One gripe among hardcore Mass Effect players is that its toughest difficulty was an unlockable - after playing through the game twice. A design lead explains why, and "insanity" may not be locked in ME2.
On the Mass Effect forums, Christina Norman, lead system designer, said that Insanity difficulty was made unlockable, because it was so difficult a player needed the experience of already playing through the game in order to complete it.
If we give access to insanity on the first playthrough, we need to show that it is possible to beat the game with all classes without any bonuses from achievements. We can't release a difficulty level where it's impossible to complete.
Effectively this means insanity would need to be easier. If we can assume you've already done a playthrough, we can assume you've acquired some bonuses, in addition to getting the experience of beating it on a lower difficulty level which will help you beat it on insanity.
So for ME1 at least, we were able to make Insanity harder because we limited it to people who'd already completed a playthrough.
So, what about the top difficulty level for Mass Effect 2? Norman said the team is considering "additional dimensions" to the difficulty system in Mass Effect 2, details that will make the game harder in the sense that it is more challenging, not simply "tougher."
We want insanity to feel like a smart experience, where you don't die because a rocket hits you and you're one-shot killed. You die because you face an overwhelming, deadly, force. You play extremely well, but not well enough, and on a subsequent try you're able to be victorious because you play better.
Once Bioware has its difficulty levels built out, then they will consider whether the top difficulty should be an unlockable. Norman said that decision has not been made yet. She is "totally open" to having insanity available from the get-go, "unless it means we have to make it 'easier'.
Ultimately if I have to choose between those options, I will choose a harder insanity difficulty, because I believe that's what's important to our players. Overall insanity in ME2 will be harder than ME1. That's a heads up for everyone! Beating insanity on ME2 is going to be a real "achievement", a badge of honor, get ready.
Regardless of how you feel about unlockable difficulty, Norman's reasoning makes plenty of sense, and gamers should really appreciate such transparency in their design process. This is a great example of meaningful gamer outreach. Hats off to her and to Bioware.
Will Difficulty Levels be Arbitrarily Locked in Mass Effect 2? [Mass Effect Forums, via The Save Points, thanks Meredith B.!]