Do All Games need an ‘Easy’ Mode?

The last couple of days have given rise to a good talking point in the gaming community. Just yesterday, Dark Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki came out and admitted that he was considering adding an Easy mode to the game that’s considered one of the toughest of its generation. He spoke about this consideration with a seemingly heavy heart, mentioning in the process that the satisfaction derived from playing games in this day and age doesn’t necessarily stem from the challenge they present any more.

Adding weight to the argument is Assassin’s Creed 3 creative director, Alex Hutchinson, who said to EDGE in an interview that ‘a lot of games have been ruined by easy modes.’ He added:

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… It’s like if I picked up a book and it said, ‘Do you want the easy version or the complicated version?

The mentioning of the book is an interesting analogy to bring up, and it raises a few questions. In the case of other mediums, such as books and cinema, there is a definite divide between what you could pompously refer to as the ‘high-brow’ and the ‘low-brow.’ In both those mediums, if people want to be challenged, they can go see a film or read a book that will do that; they can go watch a David Lynch film, say, or read a philosophical text. Likewise, if they want to just relax and kick back with either of those two mediums, they can go watch a high-school comedy or read Fifty Shades of Grey.

The point here is that most books and films have been designed in a way that’s meant to have a specific effect on their readers and viewers, and people decide to go see and read the things in these mediums that fit with how they want to be affected at a given time.

Both Hutchinson and Miyazaki are behind some of the best-designed games of this generation, and both seem to think of an Easy Mode in their games as undermining the optimal experience they have in mind for the gamer.

Some of the alterations made to a game when it’s put in Easy Mode include dumbing down the AI, reducing damage the player takes, and/or decreasing the number of enemies you fight. With some games, such as Modern Warfare 3, which focus more on providing a Blockbuster-style experience than particularly challenging the player, this seems OK. The gameplay is pretty repetitive and much of the intensity is derived from the spectacular visuals, rather than truly engrossing gameplay (I’m ready for a backlash from CoD fanboys).

However, isn’t the concept of a game with a less predictable trajectory of difficulty pretty intriguing? Instead of your whole experience being categorised into Easy, Medium and Hard, for the game to be a meticulously-designed smorgasbord of challenges and puzzles that pounce on you at points when you don’t necessarily expect them?

The closing question is, should games go more in the direction of books and films, in the sense of there being a clearer divide between a pick-up-and-play game, and a game that will test your patience, skills and gaming abilities to the max? Or should most games, as is currently the case, share a similar fundamental difficulty that can be adjusted through the main menu. Furthermore, does designing games without black-and-white difficulty settings in mind make it a potentially more engaging experience? Dark Souls certainly seems to suggest that it does, but with the lack of comparable games, it’s ultimately pretty hard to judge.

If only I could change the setting of this debate to Easy mode, then maybe answering these questions would be a bit simpler, but probably a lot less satisfying…