Thursday, March 24, 2022

The Difficult Matter Of Difficulty.

Unwise though it might be, I thought I might throw in on the recent hot topic of Difficulty. It's not as if it isn't something that's come up a million times before but I can't recall the debate ever having become as heated as it is right now.

I'm sure everyone knows the provenance. It's been entirely too difficult (Alanis says "ironically".) to avoid. A game called Elden Ring and a developer called FromSoftware, who don't seem to have a space bar on their corporate keyboard, are responsible, directly or indirectly, for the current kerfuffle.

Elden Ring is neither an mmorpg nor a point-and-click adventure game nor a visual novel nor any kind of quirky little confection featuring funny animals, so I have absolutely no business discussing it here. It doesn't interest me in the slightest, I will never play it and I don't care who does. 

It seems that's not everyone's opinion. Various arguments have been presented to suggest there's more going on here than mere personal choice. Rights and responsibilities have been invoked.

Having read a number of posts and discussions on the subject, there seem to be three major issues:

  • Availabilty.
  • Accessibilty.
  • Accuracy.

Okay, I tweaked those for assonance. I thought I was going to be a poet once and teenage dreams can be hard to shake. Let's break it down.

Avilability means whether anyone who feels they'd like to play Elden Ring ought to be able to do so. I think we can already see the problems there.

Accessibility is a much thornier concept, partly involving actual legal rights as framed by authorities able to enforce them but also bringing in a moral element of communal responsibility and a sense of who we'd like to be as people.

Accuracy could better be expressed as Truth in Advertising, only that doesn't begin with an "A".

Let's take the last one first. The reason it's on the list is because of a post I read this morning: Tobold, ostensibly talking about review bombing but actually joining in the chorus of complaint about an Elden Ring playalike going by the name of Tunic

The protagonist is a cute, cartoon fox that, as Tobold puts it, makes makes Tunic look "like a game for children." It's an impression srongly re-inforced by the developer's website, where the sales pitch reads "Explore a land filled with lost legends, ancient powers, and ferocious monsters in TUNIC, an isometric action game about a small fox on a big adventure". 

There's also a video showing the game in play. In it, the cute fox skips through a series of landscapes, solving simple puzzles and fighting big monsters. No single incident lasts more than a second or two. At no point does the fox appear to take any damage or get hurt, far less lose a fight. Tunic has an age rating of 10+ but looks like it could easily be mastered by a smart seven year old.

I haven't played the game, obviously, but if Tobold and the Gamerant article he links are to be believed, Tunic models itself on two other game series - Zelda for the look but Dark Souls for the gameplay. Since the usp of the latter is "brutally difficult boss battles" and very little handholding or explanation on how to play, there does seem to be a problem here. At best it's misleading advertising; at worst it's wilful misrepresentation.

To me, this one seems reasonably easy to call. Finji, the company behind Tunic, ought to make it much clearer to potential purchasers what it is they're selling. I can't see any reason why a ten year old shouldn't have the pleasure of fighting brutally difficult boss battles if they want to and I suspect many ten year olds would do a far better job of it than either Tobold or me. What seems off is for anyone to be suckered into paying money for a game that expects Dark Souls skills when what it purports to be selling is something very similar to a much-loved and much more gentle franchise like Zelda.

So much for Accuracy. It's a bit of a sideshow anyway. No-one's huffing about FromSoftware trying to pass Elden Ring off as anything other than what it is. On to Availibility, because I'm not taking my own bullet points in order, apparently.

Availibility, in this context, means whether anyone and everyone who feels they'd like to give Elden Ring a try ought to be able to do so with as good a shot at enjoying it as they would any other game. It's essentially a money argument - if you pay for something you ought to be able to use it for the purpose for which it was intended - but it also has an existential premise; that all games should be for everyone.

I have a bit of a problem with this one. It seems to expect something from video games that isn't expected from most other services or products. There are legal obligations in most jurisdictions concerning purchases being "fit for purpose" but that only means they have to function as intended, be mechanically sound, not be broken.

The screen I never saw.

Video games frequently fall foul of this kind of legislation for being full of bugs or missing major features but you can't usually get your money back just because you don't have the game-playing chops to finish the game you bought. If that was the case I'd have asked for my money back when I couldn't get past the tutorial in The Crew.

The grey area here is that video games frequently come with difficulty settings. There's a very good reason for that and it's called money. A lot of game developers seem to think that the more people they can sell the games to, the better it is for their bank balance. They're very happy to add safety rails and trainer wheels in the form of selectable difficulty, so long as it makes their games as potentially attractive as possible to the largest number of customers.

In the case of FromSoftware, however, a good deal of brand value seems to rest on them not doing that. I've read a lot of metaphysical extemporizing over how just knowing an easier difficulty setting exists would diminish the emotional impact of beating the game for players who choose not to use it. I've also seen some statements from one of the developers about the existential value of teaching players not to fear death. Video game death, that is.

Both of these make for very interesting lines of discussion - for a freshman philosophy seminar. I'm not sure how much light any of it sheds on what's actually going on. I have a suspicion what's really in play here is the potential damage to the company's bottom line. 

If such a difficulty setting was added with the full approval of the developers, would there be the same buzz about the next game from the same company. Isn't it the aura of exclusion that's fueling at least some of the enthusiasm for these kinds of games? If everyone could finish them, how many would want to?

I can see why a lot of people are miffed they can't play these games because they're too hard. I can see why they'd wonder whether their money oughtn't to be as good as anyone else's and that if difficulty settings are good enough for other developers, why aren't they good enough for this one? In the end though, so long as the game does what it's supposed to and doesn't fail because of technical flaws, the fact that a company chooses to limit its sales by making the gameplay unattractive to more people than it could be seems like a purely commercial decision.

And finally, the big one, accessibility. The one I really don't want to get into. The one I find much more difficult than the gameplay itself.

By accessibility, I mean the degree to which the game is designed to recognize real life differences among the people who might choose to play it. I've seen a number of discussions that touch on this, including posts by Naithin and Magi, both of whom discuss it in far more depth and with much greater subtlety than I intend to attempt. 

What I will say is that I agree entirely with Naithin, when he says "Accessibility Does Not Equal Easy Mode." I feel that's a misunderstanding that's fueling most of the heat in this debate. 

Difficulty settings are what you add to your game so that any given player can choose a graded experience. Accessibility settings are there to allow people who, for reasons wholly unrelated to their gaming skills, require certain aspects of the software to behave differently to give them the same experiences as players who do not have the same concerns.

If I might digress a little, this kind of accessibility affects decision-making at a far more fundemental level than just how hard the boss fights are. In my posts on Guild Wars 2's End of Dragons I've been highly complimentary to the art team and one of the things I've enjoyed the most about their work this time around is the sheer vigor and vibrancy of the colors. 

I'm on record, repeatedly, as absolutely loving both hypersaturation and sensual overload in video graphics. I have all my settings turned to the maximum my rig can stand and if there are explosions I try to stand right in the middle of them. I literally used to tweak the colors of my desktop so even that was hypersaturated although I had to stop eventually because it made my eyes hurt.

What I had not considered when I looked at the neon greens and pinks of Cantha was how those colors might be affecting players with different visual perception from my own. Then I happened to spot a thread on the forum entitled "End of Dragons - "Personally" the Worst Expansion to date."

Since I really like EoD I was curious to see what the poster found so terrible about it. Whatever I was expecting it wasn't this: "I have already been physically nauseously ill 4 times. Litterally having to throw up. I'm a Deutan Colorblind (seeing Greens as sharp Reds) and I am very prone to motion sickness."

The thread is full of players chiming in with their own variations on this theme and also pointing out that, despite talking a good game on community and accessibility, ArenaNet have done precious little to address these kinds of concerns, choosing if anything to keep adding more and more of the kind of content that actively makes things worse.

Games that have extreme difficulty in gameplay as a design brief do not get a pass on accessibility. Where there are modifications that can be made to accomodate players with differing abilities that are not just gradations of gameplaying skill, there's a moral and sometimes a legal responsibility to make those changes. 

The whole point is to allow all gamers to stand together on something as close as possible to a level playing field. From that start they can then diverge to whatever degree their gameplaying skill allows.

I don't play Elden Ring or any similar titles so I have no idea what could be done in this direction there nor what has already been done. I'm just saying it should be whatever's possible and that doing so should not in any way be conflated with adding any kind of "difficulty setting".

And that, I think, is probably as much as I have to say on the matter. It's a very complex and emotional topic and there are probably whole PhD theses to be written on it. I, however, am not going to be the one to write them.

Until the next time it comes up, then. Because you know it will.


  1. Very well written piece, Bhagpuss. Accessibility to me will always be the lion in this particular conversation.

    I think Accuracy is important in all marketing, but at least in the context of this discussion, is limited to a particular game (or set of games, there may be others) that have for whatever reason chosen to *not* to. I can't even begin to fathom the rationale for it, to the point I have to assume it is incompetence rather than malice.

    Availability though is probably the one I find most interesting here, while simultaneously also being the one I find least compelling. It seems to me somewhat akin to insisting on buying the wrong size pair of shoes and shouting, 'My money is as good as the next persons!'

    And aside from many, many people conflating easy mode and accessibility options, I think this is the second most driving cause of the heat in the debate between the two sides.

    I noted in a comment reply on my post on the subject too -- much of this debate reminds me of the old PvP vs. PvE MMO fights, where one side were all assumed to be toxic, camping, griefers and the other side as crybaby carebears that both sides were feeling so attacked by the other there was rarely any room for cognisant debate on the matter and any attempt at such very rapidly devolved.

    1. It's probably no co-incidence that, now the heat's finally gone out of the hardcore vs carebear argument, this pops up to replace it. It's just shifting the same paradigm onto a new ground as far as I can see.

      While I think there are no reasonable grounds whatsoever for arguing against accessibility, I do find the whole "if someone else can play this game on easy settings, that affects my existential experience of playing on normal" argument fascinating. I have a good deal of empathy for it but very little sympathy.

      I personally have a strong preference for playing all games on their default settings and I don't just mean the difficulty. I have some issues with add-ons as well. There are some very complex psychological processes going on whereby just knowing certain shortcuts exist and that you have made a choice not to use them affects the emotional timbre of the experience. I have found it problematic in a number of games.

      The difference is, I've never translated that personal discomfort into giving any kind of fuck about whether or not other people play on different difficulty or use add-ons. They can tailor their experience however they want. Even so, I prefer games that don't offer those options, even when it makes the gameplay objectively less enjoyable. I did say it was complex!

      Too complex for a comment, anyway. Maybe I'll get into in depth some day but I do seriously believe it would take a proper, structured, funded, professional experimental evaluation to really bring out what's going on when people make these kind of claims. Not going to happen on a gaming blog.

  2. That was a great read! The short short version of my response is that developers should be able to sell whatever kind of experience they want to, as long as they are clear about what they are selling.

    When I was a kid I had both the experience of beating games that most people couldn't get through, and of beating games on difficulties most people could not get through. They are similar but distinct experiences. The world would be a smaller place if developers were forbidden to sell us the former.

    That doesn't mean a game that takes the former approach deserves to be rewarded for it financially. Make a game for a tiny audience at your own risk.

    1. Thanks. I agree. It's down to developers to decide what game they want to make and then to sell it to the appropriate audience. I've never had the pleasure of being able to beat games most people couldn't - I could barely beat games most people *could*, even in my twenties! It never seemed like a problem. I just knew those games weren't for me. Everything doesn't have to be.


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