The only mode is Lunatic
Moar Powah’s Inverseman here tonight with a piece on what most gamers normally overlook: Easy Mode. Normally the bane of “advanced” or “non-casual” gamers, what is “Easy Mode” really there for? Let’s find out!
Think back to the first games you’ve ever played. What difficulty did you choose? Was there even difficulty to chose in the first place? When we first encounter the Easy Mode we know there will be less obstacles, weaker enemies, simpler objectives, and less restrictions compared. To many players this is a bore because when we play a game, we expect challenge, and the level of challenge easy mode gives can be too low to stimulate our desire for competition.
For others however, easy mode may provide plenty of challenge, giving the fix for those who can’t get by on Normal mode. If the game has a story, the Easy Mode will allow all players to dive into the story and enjoy at least its core. By having easy mode, developers cast the net far and wide to incorporate a large audience. In some games, adding a handicap can have two players of different skill levels play together so both players can experience a challenge. This is the face-value purpose of easy mode, but there is a deeper reason.
Taking off training wheels
Ironically enough, we play games to learn. When we get to the end of a game, we appreciate the reward of a good story, high scores, great win records, and the sheer act of accomplishment. While we don’t get any money necessarily, inherent glory, or some other objective payout. We learn a game we find worthy learning, get to the end or get good enough at it, and then we are rewarded by our proficiency at it. Now the ideal easy mode should make motivate the player to learn more about the game and when executed well will lead the player to replay the game but now on a higher difficulty.
Unfortunately not all easy modes will let the player “learn the game” or motivate such a thing to happen. Easy mode controls in many fighting games map special moves to the second analog stick on a conventional controller or to a single button. After an extended amount of time in easy mode, seldom would a player practice the actual quarter-circle motions or half-circles. The “Casual Controls” in Street Fighter X Tekken aren’t going to make those stick or d-pad motions any easier anytime soon. Those substitute motions mostly serve to make the barrier of entry higher, especially for a genre of game that prides learning executions.
As for an easy mode that does motivate further play on harder difficulties, Kingdom Hearts usually serves a good reward to those who become better at the game. The series rewards players secret endings, hidden plot elements, and foreshadowing for future games. However, you will not see any of them if you play the game on easy mode. If you play Normal Mode, you have many requirements to meet to see the secret ending, a very daunting challenge for the player but requires further mastery of the game. Finally on the harder difficulties, the player need only complete the main story. For each difficulty, the player is enticed with the true ending and the fastest route to it involves the hardest challenge.
For plenty of other games we see The World Ends with You has a difficulty slider. The higher the difficulty the better items and skills may be collected by the player. Now not only is the game being played for its story, but a game within the game emerges to take on harder enemies for greater rewards across a very customizable spectrum. There’s no frustration that will make the player give up on the game when the slider can be adjusted at will from the menu. There are no dumbed down controls or pity rewards, the player progresses and masters the game as he or she sees fit.
Considered odd for its time, Mega Man had no formal easy mode, but there was an “easier way” to play the game if you knew the boss weaknesses and stage gimmicks. Even through countless deaths and trial-and-error the game was accessible because “easy mode” was actually a reward when you discovered it, making stage design a rich and deep endeavor. The game subliminally trained you how to play when a section with falling platforms gradually became falling platforms with enemies, testing the player how well she or he could master the new obstacle. The odd part is that the “difficulty” is flipped.
You start on “hard”, die plenty of times, and then it “somehow” becomes easy! When in reality you were learning the game. The game may not have been initially accessible but it certainly became so when you looked back and saw how much of a joke Metal Man became. Much the same, many “hard games” make easiness a reward instead, and it makes them still accessible nonetheless. In all these cases, the player is motivated to learn more and more of the game with a carrot and stick payout system and will return to the game quite frequently. With a well designed difficulty system, replayability for a game nearly writes itself.
In the end, the problems we may see with easy mode is whether or not it promotes further learning of a game or sufficiently rewards players to challenge harder difficulties. Be it from easy to normal or even from hard to lunatic. Many gamers also don’t appreciate too much hand holding. An Easy Mode might be riddled with boring tutorials or self-explanatory controls. The vice isn’t easy mode per se, it’s the design. Whereas good tutorials make for better learning of a game, good difficulties serve as better motivation to learn the game. When both are combined then the game becomes truly accessible on all levels and the challenge to keep playing becomes more real. Overall, the experience becomes richer to the player. Join me next time when I fight off a were-cow.
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