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21 Avr 2016 - 12:05:24

To make video games more accessible, we need a little balance

There has been a great deal of discussion online about the dumbing down of video games. Hardcore console gamers have been saying that esp the adoption of console games by so-called Casual Gamers have lead to games being made too easy or babyified, and PC gamers have bemoaned control schemes getting simplified for consoles, and failing to take advantage of increased control options for PCs. However, if game developers don't make games accessible to new players, the video game market will stagnate and die. This is inevitable.

So, with that in mind, we need to find a middle ground. One were games are easy enough for new players, but hard enough for experienced ones. While having adjustable difficulty settings kind of allows for this, it isn't good enough. Learning curves for games can vary wildly. What is normal another game's easy. This editorial will propose a common criteria for video game difficulty, to be applied for all home console games. For the record, this is not meant to apply for arcade games and particularly fighting games. Those are a special beast to be addressed in a later article.


As with all pieces of technical writing, we need to explain some of the terms we're going to use in this paper:

Casual Players: Players who usually only purchase or play 1-4 new games a year, only own one or two consoles, with one possibly being a Wii. This is meant to, basically, be the people who play Madden, Call of Duty, or Farmville to the exclusivity of most other games, and occasionally pick a game out of the comfort zone every now and then. These are, to a certain extent, our gateway gamers. These gamers generally play on easy, though they may occasionally try Normal or Hard difficulty if they play a game regularly

Experienced Gamers: Players who purchase a video game 1-2 months, or rent a game every month or more. These players may in particular be GameFly subscribers, particularly since Blockbuster is closing down and Hollywood Video is gone. They do not necessarily complete those games every time, nor do they 100% complete them.

Hardcore gamers: Players who purchase or rent several video games a month, regularly play on hard difficulty and often on multi-player. They may also attempt to achieve all trophies or achievements for that game.

In short, the ideal situation with game difficulty is that a casual player should be able to get through the single player campaign on easy and should be able to get all of the game's story and a proper ending. This does not, however, mean that players shouldn't run into any difficulty. However, the level of difficulty should not be frustrating.

Character Death

One of the common stumbling blocks in a game experience is character death. Any immersion that player experiences in the game is lost the moment he or she dies and winds up at a loading screen. Loading screens themselves break up immersion, but that isn't related to difficulty. Consequently, death in games should be minimal. However, the player should feel that their character is in peril.

So, as a general rule of thumb, players should, if they're playing well, only experience player death one or two times at their ideal difficulty setting Easy for casual gamers, Normal for experienced players, Hard or Expert for Hardcore gamers and so on. This is if they're playing well and basically using the play-style the developers have designed the game for sticking to cover and proceeding carefully for a stealth action game, that sort of thing.

Part of the key to managing character death is also managing character health. There are two real ways to handle this a regenerating health bar, and a replenishing health bar that is re-stocked by use of first aid kits and similar items. Both methods have their advantages, while both methods have their advantages, a replenished health bar has one distinct weakness if you have low health when you reach a checkpoint, it becomes much more difficult to reach the next checkpoint and increasing the regularity of checkpoints isn't necessarily a solution

There are several possible solutions to this problem. The first is to have the character automatically respawn with full health and, depending on the difficulty, full ammunition while dying. This method would, in theory, relieve the brick wall factor of encountering a tough point in the game, being unable to progress due to lack of resources at a checkpoint, and ultimately feeling like you, the player, are repeatedly slamming their head up against a brick wall.

Another method would be through drops - most, though not all games will have enemies drop replacement weapons and ammunition when they die. The idea behind this is that if the character runs out of ammo for his or her primary weapon, there are other weapons lying around for the player to mitigate the brick wall factor. This can be expanded for games with replenishing health by having enemies drop health items as well which the character's health drops below a certain percentage. The frequency of drops would be adjusted with difficulty. First Person Shooter/Role Playing Game hybrid Borderlands does something similar to this.

What should change when the game gets harder?

Part of managing difficulty to make games more accessible is figuring out what, precisely, changes as the game gets harder. It's easy to make the player's guns weaker, the enemy's guns stronger (until the player picks one up), or give the enemy more health. It's also cheap. It takes the skill out of higher difficulties and instead makes it a battle of attrition at, ultimately, who can bang their head against the wall until they break through.

There is a better way to limit the player's resources, and to make enemies fight smarter, instead of harder. By limiting the amount of ammunition and, in the case of games with replenishing health, health power-ups available to players. This way players will have to use more care and skill in continuing through the game. This is ideal for games which feature a more cautious play-style, like the Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon games, as well as the Call of Duty series.

Making enemies fight smarter instead of harder requires a little more work. Making enemies omnipotent and essentially giving them an aimbot doesn't work. It makes the game less fun for players. Instead, they should intelligently use cover and work to flank the player, and make him or her work at advancement. That said, in order for this method to work, this also means that you cannot send a string of endlessly respawning enemies at the player from out of nowhere. Call of Duty, this means you.

A few final notes - don't add unkillable enemies to your game if you can at all avoid it. One of the problems with Dead Space is the player's second fight against the Hunter essentially consisted of fending off endlessly respawning hordes of enemies plus the Hunter, while waiting for a door to unlock. This was very much an exercise in frustration. If you do want to have some sort of named, Nemesis-esque enemy in your game to save for the conclusion, then have it so the players can drive the enemy off instead of just killing it. While this does remove some of the tension from the enemy's appearances in the game, it also removes frustration. Remember death destroys immersion.

Finally, have an option so the player can change the difficulty on the fly. The only thing more frustrating then repeated death is realizing that you're on the wrong difficulty halfway through, and you'll have to start the whole game over.

Later this week there will be a follow-up column with a few thoughts on making fighting games a little more accessible, without relying on button mashing, and then this Saturday this author will be covering a Super Street Fighter 4 tournament at Ground Kontrol in Portland, and the tournament will be streamed live over Ustream, for those who are interested in that sort of thing.
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