The idea of the “dumbing-down” (I hate that phrase, really) of the difficulty in modern gaming, in both tabletop and video varieties is a hot button issue. Some, like the image from the reddit user above, demonstrate the concept in black and white, offering multiple interpretations from “games were harder in 1994,” or “games are more accessible in 2010!” In either case, the hobby’s reward comes from the values the customer brings to it on their own, rather than the obscene difficulty of a game like Diablo II on Nightmare mode.
Difficulty as a function of the game’s enjoyment
Using anecdotal evidence from myself, my wife, and my friends, it’s easy to note that we remember the hard challenges we overcome in gaming than the mundane. In 1994, I had a SNES and a group of friends that resided at the tabletop on weekends and over the summer whenever we could get the time to stay over at each other’s houses (yes, mom, my room is clean!!!). Following suit, here’s a list of games I owned, rented, or borrowed over that time: Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy III, Flashback, Super Mario Kart, Donkey Kong Kountry, Super Metroid, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, DOOM, DOOM II, Warcraft, and the list could continue on, but these are the ones with which I have the clearest of memory. On the tabletop, we were entering the Dales of Forgotten Realms, having been chased out of Calimshan, into Amn, through Tethyr, and damn near to Waterdeep (fun campaign).
Of all those games and with 17 years of history in between, I remember Final Fantasy III, Super Metroid, DOOM II, and Warcraft most clearly. These four games, essentially, throw you into a world far different than our own with a scant bit of equipment and prime you with a small amount of direction. I will never forget the first time I saw a Cacodemon in DOOM II (my reaction was somewhat like this: “omg BEHOLDER! DON’T TURN ME TO STONE!”), or running Terra through town with the MagiTek armour, or the numerous times the Orcs just flat out kicked my ass in Warcraft. But, damn was it ever fun. It established a bar to which one must strive. I had to figure out how to succeed in the face of hard odds stacked ever against the player. It forced the consideration of new avenues (to cite Doone from raiders-guild). For those that played FF3, the Behemoth King was a great example: living, you had to fight per normal rules, pushing yourself to beat him. After doing so, he then ambushes you as his undead form! And, he’s harder to boot! I lost to him the first time. Then, in a moment of desperation, I used a heal spell on him… and he took lots of damage. Then, I used a Fenix Down and he died… I’d won.
In comparison, I remember very little about Dragon Age II or Dragon Age: Origins for that matter. I remember very little about Wrath of the Lich King expansion from Warcraft, save the Keepers in Ulduar, General Vezax, and Yogg-saron. Oddly, I remember with far more clarity the following questlines from Vanilla WoW: Pamela’s Doll (I cried, there I said it; doesn’t make me less a man) and the Battle of Darrowshire. From DA, I remember the plight of the Dalish and the werewolves of the forest. From DAII, I remember the thaig. Both in terms of story and in scope of difficulty, these points offered sliding scales based on what you had, when you did it, and how you went about doing it. In all cases, the story, the game mechanics, and the difficulty came together into a tightly wound suite of scales, burning into my memory as if I was trying to escape from the Pasha’s Palace with my AD&D thief with the aid of my friends.
The Tutorialization of gaming and its drawbacks
In the above comic, we see a problem endemic to modern gaming known as “tell me, don’t show me.” Like prose, games are an art form (no matter the gnashing of teeth from the art community). One of the finest playwrights ever, Anton Chekov, once wrote that if one shows a gun on the mantle in Act I, it better have gone off by the end of Act II. Many games now begin with tutorial modes that demonstrate your character at some end point in their progression or with items of which you will not have possession when you begin the game! It demonstrates: “look how much a badass you can become!” Referring back to the Anthropology of Loot, this is another addictive style feature game designers and companies can insert to a game to hook a player from the start.
Designers should create difficulty relative to the art of the game they are creating, lest they follow the path of World of Warcraft and note that the entire game is merely a tutorial for the “heroic” mode which is an amalgam of old RNG fights, one or two added tricks to a boss, and an absconding of content development. Teaching a player how to play a game is a function of the game itself: you learn to play baseball by playing the damned game; you learn to play D&D by playing the damned game. All tutorials and heroic modes offer is the making of rehashed content and preparation for a good bit of what will be coming for you in the future.
The point at which I look like I’m cutting my half down the middle
Yet, difficulty should only impact the player at points where it is necessary, and arbitrary difficulty (ie: you must have 40 raiders to even start this dungeon) should be a thing that is avoided at all times. The player should access the game through streamlined mechanics, understandable rules, and ease. Whether this is creating a character or involving them in the game world, a designer’s primary goal should be to let the player learn the game as they do, rather than with arrows or flashing lights or a boss fight from some random dungeon.
I do not have the answers for how to do this, save to offer that it should be a sliding scale. In tabletop games, where the Story Guide knows the players and what challenges them, it is far easier to tailor difficulty for them. The aim of a good one should be to find the point at which the inclusion of difficulty will demonstrate their story for them. A great example of this is enforcing the poor decision of a player through reminding them of this poor decision through consequences. If character A kills a guard, then by all means, they are a wanted criminal where the local community and most likely the greater region in general will not let them escape without killing more or breaking more laws.
In video games, get rid of the damned tutorials and the heroic modes. There is no reason that the art of the game should be clearly violated. Determine the bar of difficulty you wish to offer and provide it, you will find that more people will meet that bar than you think, especially when arbitrary levels of difficulty are abandoned.