Alex Hutchinson, the lead designer on Assassin's Creed III, has some very interesting thoughts on video game difficulty.
"A lot of games have been ruined by easy modes," he tells Edge. "If you have a cover shooter and you switch it to easy and you don't have to use cover, you kind of broke your game.
"You made a game that is essentially the worst possible version of your game."
Now, he's a designer, not a writer or artist, so he's approaching the construction of a video game from his own position of strength. But to say that "easy" modes can somehow break, or result in "the worst possible version" of a game, sounds crazy.
There'll be those who agree with his views. Many people. But let's look at the other side of this argument.
With a few exceptions, I play most games on easy. Sometimes very easy. I do this because of the reason I play video games. My favourite titles are the ones with a story, a universe I can explore and/or become immersed in, maybe some narrative, usually some strong characters. I am, essentially, pressing and nudging my way through a very long movie, or a very loud comic.
I don't usually play competitive shooters, or fighting games, or anything else that's based primarily around the concept of competition, or timing, or reflexes, because I don't enjoy that. It's not my thing. I'm not saying it sucks, just that it's not why I play games.
When I'm playing, I'm playing to move my way through a story. Like turning the pages of a book. And I know from personal experience, through to seeing games like Deus Ex rebrand "easy" mode to "tell me a story" mode (above), that I'm far from alone. So why the hostility to easy mode? Does it matter if I play a cover-based shooter if I'm not having to use cover?
It doesn't, because earlier this year I did just that, cruising my way through Sega's Binary Domain, not for the challenge of shooting things, but because I love the way Toshihiro Nagoshi's team can design a male soap opera, and I thought the visual design of the game's future world was great. For all my cruising through on the easiest setting, I enjoyed myself just fine.
Which sounds weird considering Binary Domain is an action game, but that's modern gaming for you. There's enough money and talent in the writing and art teams that you can enjoy them divorced from the actual game. I can easily do the same thing with shooters, finding a good time in an FPS that may be lacking in terms of pacing or level design, but lets me enjoy a story or world regardless.
Hearing Hutchinson simply write off this tendency - something optional, and entirely up to the player's discretion! - as though there's something wrong with it is disappointing. Especially given the fact he's working on a series that's traditionally had one of the strongest fictional universes in AAA gaming today. After four main games I'm invested in the world of Assassin's Creed, and am looking forward to seeing how things play out in the fifth, but that investment comes in wanting to see how the story unfolds, not what the developers can do in terms of the number of bad guys I have to fight or how hard they are to kill.
His comments are especially interesting considering the Assassin's Creed series is one of the few to withhold the option to set a difficulty level from the player, instead relying on a series of "tiered" rewards from missions to sort the awesome killers from the babies who play on easy mode. It could sure do with the choice! I've lost count of the number of times in those games when I nearly walked away entirely because my progress had been stopped by a mission that was too tough, when all I wanted to do is see what came next. I can, however, count the number of times I felt good about myself for beating a boss or a particularly "tough" mission: zero.
Those who do enjoy a challenge are obviously going to be oblivious to this. And given Hutchinson's quotes are followed by lengthy assertions from lead gameplay designer Steven Masters that they "take a lot of care" over difficulty balancing, I'm not exactly concerned Assassin's Creed III will be the hardest game ever made. Some missions might be a pain, but if I got through the last four, I can get through this one.
It' just baffling to see that, in the year 2012, there are still people in the video game industry who approach things as though this was the 1980s, and the only games on the market were there to test you. If I don't have to pass a test just to turn a page in a book, or reach the second act of a movie, I shouldn't have to in a story-rich video game either.
For some people, breezing through a game without dying isn't a sign that it's somehow broken. It's a sign they're being allowed to enjoy the game the way they want to.