By Adrian Chmielarz Posted in Game Design on 2013/03/21
Have you ever played „The Floor is Lava” when you were a kid?
Even if you didn’t, I’m sure you’ve played some other imaginary danger games. Maybe a friend chased after you with a pencil pretending to be a revolver, or maybe you tried to avoid the poisonous lines on the sidewalk.
You could die in all of those games. Except, of course, not really.
I’ll get back to that in a bit.
The difficulty mode in a video game means something else to each and every one of us. For a veteran gamer, Bioshock’s regular mode is a breeze. But watching my mother playing Painkiller on the easiest mode was like watching a drunken man on fire trying to stop a ninja.
Even for the same person the difficulty feels different in every game. I have died hundreds of times playing Battlefield: Bad Company in a (supposedly) Tourist mode, and I have finished Battlefield 3 on Normal without breaking a sweat.
On top of that, merely naming the difficulty modes as Easy, Normal and Hard – even if disguised as Recruit, Soldier, Commando or whatever – adds to the confusion. Because it does not make a lick of sense. “Normal” for whom? Is there such a thing as a perfectly average gamer? No, not really. Naming the modes as Easier, Default and Harder would help a bit.
But no, not only game designers use confusing descriptions, we also love to offend people who buy our games!
It’s all a bit of a mess, really.
For a marathon runner, a mile is nothing. For a lot of people, it’s a challenge. For me, well, if I’m allowed to crawl when I get a heart attack after one hundred meters, then, well, nope, still not doable.
In other words, challenge needs to be scalable. And sometimes we don’t feel like running at all. Sometimes all we want is a walk in the park.
So why is it that games only offer Easy, Normal, and Hard, without giving us a Godmode, i.e. an option to be fully protected from harm? It’s like selling a heater that has only three setting: Warm, Hot, and Emma Stone, and forgetting to include an On/Off button.
Imagine you go to a restaurant and the waiter asks how salty do you want your potatoes. “No salt, please”. “The fuck you mean no salt? You have three options: a bit salty, salty, and ocean. That’s it” – answers the waiter.
Let me put it this way.
A Single Player action-adventure game usually has its Experience side (environments to admire, the story to be immersed in, characters to identify with, etc.), and its Gameplay side (the gameplay mechanics like shooting and jumping).
Do you remember how pissed you were when all you cared was the Gameplay side, but the Experience side did not let you skip any cut-scene, mission briefing, or dialogue? Because the designer thought it was such an incredibly important part of the game?
But it wasn’t for you. You did not care. All you wanted was to shoot some fools. But nooo… No skip button for you, mister.
Not allowing the Godmode is the Gameplay side doing the same evil thing to the Experience side.
It’s the designer saying: “I don’t care that you want to taste only one layer of what the game has to offer. You don’t know what’s good for you. Luckily, I do. Now, shut up and play my game.”
It’s a content denial. It’s unfair. As the comedian Dara Ó Briain once said:
Guess what, I’m 38, I unlocked the content at the store with my credit card.
But wait, it gets better.
It’s actually a myth that activating the Godmode renders the Gameplay side useless, and all that the players experience now is the Experience side.
How is that possible?
And now I can return to my example from the opening of this post. When playing “The Floor is Lava”, you couldn’t actually die. It was all in your head. Did it make the game any less exciting?
Hint: no, it did not.
Now, hold on to your socks, because here comes the shocker. I have recently finished Dead Space 3. I was scared, I was frightened, I felt pain, I felt loss, and I felt victory. All that with the Godmode, achieved by using a game trainer cheat that made my character immortal for the duration of the entire game.
Where did I download this trainer from? It’s not important, and I don’t want to sound like I’m their salesman. The point is: it is a paid site. You have to pay for their trainers, or purchase a subscription.
Well over seven thousand people paid for and downloaded the Dead Space 3 trainer. On that one site. Despite the fact that there are dozens of sites offering trainers for free (not of that quality, but still).
If you are a game designer, ask yourself this: would you call people downloading the trainers “idiots”, or would you consider them as gamers whom your game is not servicing properly?
But how is it even possible that I had any fun playing Dead Space in the Godmode?
Here is the secret to make it work. When you played “The Floor is Lava” as a kid, you could never really die. Check. But it’s not like losing had no consequences, right? Remember that mocking laughter of your friends? Remember nya nya nya nya nya nya?
And that’s all that the designers need to do to make the Godmode work. They need to use “virtual consequences”. I call them “virtual”, because it cannot be anything of real value, it cannot be anything that would make the player restart the checkpoint – because that would make the whole Godmode thing pointless.
So what can these “virtual consequences” be?
For example, unpleasantness. This is exactly what Dead Space 3 does. You won’t die while in the Godmode, of course, but allowing the enemy to get to you feels very unpleasant. The horrific sounds of torn flesh, the blood particles, the screams, the violation of personal space, the closeness of terrifying ugliness.
It was enough for me not to want that to happen. Ever. So I played the game like the Godmode wasn’t even there: I tried my best to line up headshots, I planned ahead, and I was conscious about when to reload.
It’s just that a mistake did not cost me a savegame reload, or a frustrating series of these.
Check this out. What do gamers love to complain about?
Lately, it’s that “the modern games are dumbed down”. They dislike the hand holding, the intrusive tutorials, the overprotective HUD. They loved how they could get lost in the old games, or how they had to figure stuff out for themselves.
It’s all gone now.
Guess what else has disappeared?
In case you have no idea what I’m talking about here, IDDQD is a cheat code for one of the best shooters of the 1990s, Doom. It wasn’t an option in the menu, you had to type in the code at any moment during the game, but literally everyone knew about it.
Yes, there was a time when almost every single PC game had a built-in cheat code. It was DNKROZ or DNCORNHOLIO for Duke Nukem and GOD for Half-Life.
Now tell me, how is it that the world did not bloody end with these codes existing?
Times have changed?
Then tell me why did not the universe collapse with the PC version of Skyrim featuring TGM console command? Which is, yes, “The God Mode”.
But it’s just one game of the very few. Most games, even the PC ones, do not feature the Godmode anymore. It’s sad. And, more importantly, wrong.
Some designers might argue at this point that adding the Godmode as a difficulty option would make some players “ruin the experience for themselves”. Why? Do people choose the difficulty mode randomly? Or do they go for “Hard” only if they actually want to?
The same goes for the Godmode option.
Another worry is: “But with the Godmode, people would go through my game like a hot knife through butter, and then complain about its short length”. What you are really saying is: “My game is short, so I made it difficult in order to hide its true length”.
But guess what: majority of the people who go for the Godmode will not finish your game quicker. They choose the Godmode because they want to focus on the story and the mood, so they do not run all the time like the hardcore on YouTube. They choose the Godmode because they do not have the skill or ability to play without it, so it will take them more time to kill all enemies in one level than it will take a hardcore gamer to finish a chapter.
Your fear is irrational.
But if you are still not convinced, what you should do, at the very least, is to introduce the SuperEasy mode. Because it’s not just about people who don’t have the patience or desire to be good at the core combat loop.
Have you ever heard about cross-dominance? Let me quote Wikipedia: “Cross-dominance can often be a problem when shooting or in activities that require aim”. See where I’m going with this? In some cases, people with cross-dominance just can’t play video game without help. And quite often, the Easy mode is not enough.
What about other people with various disabilities, impairments, and conditions?
What about people who want their game so easy that they can feel like they finally have a full control over something?
What about people for whom your game is their first game ever?
Why not help them – and all the others – by featuring a SuperEasy mode?
Look, I’ve already done it. One of my games had a Godmode cheat, but also an official difficulty mode called Daydream, in which any kind of damage you took was just one hit point, and you had to stand motionless for five minutes before you died, and in which every (frequent) checkpoint fully regenerated your health anyway.
What was the game? Painkiller. Yes, that hardcore First Person Shooter.
One more time, the world did not end. Not only that: we’ve got a lot of e-mails from gamers thanking us for featuring such a mode in the game.
Let’s sum it up. For Single Player Action Adventures…
– Some people are “bad” at video games for a reason outside of their control
– Some people do not care about the gameplay side of the game
– Some people care, but don’t need death to feel pressure/ challenge themselves
– Some people never played a game before, or played just a few
Step two :
– Catering to the groups mentioned above is a good thing
– Easy mode is not enough (Easy modes are usually just a nerfed Normal)
– Offer the Godmode difficulty
– At the very least, consider SuperEasy difficulty
– Godmode difficulty level is not going to ruin your game. It never ruined any game that had it.
– Fear of a speed run is irrational. People don’t choose the Godmode to finish your game quicker. Even when the hardcore choose it, they do it to fuck around, not to ruin your stats.
– Instead of death, a player’s failure on the gameplay side might be accompanied by “virtual consequences” like the unpleasantness of under-performing.
You may not agree with my design theory on the Godmode, but you should not ignore the facts I’ve presented here (like the popularity of the game trainers scene). Instead of worrying about “players ruining the game for themselves”, think about all those gamers you did not get, because of their fear that they won’t be able to enjoy your game.
The Godmode. It is good for everybody.
P.S. Yes, even in Dark Souls. But it’d have to be done differently. Let’s not go there, because it could be a whole post in itself. But for most action-adventures it should be a no brainer.
P.P.S. Some additional thoughts on Reddit.