Easy Modes Can Ruin Games? Um, No.

Alex Hutchinson, the lead designer on Assassin's Creed III, has some very interesting thoughts on video game difficulty.

"A lot of games have been ruined by easy modes," he tells Edge. "If you have a cover shooter and you switch it to easy and you don't have to use cover, you kind of broke your game.

"You made a game that is essentially the worst possible version of your game."


Now, he's a designer, not a writer or artist, so he's approaching the construction of a video game from his own position of strength. But to say that "easy" modes can somehow break, or result in "the worst possible version" of a game, sounds crazy.

There'll be those who agree with his views. Many people. But let's look at the other side of this argument.

With a few exceptions, I play most games on easy. Sometimes very easy. I do this because of the reason I play video games. My favourite titles are the ones with a story, a universe I can explore and/or become immersed in, maybe some narrative, usually some strong characters. I am, essentially, pressing and nudging my way through a very long movie, or a very loud comic.

I don't usually play competitive shooters, or fighting games, or anything else that's based primarily around the concept of competition, or timing, or reflexes, because I don't enjoy that. It's not my thing. I'm not saying it sucks, just that it's not why I play games.

When I'm playing, I'm playing to move my way through a story. Like turning the pages of a book. And I know from personal experience, through to seeing games like Deus Ex rebrand "easy" mode to "tell me a story" mode (above), that I'm far from alone. So why the hostility to easy mode? Does it matter if I play a cover-based shooter if I'm not having to use cover?

It doesn't, because earlier this year I did just that, cruising my way through Sega's Binary Domain, not for the challenge of shooting things, but because I love the way Toshihiro Nagoshi's team can design a male soap opera, and I thought the visual design of the game's future world was great. For all my cruising through on the easiest setting, I enjoyed myself just fine.

Which sounds weird considering Binary Domain is an action game, but that's modern gaming for you. There's enough money and talent in the writing and art teams that you can enjoy them divorced from the actual game. I can easily do the same thing with shooters, finding a good time in an FPS that may be lacking in terms of pacing or level design, but lets me enjoy a story or world regardless.

Hearing Hutchinson simply write off this tendency - something optional, and entirely up to the player's discretion! - as though there's something wrong with it is disappointing. Especially given the fact he's working on a series that's traditionally had one of the strongest fictional universes in AAA gaming today. After four main games I'm invested in the world of Assassin's Creed, and am looking forward to seeing how things play out in the fifth, but that investment comes in wanting to see how the story unfolds, not what the developers can do in terms of the number of bad guys I have to fight or how hard they are to kill.

His comments are especially interesting considering the Assassin's Creed series is one of the few to withhold the option to set a difficulty level from the player, instead relying on a series of "tiered" rewards from missions to sort the awesome killers from the babies who play on easy mode. It could sure do with the choice! I've lost count of the number of times in those games when I nearly walked away entirely because my progress had been stopped by a mission that was too tough, when all I wanted to do is see what came next. I can, however, count the number of times I felt good about myself for beating a boss or a particularly "tough" mission: zero.

Those who do enjoy a challenge are obviously going to be oblivious to this. And given Hutchinson's quotes are followed by lengthy assertions from lead gameplay designer Steven Masters that they "take a lot of care" over difficulty balancing, I'm not exactly concerned Assassin's Creed III will be the hardest game ever made. Some missions might be a pain, but if I got through the last four, I can get through this one.

It' just baffling to see that, in the year 2012, there are still people in the video game industry who approach things as though this was the 1980s, and the only games on the market were there to test you. If I don't have to pass a test just to turn a page in a book, or reach the second act of a movie, I shouldn't have to in a story-rich video game either.

For some people, breezing through a game without dying isn't a sign that it's somehow broken. It's a sign they're being allowed to enjoy the game the way they want to.

Assassin's Creed III devs: "Easy mode often ruins games" [EDGE]


    Just using a recent example, in D2 you had an illusion of build choices simply because the game is easy, gears are better(useful), people think they are good at games! That's the benefit of a game being easy! Instead of "following the rules of the game" you are allowed to break them.

    For some people not going into cover is a fun way to play, for some it's dumb, but you can't deny that having more options are good.

    The harder a game is, the more "cookie cutter" a player has to be , unless it's a super well designed game or if the game could be finished naked.

    Can it be said that Easy Mode ruins the GAME, as in the gameplay? If the main selling point of the game is it's story (like Bastion, Metal Gear or FF) then having the game play ruined is no so much of a detriment since it can be made up with story. Then with games like Street Fighter, Counter Strike, and dare I say it, Diablo 2, if the game is put to Easy Mode then the reason for actually playing the game is lost.

      Agreed. Luke is approaching this whole argument the wrong way. Its not always about challenge, its about playing the game the way it was meant to be played.

      Taking the cover based shooting example, If I was a developer, it would break my heart to see a player plow through enemies without even taking cover. What was the point of me designing and planning the stages, laying out the cover in strategic locations, and programming the AI to try to work around your cover.

      Easy doesn't always ruin a game of course....IF it was designed that way, like Kirby games.

    If you like narrative games so much I wonder why you are so obsessed with a shooter like Arma 3...

    I find I play a lot of games on normal or below but I also find that the games I enjoy the most are those that don't have a difficulty setting at all. Just play what they've crafted as they intended.

    Also no stressing about having to admit to people you only played a game on easy :P

    I don't mind easy mode. I like having my character act the same way they do in game as they do in cutscenes.

    For some games I too am in it for the story or the experience and don't want to be bogged down with grueling fights. Others I like to be a challenge, but that's personal preference.
    So for most games I'd agree variable difficulty is a good thing.
    But some games would be ruined by that - Dark Souls for one (a'la Serrels' article) and the games Cheuk mentioned above because the challenge and structured difficulty is such an integral part of the game that removing it would be damaging.

    This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

      This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

    Easy mode ruins the game if difficulty is a core element of that game. What is wrong with the human race and their desperate need to generalise everything. Each game are different, Deus Ex on easy works, Super Meat Boy doesn't(literally, how would you even put one in?). Fight those evolutionary instincts! Accept diversity in your entertainment! Motivational insert!

    I've abandoned Assassins Creed.

    I'm interested in the story, but what invariably happens is that there's a timed puzzle, or a chase section that I just cannot finish... and so I can't progress in the story.
    Maybe Jennifer Helper was right... maybe we do need a way to skip gameplay sections.

      L.A. Noire had entire sequences you could skip. An adventure gaming site I go to considered this a welcome addition!

      She was. It's a shame that the level of vitriol that her comments received means that her ideas are unlikely to be realised any time soon.

      I don't care if you can skip gameplay but if you're a critic of gameplay like Hepler, or a game designer who thinks the same way as Hepler, don't even suggest that gameplay shouldn't exist anymore (like she seemed to be doing). Games are for gameplay. Story is an afterthought. If you play games for storyline then fine (even though you really should be reading a book and increasing your knowledge rather than having it spoon-fed to you) but don't ask that gameplay be a thing of the past.

    This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

      Brother, by your reasoning I'm a casual....

      And yet, this holiday season I'm buying 12 new games... I spend my days reading gaming blogs and websites, have purchased God knows how many game comics, figurines, expansion packs, dlc bundles, novels and other assorted errata.
      People play games for different reasons... the guy who runs 'Dead End Trills' likes taking screenshots, there are entire communities of people who only play for the cheevos, DoA players enjoy a good 'jiggle physic' and people who play Diablo really like to click things.
      Just because someone isn't desperate to grind out a 50th level prestige doesn't make them less of a gamer than you are.

      This post hasn't provided any evidence that Luke isn't tres' hardcore... it's only proven that you're a halfwit who needs to grow up.

        Good to see someone who espouses the very essence of what it means to be a detractor - it's proven that Luke is a casual. Whether that is a positive or negative, my post provided neither an affirmative or negative in that light. It's true that people play games for different reasons, however the main element of challenge and reward remains the same.

        All you've proven in your post is that, you are , therefore you think (and in this case, think incorrectly). Luke isn't hardcore.

    I almost exclusively play games on easy, and I agree with every point in this article. Only competitive game I play is BF3 on PC.

      it sounds like most of you don't like or enjoy the concept of a GAME. look up the definition
      A form of play or sport, esp. a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.
      Eager and willing to do something new or challenging: "they were game for anything after the traumas of Monday".

      .your talking about games not movies. you cant have a game with out challenge or "game play" you can have a game with out a story e.g. chess or foot ball. ahh but don't get me wrong story can enhance game play allot, buy adding emotions that wouldn't ordinarily be there and giving you purpose to accept the challenge and complete the tasks. some of most favorite games are adventure or games with in depth story. i love stories in games.

      in conclusion i agree that easy mode completely ruins games. if your not interested in the concept of games, and all you want is stories watch a movie or read a book. as stated in the article in a book you can simply turn the page, there wont be any of that apparently annoying game-play getting in the way.
      you are turning games into click through movies.

        I looked up the definition of GAME and the first definition was: "An activity providing entertainment or amusement; a pastime: party games; word games."
        So, in fact, you CAN have a game without (much of a) challenge, even easy mode can be a challenge to some people for various reasons.
        But in any case, how the hell does an easy mode affect you? If the option is there don't choose it. People that can't play games well should be able to have the opportunity to experience the story of a game first-hand (classic example is my girlfriend isn't very skilled at playing games, but she loves the story in Mass Effect, thanks to the casual mode she can experience the story for herself) It's like saying that if you have trouble reading (for whatever reason) that you shouldn't be able to experience a book by listening to it on an audiobook or by using braille because a book is meant to be read in print form.

    I vary a lot. I'll play most Bioware games on a standard mode, and sometimes up a difficulty notch, while I have Skyrim's difficulty turned right down unless I feel like things are stupidly easy. Being able to choose helps me enjoy games more! I've traded in more than a few games that I got stuck in and there wasn't an easy option.

    " I can, however, count the number of times I felt good about myself for beating a boss or a particularly 'tough' mission: zero."

    That is because you play on Easy.

      Anyone who has beaten Ninja Gaiden or any other similar difficulty spiking game will disagree.

        I disagree with your disagreement.

        I LOVED it when I was younger, when I'd get up to a hard boss or stage and spend ages trying to beat it. That satisfying feeling when you finally conquered a seemingly insurmountable obstacle was fantastic; it felt like you'd actually accomplished something.

    Both sides of this argument are valid making any discussion of the argument pointless

    I play my first playthrough on hard, unless it's a shit game :/
    But on replays I play on easy so i can just enjoy the story.

    What a dumb article. The guy in the quote all this is based on says that "a lot of games" have been ruined by their easy mode, not EVERY game. And then gives a specific example to show how it can ruin a game - and he's absolutely correct. If your game is based around a single mechanic, and the activation of easy mode completely undermines that mechanic, then how *haven't* you made the worst possible version of your game?

    It's like making tiered versions of a car. One could say that a car's main purpose is to get you from A to B in a timely and convenient fashion. But what if the cheapest tier of car came without wheels? Sure, there would be plenty of people who would be happy sit in it and make VROOM! noises, pretending that they know how to drive. And good for them. But that doesn't stop it from being a complete failure of a car.

      I think you need to separate gameplay mechanics from story here.

      You, personally, might argue a particular game's primary purpose is to allow the player to pew-pew-pew in a virtual environment with cover mechanics. That game might also have an amazing and incredible story, *entirely* separate from its shooting and cover system.

      If person X loves the story idea but hates wading through hours of cover-based shooting, why not make that part of the game so easy as to render it trivial? They can blast through the cover-based shooting and get to the parts of the game they enjoy. It's not at all a failure of a game, because for that person the game was never primarily a cover-based shooter, it was a vehicle for an interactive story.

      (If you're interested, person X was me, the game was SpecOps, and it happened a month ago - I turned the difficulty down, still suffered through the combat aspects, and loved the story.)

      I totally disagree that a game can't have simultaneous purposes appealing to different audiences - it's why most first person shooters allow players to skip dialogue and cutscenes, and why, yes, most shooters with cover mechanics have difficulty settings. If devs really do see playing a game for its story instead of (or in preference to) its mechanics as a failure rather than a perfectly valid alternate play style, it's not exactly encouraging for the importance story has in the industry.

        "it’s not exactly encouraging for the importance story has in the industry."

        But the hard-coded story is not the only part that is a story. I can't speak for Spec-Ops, but what kind of story would Gears of War tell if players didn't really play and only went from cutscene A to cutscene B? Certainly not one about the tension of fighting one's way across a deadly battlefield where hordes of enemies would rip oneself to pieces should they attempt a frontal assault. They might be able to 'see' it in a cutscene but they won't be a part of it.

        Of course I don't want to tell other players how to play their games, but I also don't want developers to break up the elements of their games to dole them out to each variety of player.

        Actually I think I kind of agree with you in a way - there does need to be a separation of gameplay mechanics and story.

        The reason I argue that a game's primary purpose is to allow the player to do [gameplay mechanic] is that... well, it's a game. That IS its purpose. If it doesn't have any gameplay, then it's not a game any more. Therefore, removing the gameplay from a game will make it a failure of a game. If you have a game with an amazing story and no gameplay, then you don't have a game - you have a movie.

        Gameplay gameplay game game game. Because I haven't repeated those words enough yet.

    Agreed, I always welcome the option of an easier mode, particularly if combat is particularly uninteresting. Often on repeat playthroughs a very easy mode is great for just seeing the story. What's worse, when there *isn't* an option to adjust difficulty one spike in the game can stop me advancing and seeing the story, which is why I play most games in the first place.

    I think there's definitely a case for an easy mode where it can be done (by adjusting HP or damage rates, the frequency of encounters, etc), the idea that giving players more options and control over their playing experience somehow weakens it is something I find bizarre.

    Both are correct.

    Difficulty is a gameplay mechanic. It should enhance your game. Great mechanics and level design push the user to respond in a certain way without removing user control (or you might as well watch a movie/cutscene). Rambo doesn't need cover or stealth, so most players will miss those features, and your amazing stealth game becomes a B-grade shooter. If the kid gets killed by every second squirt or windbag, the incredible narrator can't save the game.

    If the difficutly breaks other game mechanics (especially core features) or level design, rethink it. If it alienates your target audience, change it.

    As a fellow narrative fan I can understand why you might want to simply set the game to easy and scroll through with ease, but for me the reason that games are such a great medium for storytelling is because the challenge puts you in the place of the character. When you have to slide for cover, to use your example, because bullets are raining down from every direction your adrenaline pumps alongside the protagonists, you feel every chip fly off the cover, you are in the moment and so you care so much more about how it resolves than if you were simply an impartial observer, which is what too little difficulty can make you.

    So in short, the best gaming experiences are a perfect mixture of both difficulty and drama; though of course as everyone is different they should be aloud to set just what that ratio is themselves.


    My random thoughts on various games:
    Gears of War on Casual was bloody hard in parts, conversely I'm currently playing Gears of War 3 on Normal and finding it easy, now maybe I've gotten better at shooters in the intervening two years and they've also improved the responsiveness of the controls, but to me difficulty spikes are the worst thing in games - I played Halo 3 on Heroic until that damn last level on the snowbase where you had to fight off endless waves of flood without a checkpoint - the rest of the game had been hard, but that part was hard beyond reason.

    Similarly in the last level of Crysis 2 the checkpointing was unfair and I had to dial the difficulty down just to progress

    Frankly I'm glad I had the option because if you hit a roadblock (and I'm talking upwards of 20 retries in each case) then it ceases to be a fun experience and instead becomes a chore.

    Ooh I should also point out - the best difficulty system I've seen in recent years was the first Borderlands, basically your character levels up throughout the game and the missions you take on get harder and harder, for instance if I'm Lvl 20 and I wander into an area with Level 30 Bandits - I'm gonna get my arse handed to me. But here's thing - the game tells you how difficult each mission is going to be based on your level - it's fantastic.

    If Mass Effect 1 (which it's emphasis on levelling rather than shooter skills) had a similar signposting I wouldn't have traded it after getting a third of the way through.

    I myself love playing on easy. When you get maybe an hour a week free to play games (and that is usually staying up late and losing precious sleep), you don't want to spend that hour repeating part of a game that you can't get through.

    I'm usually inclined to agree with the author as I tend to not play my games on hard and have felt the sting of unfair gameplay segments. But I can't completely agree that difficulty modes that change the approach are a good thing.

    "“If you have a cover shooter and you switch it to easy and you don’t have to use cover, you kind of broke your game."

    I absolutely agree with this. Even if I want to enjoy the story and world I'm still taking part in an interactive experience and not a passive one. I definitely believe that if having less challenge actually means removing the value of these interactions then it's to the detriment of the game.

    For easy difficulties it should be the player's ability to react to the game and their ability to commit to actions that should be easier, not by simply the removal of obstacle.

    Keep the classic old Easy/Normal/Hard/Very Hard and nobody will have any problems. Don't even think about suggesting that there should be only a very easy option or a very hard option. Any other discussion is completely pointless and unnecessary.

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