could still enjoy the standard difficulty of a Dark Souls game if they wished. But since these difficulty modifiers were mechanics based, it didn’t feel like handing in your “pro gamer” card for choosing to do something that would make the game easier, it felt like you were intelligently overcoming the game’s challenges. I think the use of an adaptive difficulty would allow players to enjoy this feeling a lot more often.
Don’t get me wrong, I actually do enjoy that games are starting to use much more descriptive difficulty options at the start of games, especially ones like The Witcher 3’s easy to understand “Just the story” easy mode. But the context of difficulty still changes from game to game, even with more descriptive versions of “Easy”, “Normal” and “Hard”. While these alternatives still have room for improvement before they can officially become the gaming norm, I still look forward to when they hopefully do. I would rather know how to play my games before I decide how hard I want them to be.