Tobold's Blog
Saturday, April 27, 2013
Unlockable difficulty levels

I am a huge fan of games with adjustable difficulty levels. I think that every player is different, and so what is just the right amount of challenging for one guy might be trivial for the next, or frustratingly hard for a third. Setting ones own difficulty level maximizes fun for everybody. Now what I don't understand is the trend towards forcing players to work for that feature. I'm currently playing Borderlands 2, which starts out as normal, and I'd have to finish normal to get to True Vault Hunter Mode in playthrough 2 and Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode in playthrough 3. Not to mention that I would also have to pay for Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode.

The same thing with Diablo 3: It has Normal, Nightmare, Hell, and Inferno difficulty, but you need to play them in that order to unlock the next difficulty. Imagine that Inferno was the perfect difficulty level for you, then you would have to play through the game three times in an too easy mode before being allowed to play at the difficulty level you actually want. How silly is that?

Now I understand there is some theory behind this unlockable difficulty levels, that you learn the game by playing and are actually *getting* better while you play each difficulty level, enabling you to tackle the next one. But in this day and age I simply don't believe that this is true. How good you are in Borderland 2 will be to a large extent dominated by the skills you learned in previous shooter games, maybe even Borderlands 1. A player picking up Borderlands 2 as his first ever shooter game is going to be extremely rare, and not a good game design basis.

Now fortunately I suck at shooter games, so I can play Borderlands 2 always at normal difficulty level and be perfectly happy. So this is more a game design decision that punishes the more skilled players. But I would really hate for this to become general practice and to be applied to strategy games or others where I am actually good at. I would hate to be forced to play through a game at trivial difficulty level just to unlock the difficulty level that is fun to me.

I'm pretty sure you will be unable to hit the level cap without "graduating" to True Vault Hunter mode, just so you know.

I didn't think BL2 was as bad as Diablo 3 as far as unlocking difficulty goes, but I was pretty burned out by the end there. With the way sidequest missions work (reward being pegged at your level), the optimal method playing was to slog through just the story missions in TVHM, ignoring everything else; otherwise, you will get stuck with unique gear that is level 45 instead of 50, where you'd be spending most of your time (until the level cap was raised).
With shooters the higher modes - those above normal - rely not on how clinical you are at say firing your weapon but what weapon you have. It's rare to find an increased level based on the skill of the player. Rather it's the amount of damage the AI enemy can take than the AI's improved intelligence.
The reason for unlockable levels: "i haz skillz i take l33t lvl lol".

After he is smashed on the hardest difficulty, "thiz game suxx lol".

Instead, he is forced to play on the lower difficulties, might even learn something and when he eventually reaches the wall, he invested enough in the game already to keep farming gear.
The unlocking in the Diablo series is a little different from other examples in that you are playing the same character who continuously progresses through each difficulty level gathering loot and skills appropriate to the level. So it is like one long three chapter game except with horribly recycled content (on a par with arcade-style games where the enemies/blocks just keep coming faster, though in this case it is mostly player skill that increases).

Games with separate unlockable levels don't have the same excuse, but I guess if they are balanced and play is compelling enough it may be okay, especially allowing for a little element of what Gevlon suggests. But it's also often annoying. Easy levels in shooters are fine by me, but having to tediously unlock high difficulty levels in strategy games is something I find very annoying if after a little while I know I can crush the standard level without even trying. Strategy games are no fun if the enemy has no chance.

The worst, though, is unlockable *easy* levels. Restaurant Rush is an example - tough enough game to beat, but if you play again you get to keep your recipes which trivialises the replay! What is that about? It would have been better if they made the initial game a bit easier then added a hard mode tuned for your extra abilities - this would have added legitimate longevity Diablo style. (There's nothing to stop them adding a 'relax' mode also where you experiment with the recipes and difficulty doesn't matter - perhaps that's what they were aiming at.)

As usual it is hard to figure out when something is a problem and whether the forums actually represent a large percentage of the player base or just a very small number of complaints.

Personally I don't play on the harder unlocked difficulties so it makes no difference to me.

However if you look at the people that do play on those difficulty levels, they seem to enjoy repetition.

You know the type; those that say "WoW was great when it used to be hard in Vanilla and TBC" when "hard" for them means "I had to spend hours mindlessly grinding easy mobs to gather raid mats" or "I had to run my alt through the all the old raids that I cleared hundreds of times already to get to the current content".

Do you really think those guys care about having to grind through multiple difficulty levels? Doing so is surely a badge of honour for them?

Sure some maybe were annoyed by the grind in Diablo 3 but were they outnumbered by many other hardcore players that actually enjoyed it?

After all, it strikes me that most of them get their pleasure and feelings of self worth from doing something that others have not. The more barriers to prevent others from achieving it, the better as far as they are concerned. They revel in performing these unpleasant acts because they know that others will quit at that point.

Earning "hardcore" or "elite" status comes at a price and a few want the title but don't want to pay the price. Those that are prepared to pay the price are liable to complaint if you lesson the price.

The is the problem. They might initially be happy if you remove those grinds, but as soon as they see large numbers of players entering their elite club, they will want the barriers raised again.
Give grinding achievements if people want them but don't make me play a trivial game 3 times before I reach the correct difficulty level. By the time reach a challenging level I've already seen the rewards and no longer care about the characters.

Woody's got it right. Unlockable difficulty levels are aimed at the "hardcore dudes" who obsess about being elite in their games and dedicate a lot of grind/repetition to the process. My guess is Gearbox and Blizzard (and others) have a lot of data on this that shows that most people who play through once do so on normal difficulty, and a smaller percentage....also coincidentally the guys who get all worked up in forums about stuff....are grinding repetitiously through a ridiculous amount of playthroughs.
I'd also be prepared to bet that when they "complain" about having to grind through the easier modes they are actually "boasting" about how "l33t" they are.

It isn't a complaint at all. They merely wish to draw attention to how good at the game they are and are doing so in the guise of a complaint. In reality they are saying that they love it.

If you allow the easy modes to be skipped, you don't just remove their avenue for boasting about how "cool" they are on forums, but when others are allowed to go direct to the hardest mode you can expect the l33t types to be up in arms and complaining about the developer allowing "lazy" players to access it.

If I look at WoW, it seems that the hard content being too hard for most players to finish is not enough to provide the l33t types with the feeling of exclusivity they crave. They actually want "access" to the content period to be exclusive too.

The boast being "I play Nightmare mode". If a bad player like me can say "yeah I've tried that too" then even though I likely die horribly within 10 seconds, the fact that I even attempted it has somehow diminished their accomplishment as they are no longer a part of an exclusive l33t club.

I.e. that they were one of the few to finish the hard mode is not enough. They want to be one of the few that even have a chance to experience that mode.

Once they become one of the few to experience that mode, they need an excuse to tell everyone on the forums that they are experiencing it.

That is where the "complaints" come in....
I too think "unlockable" difficulty content is stupid. I like to always set the scale on the hardest mode right at the get go.

Currently going through Diablo 3. It's fun and pretty cool, but will I replay the game again just so I can experience a harder mode? Unlikely. If I've experienced the plot what's the point in grinding numbers?

There are SO many other games to play - the designers of D3 were either lazy in regards to the difficulty locks or just arrogant in thinking they are the only game in town. Maybe both.

umm... if harder modes of Diablo3 were unlocked at the start, a starting character would just die instantly. You need to level up your character's skills to make them playable.

If you want a harder version, you could try 'conducts' a la NetHack.
I agree, I hate being forced to play the entire game 3 or mroe times to "unlock" the hardest difficulty. It's annoying and completely nonsense.

Bravo to XCOM, forx example, where you can start a fresh game at its maximum difficulty.

Borderlands 2 on the other hand... yes, in the end I couldn't handle it and didn't find enough motivation to level through UTVHM for the 3rd time. Also, being forced to finish an entire level before saving/quitting (checkpoints!) doesn't really help.

Maybe in a couple of weeks, who knows.
D3 Monster Power. You can literally turn it up to 10 right away! You don't have to unlock each level of MP.

Replaying the acts in each difficulty mode is merely a fixture of the Diablo leveling scheme. Arguably, this makes leveling go faster since you already know your way around after completing the acts the first time around.
In some situations I think the concept of unlockable difficulties
would be a great idea to help more "nooby" players.

I recently posted something similar on my blog about the game League Of Legends, the reason I am bringing this up is because I think it should be very strongly implemented into this game

In league of legends unless you have somebody shouting at you and telling you how to play "properly" it can be a little overwhelming.

That being said as I stepped into the PvP matches in this game I realized that they already do a good job of it. As for the Player vs Bot part I Think the chance to be able to fully customize difficulty Via unlocking would be genius.
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