Why would you make a Hard Game Easier???October 3rd, 2023
So Lies of P had patch that adjusted difficulty and I haven't played it, but I have played though AC6 who had the same thing happen and the discourse seems to be... about the same and it really just got to me how poor the nuance around difficulty discussion can be. Maybe it's more accurate when talking about Lies of P, maybe it's the same crud, but whatever.
Now, I'm very much on record saying the AC6 patch stuff is massively overblown. Only one thing really seems like a significant nerf and that was probably warranted but like... whether any of these changes are good is definitely something you could talk about. The changes, for example, (especially including the weapon based changes) seems very much designed to make more builds viable in more situations. You could easily make the case that "Even if the changes are kinda small, this is a game about building mechs, sometimes a build shouldn't viable for a situation to encourage you to use more options and explore the game" and I wouldn't agree with you (I think you're still rewarded plenty of tweaking a build for a mission you always could beat AC6 with one design anyways) but like... that's a discussion, right? Where do you draw the line? My line isn't right and talking about our lines is a great way to build perspective.
... But most conversations aren't going like that. It's a lot of ARGGGGHHH BABY MODE!!! PEOPLE CAN'T HANDLE HARD GAMES!! THEY NERFED IT!! NERFED IT TO THE GROUND!!! They have to sell more copies so they RUINED IT!!! People will only be able to play the BABY version!
... like come on, how many more copies do you think they sold because they made Balteus's missiles track a little less?
There is a lot to unpack here. How people mythologize their own experiences as The One True Way, how any backward slide gets exaggerated by communities and repeated so often they become almost permanent lore. Instead, we're going to talk about people not understanding the many reasons why a designer might change their game to be easier. Why they might make these changes for reasons besides public pressure.
I think a thing a lot of gamer brained players don't realize is that Making is hard game is actually really really easy. It's so easy, that if you're making your first game, there is a good chance it's going to be way harder for other people than you think it is. It's so easy you'll do it on accident!
Making a hard game people want to actually play is the hard part.
I think it's hard for some people to realize that there is, almost certainly, a harder version of their favorite hard game that the devs had in testing and never released. That they are, by their own logic, even immediately from release, receiving the ""baby mode"". That outside of shitty as old LJN 8 and 16 bit games, that devs, even when they were making balls to the walls hard games, were... focusing on trying to give you an enjoyable experience. That the released game isn't some pure artistic expression that exists naturally, only to be corrupted against the devs wishes by player feedback.
Games are, largely, unnatural experiences. A lot of us designers try and make the unnatural feel as natural as possible. Some people hunt for really obscure, poorly made games, enjoying the weird emergent "natural" challenge that comes accidentally from naive design. But they are still, largely, an unnatural construct.
These constructs are, for the most part, made for our enrichment. We can argue the value of changing something, but we have to remember, even with the most Hardcore no normies, skill only!!!! games that these are constructed experiences. There is no true difficulty, no "real version" of the game. There is just the what we ultimately play.
I saw someone ask "Why would you make a hard game easier?" and I think if you're a gamer, looking for challenging experiences, that... makes sense. It's naive, but like, yeah why WOULD YOU? Well, here are are a few that have been stewing in my head!
It's Hard but it Sucks
This is the simplest. Pre-Patch Lost Izalith. A rushed area, filled with reused, rare mobs. "Hey this dragon butt only got used one other place so why not, we're in a hurry."
Pre-Patch Izalith has the player basically playing a poorly made stealth game to not get gang stomped by a dozen giant dragon legs. Later patches decided instead to turn this early Izalith section into a bit of a non area. It's not that bad, there are still things to kill you if you go exploring but the Dragon Butts are so hard to aggro.
If something sucks there usually isn't much of a pushback, but I've actually seen people defend pre-patch Izalith BECAUSE of the weird "stealth" gameplay.
... It seems to largely come from the same place as other difficulty arguments. "I had this happen to me so if other people don't, this means they were denied a complete experience"
Real proof that any changes, no matter how stupid the original behavior was, will be decried by someone as giving into babies.
The Curve is Wrong
A lot of dragging peoples asses through a hard game is tricking them to get in and into the game before tightening your grip... then releasing... and repeating. I Wanna be the Guy tried to have different, but reliable pulses of actual difficulty to keep things feeling fun in between the sections that made you want to die.
It's basically fixing a pacing problem. Usually people don't complain too much about these because their minor. I feel the AC6 weapon buffs hit this, giving better and more varied options early game. This certainly made the game easier, but no one talks about that aspect of the "difficulty nerf" because... well okay it's because people are bad at talking about difficulty as a holistic thing.
Anyways most games usually don't have that much of a mis-step here. When the first boss is way too hard that's usually not an unexpected bump in the curve, that's usually an intentional crest. That said, sometimes that difficulty spike doesn't quite work out how you wanted it to and...
The Wrong Thing is Hard
I feel like Balteus's missiles fit this. Watching my friend (hi Miko!!!), a hardcore AC vet, 1-shot Balteus pre-patch on her first playthrough, could kinda trick you into thinking the missiles were never that big of a problem to begin with. It seems the type of thing where, when you know how to play and move, it's not that big of a deal, but when you're new, it's a monstrous hurdle and that hurdle existing can be easy to miss.
"Oh we wanted to teach about pulse armor and want to encourage movement so this isn't just a slugfest but whoooops for some players and builds, this might as well be touhou."
This is one of one of the most common reasons for things to be hard, by the way. The designers, or testers, or whoever get too good at their game and underestimate certain elements because they're so much better at fundamental things like movement. Blind testers help but you're still trying to extrapolate a lot of data. For indie games, this can get super stupid. There is a 1-frame jump in IWBTG that's optional, but exists because I tested it once and got it the first try. Can't be THAT hard...
By reducing the difficulty in one area, you can allow the player to focus on the enemies you were meaning to highlight.
You Don't Want Them to Google it!
AC6 works great here again. Sea Spider was made vulnerable to more weapon types and while you can make the argument that the game is about builds!!, that type of attitude is what leads to someone going on reddit for help, realizing Double Zimms, Double Songbirds are strong, murdering the boss, and then never really switching.
Fighting a boss and not doing enough damage is generally a sign to a lot of players that they're doing something wrong and the response to that is often to look some stuff up. Easing certain parts of a fight, or making more builds viable can actually, in a weird reverse way, encourage to explore more, or use off the beaten path builds. You increase the likelihood of a player just endures and actually tries to learn on their own. That applies well to situations like Sea Spider where the biggest barrier was a knowledge check that... wasn't even a very good knowledge check (varied weapon type defense isn't well established in a game, and a lot of people are going to get to the fight with a build that already passes the check and not realize they were checked at all).
You Want to Make it Easier to Learn
Sometimes an early attack is too strong, or a boss does too much damage, or a checkpoint is too far. All these things are things that can be fine, or lead to a great experience, but other times you're like... Oh god wait no, it's taking people way too many attempts to get to phase 2, or to this hard jump or whatever, so you make that easier. I Wanna be the Guy had a lot of difficulty tweaks in both boss behavior and is save placement to try and help this along.
Brave Earth Prologue used to have lives, a feature I really wanted and defended to a lot of people who tested early versions of the game. Whenever the game is released though, it won't have them and part of the reason was because "While the repetition created by lives creates a novel learning experience in modern gaming... if I wanna have cool complicated bosses, I need to give people permission to fail". Making that area easier allowed me to make other areas harder because it gave players more chances to learn hard things.
To go back to AC6, I think this is where the IBIS damage nerf comes in. I feel less certain about this one, but I feel like, at least personally, when I finally beat Ibis, it wasn't by an inch, it was a mile. Her damage wasn't relevant for my eventual victory. Where it was relevant is... each attempt allowed me to get more information and to experiment more. The boss felt like she was going to murder you unless you learned her patterns anyways, so easing up on damage just seemed to encourage learning them more.