For the past few weeks, I have encountered multiple people, articles, and videos arguing about FromSoftware’s latest game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and whether it should include an ‘easy mode.’ Now this is a heated debate, and at its very essence is a fundamental question about how people want to enjoy their games.
For the uninitiated, FromSoftware is the developer of Demon’s Souls, the Dark Souls trilogy, Bloodborne, and now Sekiro. These games are incredible for several reasons, spawning a genre of ‘Souls-like’ games with interconnected worlds, loot, character progression, and challenging action-based combat focused on learning complex enemy patterns. ‘Challenging’ is a key element of gameplay that players have grappled with. The game’s difficulty is an instrument of extreme frustration and reward. Players spend days, trying to complete the same level over and over again just to get annihilated by the boss at the end of it, and they love it. There isn’t another game quite like it that holds this much value, especially to the players who eventually triumphed over what seemed impossible.
Having worked on an action RPG, my team and I would frequently bring up Dark Souls' difficulty and ask, ‘how much do we want our game to challenge players?’ For us, the answer was in what we wanted to explicitly teach to the player, and what they had to learn for themselves. In Dark Souls, you learn everything yourself.
I was first introduced to this easy mode argument by a tweet, and I think it portrays the conversation surrounding Sekiro pretty well:
I took a look at both of these articles, and I couldn’t agree more with them. When I picked this topic, being a UX designer and having discussed accessibility in games before, I knew I would be arguing for accessibility options. But after scrolling through endless tweets, the gameplay designer in me agrees that if a designer wants the player to experience a difficult challenge overcome through persistence, then the designer should be free to do so.
“Play or don’t play. This isn’t just about the hardcore players getting the difficult game they desire; it’s about the new players getting the game they deserve — the one they might have missed if they could have changed the difficulty setting to easy.”
— Erik Kain Forbes Senior Contributor
The difficulty in Souls-likes is just one way to achieve this success through persistence. The problem occurs when something outside the player’s control stops them from persisting to success. This could be something simple like not wanting to invest multiple days into the game, or it could be something more complicated like a health condition.
The overwhelming response to this though is that it’s a hardcore game made for hardcore players, and any modification of the difficulty will lessen the hardcore gamers' experience. This perspective of not wanting to share your single-player game experience with people of lesser skill is certainly flawed and not all-inclusive, but the philosophy behind it does have some merit. If one were to entertain an easier mode for the game, it would diminish the meaning of achieving victory in Souls-likes.
“I beat Dark Souls” is an achievement, one that people can bond over, they can talk to each other and know that they had that same experience. Which boss gave you the most trouble? What was your favorite zone? Without this singular difficulty setting, although this feeling doesn’t completely fall apart, it becomes slightly less meaningful. Obviously, at first glance prioritizing UX, I would trade this meaningfulness for accessibility options so more players could enjoy the game. But I don’t know how much of an impact this would have on the fanbase that FromSoftware’s Souls-likes are built on. From the gameplay designer’s perspective, adding difficulty options could compromise the intention of the game. So let’s look at solutions to this problem that is getting so much press.
For the purposes of this article the intention of these games is: success through persistence.
I don’t know what dynamic difficulty adjustments are made in FromSoftware’s Souls-likes. However, adding a hidden dynamic difficulty adjustment based on times died to a level or boss is dangerous. It may be just as destructive as adding a separate difficulty option. I remember the analogy of dynamic difficulty to be akin to ‘moving the goalposts.’ If on my fourth time fighting a boss, I realize that I am doing way more damage, or that the boss never used its special ability, I am being robbed of real satisfaction. It would be like moving the goalpost 10 feet closer to me, so I have an easier time scoring. That being said, I think dynamic difficulty is a great system, just not for this problem.
The option that some people argue for is to just add the ‘easy mode’ that would be frowned upon by hardcore players. As Derek Yu mentions, a difficulty setting selected before the game starts can often cause players to ultimately be dissatisfied with the game experience. So, for obvious reasons, this isn’t the right solution. But along the same vein where accessibility options could work, the only barriers standing in the way are the pillars of persistence and player achievement. So how can we make a persistent and baseline experience with accessibility options?
Since FromSoftware is an expert at building these amazing and detailed worlds, instead of having accessibility and difficulty options available in the menu before the game, what about contextualized cheat codes or accessibility options that interact with the world and overall story? An example of this would be a shrine that upon interacting with the alter would prompt a spectrum of selections that would bestow a blessing or curse on your character. This would change how much health you have, how much damage you do, or even how the enemies behave. And because you have this special power, the ending of the story plays out differently. Maybe the final boss disables all these options and forces you to lose with an alternate ending cinematic. The possibilities here are ripe for FromSoftware to embrace, and the best part is that those variable selections go the other way, so if hardcore players want to really challenge themselves, they can make up their own ruleset, like: -90% health, +100% attack.
The other options I had that fulfilled these criteria, although not as elegant, was simply a delayed patch that adds in these accessibility and difficulty options. That or a remastered edition of the game released later with a different title. Changing the name gives hardcore players their bragging rights over beating the classic game and not the remastered version.
Another widely accepted solution is one that doesn’t put FromSoftware’s precious development time into creating an easier game mode, and it is currently the only available option: game mods. Player-created mods usually embrace varying difficulty levels. The only problem with this is that this mod doesn’t have a lot of options and it isn’t released with the game or endorsed by FromSoftware.
Ultimately this conversation isn’t as simple as ‘lower the difficulty’, ‘add accessibility options’, or ‘do nothing’, because no game is perfect: veterans think it’s not that hard, people who want to play think it’s too difficult. Games are made with intent, and games are supposed to bring enjoyment to their players. Accessibility or difficulty options need to issue a warning that the game might not be enjoyed with different settings, and game developers shouldn’t have to compromise their vision of the game in order to make it appeal to everyone.
I think a big part of this conversation is that accessibility options for the non-UX-oriented player are misunderstood. The true power of these options is not only that it equalizes the playing field for players with disabilities but they also give players the option to manipulate mechanics, difficulty, and challenges for those that want to.
In reality, I would be surprised if FromSoftware were to implement any drastic difficulty modifiers that make the game more accessible. The mod solution is by far the most practical solution players will probably have.
FromSoftware isn’t a bad game developer, rather they are currently poised as the leader in this niche market they have created. It won’t be for a while until they need to cater to the masses of accessible gamers that are just waiting for a FromSoftware game that they can actually beat. What remains to be true is that games flourish when we foster a welcoming place.
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