‘Easy modes’ prompt creative approaches from game developers

Elise Favis

THE WASHINGTON POST – Creative director Greg Kasavin knew a traditional easy mode wouldn’t fit for his game, Hades. The roguelike needed to be difficult, but also accessible. Supergiant Games didn’t want to prevent players invested in the story from being able to complete the game. So they came up with a creative solution: Build a mode that lowers the difficulty over time if players struggled. You still need to put in the work, but eventually, the game gives you a little boost.

Hades isn’t the only game with options like this. The challenging platformer Celeste, for example, introduced assist mode, which lets players change granular settings like stamina, and gives them the ability to skip chapters. Darkest Dungeon released radiant mode a year after launch, which streamlines progression and levels up your roster of heroes more quickly, making the brutally challenging, turn-based role playing game just a tad kinder.

These developers have opted for alternative paths and unconventional approaches to difficulty in hopes of making their games playable by a wide array of players with different needs, without forgoing the original intent of their game.

The relationship between difficult games and easy modes is a contentious topic among players. At the most basic level, the term “easy mode” generally refers to optional in-game modes that players can select to lower the difficulty, making tough games more accessible. However, some view the lack of an easy mode as an accessibility issue, which blocks players of different skill levels and physical ability from certain experiences. Others consider easy modes as sacrificing an intentionally difficult game’s creative vision. Some believe accessibility and playability are two separate issues. The subject can set off heated – even vitriolic – debate.

Game developers are well aware of the discourse surrounding “easy modes”, and the valence the term has picked up over the years. Trepidation surrounds discussion of the subject, so much that The Washington Post was met with a handful of rejected interview requests, and an overall sense of wariness from developers while reporting this article.

A scene from Celeste. PHOTO: MATT MAKES GAMES
A scene from Demon’s Souls. PHOTO: BLUEPOINT GAMES

Moreover, easy modes are hardly some be-all, end-all solution. Accessibility in games – which is just one aspect of the conversation around easy modes – is a far more complicated and multifaceted subject that merits a whole slate of other solutions and in-game options. They are merely one tool in a developer’s kit when it comes to making games more inclusive.

“Just making a game easier is not the right answer for every game with an element of challenge,” Kasavin said. “Certainly this was our experience with Hades, where a traditional easy mode was not compatible with our game’s design or the experience we wanted to create.” During the two-year long early access period for Hades, Supergiant sat down and conceptualised God Mode, an optional setting that can be turned on any time during a run. When activated, players gain 20 per cent more damage resistance immediately, then an additional two per cent each time they die, making combat slightly easier as you progress.

“With more damage resistance, you can afford to make a few more mistakes, and more importantly, you have a bit more time to study those encounters that might normally kill you off pretty quickly,” Kasavin said.

Adding an easy mode, Kasavin explains, is far from a “no brainer” for most games. It takes time and effort, like any other part of development. His team faced challenges with implementing God Mode. Every little tweak could leave other calibrations, like an enemy’s health or a buff, out of whack.

Every detail mattered. For example, Supergiant had to verify that God Mode could be activated at any time – but not in Hades’ most difficult mode. The team built an internal damage resistance scale in the code, assuring that increases in strength progressed smoothly, and at the proper rate.

“Despite not being the biggest or most complex feature in the game, God Mode was not necessarily a quick feature to get right,” Kasavin said. “But it was important to us and what we wanted to accomplish with the game.”

Similarly, the creators of Darkest Dungeon – a turn-based role-playing game about leading a roster of heroes through perilous gothic dungeons – knew that an easy mode wasn’t possible off the bat, but for very different reasons.

Chris Bourassa, creative director and co-founder of Redhook Games (the Vancouver-based studio behind Darkest Dungeon), compares his game to hiking. You can plan your trip with the best gear and first aid kits, but despite every precaution, you might still slip and break your leg.

“What do you do now?” asked Bourassa. It’s a question you ponder while playing Darkest Dungeon, too, where decisions need to be made on the fly and failure can occur regardless of how well you prepare. Bourassa doesn’t call his game hard, but “cruel”, he jokes, which he feels is an important distinction.

“I don’t feel like making it hard for its own sake was ever the goal,” Bourassa said. “It was to be surprising and uncompromising.”

Because the game is rooted in unpredictability and improvisation, the team knew an easy mode wouldn’t feel right. Making everything more predictable felt antithetical to the experience they were crafting. But the team still wished to attract players with varying skill sets and needs.

Soon after Darkest Dungeon launched, the team noticed a larger percentage of players were completing the game than they expected. Some were gloating online about their accomplishments. That created a conundrum: Would rebalancing the difficulty make those that already completed it feel as though their accomplishments were less worthy? Would they feel betrayed? Adding separate modes, rather than changing the core experience, made the most sense.

Thus, they built Radiant Mode, a new game setting that cuts the 80-hour play time down and accelerates progression. Your heroes gain strength and prowess more quickly, and you can upgrade things faster, too. In all, it makes the game a little breezier, though its developers refrain from calling the mode “easy”.

“We felt there was room to tighten it up and make some things more friendly to the time investment, but not actually make the game easier,” co-founder and Design Director Tyler Sigman said.

“We didn’t actually have clear metrics on how long it would take to beat the game (at that point),” Bourassa said. “Internally, we had never done an end-to-end run because the end game came in right before launch. So one of our goals was to try to compress that experience.”

The challenge is left untouched. Rather than tweaking enemy health, the focus of Radiant Mode is on you and your heroes, giving you more access to the tools necessary to survive the treacherous dungeons.

“We refused to get rid of the permadeath on the heroes, even in Radiant Mode,” Bourassa said. “So when your (characters) die, they die. They’re gone. You have to live with those decisions.”

As important as they can be for accessibility, easy modes can be “deceptively difficult” to implement, Kasavin said. Asked what he thought of the Demon’s Souls remake omitting an easy mode, he said he believes there is likely a “thoughtful way” to reduce difficulty in the title while still respecting the vision.

“I do think some developer out there will crack the code on that,” he said.

Some developers have opted to put control over accessibility or difficulty into the hands of players. Mega blockbuster The Last of Us Part II, for example, provides granular but flexible difficulty options like reducing accuracy of enemy fire and removing the ability for foe’s to flank you. A disabled gamer may not be able to complete a complicated combination of button mashing in a fighting game, or execute the carefully timed parries needed to defeat a boss in an action game, without the ability to tweak the difficulty to match their needs. Malleable settings allow players to tailor their experience in ways that suit their needs, along with a suite of accessibility options for the hearing impaired, better visibility for players with impaired vision, and more.

Demon’s Souls may not have an easy mode, for example, but it takes other routes to guide players through its brutal world. On the PlayStation 5, PlayStation Plus members can access 180 videos for tips and tricks instantly through the UI. Players who die can leave behind short notes for other players to find, too, which often include a helpful tip.

Demon’s Souls includes some accessibility options, including tweaking the UI and removing the camera shake or motion blur, though these are limited settings in comparison to other modern blockbusters.

Steven Spohn, the COO of AbleGamers charity (an organisation that raises funds for disabled gamers), pointed to Bluepoint and Sony’s comments about Demon’s Souls having no easy mode, tweeting that, “accessibility can exist simultaneously without harming the experience of people who do not need those options”.

Kasavin believes developers should make “every reasonable effort” to include accessibility in their games, to be “empathetic” to their audience.

“As a game developer, fundamentally you want players to be able to engage with and enjoy your game,” he said. “Accessibility features advance that goal.”