Tobold's Blog
Monday, February 18, 2013
Too easy - too hard- Is it even possible?

I was reading in a print magazine a review of DmC, and the reviewer gave the game some negative points for the jump-and-run part being "too easy". Although I never even played DmC, somehow that review upset me. I mean, I was happy that I learned that the jump-and-run part of the game is relatively easy, and promptly put the game on my Steam wishlist for the next sale. But how can a reviewer say a game is "too" anything?

I believe that for any player there is a certain span of difficulties in which a game is enjoyable. Less than that and the game is trivial for him, although he still might enjoy doing trivial activities (/wave Bhagpuss). More difficult than his personal range, and the game becomes frustrating. But while thus a player could say that a game is "too easy" or "too hard" *for him*, I don't think one can generalize that for everybody. A game is never "too easy" or "too hard" for EVERYBODY.

I think that sequels are to blame for too general reviewer statements. DmC is the fifth game in the Devil may Cry series. Now imagine two very different players trying it: One a veteran who has already spent hundreds if not thousands of hours on the previous games. The other a completely new player who has never played a game of this style. What is "too easy" for the former might well be just the right difficulty for the latter, while what is just right for the former might be "too hard" for the latter.

It always surprises me that not every game has adjustable difficulty levels. The purpose of a game is entertainment, and what use is a game which for some players is either "too easy" or "too hard"? Wouldn't it be best if everybody could adjust the game to fit his personal preference and experience level?

Even if the overall difficulty was perfectly tuned to each player, there could still be issues where the difficulty of certain parts of the game was not consistent with the rest of the game. System Shock 1 tried to solve this issue by having separate difficulty sliders for combat, puzzles, cyberspace and plot.
If a reviewer is unable or unwilling to say that the thing he or she is reviewing is "too" anything then he or she is not, or should not be, a reviewer. Reviewing comprises many functions; making judgments is one of the most important.

If you mean to suggest that a reviewer should define those judgments qualitatively as well as quantitatively, or that he or she should indicate whether a judgment is intended to be read as subjective or objective, then you are on safer ground. Much of the responsibility here, however, belongs with the reader; reviews must always be taken in context to be fully appreciated and part of that context needs to be prior knowledge of the reviewer's work, whether gained from personal experience of it or from secondary knowledge of the reviewer's reputation.

Reviews by unknown quantities can be, often are, valuable as works of entertainment or art in their own right; without said prior knowledge, however, they stand alone and cannot be used meaningfully to assess suitability of whatever is being reviewed for your own personal use.

And yes, I agree difficulty sliders on all games would be nice.
Fully agree that every game needs a difficulty slider.

I would further posit that the slider should always be adjustable mid-game. There is nothing worse than having to abandon a game mid way because the difficulty you originally selected is no longer appropriate for you.

I also agree wholeheartedly agree with @Mika about inconsistent difficulty being a big problem in many games. Mid game difficulty adjustment goes some way to solving that.

Most striking example of inconsistent difficulty I came across recently was the strategy game XCOM: Enemy Unkown. While the tactical game had a steadily increasing difficulty curve the strategy game started out brutally hard and then flipped to easy about half way through once you got enough [SPOILERS].
Well, an "objective" review is simply impossible unless you have quantified and strict rules... and then you don't need a reviewer, you need a computer :)

I always assume that the reviewer is familiar with the subject, so his position will be slanted towards the "too easy" by previous experience. In particular for games which are a sequel, where the reviewer probably assumes that players have already played the previous installments. So for a new game genre, the safe choice is to choose one which is "too easy", you can always move up the difficulty ladder later.

And of course, a difficulty slider is always welcome, but depending on the game it's not always that easy to implement.
How do you adjust the difficulty of a jump'n'run part without changing the leveldesign for each difficulty level? Because this would be prohibitively expensive to do.
If you mean to suggest that a reviewer should define those judgments qualitatively as well as quantitatively, or that he or she should indicate whether a judgment is intended to be read as subjective or objective, then you are on safer ground.

I think the reviewer should say "this game was too easy FOR ME, and I am a veteran who played all the previous games", or something to that effect which gives the reader an idea on how the difficulty is on a more general scale.
Perhaps a bit ironically, Devil May Cry (were you intentionally going all into Darkness on the lowercase "may" there? Fun!) was always pretty up front with difficulty adjustments. If memory serves, DMC was one of the first games that would offer lower difficulty if you were consistently failing a level.

Of course, I always took that offer as a direct personal insult and wouldn't dream of taking it...
(were you intentionally going all into Darkness on the lowercase "may" there? Fun!)

The official name of the new game is "DmC" with a lowercase "m". Don't ask me why!
That is fascinating! The full title is indeed 'DmC Devil May Cry". The Powers That Give Names™ have reached new heights in defying logic. Thanks for the clarification.
I think this comes down to clumsy use of language. Reviewers can be a bit careless (or possibly/probably overworked). We're used to certain terms being used when referring to games and feel that it's acceptable to use them even when maybe it's too general or inappropriate - I catch myself doing this with many things that I write and I have to stop myself and ask "is that objective"? It's a tough thing to do sometimes!

He may well have meant that those segments of the game don't require a lot of use of your brain. From what I've seen in videos, he may be right. Like you, it's still on my wish list!
This is where I wish we had full access to the statistics gathered by services like Xbox Live.

These figures would tell you what percentage of purchasers completed the previous games and at which point they hit a brick wall and stopped.

You could make a reasonably accurate judgement as to how difficult the latest game is in comparison to the previous version and then form a justifiable opinion as to whether the game is too easy/hard.

These details seem to be confidential but where I have read interviews with developers who discuss completion/progression rates it seems to be the case that the average gamer isn't remotely close to the super heroes you see posting on games forums or the reviewers.

Of course this could get more complicated. Take Dark Souls as an example. I suspect that all but a few percent of purchasers got a couple of hours in and quit. If the next game is as difficult how should it be reviewed?

Did Dark Souls only warrant a 4/10 given that for most readers of reviews it was a waste of money and clearly too hard/frustrating to extract any value from your purchase?

What if the reviewer states before hand that only super hardcore players should apply? Can he then award the 9/10's that the game did receive on the basis that it is worth that score if you are the intended audience?

Could the new Aliens game be given a 7/10 if the reviewer stated that only hardcore Alien fanboys should buy it? Or is it worth a 2/10 because that is all it deserves from the perspective of the typical FPS customer?

How do you define the intended audience? Do you go on the word of the developer/publisher and who they claim the intended audience is? But suppose the budget of the game is such that to be profitable they have to sell outside of their "claimed" intended audience? What if the game is marketed at a wider audience? Granted "Prepare to Die Edition" couldn't be clearer.

Do you start issuing multiple review scores for each game that relate to each segment of customers?

Well regardless, this is why I ignore reviews and scores in particular. I watch first impression vids on youtube and judge what I am seeing for myself.

I certainly wouldn't trust difficulty judgements to a games journalist who at the end of the day is by definition a professional gamer whereas I am strictly amateur.
I haven't read the other comments here yet, I will but I wanted to write this before it slips my kind.

I disagree.

I totally disagree.

In fact, if anything I find difficulty sliders to be annoying now. My most recent point in case is Forza Horizon. I am used to the Forza franchise and I have run all of the Forza Motorsport games with the AI cranked up as high as it will go. Is it tough? Well sometimes, definitely yes. But it always seems doable. And eventually, I do beat events. Well the overlarge majority of them.

Along comes Forza M. On the hardest level, I can beat but not win the first race. I can't win the third race on the second difficulty. Now I am faced with dialling down to Normal where simply because it is set to Normal I will feel like I'm not achieving anything any more because it's a Forza franchise game and Normal should be a breeze. So yes, Forza Horizon is too hard. It simply is.

There are other game types as well where I am used to a certain setting being "right" for me and then when a game becomes trivial or impossible on the same setting as its competitors in the same genre, I lose interest. Heck, WoW managed to do so on its own by going from somewhat challenging and fun to trivial and boring just by having expansions.

I would rather see systems where the game adapts its challenge level automatically to how good you are. And it can be done, I have a good example in my hands now with Rocksmith. Not a single song has been trivial, but not a single song has ever felt utterly impossible. Hard and needing practice, yes. Somewhat easier than the last one and doable in two/three/four goes rather than 6 or 7, yes. So what is my difficulty slider set to? Well guess what.. There is none. You play well? It gets harder. You start losing more often? It loosens up a tad. And so every single session is challenging, but not impossible. Now THAT is how it should be.

Forcing me to set a game to just Normal, or worse, Easy as I can't get through otherwise and make me feel inadequate? No thanks. Setting a game to hard and breezing through? No thanks.

I definitely vote against difficulty sliders.

Well, I think the reviewer can say what he really thinks. It's up to the reader to determine how to value the opinion of the reviewer.
@Baktru I disagree. I completely disagree.

I think if you want 'adaptive' difficulty so that you remain consistently challenged, but never overwhelmed or bored, that's YOUR call.

The slider allows me to make MY call. Which often may be: I want to just breeze through this thing mindlessly so I can experience the narrative, and keep my in-game variety of scenery moving along at an interesting clip.

Many games DO actually feature a check-box/slider in their options to enable adaptive difficulty. That's the best of both worlds, and I can't imagine why you would want to take that away from the people who are playing games for reasons other than what you play them.

This is basically you wanting to enforce your favourite playstyle ('always challenged') on everyone else. And I'm not sure why you would want to do that, but it is entirely your issue, not anyone else's.

The adaptive difficulty slider seems like the worst of all possible worlds.

Some people like to bash their head against a wall for a while.

Others want to roflstomp their way through a game.

The AI has no way of knowing this without you telling it, so nobody gets what they want.
Tobold, you say that the aforementioned "review" somehow upset you, but instead of explaining why, you create an argument based on the notion that an adverb cannot be subjective to an individual - such as saying something is "too sweet", "too hot"..ect..for them.

But then, in your second and third paragraph, you go on to extol the virtues of any given player and what they might, or might not enjoy, and what they might find to be too easy or too hard.

I like fine food, thus I read reviews of restaurants to help me determine if I should eat there or not, but I would never consider to "not" eat there merely because the reviewer mentioned that his specific dish was "too salty". Rather, I "might" decide not to have that particular dish when I arrive.

The same hold true with games, and after 30+ years of gaming I've come to trust certain reviewers because they like what I like about certain genres of games. But, on the flip side, I've probably put 100 times as many reviewers on the "never to read again" list due to using erroneous facts and figures, or simply by using a writing style that doesnt feel comfortable to me.

As Bhagpuss mentions, if you're asking for quantitive and qualitive explanations of why something was "too easy" for this reviewer, then perhaps this reviewer isnt for you.
I think the reviewer should say "this game was too easy FOR ME, and I am a veteran who played all the previous games", or something to that effect which gives the reader an idea on how the difficulty is on a more general scale.

Am I misinterpreting this, or are you really saying that it's ok for a reviewer to resort to using the "nostalgia" factor when determining whether or not a previous incarnation of a game was of an acceptable difficulty level?

According to your recent "Nostalgia" post, this is a big negative item for you and I'm having trouble seeing the distinction with this comment.
Am I misinterpreting this


What I was saying is that "too easy" isn't useful information unless you know how experienced the reviewer is in that kind of game. If he is a veteran, his "too easy" might still be perfect difficulty for a new player.
@Bernard and Cam: Come to think of it multiple settings including one that is adaptive might even be better indeed.

The Cynical brit complained about Crysis 3 - it's too hard to run and gun. Go figure!
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