The case of launching an easy mode for difficult games

Video games should be playable by people of all experience and skill levels. It shouldn’t be a controversial statement. Yet this is often the case. For years, the culture of gamers – at least its toxic parts – has insisted on access control, that games are difficult and complex to keep the “dirty casuals” out of the fray. But as the number of casual gamers grows, it has become more difficult for gamers and game companies to ignore them.

It’s understandable that studios want to appeal to a certain type of player, especially when the developers and writers at those studios create the type of game that they themselves want to enjoy. But it does the industry a disservice to assume that everyone wants to play one way. Now that casual gamers are just as important as the “hardcore” segment, it’s time for games that tackle the playstyles of both groups. No one expects one person fair play first-person shooters, or fair RPG. So why should we expect everyone to play with the same level of difficulty? The key is to value players equally and not to arbitrarily decide that one is better than the other. And as some games have shown recently, it is possible to satisfy many audiences.

Why, then, don’t developers do this all the time? The problem is that there has often been a (false) perception that “better” to play tough video games, that gamers have to earn their way into the story. Easy modes, then, are “cheats” that dilute the experience and exclusivity of beating very difficult games.

If you are looking for a concrete example of this divide, look no further than Dark souls, a title known for its extreme difficulty. In 2012, its creator, Hidetaka Miyazaki, made the grave mistake of mentioning that he thought he should have easy mode; the game was astounding in its reach and ferocity. The studio then attributed its comments to a “translation error”, perhaps to avoid angering the game’s island fan base.

But accessibility, in all its forms, is important, if not absolutely necessary. Creating games that appeal to an audience that plays at different levels means a larger fan base. More followers means more copies sold; more copies sold means more money for new game development. It’s win-win. That’s not to say that the intention of the studio or the developer doesn’t matter if they want to make a very difficult game – just that it’s one piece of a bigger puzzle.

In addition, “easy mode” is often a misnomer. As a fan of customizing settings to make the game easier, I’m all for simplifying combat and reducing enemy damage. But I still want a challenge. Easy mode doesn’t necessarily mean removing all obstacles for players to navigate through – it just means adding additional options to adjust difficulty. The games that do this most cleverly, in my opinion, are the ones that let you adjust individual settings – do you want immortality or do you prefer to deal more damage to enemies? And often that doesn’t help you with the puzzles. There are still many challenges to overcome.

How, then, can you respond to an audience that wants things to be as difficult as possible for their own enjoyment, while still recognizing that appealing to a wider range of casual gamers is good for so many different reasons? How does a studio respect their own intentions and artistry while creating something playable by people of different skill levels?

There is a plan for this. It’s called Control.

Originally posted by Remedy Entertainment in 2019, Control was well known to be unbelievably difficult. Several people said to me, “Well, it’s very difficult, but it’s definitely worth it because the story is so good.” I believed them. The problem was, no matter how amazing the story was, I knew it wasn’t worth it because it would be too frustrating. If the difficulty is not just a challenge to keep things interesting, but rather an insurmountable obstacle (as is the case for many of us with poor hand / eye coordination as well as people with disabilities), then it is not a game worth playing.

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