There Is No Valid Argument Why Games Shouldn’t Have Difficulty Settings

Now that Wyrd Street is out the door, I hope to find the time to return to some more traditional blogging, though my work with Massively will remain my focus. I know I’m very behind the times on this, but there’s an issue that’s been sticking in my craw for months, and now that I have a free moment, I’d like to finally address it.

Promotional art for the video game Elden Ring.Last year, a developer for Elden Ring spoke on the lack of discrete difficulty settings in it and the company’s other acclaimed titles, saying that the extreme difficulty of these games gives “meaning” to the experience as justification for not including any kind of easy mode.

I never had much interest in Elden Ring or other From Software games, but as a fan of the art form and occasional dabbler in game design, I find this point of view deeply illogical, and I’d like to take a moment to break down just why I find it so toxic.

I have to ask, what harm would have any easier option actually do? If you’d still play on the current, hard difficulty, what is an easy option taking away from you? If you feel your experience of the game is cheapened by someone else getting to see the whole game with less effort… grow up.

A less elitist argument I have also heard in defence of these games is that people don’t want the easier difficulty because it would tempt them too much. If they had the option to easy mode through the game, they wouldn’t be motivated to overcome its extreme challenges as they do now.

But if that’s the case, is it really the challenge you enjoy? Or is more that you just want the bragging rights to say that you overcame it? Whether ego is the motivation or not, if the difficulty is really what brings you joy, an easy mode won’t tempt you away from it.

Winning a game of StarCraft II on brutal.I am not much of an adrenaline junkie in games — I play most things at around medium difficulty — but there have been a few occasions where I’ve sought a greater challenge. In particular, my great love for StarCraft II and the fair and balanced challenge it provides sent me through all three of its main campaigns on brutal, the highest difficulty. I’ve also completed hundreds of co-op missions and dozens of co-op mutations on brutal, even completing one or two brutations solo after my partner disconnected on the load screen.

StarCraft II is quite generous with its difficulty settings, though. Brutal lives up to its name, but there are three levels below that, going all the way down to “casual,” a mode so easy I’m not sure it’s even possible to lose.

And never once has the presence of casual mode made me feel as if my struggles in brutal were cheapened. It did not make me crave the challenge any less, and I do not resent anyone who made it through the campaign without ever reaching so high as normal mode. Why would it? What someone else does with their game has no effect on me.

But let’s go back to the original comment, that the difficulty is what gives “meaning” to the experience. It’s a fundamentally flawed concept.

These are video games. There’s little to no meaning to playing them. They’re entertainment. You’re not accomplishing something great by beating up a pre-scripted artificial intelligence, no matter how challenging it may be.

My Covenant alt practicing her bow skills on an Ancient Guardian in New World.What meaning can be found in games is found in the ways they affect us, the relationships we form through them, the stories they tell, the stories we create while playing them. Difficulty contributes only slightly to that, and in many ways it detracts from it. Perhaps Elden Ring’s story is powerful and moving, but no one who can’t handle its difficulty will ever know (unless they watch it on YouTube or something). Where’s the meaning in that?

And what about disabled players who simply can’t play better? Yes, some people do manage to play hard games despite their disability, but that isn’t possible for everyone. How can you justify locking them out of a hobby just to stroke the egos of your able-bodied customers?

I’m used to this kind of tiresome, exclusionary thinking in the gaming community. MMORPGs have always been rife with it (despite being some of the easiest games around). What continues to baffle me is how people got these ideas in their heads in the first place.

No other medium of story-telling has this kind of elitist thinking. No one’s expecting tests of skill to let you experience any other kind of story, and when you start picturing what that would look like, you start realizing how absurd this whole thing is. Imagine if you weren’t allowed to see Avengers: Endgame unless you were able to actually beat up Josh Brolin.

Now I do want to offer one significant caveat to all this. While I firmly believe there is no valid argument why games shouldn’t have difficulty settings, there can be sometimes be valid reasons for why they can’t have difficulty settings.

My second Dragon character in The Secret World unleashes the quantum ability Polestar-Oblivion.Developers don’t have unlimited resources, especially the small ones, and implementing a variety of difficulty settings does take at least some effort. There are also some games whose nature makes implementing separate difficulties challenging or downright impossible.

MMORPGs are a good example of this. With a shared world occupied by many different players, there isn’t a clear way to allow each person to adjust the difficulty to their desired level.

In those cases, I do lean towards using difficulty levels that best align with the vision of the creators and the fantasy of the game, even if it means some people must be excluded. But even then an argument can be made that aiming for the lowest common denominator is better, and indeed that is what most MMOs seem to do. The two main exceptions I’ve played — The Secret World and New World — both wound up as fairly niche games, and I think their difficulty contributes to that.

So there are some cases where catering to every type of player may not be feasible, but all reasonable efforts should be made to be as accessible as possible. If you’re excluding people by choice, you’ve lost my respect as a developer.

Gaming Round-Up: Bioware and Blizzard

I’ve found myself in another period of jumping between a bunch of games in rapid succession lately. Without intending it, I’ve ended up on a bit of a Bioware kick, though Blizzard has also put in an appearance.

A Season of Skulls event in Anthem.

I’ve chosen to participate in IntPiPoMo again this year, so I’ll be including extra screenshots of every game. Click to enlarge!

Mass Effect: Andromeda

I’ve been meaning to do it forever, but I finally did a third playthrough of Mass Effect: Andromeda. As I’ve said before, the new game plus in this game is truly second to none. After two playthroughs, I had all the skill points and gear I could possibly need. I didn’t need to waste any time mining, gathering, or even looting bodies. It makes for a much tighter, more story-driven experience.

I skipped even more side content this time — especially on Kadara — making for a nice breezy playthrough.

This time I did something I haven’t done in Mass Effect before: I played as a soldier, using mainly combat abilities. It’s definitely not as fun as biotics, but it’s not without its charm. Overdrive plus a rapid-firing assault rifle gets pretty hilarious.

I also romanced Jaal this time. It took a while to get to the good stuff, but I can see why his romance is so well-regarded. Dude’s so passionate he makes even me feel a bit weak in the knees.

Sara Ryder and Jaal in Mass Effect: Andromeda

SWTOR: Onslaught

I had pretty low expectations for this expansion, but even so it’s a disappointment.

First of all, calling it an “expansion” is pushing credibility to a breaking point. It has barely any more content than their recent content patches. I think the whole thing took me maybe five hours.

That might be forgivable if they hit the ball out of the park on the quality of the content, but they didn’t, at all. The entire story is crushingly dull. It feels like they rehashed some rejected side quests from the base game. It’s a very small, ultimately irrelevant story. It’s downright insulting to go from being a galactic super power to doing fetch quests for some nameless back alley gangster.

The faction conflict worked in the original class stories because it was just a backdrop for more personal stories. My agent had personal reasons for fighting back against Hunter and his ilk. There’s none of that in Onslaught; you have no reason to care about anyone or anything in this story. It’s just shooting faceless NPCs of the enemy faction.

At the very end, there are some teases of a new direction for the story, and it sounds very interesting, but it begs the question of why we didn’t just skip to the good stuff. Why waste time with the tedious chores that make up Onslaught?

The planet Onderon in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

The one thing I can praise about Onslaught is that it doesn’t feel like a total reboot of the story after the Fallen Empire/Eternal Throne arc. I was worried it would be. But the Odessen Alliance is still a player in the story, and there’s lots of cameos by familiar cast members. Even Koth put in an appearance.

I would have liked more content with Lana — weren’t we supposed to be getting married? — but at least she’s not gone entirely. That gives me some hope for the future.

But man, even for the low price of a month of subscription, I feel ripped off by Onslaught. What a waste of time.


I’ve also ducked back into Anthem for a brief visit. I was drawn by the new Mass Effect-themed Javelin skins. I’d yet to find a look for my interceptor that I really liked, and Quarians are my favourite ME aliens, so buying the Quarian skin was a bit of a no-brainer.

I love it. Even if I hadn’t been a Mass Effect fan, I might still have gotten the skin because it just looks so damn good and is so different from anything we have in the game right now.

Anthem has done a really good job at adding interesting cosmetics, and the fashion endgame is getting pretty serious. And I, for one, welcome our new fashionista overlords.

The Quarian Interceptor skin in Anthem.

I also checked out the new freeplay events added for the “Season of Skulls.” They’re pretty fun. The one with the torches in the darkness especially stands out as being very atmospheric and rather different from any of Anthem’s previous content.

Anthem unquestionably has a problem with anemic content right now, but I must say the quality of what content does get added never disappoints.

StarCraft II

I’m at the point now where I think I’m willing to drop my boycott against Blizzard, though I definitely plan to be more skeptical of what they do in future. Brack’s apology at BlizzCon doesn’t count for much, but the tolerance they showed to protesters at the convention does speak to a willingness to walk the walk on free speech. It’s the bare minimum necessary to maintain the illusion of decency, but the bare minimum is by definition good enough.

I still the company’s changed, and I’m trying to lose my blind fanboyism for them, but I’m willing to give them another chance at this point.

For now all that’s manifested as is finally buying Stetmann in SC2’s co-op, though even then I paid using some of my remaining WoW Token balance.

Playing as Egon Stetmann in StarCraft II co-op.

He’s an interesting commander, but I don’t think he’ll ever be my favourite. I like the concept of the Stetallite mechanic, wherein he blankets the map with satellites that project various buff fields, but the way it’s implemented feels like a bit of a chore. You spend every free moment dropping more Stetallites, and it gets exhausting after a while.

Zerglings with Immortal shields get pretty hilarious, though. I’ve had surprising success just massing swarms of Lings and swamping the map with them. Back them up with Hydralisks for anti-air; their missile attack is godly.