Tobold's Blog
Sunday, December 09, 2018

Barbearian is a game on Steam and iOS which features a barbarian who is a bear. You control this character on an isometric map in a fast-paced hack'n'slash indie game, which got quite good reviews on Metacritic. Which would be all I would have to say about this game, if it wasn't about the game's interesting approach to difficulty.

Difficulty in video games is mostly completely arbitrary. That is to say that they contain numerical parameters which when modified can make the same game anything from extremely easy to extremely difficult. Games that use reaction time of the player can be set to make you succeed only if you press a button exactly at the right split second, or they can give you a wide window in which to press that button to succeed, making the game much easier. Games with combat can give you more or less hit points, and make your or your enemies attacks deal more or less damage.

Now if you look at older games, before everything went online, you will often find that they have options for difficulty settings. Civilization games for example let you choose one of eight difficulty levels between the very easy Settler and the extremely difficult Deity. It is then up to the player to choose a level, let's say "King", which gives him an experience which is hard enough to be interesting, but easy enough to not be frustrating. Online games, for example MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, don't have such difficulty settings, although sometimes they offer the same dungeon content in different difficulty levels. And in such cases you frequently get less rewards if you choose a lower difficulty, to comply with some strange idea of virtual fairness. Some mobile games exploit difficulty by making games that get harder faster than you can increase your power if you play for free, effectively trying to force you into buying power.

Barbearian has a completely different philosophy. Of course it helps that it is a single-player game, and there are no monetization shenanigans. But the game gives you not just a selection of difficulty levels, but direct access to three numerical parameters that determine difficulty. You can modify game speed, received damage, and value of loot. And you can do that independently of each other, making the game both easier to play and making it give you twice the loot. Thus the whole idea of "you only reserve virtual rewards if you can beat the game at a certain difficulty" goes out of the window. Instead the game lets you choose the parameters to maximize your fun, in either direction. If you want maximum rewards for minimum effort, and play the game ultra-casually, you can. If you want to add to the challenge to make the game more interesting, you can. I find that a very good idea. And it makes me wonder why there aren't more games like that.

Too many people protesting that the couple of electronic bytes that changed state to reflect their “achievement or reward get” has now become devalued by other people obtaining it more easily.

I miss the days of cheat codes and editing configs to do whatever you wanted to do with the game. Nothing like pulling back the curtain to break the illusion.
It's not the first game to allow you to tweak settings rather than just have a slider for difficulty. Some 4X games have always taken this route, and of course for moddable games anything goes.

It's often a good thing, but there can be a real tendency for players to cheat themselves out of fun by making things too easy. Strategy games are probably the least prone to this, though. In fact I think they often make the opposite mistake by insisting on playing Civ on Deity level, which tends to require brutal exploitations of game mechanics.

With multiplayer, there's no easy fix, though. Maybe things like cosmetic drops from hard dungeons can play some role.
They set it to the easiest with max reward, complete the game in 30 minutes, then write a bad review that it has no content in it.
Battletech is another game that did the same thing, albeit it wasn't in from launch.

It has settings that let you ramp up or lower the games difficulty by tuning factors like loot, enemy force strength, rare shop items, etc.

I do wish more games offered this kind of flexibility.
I want this to be an MMORPG just so I can be the first to log in and make a character named "BooBoo the Barbearian."

Not because I want to play the character... no no. I want to put in on a shelf next to my Dark Age of Camelot Lurikeen, "Lucky."
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