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Rob Zacny

Episode 467: Hard Times or Easy Living

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Three Moves Ahead 467:

Three Moves Ahead 467

Hard Times or Easy Living
Rowan, TJ, and Rob and joined by Jon Bolding to talk about how the difficulty discussion and "designer intent" maps to strategy games... or doesn't. We discuss games that go out of their way to highlight a specific "way it's meant to be played" and whether that actually holds up in reality. We also talk about customization options and, when all else fails, the glorious tradition of house rules and outright cheating to find the way to play that "just right" for you.

XCOM, Battle Brothers, Total War, StarCraft,


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When I think about cheese and difficulty issues I don't see about having a real victory or something. I think about being robbed of gameplay. It's fine when RTS campaign or RPG takes an approach of a solvable game: if you cheese specific encounters or monster types you still have a game to play, you did something clever that lets you skip some problems but not much was lost. But it becomes an issue when there's reliable "cheese" in the game.


When I know that Slicken spell works on practically everyone or that any civilization can be easily bribed into attacking others and thus will never attack you I become bored. I can ignore those cheese tactics, yes, but it feels dumb to not use simple solutions that work. Games promise me that learning the mechanics will give me a grand battle I crave. But then it turns out that in most 4X games AI will just allow you to have your low effort victory as long as you don't do anything stupid. If you want to use those late game units than do it, I guess, but it won't be effective or useful. Things like that make the experience boring and cheap whether you care about the glory of beating a game.

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Video Game Difficulty is not the same as Accessibility.


Turning up the difficulty in Shogun 2: Total War doesn't make it less accessible, because Total War games were designed to be played on Normal mode. Anything else causes the balance of the game to go out of whack and causes AI peasants to be tougher than player soldiers. Basically, you are sacrificing balance & fidelity of design in favour of additional challenge.


Difficulty levels in video games need to be better explained by the designer. Some games made 'Normal' the new easy, because it satiates the ego of the majority of the players - Call of Duty being an example where, even ignoring the regenerating health mechanic, 'Normal' seemingly doesn't match the experience of being a basic soldier due to the sheer amount of damage per second that a player can take I.e ludo-narrative dissonance is in effect.


A lot of people could enjoy video games at higher difficulties IF they understood that Hard Mode is not the bogeyman. When I was younger (i.e games in the late 90s to early 2000s, I would NEVER play on a harder mode, because we usually understood that the risks that the game is actually mechanically or stat-handicapping the player was not worth the frustration. Things have changed since then, and I remember a Gamesradar article suggesting that, at least for action games that were popular in the late 2000s, Hard mode was usually the default for people experienced with games, whereas 'Normal' had been made as a concession during the Xbox 360/PS3 era.


Ultimately, there need to be better explanations for what difficulty levels actually do, IF the options exist.


The reason why people enjoy Dark Souls is because it doesn't have those discussions about whether action game should be played on normal, hard etc.


Dark Souls is like a de-populated MMO for loners where you are all that is left, and that's why we love it. MMO games typically do not have multiple difficulty levels, and therefore the discussion about Sekiro and Dark Souls having obvious difficulty selections is less about accessibility, since if it were the case, all MMOs would have to be made easier to accommodate less able gamers. Dark Souls is also an RPG where the game gets a bit easier by playing it by virtue of how levelling up and stats work.


The market is free enough so that if somebody wants to make a Dark Souls that is mechanically less demanding, then they can do that. They've been doing it for ages by making video games. I would argue that Dark Souls is a reaction to how much easier western fantasy games were becoming around the time of Elder Scrolls Oblivion (I.e After Morrowind), and how much these games made the player the ultimate hero, which clashes with the feeling of having a big open world - the world actually revolves around the player.


Real word comparison: A

basketball is difficult for someone who needs a wheelchair to play, IF they don't have a wheelchair. So there is a handicap that now CAN be mitigated by investment. However, somebody without feet maybe cannot wear shoes. Should we complain about the shoe industry for gatekeeping our feet?

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The reason why developers should be forthcoming with their conception of difficulty levels is because if they do not, rumours persist for many years about difficulty levels, and the talk becomes so ingrained that people will believe in those rumours, even if a small degree of experimentation could prove otherwise.


For example, people believe in disappearing bullets in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. People also believe that enemies are easier to kill in higher difficulty levels I'm that game (despite them obviously being tougher), and people also believe that Master difficulty was the intended experience, despite some potential evidence to the contrary.


Heck, I bet there are people out there who STILL believe that harder Total War difficulties make the AI smarter, and then that would make them better, more clever generals, rather than realise that they have learned to play past some additional (invisible!) handicaps on a game that is essentially bottlenecked by mostly predictable AI. I'd also wager that, because of YouTube, AND because Creative Assembly put in an official looking 'Legendary' mode, people would now believe that the 'true' Total War experience now lies with max difficulty - which it doesn't.


Video game developers perhaps like to encourage these rumours because they think it makes their product more endeering - like how Mortal Kombat Arcade rumours persisted.


Video game difficulty is ultimately treated like a mystery box, and the last time one of those was used, JJ Abrams set up Star Wars fans in ways that lead to disappointment when Rian Johnson deconstructed the mystery box all over the place.

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