Lots of single player computer games have options that the player can select to control difficulty. You start up and get the Easy/Medium/Hard options, so you pick Easy, right? After all, you want to at least finish the game now you’ve bought it. Or at least get a feel for how easy their Easy mode is before you ask them to ramp up whatever tweaks they do to make things harder.
Or maybe that’s just me. If a game offers an Easy mode, I’ll pick that while I’m learning it. But then again, I don’t like every game enough to want to replay it so maybe that’s the only mode I’ll ever try. The only hard mode I did quite like was in the Civilisation games – I don’t particularly score well at it (I claim that this is because Civilisation is biased towards world domination and against winning through better SCIENCE!) but I like that picking a harder mode unlocks extra options and complexity for the player,
So if harder modes offer a richer game, or at least a slightly different one, then I’m personally more likely to try them.
So what is a hard mode, really?
Usually it means a tweak to internal parameters so that the game becomes more testing of whatever twitch-fest they’re focussing on. More enemies. Faster enemies. Tougher enemies. Sometimes they make your character weaker – less survival options. Or add more environmental variables.
It should lead to a more exciting game experience when you can’t just idly wander through the fields of mobs randomly letting off your AE nuke of choice without any fear for your toon’s safety. Or in fact without having to really think while playing the game.
If you look at a game like Plants vs Zombies, you can see how instead of setting a difficulty at the start, they increase difficulty with each level. This is the other way to set difficulties and it’s the one I prefer. Let the player start with the easiest mode, and then add more elements, tweak settings slightly for the next level, increase complexity slightly. And keep going until players either finish the game or find the difficulty level they’re comfortable with – hopefully by the time they reach either of these points they feel they have had their money’s worth and are ready to buy your next game.
But that’s not so great for a multi-player setting where players may be of different skills, experiences with this type of game, or even seeking different goals. The player looking for a relaxing casual social experience probably doesn’t want to play ultra-hard mode, and it isn’t because they’re some kind of slacker. It’s just because they aren’t looking for a testing experience. Hard isn’t always the same as fun.
All you can do with groups is to offer the different difficulties and let players decide among their own groups how they want to organise themselves and make that decision. You probably don’t want to force them all to start at the easiest level and gradually pick up more and more difficulty because they may not all be at the same level to start with.
In practice, MMOs tend to have their easy modes at level 1. And as you level up, gain more abilities, and probably try out the group content, then things get harder. A game like WoW introduces a lot of the elements you’ll later find in raids in their 5-man instances. This is why it matters if 5-mans are too easy, if they are, people won’t learn the things they need to learn. And MMOs have not been good traditionally at ramping up the solo difficulty, which is another valid criticism. It has tended to be groups only.
Designing the Hard Mode Encounter
In a Diablo/CoH style hard mode encounter they generally just increase the numbers of mobs, increase their damage, and increase their toughness. And sometimes that’s enough. It certainly can be enough to step up the pace and excitement without requiring people to radically change their playing style.
In a WoW-type hard mode encounter, the encounter is intended to more severely test part of the raid. So you get some hard modes that are just harder dps checks with a little extra survivability movement thrown in. You get some that add a lot of extra complexity – more movement required, more adds to handle, more elements for everyone to think about. You get some where the nature of the encounter changes dramatically.
I’ve heard some complaints with hard modes (and I know I’ve seen few myself – we had a pop at Freya+1 last night and that was fun), but I figure they can’t all be winners. As long as most encounters are more fun and challenging for the hardcore raid groups in hard mode then the hard modes are doing their job and entertaining people.
So what is the best way to have difficulty settings for soloers?
One of my guildies hooked me on Hattrick a few months ago. It’s a web-based football manager game, and not one of those games that will take over your life. Once it’s all set up you can log in once or twice a week to set your team formations for next week’s games and check how things have been going.
(It is amusing to me that I’m not big on football but I love football manager games.)
And there’s one game element in Hattrick that I think is very smart indeed. Alongside your regular team, you can also coach youth players. This means that you will sometimes be able to promote a good youth player to your A-team and it will be much much cheaper than buying a player via the transfer market, also there’s a chance that you’ll raise a brilliant player who is much better than anyone you could have afforded to buy.
The game offers two different ways of managing the youth team. There’s the hands-off method where you just pay a certain amount per week towards upkeep of the youth team. Once you have set that up, it happens passively and you get the chance to promote a youth player once a week. Most of the players you get this way are pretty poor, but there’s always that chance that you could find a winner. (I think my current goalie was a youth promotion I got from using this method.)
Then there’s the more complex hands-on method where you can actually choose to run your own youth academy. If you do this, then you get to send scouts out to find new youth players, set up games for your youth team the same way you do for your main team, decide how you want to train them and listen to the trainers reports on how they are doing. And you decide when or if you want to promote a player to the main team or if you’d rather keep training them with the youth for longer (the youth academy generally has better training options).
So effectively, this game has a solo ‘hard mode’. If you want the extra complexity, you can choose that. And it gives you much more control over the outcome of the youth team. If you don’t want to be bothered, then you pick the easier setup and although you won’t get as consistent results, you still are in with a chance of promoting a really good player.
I could imagine something like this for crafting in MMOs. People who hate crafting can just not do it. People who like to craft as a casual side-game could pick some non-complex crafting mechanism where you just hit a single button, and there’s more randomness involved in what you get. And people who love crafting and want to spend the extra time on it could pick a more complex crafting mechanic. It would take longer and require more thought but would give them more control over the whole process.