It was revealed recently that Ubisoft were adding a difficulty setting in Assassin’s Creed: Origins. It’s
the first time the series has allowed players to choose which difficulty to beat the game on. Around
the same time, Cuphead was released; a notoriously difficult game, the main aim of which appears
to be breaking as many screens as possible by causing players to launch their controllers in
frustration. While you can change the difficulty in Cuphead during boss fights, doing so prevents you
from completing the game in its entirety, essentially forcing gamers to play the way developers
Both of these instances have refuelled a debate online about whether games should allow players to
pick the difficulty. People appear to be falling down fairly heavily on either side, but the truth is that
both games have absolutely made the right choice.
Let’s first look at the new Assassin’s Creed; it’s part of a series that has never been renowned for its
difficulty, so why now should people have a choice? Game director Ashraf Ismail summed it up
perfectly in an interview with GamesRadar, “What we felt was, by going deeper into the gameplay
challenge of the game, we’re feeding one part of the audience but not others. So it was a natural
step for us to think well, let’s give difficulty settings so that if you’re really more into the narrative or
the historical element, you can set the game to an easier setting.”
Put simply, Origins is a game – told you I’d put it simply – and so game mechanics are incredibly
important, but it’s story-based. When a game comes out with such a strong emphasis on the story,
the last thing it wants to do is lock people out of it. The story needs to flow, and it can’t if the player
is stuck on one bit, getting increasingly frustrated – no doubt that by the time they’ve learned to
overcome it, a part of the story has been forgotten.
It isn’t just for people who aren’t as comfortable with games, though. With Origins embracing more
RPG elements, there will no doubt be a few in this position who enjoyed previous additions to the
series. Some people would rather play on a lower difficulty because they’d rather sit and enjoy an
interactive film of sorts, and this is absolutely okay, no matter what individuals on the internet think.
Who are we to determine how players play the games that they’ve bought?
It isn’t just people who buy games who hold this opinion; some developers believe that by playing
on easy, you lose part of the game. Interestingly, back when Assassin’s Creed III was released, lead
designer Alex Hutchinson told Edge,“A lot of games have been ruined by easy modes. 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.”
This belief, coming from the design perspective, is easy to see. If you strip away the difficult parts of
your game, you’re left feeling as though you’re missing an important part of what the game was
supposed to be. This couldn’t be clearer when talking about games such as Cuphead. The whole
game is built around testing the players’ reflexes and forward thinking. Slap an easy mode in there
and you lose all of that. No-one is playing Cuphead for the story so, unlike Assassin’s Creed, the
focus shouldn’t be on that at all.
Everyone playing Cuphead knows exactly what they’re in for, because the challenge is the main
selling point for the game. By only having one difficulty it may lose out on some custom, but it
doesn’t mind doing so because it has a very specific target audience – one that enjoys the challenge.
The game is about learning to get better, or ‘git gud’ as certain internet sages would put it.
Both developers have made a choice on the difficulties they provide, and both have made the
correct call for the game that they’ve created. The debate appears to be a clash of the two styles of games that exist – story-orientated, which is becoming more and more popular, and skill orientated,
that has been popular ever since the birth of gaming. It is the debate itself that is the issue. There’s
too much of a superiority complex in games. Even when there’s an option to play a game on easy,
there’s a huge pressure by the community not to, because it makes you less of a gamer, or too
casual to play with the big boys. This shouldn’t be the case at all. Challenges shouldn’t be forced
upon players when there’s a clear choice to play the game on a number of difficulties.
At the same time, games such as Cuphead shouldn’t have to pander to those they know aren’t its
audience. It isn’t a game to enjoy in the relaxed sense, and makes itself very clear in that regard. It
prides itself on angering players, and that’s what makes it great.
Different genres of games require different choices when it comes to difficulty. That choice is
entirely up to the developer, and in this instance the developers have got it right. Stop pressuring
people to believe otherwise.