Video games should be playable by people of all experience levels and skill sets. This shouldn’t be a controversial statement. Yet, it often is. For years, gamer culture—the toxic parts of it, at least—insisted on gatekeeping, on maintaining that games be difficult and complex to restrict “filthy casuals” from entering the fray. But as casual players have grown in numbers, it’s become harder for gamers, and game companies, to ignore them.
It’s understandable that studios want to appeal to a certain type of player—especially when the developers and writers at those studios are creating the kind of game they themselves want to enjoy. But it does the industry a huge disservice to assume that everyone wants to play one way. Now that casual gamers are just as prominent as the “hardcore” segment, it’s time for games that address the play styles of both groups. No one expects any one person to just play first-person shooters, or just RPGs. So why should we expect everyone to play on the same difficulty level? The key is to value gamers equally and not arbitrarily decide that one is better than another. And as some games have shown recently, it is possible to satisfy many audiences.
Why, then, don’t developers do this all the time? The problem is that there has often been a (false) perception that it is “better” to play strenuous video games, that players have to earn their progress in the story. Easy modes, then, are “cheats” that dilute the experience and exclusivity of defeating very hard games.
If you’re looking for a real-world example of this divide, look no further than Dark Souls, a title known for its extreme difficulty. Back in 2012 its creator, Hidetaka Miyazaki, made the grave mistake of mentioning that he thought it should have an easy mode; the backlash was stunning in its scope and ferocity. The studio later attributed his remarks to a “mistranslation,” possibly to avoid enraging the game’s insular fan base.
But accessibility, in all its forms, is important, if not outright necessary. Making games that appeal to audiences that play at different levels means a wider fanbase. More devotees means more copies sold; more copies sold means more money for the development of new games. It’s a win-win. That’s not to say that the intention of the studio or developer doesn’t matter if they want to create a very difficult game—just that it’s one piece of a larger puzzle.
Additionally, “easy mode” is often a misnomer. As a person who is a devotee of customizing settings to make a game easier, I’m all for simplifying combat and turning down enemy damage. But I still want a challenge. Easy mode doesn’t necessarily mean removing every obstacle so gamers can sail through—it just means adding in extra options to tweak the difficulty. The games that do this most artfully, in my opinion, are the ones that allow you to adjust individual settings—do you want immortality, or would you rather inflict more damage on enemies? And often, this doesn’t help you with puzzles. There’s still plenty of challenge to be had.
How, then, can you cater to an audience that wants things to be as hard as possible for their own enjoyment, while also acknowledging that appealing to a wider range of casual gamers is good for many, many different reasons? How does a studio respect its own intentions and art while also creating something playable by people of varying skill levels?
There is a blueprint for this. It’s called Control.
Originally published by Remedy Entertainment in 2019, Control was well known for being incredibly difficult. Multiple people told me, “Well, it’s very hard, but it’s so worth it because the story is so good.” I believed them. The trouble was, no matter how amazing the story was, I knew it wouldn’t be worth it because it would be too frustrating. If the difficulty isn’t just a challenge to keep things interesting, but instead an unsurmountable obstacle (as it is for many of us with poor hand/eye coordination as well as for people with disabilities), then it’s not a game worth playing.