Tumbleseed was a difficult, tricky game. Outlast 2 was an uphill march through dangerous enemies. Recently, both have gotten easier thanks to patches and tweaks. Many games have had their difficulty reduced after release. While this makes them accessible to more players, it also raises questions.
Last week, puzzle game Tumbleseed expanded with a PC patch that added themed maps avoiding the game’s difficult randomisation and tweaked player abilities. But the practice of post-release patches altering game difficulty isn’t new. Last year, indie hit Hyper Light Drifter went through various changes that made the game less difficult. The game’s tricky combat was made more bearable through the addition of invulnerability frames that protected players as they dashed around. Developer Heart Machine also added faster healing. Later, after player feedback, Hyper Light Drifter also got an easier “Newcomer Mode” that granted extra health and made enemy attacks weaker.
Prey released a day one patch that scaled enemy statistics and changed enemy abilities to make them more difficulty-appropriate. The patch also changed player abilities to make exploration easier. Horror game Outlast 2 received a patch nearly two weeks after release rebalancing the difficulty, and Has Been Heroes had abilities and enemies changed to fix the game’s balance after launch.
With the option to change games after release can help them better suit a range of players, these patches also have ramifications. Sites such as Kotaku often receive review copies of games far in advance of these patches, meaning reviews might reflect a version of a game that’s different than what players experience. Post-release patches in response to player feedback change a game over time, sometimes radically. Is the “definitive” Hyper Light Drifter the punishing original version or the version contained in “Newcomer Mode”? How much should developers be expected to alter in response to player feedback and for how long?
The “games as service” approach can be good for players, who can experience versions of games that can be less frustrating or punishing. This also means players experience different versions of a game depending on their ability to download patches or when they play. A game’s constant changes make it more difficult for players to bond over shared experiences, since a game might be drastically different from one player’s experience to the next. At the same time, a game that turned off potential players who heard it was too difficult might see new life with tweaks and patches.