Uneven Game Difficulty Hinders Accessibility

Getting stuck in a game can be an opportunity to rise to the challenge or be so annoying it feels like a waste of time to keep trying again and again. Everyone has their own threshold and unique mixture of abilities, which makes well-balanced difficulty options so critical to a product’s accessibility.

Boss fights in the original release of Deus Ex: Human Revolution were unpopular because they broke the difficulty curve so badly. For a game series with a reputation for player choice the game launched with only one way to defeat each boss, and with lethal force being the only option. Thankfully later updates provided more options, making it more consistent with the rest of the experience.

Too often the difficulty adjustments in games fall into similar traps when they focus solely on easy tweaks, like making enemies easier to eliminate or the player more resilient. Other game mechanics or mini-games such as puzzles are left largely unchanged which breaks the flow for players more interested in exploration, or less clever than their compatriots. And while I respect designers’ desire to craft an experience and set expectations, it’s hard to justify inconsistent difficulty levels as gaming audiences grow to include people with less free time and varying abilities.

Watch Dogs is another example of a game which feels like it’s only difficult adjustment is rudimentary nerfing, buffing, and timer tweaks. While I appreciated the mission variety and many of the challenges, aspects like tightly timed chases, enemies with supernatural bursts of speed, and nearly impossible to escape police and ‘fixers’ were often infuriating. Even the age-old tradition of cheat codes were unavailable here. Some game guides resorted to suggesting workarounds like shooting out a window then hiding for notoriety boasts, or swimming out into open water to escape.

Considering the resource constraints of smaller development shops it is easier to accept uneven difficulty in their releases. However, larger studios have no excuse; except perhaps ignorance, greed, or laziness. In this age of day-one patches there is little reason not to at least update a product found to have uneven gameplay, even if only to patch in some cheats. Consumers should not have to resort to 3rd-party hacks developed by the community to fully enjoy their purchase.

What do you think? What has your experience been with games and their difficulty levels?

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