The Harder Road
Perhaps it's time we reexamine how we make games "harder".
What difficulty do you like to play on? Some people prefer Easy. It usually removes some of the challenge, so less skilled gamers or people who are only interested in the story can see the game through. Others like to crank the challenge to Insane or Nightmare or I’ll Never F**king Beat This. The allure of completely dominating a game (or its achievement list) is a huge draw for many gamers, and some simply like the challenge. Many people probably don’t even mess with it, and just stick with the default.
But how does changing the difficulty change the game exactly? Many games simply up your enemies' health bars while reducing yours. They are harder to kill, while you become easier to kill. Difficulty up! Right? This practice has been standard for a while now, but I think we can do more. More specifically, I think we could achieve that by doing less.
The traditional method of cranking the difficulty may indeed make the game harder, but good game design should transcend mere challenge. Good puzzle games illustrate this point best. Some of the best of the genre, like Portal, Fez and Braid offer one game experience, and manage to make it both challenging and fun. Difficulty is introduced in ways ancillary to the gameplay: Portal offers a selection of challenge maps, and all three games have numerous secret collectibles to grab. Imagine if Portal had a Hard mode. One turret shot kills you, and your portal gun ran on ammo. Sure, that would make it harder, but would it make it more fun?
Platformers are (usually) another good example of how to do it right. Think about Super Mario Bros., back on the NES, the platformer that started it all. I always thought of it as having perfect game design. It didn’t need to change the mechanics in any way to be a great game, and it never felt cheaply difficult nor overly easy. It was just…perfect. You don’t need a Nightmare difficulty level to feel like you’re being tested by it. Many current platformers up the challenge in different ways, usually through optional collectibles. People who would normally be attracted to Easy can simply beat the game without worrying about all that extra stuff, while completionists can go out of their way to beat everything.
Of course, simply sprinkling some extra trinkets around the map won’t suffice for everything. Halo on Legendary simply wouldn’t be as frightening if you only had to find some more hidden skulls. I’m no master game designer and don't claim to be, but it seems to me a few options present themselves. Consider Star Craft II. Yeah, enemy units are a bit harder to kill, but extra objectives are also introduced in the mix. This originated, as far as I know, in GoldenEye 007 on N64. It was a great idea then, and it’s a great idea now. It’s a great way to increase the challenge if you want, but the base mechanics remain the same. Brilliant.
The system must evolve. Hard games aren't going anywhere, but simply straining the game mechanics to their limit isn’t going to cut it anymore. I don’t necessarily enjoy having to pump a thousand bullets into an Elite on Legendary, but I like having a reason to smartly bypass him. Call me a dreamer, but imagine if, instead of simply making the enemies tougher, you had to turn on an extra two generators to get that anti-aircraft gun working, or maybe the original path is blocked on the harder difficulty levels, and you have to take a longer detour. Isn’t that a bit more intelligent than “make ‘em harder to kill”?
While I don’t see the latest iteration of Help Me, Please difficulty going away anytime soon, I have faith that game makers will eventually get it right. For every game with an Insane option, there is a game like Dark Souls that manages to be great, and tough, without doubling the bosses’ hit point pool. In the meantime, I’ve still got my Mass Effect 3 Legendary Edition Insanity playthrough to keep me busy.