Difficulty vs Accessibility

– by ParadiceNZ

So I should probably be writing about all of the Diablo III news (patch 14, hardcore mode, monster damage doubled, etc) but I really really want my next D3 post to be an actual release date. So in the spirit of optimism, I’m gonna give that a few more days, and instead talk about something else. If it helps, this is one of the most furious forum debates about D3, so it’s still relevant!

Difficulty vs Accessibility

There are a lot of people who think that difficulty and accessibility are opposite ends of a game spectrum: At one end, you have the ‘hardcore’ players who like difficult games, while at the other you have the ‘casuals’ who like accessible games.

In fact, although there is frequently correlation between the two, they are not mutually exclusive. Some of my favorite games are both difficult and accessible (and indeed, some of my other favorites are the opposite: both easy and complicated!)

Some definitions

To make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s define our terms.

Difficulty: skill, practice, or luck is required to progress through the game
Accessibility: effort, knowledge, or time is required to experience the game
Hardcore: player who will spend any amount of time to fully experience a game
Casual: player who wants to experience a game in minimal time

Note that Casual players are essentially forced to play accessible games, but no other exclusivity or dependencies exist between groups. If you have alternative definitions which you feel are more accurate when applied to the way they are used by the game industry, feel free to share them in the comments.

Now all that’s out of the way, let’s look at some examples.

Difficult… and accessible?

Super Meat Boy

Don't touch the sawblades

If you’ve listened to our first podcast, you can probably already guess the game I’m going to use here. Super Meat Boy! A platform game requiring both pixel-perfect precision and exquisite timing, SMB most definitely requires a considerable mix of skill, practice and luck in order to complete.

That said, I also class it as incredibly accessible – possibly the single most accessible game I have on Steam. Why? Because it takes almost zero time to experience! Jump in, play for 2 minutes, you’re already having fun (and have already probably died several times). You don’t need any knowledge or effort in learning how to play, you can pick it up entirely as you go.

Casual gamers are limited by time more than anything else. By these definitions, you can’t classify SMB as anything other than a totally casual game, it just happens to be an extremely difficult one.

I should note that I also thought about whether I could define “accessiblity” using ‘punishment’. In an accessible game, punishment for failure is usually trivial or non-existant, while games designed for hardcore players typically have much harsher punishments (oh, you died in Halo on Legendary? Restart the chapter!) Even by this definition, SMB is casual: infinite lives, and due to how short the levels are, you’re almost never more than a few seconds from where you died.

Not difficult, yet hardcore?

Super Meat Boy might not have been controversial, but I sense this one will be. My example of a game that’s easy and yet designed for hardcore players? The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

Sorry, Skyrim fans, but I’m sure most of you will agree: the game is not difficult.

Hardest part of the game - riding a horse on a mountain without getting stuck

I set it on the hardest difficulty possible, and still died.. maybe.. 3-4? times max in the 50+ hours that I played (enough to complete the main story, most of the larger side-stories, and get to the point where most of my quest log was just bugged out quests that it wasn’t possible to complete). Only one of those deaths was during the main story (damn ice troll thing on the path to the Greybeards). Maybe I did stuff in the wrong order, but the game got tangibly easier as I progressed the main quest. And, even if I was struggling, carrying 50 healing potions that can be used while the game is paused? I just don’t see how the player can be threatened. If I had left it at the default difficulty, I doubt whether I’d have ever died. Skyrim is many things, in my opinion a serious contender (among a few others) for Game of the Year 2011, but difficult? Nope.

That said, it’s most definitely not casual. Why? The time investment! Getting to the point where you can even play requires navigating a 20-minute in-engine cut scene. To fully experience the game, you need to explore every corner of the world, study all the possible skill perks, complete all the quests. You need knowledge, you need time, and it takes considerable effort and perseverance.

Diablo III

OK, so maybe it was all an elaborate scam and this post really is about Diablo. In short, I am tired of people on the battle.net forums, reddit, and fansites from pointing at Diablo’s (beta!) difficulty and saying “see, it’s for casuals! Casssuuuallllss!” Or, conversely, pointing at Diablo III’s accessibility and saying “see, it’s too easy! Eeeaaaassssyyyy!”

Remember: the beta is the tutorial portion of D3. You cannot make judgments about it’s difficulty based on this section, any more than you can determine how nightmarishly tricky Super Meat Boy is from playing it’s first level.

You can’t make any judgments about it’s difficulty based on it’s accessibility, either. Blizzard have made no secret that making D3 accessible is one of their primary goals. That doesn’t make it easy.

Inferno: expect to see this screen often!

All you can tell is that you’ll be able to jump in and play in minimum time. I actually have faith in Blizzard that when they say Inferno is going to be hard, they mean that it will be hard. Not out of any blind fanboyism, but because it’s financially in their best interests to make it hard. The harder it is, the more people will be forced to trade on the Real Money Auction House to be able to compete. The more people trade on the RMAH, the more money Blizzard makes. That cycle should tell you everything you need to know about how hard this game is going to be at the highest level.

Bonus content!

If you like Super Meat Boy (or even if you hate it), check out the speedrun of the game on SpeedDemosArchive. Breakdown completes every level of every world in 1hr 21minutes in a fantastic display of speed and skill, and all for charity. Here’s the link http://speeddemosarchive.com/marathon/schedule/ (also included at the same event, dozens of speedruns of awesome games such as Halo Reach, Demon’s Souls, Portal 2, and many classics like the Mario games….)


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