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How should a game handle difficulty?


dumpster
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Difficulty.  It's interesting to me how games can get it right or wrong, and how one person's frustrations become another players challenge.  

 

Metroid Dread has EMMI robots that chase you, killing you instantly and taking you to a game over screen. There's a 10 second loading delay, after which the game drops you back where you were and you try to outrun the EMMI again.  To me they break the flow of the exploration and after seeing the game over screen 10 times in a row, you get fed up.  If the EMMIs took half your health, you wouldn't get the game over screen or the loading delay. Just seems misjudged. 

 

But then there are those Mario games where, if you lose a life enough times, Luigi pops up and shows you what to do, even allowing you to skip the tough bit altogether! 

 

Those two extremes both feel wrong to me. Dara O'Brien talked of Guitar Hero, locking away the songs you wanted to play forcing you to repeat Maps by Yeah Yeah Yeahs just to unlock the songs you wanted.  I've said before on this forum that Sonic All Stars Transformed is the best Kart racer ever made, but I could never forgive the best vehicles being locked behind a gate that required a decent portion of the game to be completed on expert to unlock. 

 

But then we have games that feature hidden dynamic difficulty, which seems a good solution.  If the player is struggling, invisibly knock the difficulty down a notch.  If the player is rinsing it, turn it up.  But even this seems flawed as players stand outside the boss room, shooting into the wall and dropping recovery items to make the boss easier.

 

I have some eyesight issues and since having an operation I find smaller detail harder to see and I do find myself not being as good at games as I used to be. But I still should be entitled to enjoy the game, and see all the content and unlockables, even if my skills are not what they were.  

 

One example I've really been impressed by is Slipstream, the £8 racing game. It's 60 FPS, but allows you to alter the game speed from 100% to anything else, higher or lower.  It's a fast arcade racer and I find for me, it's still fast but a lot more manageable at 90%. It's a small change but it's still fast and smooth and fun, but I enjoy it far more with just that small tweak.  

 

I'll pre-empt the answer "git gud" because we can't all get better with every play.  So what games deal with difficulty well and what games got it wrong? What should developers do about difficulty? Is easy, medium and hard enough?  Have you ever loved a game only to get completely stuck halfway?

 

For me, there are 2 golden rules.  First, there should always be a way to unlock the unlockables that doesn't require skill.  If you can't unlock that character through expert play, you can unlock another way (not by paying cash).   And second, if you choose to play a game on easy, the game should not miss anything out. You should get the full game experience, just a little easier.  See Resident Evil 4, where if you play on Easy you don't get the maze section, you walk straight past it.  

 

Your thoughts? 

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2 minutes ago, dumpster said:

 

 

For me, there are 2 golden rules.  First, there should always be a way to unlock the unlockables that doesn't require skill.  If you can't unlock that character through expert play, you can unlock another way (not by paying cash).   And second, if you choose to play a game on easy, the game should not miss anything out. You should get the full game experience, just a little easier.  See Resident Evil 4, where if you play on Easy you don't get the maze section, you walk straight past it.  

 

Your thoughts? 

 

Completely agree with this. I have eyesight issues too, and it makes playing some games tougher, especially shooters, but I think there should always be an easy mode that still includes everything. Spec-Ops The Line got this right. I was there for the story, not for the shooty mechanics, and the easy mode then gave me one of the most satisfying gaming experiences I have had. Same with The Last of Us. 

 

Metroid Prime I never finished as I got stuck on one really long section with a mini boss at the end and I must have tried it about 30 times. And I loved that game.

 

Games should never lock you into a difficulty either once you have selected it. Persona 5 Strikers was a great game, but some of the bosses were mad difficulty spikes. The ability to turn the difficulty to easy just for those fights was a godsend, but I know I have played games where once you lower the difficulty, you can't then knock it back up to normal.

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8 minutes ago, dumpster said:

Difficulty.  It's interesting to me how games can get it right or wrong, and how one person's frustrations become another players challenge.  

 

Metroid Dread has EMMI robots that chase you, killing you instantly and taking you to a game over screen. There's a 10 second loading delay, after which the game drops you back where you were and you try to outrun the EMMI again.  To me they break the flow of the exploration and after seeing the game over screen 10 times in a row, you get fed up.  If the EMMIs took half your health, you wouldn't get the game over screen or the loading delay. Just seems misjudged. 

 

Your thoughts? 

 

Can't disagree with this more, with ever fibre of my body. 
The EMMI sections break up the flow of the game deliberately and give actual variety which makes the game better with them than without. Getting through the section is a puzzle in itself, if you did it wrong it's a reset. They're meant to be deadly and it's meant to be tense, and each encounter is harder than the last. If the punishment for screwing up with less it would completely destroy the uniquness of these encounters. You're suitably rewarded for clearing them as that area is cleared from then on. 

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2 minutes ago, Kevvy Metal said:

 

Can't disagree with this more, with ever fibre of my body. 
The EMMI sections break up the flow of the game deliberately and give actual variety which makes the game better with them than without. Getting through the section is a puzzle in itself, if you did it wrong it's a reset. They're meant to be deadly and it's meant to be tense, and each encounter is harder than the last. If the punishment for screwing up with less it would completely destroy the uniquness of these encounters. You're suitably rewarded for clearing them as that area is cleared from then on. 

 

I deliberately chose that example as I know they are divisive. That's my point though, how do developers make a game where one person enjoys the challenge from something that makes the other player turn it off?

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Just now, dumpster said:

 

I deliberately chose that example as I know they are divisive. That's my point though, how do developers make a game where one person enjoys the challenge from something that makes the other player turn it off?

 

They don't, not every game is for everyone. 

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It depends on the game (there will be exceptions), but in general I think games should let the player see everything they have to offer, without needing to be that good. It's the old argument, that nobody will fail to watch a film, or fail to read a book because it's too hard. I've been a gamer all my life, I've had a long career devoping them, but I'm not actually that brilliant at many of them (I finished Spindizzy back in the day, which is my crowning glory, and I'm quite good at both Spelunkys, but after that we're on a downhill slope). I have given up on so many games due to a difficulty spike it's untrue. Games I was really enjoying, but just stopped playing because one thing was too hard. Someone actually drew a comic that showed the exact boss encounter I gave up on an old Conan the Barbarian game.

 

Just let me be invincible for a bit, that would work in a tricky spot. I'd turn it off again afterwards if the game was fun to play. I'm not looking for a walk in the park. I just don't want to have to replay some awful section to learn what hoops some daft twat designer wants me to jump through this time. But I see no reason not to offer really stupidly easy modes for most games. Gamers want a challenge generally, so they will not use them if they can avoid it. If you provide hard modes for the "git gud" crowd, then they can shut the fuck up about the existence of easy modes. They've got what they want. Other folk will get what they want.

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9 minutes ago, dumpster said:

 

 

For me, there are 2 golden rules.  First, there should always be a way to unlock the unlockables that doesn't require skill. 


Can’t agree with this, I’ve always relished those sort of challenges and to be given an awesome reward that is meaningful in the context of the game is the best reward there is. Things like beating DMC on Dante Must Die difficulty to unlock the infinite devil trigger costume, clearing MGS on Big Boss Extreme mode and getting the stealth camo or whatever the rewards were etc. - you’ve proven yourself in terms of the skill required and done all there is to do so NOW you get the fun items that break the game. If you just got given them after playing for X amount of hours, then why ever bother learning how to play the game?

 

There have been things in the past I’ve never managed to do (F-Zero AX characters, Sonic All-stars Transformed jump to mind) but I don’t begrudge it because I know that I still have a reason to play those games some day. And maybe it will be possible some day.

 

I’m an old fart though and games are not like this anymore - now you buy the secret goodies and just get a trophy for the hard work of playing the game well. I miss it though.

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First off, every game and every player is different so there's no catch-all solution. There are many games I think would be improved by being harder/easier/different, and yet many others where to do so would be to change what I enjoy so much about the game. So here, I can only offer snippets of thoughts on particular games, genres, or even specific situations.

 

The whole Guitar Hero thing is an interesting situation in its own right. I think Dara Ó Briain is bang on about the earlier Guitar Hero games which positioned themselves as party games but locked content behind progression. I don't think the two go hand in hand, and thankfully Harmonix realised this by the time Rock Band came along and allowed the entire catalogue to be played from the start. Rock Band 2 then introduced No Fail mode, something which I consider both a good thing, and the reason I never improved my skills any further on guitar.

 

The first game was a gradual progression, introducing the concept at first, only three fingers needed, slow enough that it's never overwhelming, and pitched just right for when you're absolutely clueless. You can't go back to it with any level of skill, it's unbearable and barely has any connection to the music, but that's ok. As you progress through the difficulties and the songs, you suddenly find yourself good enough to beat Bark at the Moon on Expert - maybe even just the once - and you're a rock god.

 

No Fail mode lets me play any song on Expert with that same level of skill, but without dangling any carrot in front of me to make me any better. So I can play the vast majority of songs, and a good portion of some of the more extreme tracks, on the highest difficulty but struggle with complex solos or tricky rhythms, and will likely never reach the point where I can do it. On the other hand, it also allows me to play any song all the way through, to not be the player in a band who lets the rest of the side down, to give things a go on vocals when I absolutely can't reach the notes, and to have a rollicking good time. It's very much a mixed blessing.

 

 

Anyway, away from plastic instruments, one thing I've always felt is that difficulty modes should inform the player in some way about what it is that they're affecting, in whatever way makes sense for the game at hand. In many games this only needs to be a simple note that I'll have more health, or face more enemies, but also if it means I'll play less of the game (Resident Evil 4's decision to bypass areas altogether on easy mode would therefore be explicitly stated). More importantly, in games like strategy or sport where I'm generally playing against the AI, I want to know in what areas they're nerfed or artificially boosted in order to affect the challenge on offer. I prefer not to play my football games on difficulty modes where the opposition spam tricks, have unerring accuracy and run faster than they should, thanks.

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4 minutes ago, Kevvy Metal said:

 

not every game is for everyone. 

 

And the lines of battle were drawn. 

 

FWIW  I think games should challenge and if I can't beat it then, oh well. I refuse to drop difficulty levels on games that I don't have the skill/dedication to beat, because that's not how games work for me.

 

Some games are too easy for me to enjoy so I don't play them, which I think is just as valid as people not liking things that are too difficult.

 

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6 minutes ago, Transient Curse said:

 

 

And the lines of battle were drawn. 

 

FWIW  I think games should challenge and if I can't beat it then, oh well. I refuse to drop difficulty levels on games that I don't have the skill/dedication to beat.

 

Some games are too easy for me to enjoy so I don't play them, which I think is just as valid as people not liking things that are too difficult.

 

I think there are games that absolutely should be like that. Robotron is a great example. I've always thought of it like a bucking bronco. It wants you off. Your job is to hang on in there, survive as long as you can. That's where the fun is.

 

But anything that has a story, should let you finish the story. Anything that's 20 hours long should let you get past hour 19. Otherwise it seems a bit of a waste of everyone's time and energy - both the gamers and the developers.

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Ironic that this is a difficult one to answer 

 

I believe every game should be accessible. Everyone should be able to play every game. 

 

Should everyone be able to complete every game? I'm not sure.

 

I can definitely understand the logic that every game should be able to access all the content. But I think there is room in the medium for difficult, obscure games that don't compromise.

 

If we consider games as art, then an equivalent might be Joyce's Ulysses (yeah, I'm going there). Is it the responsibility of the creator to make a work accessible to all? Ulysses is a massive text that is a slog to work though. It's awkward, it's hard to understand, it's deliberately messy and challenging. 

 

Should Joyce have put in a few lines at the end to sum things up? Should there have been a plot synopsis so readers could all get to the end? Should he have included a glossary for the myriad of random references? 

 

I think developers should be allowed to make difficult, uncompromising games. And then we have the right to engage with those and criticise them. Ultimately, not every game is going to be for everyone. Not everyone needs to be able to complete every game. Then there's the whole idea that we place too much importance on "completing" games. 

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The Mario games with the 'Let Luigi show you' and 'Let us do it for you' are great. Especially for disabled and neuro-diverse people. You could be enjoying a game and then get stuck at a certain point because of your disability (physical or mental) so the option to get help is very welcome. 

 

Any game that has diifculty options should allow you to switch betweenm them at will. Because if you want people to play your game and see it through to the end. Then give them a chanced. 

 

If some want to turn that off, then have it as part of an accessibility options when you first boot the game. 

 

For example:

 

1. Turn Game on
2. First boot: Do you want to start with accessibilty opions - Yes | No*
2*: If No start the game with devs default settings
3. If yes get a menu with the following: (Defaults marked **)

VISUAL OPTIONS
Text Side: Samll / Med / Large**

Text Backgrounds: On**/Off
Text Background Mode: Dark Mode**/Light Mode
etc

SOUND OPTIONS
Text to speech: On** / Off
Visual Sound cues: On**  / Off

Haptic Sound cues: On** / Off

etc
GAME OPTIONS
No of Lives: default** / custom / infinite 
Boss Encounters: Default** / Guided / Skip
Skill Tree: Manual** / Guided / Automatic / Dynamic
etc

START GAME With these settings: Yess** / No

 

Every single game should have these types of options. So that those who don't need them can just start defaultg and those who do, don't need to hunt for them. Make that 'Press A to Start' screen worth something. 

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On the "everyone should be able to see everything" front, it's highly game-specific. There are games which are primarily focused on the gameplay, and others for which the surrounding elements are an equal, if not larger part of the piece. Spec Ops: The Line and The Last of Us are both perfect examples of the latter, games for which the narrative experience isn't tacked on for the purpose of set decoration, but the core focus of the experience.

 

It makes sense that the game should cater for everyone in those cases, but that doesn't have to be the case in something where the mechanics of the game are paramount. I don't think there's as much a pressing need for the player to see everything the game has to offer, if the later stages are merely the same thing only harder. 

 

Edit: I say this but I fully believe in accessibility. VVVVVV is a game that's basically all about the challenge, but has a raft of accessibility modes like reducing the speed to ensure everyone can enjoy it at their skill level and ability, and more power to it.

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Oh one thing I do absolutely hate, is games asking you to pick the difficulty setting as soon as you start the game. 

 

How are you supposed to judge this, when you've just pressed start and are yet to engage with the game on any meaningful level? 

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7 minutes ago, Flub said:

I reckon this is going to be an awful thread of people dismissing accessibility concerns. Like they always are

 

This is something that MUST change, the attitude toward accessibility in games. Laura K Dale is a huge supporter of this. 
 

 

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15 minutes ago, Kevvy Metal said:

 

They don't, not every game is for everyone. 

 

I did mean this more leaning towards taste and not that some games are a walled-garden. 
I do believe a game should be made as the creator intended, and also believe that accessibility options are very important. 

Classic example is Celeste. You've seen the GMTK video. 

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1 minute ago, Parksey said:

Oh one thing I do absolutely hate, is games asking you to pick the difficulty setting as soon as you start the game. 

 

How are you supposed to judge this, when you've just pressed start and are yet to engage with the game on any meaningful level? 

 

Meanwhile I love it. Can immediately set the game to it's easiest setting.

 

So long as they let you change it at any time it's not an issue. But this breaks if rewards change based on difficulty selection (+n% XP for harder difficulties) and you're left under powered because you wanted to make the game a little harder.

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I'm wondering if what we need is a universal difficulty rating. Kinda like a PEGI thing but for trickiness. If your game includes easy modes or cheats it gets a U, if not it goes in a higher category. That way players would know before they bought the things, which is probably the crux of the problem - buying something that isn't what you wanted.

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3 minutes ago, Parksey said:

Oh one thing I do absolutely hate, is games asking you to pick the difficulty setting as soon as you start the game. 

 

How are you supposed to judge this, when you've just pressed start and are yet to engage with the game on any meaningful level? 

 

There are some games I have played that ask a bunch of random questions about my gaming abilitys and then set the difficulty to something i haven't a clue of. I've never really liked that but i guess at least they are trying.

 

I also dislike easy modes in games. I think Uncharted 4 did it right by calling it cinematic mode or something. Gamers get a lot of hate for choosing easy but honestly if you have more fun playing it on that mode then do it.

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I think the ideal situation is to have three modes/approaches/whatever you wanna call it to play. One is the devs' vision on how the game should be pitch, call it standard or something. One should be a story/no fail/casual mode, call it whatever you want but make it so that people can just enjoy the game for what it is and not the challenge. Think bowling with the guides up. It shouldn't matter if someone can complete a game with one button if that's what they want to do. Let them, no skin off my nose.

Last one should be the expert challenge mode, make it harder, take off all the stabilisers, hell let people set whatever game rules they want. Playing Pokemon and want some obscene gameset to playthrough? Go ahead, set it up in the options and away you go. Want to be forced to play through with near frame perfect inputs? Knock yourself out.

 

I don't think for the bigger budget games this would be too much of an extra ask for developers, maybe the expert mode would be potentially buggier but you're also talking about the kind of people who'd be playing long after everyone else has moved on and likely would be the major beneficiaries of any patches anyway. I don't really understand the ferocity of debate around easy modes and accessibility, it makes no difference to me if someone speeds through to the end of a game without having really engaged in the game's mechanics. So what, it's their free time and their money, let them enjoy it the way they want to.

 

22 minutes ago, Kevvy Metal said:

Can't disagree with this more, with ever fibre of my body. 
The EMMI sections break up the flow of the game deliberately and give actual variety which makes the game better with them than without. Getting through the section is a puzzle in itself, if you did it wrong it's a reset. They're meant to be deadly and it's meant to be tense, and each encounter is harder than the last. If the punishment for screwing up with less it would completely destroy the uniquness of these encounters. You're suitably rewarded for clearing them as that area is cleared from then on. 

 

EMMIs were bullshit, horrible addition to the Metroid series and I hope we never have to bother with them again. Stick em in a different game franchise, I don't care, it's just not what I care about in a Metroid game.

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9 minutes ago, SMD said:

EMMIs were bullshit, horrible addition to the Metroid series and I hope we never have to bother with them again. Stick em in a different game franchise, I don't care, it's just not what I care about in a Metroid game.

 

Their addition is part of what elevates Metroid: Dread to be my favourite in the series. I welcome new aspects like them, and totally got what the game-creators where trying to do with their addition. I don't want the exact same game over and over, and there's been several 2D Metroids already that follow a template quite closely. Basically Super Metroid. 

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3 minutes ago, Kevvy Metal said:

 

Their addition is part of what elevates Metroid: Dread to be my favourite in the series. I welcome new aspects like them, and totally got what the game-creators where trying to do with their addition. I don't want the exact same game over and over, and there's been several 2D Metroids already that follow a template quite closely. Basically Super Metroid. 

 

I didn't say I don't want Metroid to evolve and change, I just mean the EMMI encounters ruined the game for me and I know I'm not the only person who feels this way.

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The whole /comic book guy voice ‘Games aren’t for everyone’ stance would hold more weight with me if publishers were happy to give you a refund if you found out you couldn’t experience the product you paid for due to your own skill ceiling.

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58 minutes ago, Naysonymous said:

 

I loved the way Resident Evil 4 handled it.  Dynamic scaling.  It does the "Luigi helps out" thing without ever telling the player. 

 

I'm not a fan of that.

 

I posted why in another thread by @dumpster a couple of years ago:

 

https://www.rllmukforum.com/index.php?/topic/316225-dynamic-difficulty-good-or-bad/&do=findComment&comment=12690354

 

 

"I like the idea that a given difficulty setting is a specific challenge, with specific rules and conditions, laid down by the developer, and it's the player's job to meet that challenge. I don't like the idea that it might be tweaked partway through without my knowledge."

 

Note that this shouldn't be interpreted as git gud gatekeeping! I'm not saying anything about how accessible the lowest difficulty setting should be: just that whichever one you pick, it should stay consistent from run to run, from life to life, and from player to player. (And, ideally, between releases of the game on different formats.) Even if you select the "Very Very Easy Easiest" difficulty setting, the third wave of enemies on Mission 6 should be the same number of enemies, dealing and taking the same damage, every single time you attempt it.

 

After that, in the post above, I wrote some very convoluted descriptions of examples of how adaptive difficulty could work, and which ones would bother me. I broadly concluded that I'm OK with the game dealing out more healing items in response to players doing poorly, but I hate the idea that enemies' damage/HP/accuracy/reaction time could change depending on how many times I've died.

 

In that Resi4 example in the Game Maker's Toolkit video above, if I'd died on a section five or six times, and I noticed that on my seventh attempt I suddenly got past it easily, I'd be questioning why. I'd think back on it, and I might realise: "Wait, on that last successful attempt, there seemed to be fewer enemies! Did the game remove some because I'd died too many times? Or was it just luck that I encountered a bug that meant they didn't spawn? Or was I lucky that they died to friendly fire so I never had to kill them?"

 

As soon as I start questioning that, I start worrying that I didn't get past it because I'd practiced it long enough and my skill was improving, but because of some other reason.

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The best solution is customisable difficulty with comprehensive accessibility options. I suffer from RSI, so on any gun I can in Destiny 2 I add in the Full-Auto Mod so I can pull the trigger once instead of repeatedly - sounds great right? It's not good enough, because the game actually penalises the player for doing so. That Full-auto mod goes in the place of other mods that would make the weapon more effective (extra damage etc). Also, exotic weapons don't have the option for that mod at all. Bungie needs to do better.

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It's important to consider what different studios can afford to do as well. There's no real excuse for AAA games looking for a huge audience not to include plenty of customisation along with accessibility options from closed caption subtitles, to dyslexia fonts and colour blindness adaptation. Smaller games will struggle to do as much.

 

I've already posted this feature I wrote for Wireframe in the other discussion we had on this, which focuses on ways of dealing with difficulty (not accessibility). I spoke to the makers of Celeste, Chicory, Darkest Dungeon and Bonfire Peaks for it, to show how they're thinking about the subject in new ways beyond easy/normal/hard, but also that it ultimately comes down to what they're trying to communicate with the game. The assistance options in Celeste and Chicory, for example, make sense in terms of the game style or narrative, in a way that they wouldn't in Darkest Dungeon. And I don't think anyone really wants an easy Darkest Dungeon, because it's clear that would undermine the whole point of it (although undoubtedly it helps that it's not a skill-based game, shutting people out for lack of physical ability).

 

Another thing that comes across is how much easier it can be to implement difficulty options if it's planned from the start of development, rather than introduced late on. So the more this becomes part of the thinking process early on, I guess, the better.

 

In general, then, I think there should be as much customisation available to players as possible, including as many accessibility options as the developer can afford to put into place. But at the same time, there's no single answer that works well for everything. 

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41 minutes ago, Vorgot said:

Games should never lock you into a difficulty either once you have selected it. Persona 5 Strikers was a great game, but some of the bosses were mad difficulty spikes. The ability to turn the difficulty to easy just for those fights was a godsend, but I know I have played games where once you lower the difficulty, you can't then knock it back up to normal.

 

This right here for me. I can be rattling along fine in a game but there might be a section or a bosses I'm just shit at. Doesn't mean I want to play the rest of it at a lower difficulty or spending time getting frustrated by repeatedly trying to get past that section. Just let me momentarily drop the difficultly and move on. My shame will be penance enough.

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