Monday, January 25, 2010

Status and Signals: Why Hardcore Gamers Are Afraid Of Easy Mode

Firefly cast

I've met a lot of Firefly fans. I'm one myself. Apart from enjoying the show, we all have one thing in common: we want there to be more Firefly fans. We want to share the show with others. We want more people to have the experience, to know how great it is, to laugh at the jokes and fall in love with the characters. We want more people to talk with about the show, who will know what we're talking about and share our enthusiasm. We want more people to buy the DVDs, to cast an economic vote of "more like this!" so that maybe Joss's next show won't get screwed over.

It's an inclusive fandom. We want there to be more of us. More Browncoats is better.

Now, suppose I am a Mega Man fan instead. I loved Mega Man 9, and now I hear that Mega Man 10 is going to do something no Mega Man has done before: it's going to include an Easy Mode. This will allow Mega Man to reach a wider audience - there's a potential here for more Mega Man fans to be created.

You might expect me to be excited for this prospect. More people to share the experience! More people to talk to about the games! More people buying them, so more get made! More gamers is better!

But apparently, there's a good chance I'll be pissed off.

"I’m a huge fan of the Mega Man series. I own almost every Mega Man game that was released in the west on the original format they were released on. But for some reason the inclusion of Easy Mode in Mega Man 10 seriously rubs me the wrong way. . . .

Easy Mode takes the challenge factor out of the game. 'But Steve (that’s my name) they just included it to attract a larger audience.' So what!? Look, the people that would have wanted to play this twenty-three year old franchise would have played it by now and those who you might attract play this installment will probably be turned away from the lack of dumbed down levels and mentally challenges enemies in the previous incarnations. Also, the inclusion of an Easy Mode might also tempt those who would be willing to overcome the challenge of the game to be swayed to a much more wussified experience."
Steve Napierski, Mega Man 10 - Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy

What's going on here? Where is this coming from?

Mega Man jumpingSome of it is simple failure of imagination - the incredibly wrong-headed idea that anyone who wanted to play Mega Man would have done so by now completely fails to account for the fact that there really and truly are people who can't play meaningfully without an Easy Mode. (This is a cognitive error I've discussed before.)

But if that were all there was to it, the fan response would be confused, perhaps, but not outright hostile. This response goes beyond, "I see no reason for them to do this; it won't achieve their goal" all the way to "They are idiots for trying, and they are attacking my ability to enjoy the game." Something deeper is happening here.

"Easy Mode takes the challenge factor out of the game." This sentiment - the idea that Easy Mode must be resisted because it will somehow diminish Hard Mode - is one I've seen repeated over and over again. Take a look at one of the responses I received when I dared to suggest that Mirror's Edge's Easy Mode should be, you know, easy:

"This self-proclaimed game design expert personifies the attitude that's ruining the business nowadays. Not every game needs to be catering to the casuals, those of us who have been around for a while and who still enjoy a challenge would like some nice new games to play as well. I loved Mirror's Edge, in very large part BECAUSE it was challenging.

In a few years time I fear we will be stuck with only shallow, dumbed down titles, designed with only the casual non-gamer crowd in mind, much like nintendo has already started doing.

And that makes me sad."
Comment by _jhn

Don't want an easy game? Here's a thought: don't play on Easy. Why would letting Easy be Easy prevent Hard from being Hard? How can adding a legitimate Easy Mode to the game remove anything? All the challenge of Hard Mode remains completely intact - there's just also another less-challenging mode. Giving an Easy Mode to the people who need or want it has no effect on the play experience of those who don't use it - all it does is allow more people to enjoy the game, and more gamers is better!

When so many people are so often repeating something so obviously false, it's worth looking under the surface to see what's really going on.

There's a concept in economics called "signaling." Through various behaviors, people send signals about themselves to others. The classic example is the college diploma - with it, people signal their value as a potential employee. The diploma is a high-status signal, and gaining status is a main reason to obtain one.

Robin Hanson frequently discusses signaling on his blog, Overcoming Bias. He argues that we engage in status-seeking behavior all the time, in a wide variety of domains, though we like to claim that we don't.

Why would we pretend status-seeking behavior isn't status-seeking? Because to be caught actively seeking status is a low-status signal. Someone who has to try that hard to gain status must not have very much. Consequently, we should expect moves designed to gain or protect status to be given other justifications - even if they are flimsy, and obviously false upon examination.

When people talk as though the presence of a genuine Easy Mode is somehow mutually exclusive with the presence of a genuine Hard Mode, it's a status-protecting smokescreen. The true objection to the addition of Easy Mode is that it lowers the barrier to entry and makes gamers less of an elite.

The fewer people who can lay claim to an accomplishment, the more impressive the accomplishment, and the more status it confers. Of the approximately four thousand who've attempted to climb Mount Everest, only 660 have succeeded, and 142 have died. Most of the bodies remain unrecovered, and it's actually quite common to encounter human corpses on the way up. And yet—

"Old-timers and mountaineering purists bemoan the commercialisation of Everest, claiming commercial operators are destroying its mystique by dragging any Tom, Dick or fat-walleted American Harry up the hill.

'You get hardcore mountaineers who see what is happening on Everest as awful,' said Bierling. 'For (those) who 30 years ago climbed Everest on their own, it must be very sad to see what's been happening.'

What's been happening is every year the big commercial operators 'fix' the mountain, running ropes that climbers can clip onto from the deadly Khumbu ice falls below, 6000 metres to the summit."
—Connie Levett, The deadly business of climbing Everest

Mount Everest, looking impressive

If climbing Everest were about experiencing the awesome and humbling power of nature, the "hardcore mountaineers" would not be disappointed at this development. They would be happy that more people have the chance to share the experience more safely. But climbing Everest has never been about appreciating nature. It's about defeating it. It's about being able to say you did something really, really hard. And so the "old-timers," "purists," and "hardcore" are literally complaining about something that means climbers are less likely to die, because it diminishes the impressiveness of their own accomplishment, and thus lowers their status. It's a lot more satisfying to just be able to say, "I climbed Everest!" without having to specify, "without pre-installed ropes and off-the-shelf Sherpas."

With videogames, the stakes are clearly much lower. But it's the same fundamental phenomenon underneath. Someone who just loves Mega Man and wants to share the experience would be happy to see the inclusion of Easy Mode. But someone who takes significant pride in beating the Mega Man games without Easy Mode feels threatened by its inclusion. It's a lot more satisfying to just be able to say, "I beat Mega Man!" without having to specify, "on Hard Mode." Especially if someone might able to respond, "Big deal, my ten-year-old cousin beat that too," not necessarily understanding that the cousin played on Easy, or why this might matter.

As far as I can tell, this is what "hardcore" really means - drawing pride and status from the activity in question. A hardcore gamer is one whose identity is partly tied up in how good they are at difficult videogames - or more specifically, how much better they are than other people. Status gains, after all, can only come at the cost of a status loss for someone else. In this case, that someone else is the "casual" gamer - which, as far as I can tell, is simply a gamer who is not "hardcore" and doesn't play for status.

Here's another bit of feedback from my aforementioned Mirror's Edge post:

"Um hello? its called a learning curve! maybe you should stick to: (insert failing nintendo character here)'s super fun cook shop"
Comment by Sic

Cooking Mama: Cook Off
Arguing for the inclusion of some actual Easy marks me as clearly not hardcore, so I am told to stay on the casual side of the tracks. Hardcore gamers may recognize that there is a place for Easy in games, but that place is sure not in their back yard. They accept Easy in puerile, low-status, casual games, but they want it kept it out of their good games. The earlier-quoted self-proclaimed fan of Mega Man showed a similar attitude:

"All I’m saying is that there’s other Mega Man spinoffs: The Battle Networks, the Star Forces, the ZXs… Let one of them be the Mega Man for the weak, but leave the numbereds (and the Xs) to the purists."
Steve Napierski, Mega Man 10 - Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy

Acknowledging that some people need Easy Mode, but wanting it kept out of your favorites - I'm not sure how much more obvious one could make one's status-seeking without just coming out and admitting it. Recognizing that accessibility matters, but explicitly wanting the games you enjoy most to stay inaccessible only makes sense if your enjoyment is about status. If it were about the inherent quality of the experience, it would demand to be shared, just as Firefly demands to be shared. You should want your favorite games to have a large audience, even if for no other reason than to guarantee there's enough financial incentive for games like them to keep being made in the first place.

When they're cut off from outsiders, fanbases shrink over time. People lose interest, or have new demands on their time or money, or eventually simply die. If no one takes their place, there will inevitably no longer be enough fans to sustain whatever it is they're a fan of.

Mount Everest would still be there if people stopped climbing it. But the videogame industry as a whole and specific franchises in particular need a critical mass of gamers, or they will collapse. Games need to continue to provide interesting challenges for the skilled players, but they also need to keep the door open for new, unskilled players.

This is common sense, but it's more than that. This is a lesson that has come to other industries at great cost, and we should learn from their example before videogames become just another cautionary tale.

The Dark Age: Grim, Great & Gimmicky Post-Modern ComicsConsider comics, whose "grim and gritty" boom turned into a crash due in large part to an attempt to appeal only to mature fans without providing material for the kids:

"In the mid-1980s, the comic book industry was in the midst of one of its largest periods of growth, wealth, and cultural influence. . . . It was also a period of creative flexing as publishers realized the generation of loyal readers who had come on board after the industry's 1960s rise from the ashes were now reaching adulthood and would welcome and reward more challenging, more mature-themed material. . . .

By the 90s, it seemed like every hero was breaking thumbs and every villain had become a serial psycho or a mass murderer, rather than a master crook or a world conqueror. . . . 'Grim and gritty' 90s content wound up being a big part and parcel of an eventual downturn. . . .

The industry grew fat and happy on the money of the older fans. . . and hardly anyone was noticing that they were leaving the next generation in the dust. . . .

In catering only to an inevitably shrinking number of older fans without seeking out new ones, the industry had [pushed itself] into an oblivion it has yet to fully recover from. . . .

Gamers, hear me loud and clear: THIS CAN HAPPEN TO US!"
Bob Chipman, The GAME OVERTHINKER: EPISODE ELEVEN: "Can It Happen To Us?"

Stern Simpsons Pinball
And consider pinball, videogames' old friend from the arcade, whose focus on only high difficulty withered its market to nothing:

"Pinball skill is transferrable. If you can pass, stall, nudge, and aim on one machine you can do it on any machine. This is both a blessing and a curse for pinball developers. The blessing is that pinball players were a captive market. The curse was that to keep the pinball players interested the games had to get more and more intricate and challenging.

Pinball developers struggled with this problem as pinball was slowly losing to video games. Video games competed by adding levels of play with increasing difficulty. Any new player could quickly get chops on a new game because the low levels were easy. This ensured that new players were drawn in easily, but still they were continually challenged because the higher levels got harder and harder. By contrast, the physical nature of pinball, its main attraction to hardcore players, meant that there was no way to have it both ways.

Eventually, to keep the pinballers playing, the games became so advanced that entry-level players faced an impossible barrier. High-schoolers in 1986 were either dropouts or professionals in 1992 and without inflow of new players that year essentially marked the end of pinball."
Jeff Ely, The Economics of Pinball

By focusing only on the older fans and locking out the young ones, comics severely wounded itself. By focusing only on the skilled players and locking out the inexperienced ones, pinball killed itself.

Videogames are lucky. They can have it both ways - easier difficulties as a low barrier to entry, and harder difficulties to entertain and challenge the veteran players. This is a great advantage of videogames, and it should be thoroughly embraced.

As much as some gamers might want to protect their status by locking out the new fans, this is an intensely self-defeating strategy. If videogames die, no one will remember who Mega Man is, let alone care that you led him to victory.

In closing, let me make one thing absolutely clear to the hardcore gamers: I like challenge. I want to have new and difficult games. I also want you to have them. But I want them to be easy, too. I want to share the magic. Don't you? Showing off your skill is fun, but don't you also want to be able to show your friends how much fun they can have with you? Don't you want to play together?

And when you're done playing, you can watch some Firefly. Just ask any fan - we'll be happy to loan you the DVDs.


  1. Great article oh Professor and Doctor of the pixles. It really explains the whole Hard Core Vs Casual title that gets thrown around on gaming websites/forms and by my gaming friends. I've never really gotten the whole 'WELL I PLAYED IT ON HARD MODE HA' or handicapping yourself when playing a game. I play games to PLAY them. Immerse myself in fake worlds, enjoy what's been built and I like showing my friend what I play. So yeah, the whole debate always made me blink and shake my head in befuddlement. Huzzah for 'My cocks bigger then yourrrr cock'/one upping competitions.

    Mirro's Edge wise, I honestly have no idea why everyone was giving you shit for it last time. You wrote a well thought out, sensible article. You explained yourself very well and didn't 'diss' the game. You were fair to it unlike some people would've been. You said you enjoyed it but didn't like some mechanics it had. It made sense to me. And from some peoples attitudes along with my own uncertainty towards first person games I'll probably just avoid Mirror's Edge all together. I don't want to fall in love with the characters, the world and then be shut out since I only played on Easy mode to see the story unfold.

    Though I'm probably disqualified from the discussion since Mirror's Edge and most first person games aren't my deal, neither are 'Hardcore' games. I'm in an odd sort of spectrum, I'm not a casual gamer, I'm not a hardcore gamer- I'm JUST a gamer. I pick up games that interest me and stay out of the gamer media so I can enjoy what I like without being judged for not being 'HARDCORE' enough. (Ala Tim Schafer games, games that get no attention, Beyond Good And Evil for example and Okami.) But fft, yeah, sorr for rambling. I just enjoyed the write up. Great work!

  2. Good article, I 98% agree with you. Just to play Devils Advocate, I offer this counterpoint:

    Realistically, not all games have modes of difficulty. You can say that they should, and I can agree with that, but the fact is they don't (all).

    For example a game like Zelda, in which half the difficulty is puzzles, and half is combat. For modes in that game, you would have to make new puzzles, in some cases entirely different dungeons because the whole dungeon is one big puzzle sometimes. So for cost and time's sake they aren't likely to create easy or hard mode, they are more likely to continue trying to make it appeal to a broad base of gamers as they have done in the past.

    And there are plenty of other examples, and then there are games that simply do not do it even though they could, like Final Fantasy games and other JRPGs, MMORPGs, countless online multiplayer games which choose not to have 'noob' games.

    So given that games without difficulty modes will continue to try to have broad based appeal, and if the casual easy mode gamers grow as a percentage of total gamers, then logically mass appeal "no mode" games will get easier.

  3. You, sir, are weaksauce and a shame to behold.

  4. The problem isn't the inclusion of easy modes. As you say this is a good thing. The problem occurs when the game designers simplify the CORE aspects of the game or the mechanics to make the game more accessible. This is problematic because it has effects for the skilled player: namely removing complexity from the game.

    The problem is that a lot of the difficulty is core to the game. Control and mechanics can't scale with difficulty. Also, level design can't scale (unless easy mode also has its own set of levels). So it's possible to have a game where you can't just make an 'easy mode' and call it a day. As such, attempts to make these games appeal to a wider audience will necessarily compromise them.

    If more games simply included an easy mode, instead of this, then everybody would be a lot better off. The reality of the situation though, is certain types of games are difficult by their very nature.

  5. @uhzHiro:
    Let's broaden the definition of "Easy Mode" a bit, to "optional features that increase accessibility."

    For a Zelda-like game that mixes puzzles and combat, there can be a difficulty slider for combat, and optional hints for the puzzles. (This is what Mirror's Edge almost pulled off - the difficulty setting really only affects combat, and there's optional Runner Vision available on Easy and Normal.) Rather than requiring new dungeon design, "Easy Mode" can just be turning on the hint system.

    Actual difficulty sliders would probably be unpopular in MMOs. There are still other solutions, however. World of Warcraft has a variety of types of content that vary considerably in their accessibility. General questing is pretty darn easy, especially if you team up. Five-man instances are harder, raids and heroics harder still, and PvP is where the difficulty tops out. And every player is free to play whichever of these content types they choose.

  6. I don't know how much I am speaking for others, but when I read blogs I always first intuitively search for references to things I like, because those validate the blog writer (and in turn, myself) for having "good taste," or in other words, for being in a part of the "right group":

    1) hardcore gaming
    2) Firefly
    3) Overcoming Bias

    of course, like the very topic of your post implies, this is really a behavior that seeks to stroke our own egos and make ourselves think we are more worthwhile than other people. I'm fairly aware of this bent and try to fight it, but it is hard, like any hardcore gamer would feel about objectively seeing his evolutionary nudges. But if we don't ask these questions and doubt our own motives, we'd be obliviously intellectually masturbating at best and irrationally becoming zealots at worst.

    Thanks again, doctor.

  7. @Cody Miller:
    There may be games whose levels, controls, and mechanics can't scale with difficulty, but I can't think of any offhand.

    We normally think of difficulty levels in terms of how many hit points the enemies have, but there are a lot of other tweaks available. Bionic Commando Rearmed, for example, added platforms in various places, turning death hazards into relatively minor setbacks. (Mega Man 10 looks likely to take a similar route.) Mirror's Edge could have increased the tolerance on timing and positioning of the parkour maneuvers - start a wallrun a bit off from where/when you're supposed to and it nudges you to the correct place.

    I acknowledge it's somewhat harder to make an Easy Mode when it's not just a matter of increasing/decreasing numbers (damage, health, etc.) but there's almost always a way.

  8. Thank you for the article!
    I've had to deal with adjusting to the "loss of status" as I attend a friendly LAN party where a few of the attendees a decade younger than me remind me exactly how far my twitch gamer skills have atrophied since I was their age. :)
    Games are less about status and more about enjoyment to me now, mostly because if I can't enjoy their quality, novelness, or story, I wouldn't be able to enjoy anything about them. :)

    One point I'll make that a few people above have mentioned is that I do fear that having to make an easy mode does have an additional cost. It means the game makers have to figure out how to implement it, pay additional development costs, and also additional testing costs to ensure that both sides of the game remain balanced and playable. In turn, it seems to me that means that the games could conceivably cost up to twice as much as a game with only one difficulty mode.

  9. I don't think elitism quite explains this off. Part of me can easily empathize with being mad about a dumbing-down of megaman. The way I see it, perhaps there is a status issue, but it might be a mistake to look at it as purely "greater than/less than".

    Take Firefly. You and I are Firefly fans. If we were to meet, we could exchange a laugh about the Bible being fuzzy on the subject of kneecaps. Suddenly we're kindred spirits.

    Now suppose, in an effort to help the show attain a second season, the networks had put out, alongside the normal show, a dumbed-down, perhaps daytime version. There are no snippets of Chinese, because this is confusing to new viewers. Inara, through clever editing, is made to seem like a model, or perhaps a stripper, but not a prostitute. Furthermore, there is little choice but to remove any trace of preachers busting kneecaps, as this is flat out offensive.

    Maybe the reavers just hug you to death, I don't know.

    The point is that even though it might save the show, and even though the normal program might still air in a later timeslot, the masses now know this new, bastardized version of Firefly, where so many of the interesting quirks have been dispensed with to make it more "accessible". Now when you and I meet, I don't get your kneecaps joke, and your insinuation that Inara sleeps with those men for money is insulting to my view of the character.

    Suddenly being a "Firefly fan" doesn't have much meaning. And it's not about elitism, or your wanting to feel superior to me, its about the loss of a common, uniting experience. Sure, for a lot of people this is an ego issue, but I think what's really polarizing about it is that it dilutes the shared experience. And the desire to share the experience is exactly what you were celebrating about the show to begin with.

    Should mega man have an easy mode? Doesn't matter to me, I suck at those games and probably won't try them either way. Would I prefer Firefly to have stuck around? Absolutely, but let's not pretend it wouldn't have come at a cost.

  10. @Daniel

    I know what you mean about getting old. It's not just the fast twitch that's gone, it's the hours of free time. I used to play Starcraft with my friends 40-50 hours a week, and we were playing top level. But now that I have a wife and a job, when Starcraft 2 comes out, I'm going to get crushed by children.

  11. I think Daniel Einspanjer makes a good point, however I don't think the outcome he proposes is what will happen. Game developers know games they develop must come out at X amount of dollars. Right now, new games are 50 bucks.

    Instead of the additional cost of creating the easy mode (assuming there is a high additional cost) being pushed to the consumer, what will happen is they will spend less time developing the actual game.

    What I think the actual outcome would be is a shorter less comprehensive game for all. Not a higher costing game.

    I also think Mark above makes a good point, but I know I am guilty of the ego portion. After all I have a shirt proclaiming I can beat battletoads and I took pictures and video when I beat it the first time.

    I think a simple half-solution is that people need to stop saying "I beat game X" until they beat game X on the hardest difficulty setting.

    This leads me to why (for bragging rights) I tilt towards NES games as they were small and had to make up for lack of game time with extreme difficulty and no save ability - at least for bragging rights I think those games are the best for it.

    Most games I have played recently don't hold a candle to the earlier games in terms of difficulty.

  12. I think it's mainly that the "hardcore" gamers are afraid of being pushed out, in much the same way "Firefly" fans were pushed out in favor of the more accessible "Fastlane." Did you feel a kinship with fans of that show just because it occupied the same time slot as "Firefly"?

    I don't mind games having an easy mode — for example, "Left 4 Dead 2" had one, but I just play on Expert. That doesn't hurt me.

    But then look at the Wii and you'll see what pervasive easy mode can lead to. It made the system very successful, but the massive influx of easy moders led to the mass production of games focused more and more tightly on those people to the exclusion of others, and it created a feedback loop that's reached the point where game makers couldn't release a "hardcore" Wii game even if they wanted to.

  13. You obviously have nothing to do the whole day.

  14. Your article ignores a serious issue here: the difference between an easy game and a hard game is not controlled by a "hardness" variable that lives somewhere in the designers' tweak system.

    Look at a different example: cooperative modes. Both Uncharted 2 and Resistance 2 rejected the easier, more common approach to co-op - adding a second player to the single player campaign. Their reasons were clear: designing the SP as to accommodate co-op, they concluded, would damage the design of the single player experience. And the alternative bred fear: RE5's inherent co-op nature was a point of concern for players who felt that the experience wouldn't stand without a live partner. It isn't a matter of adding an additional player: it's that for the sake of the *experience* changing the gameplay in a level designed for one purpose to support another would result in a lower quality experience for *both*.

    How can you take a game like Mirror's Edge, where the fun comes largely from the exhilaration of completing a demanding, intricate task, and design an easy mode that entertains the easy mode player as much as it entertains the hard mode player upon accomplishing such a feat? Having the game auto-play, ala SMBWii, removes the entire experience in a game like Mirror's Edge. Dumbing down the input needed from the player won't satisfy. And redesigning a section to accommodate will, necessarily, make both the hard design and the easy design suffer as the designer's time is spread thin.

    The same is true for Mega Man. Mega Man is an inherently difficult game. Some sections in the games would still be difficult, even if the player faced no enemies and had an infinite life bar. And for those sections, there is no easy mode that won't be a lesser experience for the easy mode player than the hard mode player. Fans of MM who fear the appearance of an easy mode worry that hard mode will suffer, just like the developers of U2 and R2 concluded that their SP would suffer under the weight of a tacked-on co-op. An easy Mega Man game with higher damage and more enemies does not a hard Mega Man game make. And an easy Mega Man mode that is designed apart from a hard Mega Man game is enough break from the decades old formula as to justify skepticism that it would even be fun.

    If an easy Mega Man game is as fun a game for both the easy and hard mode players, then the idea is a success. But you can't fault the hardcore for fearing the worst; wedging different gameplay into a focused design will only hurt both.

  15. @Mark

    I think your Firefly parallel is clever but ultimately misleading. If someone tried to do that to a TV show it absolutely would have ended in tears. (Probably mine.) However, the analogy breaks down when you try to carry that over to video games, which are modular and flexible in a way that TV is not. As the good Doctor noted earlier, it might be tricker for a game like Zelda which contains different notions of difficulty. But I think it's high time developers started working on just this sort of issue. There definitely would be a cost, as you say, but it's not a given that it would be paid in product quality. FWIW, I also contest Daniel E's notion that implementing such difficulty scaling could double development costs. That seems like a drastic overestimate.

    @Anonymous beginning with "Your article ignores a serious issue..."

    You claim that Mega Man is an inherently difficult game, but I think that's just a failure of imagination. I played the crapcakes out of Mega Man on the NES and I assert that changing just one thing would have made the game far easier: infinite lives. I realize I'm treading on the challenge/punishment divide here, but it sure would have been easier to learn some of those killer sequences of deadly beams or spiky death pits if failing 3 times didn't kick me back to a title screen. Also, as DP noted, Bionic Commando Rearmed's easy mode simply added some platforms in certain locations, turning fall-die-reload sequences into fall-hop back-try again sequences. Bionic Commando and Mega Man are absolutely similar enough that this could work in some places.

  16. @Partial Charge

    While infinite lives increases the likelihood that the player can complete a given task, that doesn't make the task itself easier. It just gives a persistent player more opportunity to improve. Maybe we're arguing semantics, but I don't think that really meets the spirit of "easy mode." There's a threshold at which a casual gamer gives up out of frustration. Infinite lives pushes that threshold further out (by making it easier for the player to retry); in my view, easy mode doesn't increase the threshold, it lowers the frustration level.

  17. I think Mark's comment hits the nail on the head. Basically, yes, it is status signaling. And guess what? People really like status signaling. Look at the success of Xbox Live Achievements. Imagine if "Achievements" were made all trivial to get somehow - that would kill the experience and people would naturally feel gipped.

    Also, it's not always free to add an easy mode. Depending on the type of game, adding difficulty levels can be very involved and use up a lot of resources - perhaps at the price of the overall game quality. As with anything, the more focus you have, the more quality you tend to come out with.

    But I do agree completely that the industry - as a whole - must appeal to more types of players. But companies like PopCap and Nintendo have shown that you can do this very successfully by creating new IPs and experiences. There's no need to modify existing "hardcore" IPs. If a company chooses to do so, then they better be careful and do it well. We'll see how Mega Man 10 makes out.

  18. I do wanna add though, that this article is damn well-written and interesting. I appreciate how you bring other disciplines, such as economics, into the analysis of games.

  19. Oh my god, no. Mark's comment is not a good point, it's not clever, and it certainly doesn't hit the nail on the head. Who are you people? You cannot make that parallel with this argument because it's simple apples and oranges. Mark's Firefly example is about censoring the mature content (violence, sexual themes, language) in order to make the show accessible to a wider audience. This article is about adjusting a game's level of challenge. The two are completely different concepts by virtue of the fact that the difficulty level of games is a status signal, whereas the content rating of a tv show (TV-G to M or whatever) has nothing to do with status and everything to do with the age bracket of the audience. There are casual and hardcore gamers in almost any age group. The content rating of a television show doesn't determine casual versus hardcore viewers. If anything, the analogous concept to match with gaming would be how well the viewer knows the show's content (as in trivia contests). So, no, trying to match the status symbol of game difficulty with the content rating of of tv show is not a "clever" analogy. Apples and oranges, man. Apples and oranges.

  20. DP, nice article as usual. You've got me looking into and reading the status seeking behavior now. But I'm afraid I have to call you out for greatly oversimplifying the picture. There is another issue you're not really addressing -- a lot of gamers complain about easy mode for another reason. When one completes easy mode, one may feel the need to move on to a normal mode, and then to a hard mode. And it's a developer's best interest to cater *to* that desire. The result is an extended difficulty curb instead of there being spikes, because it's in the developer's best interest not to stonewall the progress of the audience.

    One result of this is that the inclusion of an "easy" mode can result in "hard" mode becoming much easier. And if the new or casual gamers far outnumber the hardcore, and are more willing to spend money than them... guess who gets catered to? Hardcore gamers are railing partially because they feel like the games they played may be losing their identity because of this creep or trend. If you want another sci-fi show analogy, look at drastically Star Trek has changed in the last 15 years or so. A lot of oldtime fans (myself included) are quite alienated and don't recognize the show in its current form. Yes, hardcore gamers would PREFER their franchises dying than for them to mutate like this. I'm with them on that. Imagine if Joss Whedon was hospitalized and whoever took over Firefly instead homogenized it or changed it to be more like other shows. Would survival be a good thing?

    At the same time, I'm not disagreeing with what you said. It's all true. In particular, I wish hardcore gamers would stop seeing a potential apocalypse and realize there will ALWAYS be insanely hard games for them, if they're not attached to a franchise or are willing to abandon it. The NES days did *not* have something like I Wanna Be the Guy or curtain fire shooters lik Touhou.

  21. Daniel Einspanjer, Russ Schampers and others worry that the extra effort to develop an easy mode would raise the production cost of the game. Yes, it would... so what? The whole POINT of an easy mode is that it would open the game up to wider audiences. The incremental cost of adding the new mode should be less than the size of the added audience (not EVERYTHING changes and has to be rewritten and retested) so in theory this should LOWER the cost of games.

    Also, thanks to Mark for the insightful comparison to "dumbed down Firefly". I'll really need to think about that one.

  22. An amazing lack of imagination is out there it seems. There is no reason why a game that is designed to be hard would be impacted by the creation of an easy mode.

    If the game is intended to be hard then the default state of the design remains the same and the easy mode will simply be created on top of the hard mode.

    There are so many different features that can be implemented at a vast array of scales it's not even funny.

    - Infinitive Lives, Health, Armour, Ammo etc.
    - Guidance "Vision" highlighting paths/puzzle clues etc.
    - Additional platforms
    - Automatic Play, Level Skip
    - Weaker Bad Guys, Stronger Good Guys
    - More Time (quick time events/etc.)
    - Auto-Aim/Targeting
    - NPC assistance
    - Check Points/Quick Save

    That's just quickly off the top of my head and none of those affect the difficulty of the hard mode one bit.

  23. @ Andrew - you are vastly underestimating the cost and scope of your "simple" game adjustments. You're talking about -new- conditionals and calculations that have to be weaved into every facet of the game, and you're also suggesting entirely new mechanics that might not otherwise be in the game at all. As a software developer I know that you just added hundreds of thousands of dollars and months of time with some of those ideas.

    Since game price is inflexible, content will likely suffer. That is mine and other folks here's argument, that easy mode development time and dollars decreases the value of normal mode content.

  24. I side with uhzHiro here. I worked at 2K Games for one year, and I can confidently say that 7/9 of those things that 'Andrew' listed would take up significant resources and certainly detract from the quality of a more focused game.

    And even if something was easy to implement (such as infinite lives/armor), you're forgetting one crucial aspect of game development: Play testing. Quality games require a ton of play testing - just ask Valve or Blizzard. If you make a different difficulty mode, then in order for it to be worth while, you'll need to play test it. To be really thorough about it, that doubles your needed play testing resources!

    'Easy' is not free.

  25. And again, I do agree that we need easier games to expand the market. But it must be done with care, and it will be challenging for companies to find a good balance between catering to the (still very important) hardcore market while also expanding. It's not just a trivial matter of "oh, just add an easy mode and make million dollars!"

  26. uhzHiro, I wasn't suggesting implementing all of them out of context from the game, I think that goes without saying.

    'Steven A.' why are you putting apostrophes around my name? Do you think it's a lie?

    The thing is, the more complex games games are already developed with some of these things in mind and are clearly not developed as being "hard" games. So not only are "easy" modes less relevant they are already included in most cases.

    A game like Megaman, which is designed to be hard, is considerably lower budget and only stands to gain from including an easy mode and opening up its audience.

    Then you have games like Mirror's Edge which implement them then needlessly turn them off as the game goes on.

    Anyway 7/9 is way over the top:
    - Life/Health/Armour/Ammo

    If your game has these systems in place this is not a difficult thing to implement, the fact that pretty much every FPS under the sky used to have cheats that gave just these things says it all.

    - Enemy/Character Strength

    Every enemy/character in a game basically has health and damage variables, is this such a difficult thing to change (Using most games as evidence, it's not).

    - Auto-Aim/Targeting

    At least on console games this is already featured heavily in lots of games.

    - Checkpoints/Save Games

    Because most games don't already have these as standard features.

    Then two of the others depends entirely on the type of the game (Platforms/Guidance).

  27. @Andrew - Certainly it can be done, and many games do it, but I'm just saying: It's not a trivial matter. You're right that most games implement those things you listed. But my point is, if a game didn't implement auto-aim or save games, they might have turned out as better games. Harder games, yes, but the gameplay might have been better because the one week that an engineer spent fine tuning auto-aim could have been spent on better monster AI.

    Of course, that extra bit of quality may not be worth the alienation of more casual players. Who knows? It's a complex trade-off that shouldn't be trivialized. Game development is hard.

    Let's take a recent example: Demon's Souls. Should they have taken the time to add a fall-protection feature (ie. game doesn't let you just walk off a cliff)? They chose not to. Was that the right decision? On the one hand, I bet tons of players got frustrated and quit playing because they fell too much. On the other hand, ignoring fall-protection gave them weeks of programming and design time to spend on everything else in the game. Was it the right decision? Who knows.

  28. I used to love challenging games, but I'm not 15 anymore. Gaming is a way to have fun and unwind after a long, stressful day. Developers that understand this are going to reach a larger audience.

  29. Hey Doc Prof,

    This is completely unrelated to the article, but may I suggest an idea for another article?

    I live in Brazil, and there is one thing that really pisses me off about game releases: the release dates. The US always gets a game a few days sooner than the rest of the world, which doesn't make sense in digital distribution.

    I bought Mass Effect 2, it was released on the US yesterday with preload available since sunday. But I'll only be able to play it tomorrow, the international release date and can't even preload the game.

    Mass Effect 2 leaked online about 1 week before the release date.

    So tell me Doc, why do the publishers complain about piracy so much when they aren't doing anything to provide a better service? Pirating a game is free, has no copy protection, and you can even get it before the release date sometimes.

    Anyway, sorry for ranting here like this.

  30. I think that both the article and most of the objections to it raised here are all valid (and nice to see the quality of comments improve here! - just how you get so many comments I don't know, sheer skill I guess - I admit I'm jealous ;).

    I think the point is that different people want different kinds of levels of challenge in a game. Some want hard games for whatever reasons, including the status, and this will surely result in better games for those kinds of players due to the time & focus spent on that, as has been illustrated finely above. Also as has been explained above, people have quite an attachment to existing franchises and this includes the level and types of challenge they provide.

    I'm going to talk about fighting games as that's my #1 niche, and there was (and still is) a lot of resistance to the fact the Street Fighter 2 "HD Remix" revision for XBox 360 & PS3 made just a few moves a bit easier to perform! (I've gone to town on why I disagree with that here - Summary: it's still a flippin' hard & complex game, and its not just the execution complexity that makes it so). But the (re-)designer of was cognisant of the 'existing franchise' problem when he said: "There's only so far I can go with this and still call it SF2" (at the link below).

    But at least it was very clear to any keen fan of the existing franchise who might be interested or not in this game title exactly what they were getting, as it was detailed copiously on the (re-)designers site ( and on the publishers promotional site.
    But where I think this ideal of having "games for all types of challenge" (which maybe within the same game (easy modes) or in separate franchises) really falls down is that for many games the player really has no idea what they are getting into. Even a great demo ( may give you very little idea of the challenge level or types of challenge a game will offer. For a new player to Street Fighter who wouldn't seek out the design materials, what would they really know? I look at a title like Street Fighter IV, which was marketed as being "accessible to newcomers", and this was then repeated parrot-fashion by almost all reviews and all the press, when in fact, it is FAR more complicated and difficult to play than any number of older fighting games still (including Street Fighter 2), so much so that it alienates even me (a tournament player at HD Remix). How is a new player supposed to know that? In the end, I think Street Fighter IV shows the franchise (and fighting games in general) are heading the way of pinball if they are not careful. But again, the challenge is really for the marketing and reviews and media and such to actually clearly reveal the way a game challenges you and to what degree and how much any available difficulty levels change that. But that just doesn't happen right now! For example here on this blog is the first time I've seen that Bionic Commando Rearmed had an Easy mode that actually changed the platform layout rather than just giving me more lives (and I own the game!). I'm tempted to go and give it another play now.

    As an aside, I also strongly disagree with the notion that competitive play and multiplayer versus style challenges are only for the 'hardcore' and such modes can't also have an "Easy" mode for players that want that, and I also believe players do want that (a lot of my own site is about this issue). In fact I think its much easier to do this in competitive multiplayer games than single player ones - it's all about matching players of equal skills (
    (sorry about all the in-line links, I don't know what code will work in these comments).

  31. Some games are getting a lot better at multiplayer matchmaking.

    Heroes of Newerth, which is a DotA based game currently in open beta, does it very well. In HoN, you have a skill rating based on various factors, which fluctuates after every game. When you join a match lobby, you join one team or the other, and can be locked with any friends you have with you. Then, based on skill rating, all the non locked people are auto balanced, forced to one team or the other, to even the teams. It even tells you the % chance your team has to win after the balancing. Then based on that % chance and based on your personal skill rating, you have a specific amount of rating you can gain or lose from that match. Since it's based on your skill, it's probably a different amount from everyone else. If your team has a 20% chance to win, you would probably lose nothing at all.

    Generally this keeps the matches close and fair, and most players have a win ratio between 40 and 60%, which is exactly what you should want.

    Another bonus, not related to balancing but awesome enough to point out, is that the game keeps track of rage quits. You can create and join matches that specifically filter out people who have disconnected from a certain % of their games.

    I'd like to see this system instituted in many more games, especially games like Left4Dead where imbalanced teams and rage quitting ruin 90% of matches.

  32. You are missing the correlation that your dumbing down Firefly to appeal to a broader audience.

    Also the comic book marked wounded itself by catering not to a older market but to the collectors market rather than simply writing and drawing good stories.

  33. What? There's a Firefly game coming out? I hope it has bonus reaver missions and I get to play River...

    sorry, your post locked me at the Firefly part :)

    But alas, as a GenX'r I have to say that there is no personal value in 'getting past a level' in hardcore mode. With work and family and a career to massage, I only have time for fun the Lego Series....where they can be hard for those that want or easy fun.

    I miss firefly.

  34. I personally have no problem with a range of difficulties. Take Bayonetta. Automatic Very Easy mode can be played one handed and with very little in the way of reflexes, while normal mode is nearly as difficult as DMC4 and Hard certainly is Hard. The achievement aspect is still there thanks to Trophies/Achievements. You can spot the hardcore Bayonetta players by the fact they have the trophy for finishing it on Hard mode. I'd like to see more of this approach in the future.

  35. Actual difficulty sliders would probably be unpopular in MMOs. There are still other solutions, however. World of Warcraft has a variety of types of content that vary considerably in their accessibility. General questing is pretty darn easy, especially if you team up. Five-man instances are harder, raids and heroics harder still, and PvP is where the difficulty tops out. And every player is free to play whichever of these content types they choose.

    The past 3 raiding instances of WoW have binary difficulty settings: normal modes tuned to be more accessible than traditional raid content, and "hard modes" tuned to raiding's traditional, punishing schedule.

  36. @uhzHiro

    That's more fantastic news that some games are =finally= starting to get it right. I've been railing about this stuff for many years, and you really hit close to home with the Left 4 Dead comment, as that's my most played game over the last 6 months but I am continually disappointed by it's sorry Versus mode non-matchmaking. Especially since it's so much fun when you =do= get a good game - but that's about 1 in 10 as you state.

    I'm not sure Heroes of Newerth sounds like my kind of thing, but I shall definitely be checking it out now. Thanks again, and I hope Dr Prof doesn't mind this tangent. :)

  37. Easy mode can even be a good thing for all those status seekers...
    Having someone play Guitar Hero on easy is just the thing you want when you've beaten the game on expert! Admiration will be yours.

  38. THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS! For a long time I've been put off by Steve Napierski and his comic, in large part due to his incessant fanboy whining. Good on you, sir!

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  40. As a previous proponent of ‘there shouldn’t even be a difficult setting’, I now see the error of my ways. There is nothing negative about a multitude of difficulties where any person can find the most appropriate challenge level for their abilities. In fact, I now understand that is a great asset.

    Although, I still see nothing wrong with gamers wanting an appropriate level of recognition corresponding to their accomplishments rather than facing someone minimizing or trivializing something they value.

    The argument about status might be relevant, but I think it is more accurate to focus on the value placed on the games by different groups. This is about more than status; it’s about identity. After all, the status of gamers has consisted of negative perceptions, opinions, and stereotypes for decades, but pride for their passion has meant their identity has endured.

    Now that the term is no longer pejorative, more people are claiming it. In response, gamers are trying to separate the previous identity from the new one, like with the casual / hardcore distinction. On top of which, access to status is still there: all you have to do is explain your accomplishment a little more, for example, beating Gears of War on Insane, or beating Contra without the code.

    It’s not public opinion or status gamers want back and, as you note, it’s not that a difficulty setting truly jeopardizes the challenge of a game; what is sought is the protection of their identity.

  41. This doesn't negate your larger point, but you and Ely are dead wrong about pinball. Pinball didn't "kill itself" in the manner you suggest.

    Pinball games didn't become harder to maintain the interest of the experts--they got deeper. 1993 saw the release of "Whitewater", the first pinball game with a "wizard mode". But it was still just as easy/hard as ever to get the ball up the ramp.

    There's only one pinball machine from the 90s that is so "deep" as to be confusing to a novice--"Twilight Zone"--but it was most certainly the exception to the rule. And even with that, the rule of "shoot for the flashing lights and you'll be fine" generally holds true. Pinball designers definitely knew how to make the game appeal to the novice as well as the expert.

    What happened to pinball was video games. As the 90s progressed, video games got better and better--flashier graphics, more interesting gameplay. And video games are easy to keep working--for most games, you just provide power and they'll keep working (and paying out!) forever. But pinball machines are notoriously difficult to keep running; that little steel ball flies around at high speed and just beats the hell out of the machine's innards. Flippers die, sensors die, playfield gets dirty, balls get stuck, and the game quickly becomes no fun. So earnings for video games in arcades kept rising and rising, and earnings for pinball machines kept falling and falling.

    The final death knell for pinball was the death of the arcade writ large. Home video games killed arcades, and suddenly there was no good place to play pinball anymore--apart from the odd laundromat or bar, and again those machines are generally so badly maintained as to be unplayable. All the pinball makers are out of the market, except for Stern, and they're catering to the home/collector market.

  42. Left 4 Dead 1&2s easy campaign mode isn't less difficult in content or mechanics beyond the survivors taking much much less damage. Director (Tanks!) will still kick the crap out of you, common will swarm you and SI will attack pretty hard - basically, you can still wipe.

  43. I'm so glad someone has finally said this. I am a huge World of Warcraft player, and people are constantly in-game talking about how Blizzard "dumbed down" the game. How were they dumbing it down?

    1) Making useful items and equipment more accessible to players by actually introducing a currency where the amount you could obtain was directly proportional to the time you put into the game. This was promptly deemed "welfare" gear.

    2) Introducing "normal version" and "heroic versions" of content, normal is default and claimed to be "too easy" because you didn't have to be a hardcore raider to get good rewards from it. But heroic was much harder, available to any player with the skill to complete it, and had better rewards, which were often quite rare.

    These should both be good things: more players have the equipment and experience necessary to attempt more difficult content, so more opportunities for everyone. Heroic players still got the bragging rights of doing heroics, which were quite hard to complete, while the rest of us who are not quite so masochistic got to sit back and see the story progress and have more of the game available to us and still get to see some payoff for the time we put in.

    Yet somehow, this made the game worse off because it lets "bads" complete content alongside better players, or as one player I talked to about it put it, "noobs are coming into the raid thinking they are so leet when they're not." So what? You either kill the boss or not. But people in WoW are constantly trying to prove that they are the better than everyone else, whether it be with damage meters, or flaming other players, or achievements. This talk was just another example.

  44. Interesting thoughts. Let me just add that the inherent difficult is an essential part of the gameing experience. It is not only about the "story" or about nice characters, but about the core gameplay and if that has various degrees of difficulty, it's not the same and it's most certainly not "playing together".

    The developer viewpoint of more customers is of course a valid one. But we should not confuse external elements (revenue) with internal elements (gameplay).