Az has a post up about his recent adventures in Hollow Knight and Dead Cells, two Metroidvania-style games (a style a very much do not enjoy). That post and the one before it sounded, to me, like he was playing the games despite not actually enjoying them, but I might have misunderstood what he was getting at in that regard (although I have a friend who is big into those types of games and streams, and every time he is playing it looks/sounds like he is undergoing torture rather than playing a game he enjoys, and all his viewers are basically along for the pain ride. It’s a weird genre…)
That point aside, he also mentioned difficulty and the role it plays in enjoying a game, which is a topic I’ve posted about before, and feel this is a good time to dive into it again. In short, difficulty is what forces you to actually learn a game, and the absence of it is the absence of that motivation.
For example, if you are playing an MMO and a boss puts down red circles of fire, with the mechanic being to step out of them, that mechanic only really works if you must step out. If you can beat the boss while still standing in the fire, or getting out slowly, because the difficulty is that low, you aren’t motivated to learn the mechanic. In a vacuum that might not be a huge issue, but if the overall design of the game hinges on players learning and appreciating the mechanics, the difficulty being too low ruins that entire design, regardless of how good the actual mechanic is. Responsive controls so getting out of the fire feels skillful, interesting abilities to assist in moving out, gearing up correctly so you buy yourself more response time, etc, none of that will matter or feel important if the game doesn’t punish you enough for ignore said fire.
This is one of the key reasons why I love Battle Brothers. It’s a hard game, but only part of that difficulty is based on learning the mechanics. Once you know them, the real difficulty is in putting all that knowledge to good use, and not just beating battles, but winning cleanly so as to roll into the next battle in good shape. Pyrrhic victories are actually bad in that game, and a huge reason behind that is because of the difficulty.
If BB was an easy game, you wouldn’t care nearly as much about finding quality recruits, because you could still win with flawed ones. If the difficulty was lower, hunting down the right gear for your men, based on their skillsets and your overall battle plan, wouldn’t really matter, and you wouldn’t be all that motivated to do so. In short, the game would get pretty boring very quickly, because the details that drive so much of it wouldn’t matter enough to prevent success.
This is also why, in part, I suspect WoW Classic will have more subs/players than current WoW when its released. WoW in 2004 wasn’t the hardest game ever, but compared to current WoW, and 99% of all MMOs today, 2004 WoW might as well be Dwarf Fortress or Darksouls, and that matters because the core design in WoW back when was pretty solid (not perfect, but very very good). Successfully running a dungeon, let alone raiding, meant understanding your class, and you were rewarded for playing well with better loot (relative to your level for pre-cap content). That’s a very important feedback loop, one that is completely lost when everything scales, and that scale is set to faceroll easy welfare-epics status.
Which isn’t to say difficulty is everything, or that ‘hard’ is the right option for all games. Some games are better as more casual experiences, or work when the difficulty can be changed based on preference. But if a game is heavily based around learning and using mechanics well, a lack of difficulty can make that core design feel flat or unimportant.