I had an idea that I’d like to explore some more when I get some free time.
I’ve noticed a trend lately in games’ easy modes (I tend to always play games on easy mode. I’m so hardcore it hurts sometimes) where, in addition to making it easier to avoid death, the game has made it easier to interact with the “cool things” about the game.
For example, in Bayonetta, the game was structured to take best advantage of her awesome (sexy) attack animations. In medium and up, in order to get all the coolest animations you have to perform combos with complex button orders and timings. When you play in easy mode, they make it so that whenever you fail to perform a specific combo (say you hit the wrong button or missed the timing window) the game randomly chooses and performs one for you. The end result of this is that even the players playing on easy get to see the coolest stuff your game has to offer.
In Uncharted 2, if you select easy mode they have an auto-lock-on feature like the one in the recent Call of Duty games. You press the “aim” button while your cursor is near a guy and you will snap to point directly at them. Unlike the Call of Duty system, though, more often than not this system ends with you point the gun at your enemy’s head (or very near to it). This meant that, while playing on easy, I got to run around and pop people in the head whilst feeling like a total badass. Essentially, they took the coolest part of the combat (popping people in the head) and made it so that people on the easy difficulty could access it relatively simply.
It’s an interesting trend. Historically, you do difficulty tuning by changing HP or Damage, or by adjusting how many enemies come at you, or any number of other ways. But all of those ways are structured around making it harder for you to die. The new generation of easy modes seem structured, as I mentioned, around making it easy for you to be AWESOME. It’s a small, but very meaningful difference.
So I got to thinking and brainstorming, and I think there’s a lot you could do with this idea as a dynamic system. Essentially, you could make a system that tracks how the player’s doing and adjusts the game according.
The Left 4 Dead games used such a system very successfully for managing difficulty across its levels. They control enemy spawns and enemy density dynamically (as well as, I suspect, HP and damage) to make the player feel a certain way at certain points in the level.
So, assuming you had a system like this, what kinds of “auto-AWESOME” things could you do to the player when you detect he needs it most?:
- Give the enemies randomized deaths that range from “falling over” to “FUCKING EXPLODING” in terms of their theatrical impact. When you detect the player needs it (the player is in a slump, or is on a roll) you can change the random chances so that they get deaths near the FUCKING EXPLODING end of the spectrum more often.
- Tune the music. If you had multiple tracks going at the same time, you could add or subtract elements to the music to change how the player feels about what he’s doing. If he’s having a hard time, play adrenaline music to pump him the fuck up! If he’s doing really well, play some EPIC music to make him feel even better. Etc…
- Tune the weapon spawns. If he’s slumping, you can spawn weapons that result in grizzlier fates for the zombies, or which feel cooler.
- If the player is on a roll and killing tons of zombies, spawn a ton of low-HP zombies nearby for him to mow through. If he’s slumping, maybe you do something similar but make them slow-moving less threatening low-hp zombies. Just a little “pick-me-up” from the game to you.
- If you’re making a game like Diablo, perhaps you can increase the chance the player has of getting critical hits when they’re slumping. Or if you detect they’re at a high or low point you can circumvent the loot tables and spawn them something really neat to feel good about.
A lot of this is about theatrics over difficulty tuning, but I think the two can play well together. If your players are at a high point, let them live it up! If they’re in a slump, give them a little pick-me-up.
It’s something I’d like to explore some time. It’s certainly not right for every game, but it’s worth putting some brain-power to.
3 thoughts on “Idea: Dynamic Easy Mode”
Nice post! I applaud your outside-the-box thinking. More designers should take the time to consider how the game plays from the “easy mode” player’s P.O.V. That said, there are a couple of caveats I would like to call out for anyone considering implementing this concept:
The idea of “dynamic awesomeness” is something I’ve only seen done well in the L4D games. A big downside here is that if you reward players arbitrarily then the incentive to succeed and the sense of earned rewards are diminished. Players *want* to be rewarded for their accomplishments – overcoming challenges is part of what makes games fun. For example:
Alex: “I defeated the UberBoss of Dew Mountain and earned the +50 Sword-of-Awesomeness!”
Bob: “I, uh…walked in room. It was lying on the floor.”
At its worst, this can confuse players if they feel they are being rewarded for incorrect actions. Player’s learn from the game’s reactions to their actions.
Example: “I hit the boss with an ice spell -> he stumbled backward = therefore, the boss is vulnerable to ice spells.”
This is a logical conclusion on the player’s part. But if the boss stumbled randomly just because the designers thought the animation was cool; it could mislead the player. The boss could actually be immune to ice spells!
Finally, the idea of dynamically tuning for difficulty is not a new concept. The problem with dynamically tuning difficulty is that it tends to create unintuitive and exploit-filled feedback loops. It’s a simple idea: every time the player does well, the game gets harder; when the player does poorly, the game gets easier. But players quickly recognize this is the case. As players ALWAYS look for the shortest/easiest/fastest path to victory, the game’s strategy eventually degrades to “how do I make the game *think* I suck?”
Example: “Don’t worry about the horde of Zombies blocking the last area. I taped down the “rapid-fire” button on my controller and let my character shoot up the wall for a while. Eventually, all the Zombies leave and you can stroll right up to the exit.”
I certainly don’t want to see players punished. Nor do I want to see great content withheld because, like those theme park rides you were too short to ride as a child, someone arbitrarily decided “you must be at least THIS skilled to access the cool game content”. In the end though, while I believe dynamic adjustments are a great supplemental tool (much like in the examples presented here), I don’t believe a designer should *rely* on dynamic adjustments to create a fun experience for “easy mode” players. Instead, they should work to adjust the game’s challenges to a suitable level and get them into the “flow”.
Thanks for the comment. A lot of good points, there.
A lot of the trick to this kind of thing (Dynamic Difficulty Tuning) is making it invisible to the user. Pretty much every game I’ve ever worked on has had dynamic difficulty tuning — all the insomniac games from Ratchet 1 to Resistance 2 had it, and Spyborgs had it — and nobody that I know of has ever figured it out or abused it. We also did a lot of manual pacing (we never left it completely up to the system) but the DDT was incredibly important to smoothing out the feel of the game.
They all worked differently (some worked better than others) but all of them had one thing in common — they were designed from the ground up to be invisible, and it paid off.
Left 4 Dead took the invisible difficulty tuning a step further and actually used it as a pacing tool. I don’t imagine this saved them time — it probably was much more difficult to do than pacing the game manually. But it was very effective, as you pointed out.
Can you write an article about the dynamic difficulty tuning in Ratchet and Clank? I never noticed it. Perhaps it’s in your podcasts which I’ve only watched four of.
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