Dear Assassin’s Creed developer: difficulty doesn’t matter

In a recent interview with Edge Magazine about the making of Assassin’s Creed 3, lead developer Alex Hutchinson made his feelings known on the inclusion in games of difficulty modes meant for casual players:

“A lot of games have been ruined by easy modes,” he asserts. “If you have a cover shooter and you switch it to easy and you don’t have to use cover, you kind of broke your game.”

“You made a game that is essentially the worst possible version of your game.”

It’s a problem unique to videogames, he continues, lamenting the fact that this is the only creative industry that needs to provide difficulty options.

“It’s like if I picked up a book and it said, ‘Do you want the easy version or the complicated version?’ [Game designers] can simplify the language, you know; we can make it two syllables.”

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Here’s a better question than whether games can be too easy or too hard: should we care about difficulty at all?

Games are an adolescent medium and the conversation around them is, understandably, prone to an adolescent self-consciousness. The debate over games too often takes the form of how games ought to be, according to some nebulous standard of worth, rather than how games are consumed by actual gamers. The truth is, most people don’t even finish the games they buy – CNN reported last year that games are completed by only about ten percent of the gamers who buy them – yet no one seems to have stopped buying games. Mario was too hard for me to beat when I was five and first played it. I still loved that game more than pizza and baseball cards combined. If I heard a bunch of self-important thirteen-year olds talking about difficulty balance I would have laughed, mostly because I laughed at everything when I was five, but also because, get a life.

The conversation about difficulty in games invariably devolves into ridiculous comparisons to other forms of media, as if we can learn something about Assassin’s Creed 3 from Yeats[1]. There are about a thousand self-evident errors in doing this, yet game developers and writers won’t stop doing it because they got riled up over a throwaway comment made by Roger Ebert[2], years ago, that games can’t be art, and people equate difficulty with auteurism. Here’s a French lesson: auteur means author, singular. Novelists and poets get to set certain standards of artistic value to their words because their words are theirs. Even then, as the post-structuralists were fond of reminding us, the intention of the writer does not necessarily have anything to do with the experience of the reader. Meanwhile, big games are made by dozens if not hundreds of people with – presumably – hugely varying values and are economic behemoths that need to be sold to a lot of customers to justify their existence. They are stitched-together collaborations that will be consumed lightly, not pieces of glistening art sprung whole from the lobes of geniuses.

And if they are, Jonathan Blow, great. You made the game yourself, make it however difficult you want. People will play it or they won’t. It’s like I would tell my adolescent daughter or son, if I wasn’t 27 and it would be baffling for me to have a teenage child: you’re you. Some people will eventually like you/love you/fuck you/hire you no matter how difficult you are. Thinking about it all the time won’t change it. Also, it helps if you’re fun.


The Fascination of What’s Difficult

The fascination of what’s difficult
Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
Spontaneous joy and natural content
Out of my heart. There’s something ails our colt
That must, as if it had not holy blood
Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,
Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt
As though it dragged road-metal. My curse on plays
That have to be set up in fifty ways,
On the day’s war with every knave and dolt,
Theatre business, management of men.
I swear before the dawn comes round again
I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt.


[2] Only gamers would get upset about something Roger Ebert said. The man pioneered judging “art” with his thumbs.