I remember playing through the New Game+ mode for Dark Souls, and it was a frustrating experience — one that I will never ever forget. For a game all about a series of challenging experiences due to its varying enemy types and smart enemy encounters, Dark Souls pulls a fast one on you the moment you enter your second immediate playthrough. All of the enemies have their numbers significantly increased with no particular change to their AI. This means that while you’re not technically playing the same as your previous playthrough, it might as well be. Because enemies hit you for bigger damage, it almost cheapens the experience because rather than testing your smarts and wits, it tests your endurance. How long can you keep dodging and whittling away your opponent’s HP until you succeed or fail? That’s the question that pops up with Dark Souls’ quantitative difficulty.
While I’m all for increasing the difficulty of a game through numerical means, I hardly find it rewarding when I’ve had to endure the explicit repetitive nature of having to rinse and repeat the same tactics to defeat the enemy. Not only is it not rewarding, but it devalues the gameplay elements, making it obvious what the flaws are. For instance, Dark Souls inherent flaws lies in its inability to make sure the player makes absolutely no mistakes. While on the normal difficulty, making a few won’t cause your death, but in the higher difficulties, it can very well mean death. Sure, if something kills you in one hit it makes the player more aware of their surroundings and to become frightened as a result, but as I’ve said before, it’s a rather cheap way. All the numerical boosting does is draw things out rather than delivering a new set of experiences and a fresh take on the game.
Diablo III is another game that comes into mind when thinking about quantitative difficulty. The game at its core is about repetition. There are four acts in the game, and you must tackle the varying difficulties the game has to offer as you level up your character. While the normal mode is quite easy, the latter difficulties become borderline torture. Enemies have stats far greater than that of previous difficulty levels making the challenge nowhere near linear, but an exponential growth. Rather than it being a challenge, the enemies in the game can often kill you in one hit. If that wasn’t enough, the bosses are an absolute torture, giving them absurd moves with large hit boxes that can end the fight right there. Situations like these don’t enhance the gameplay experience. Instead, all it does is give the player a sense of dread and cheapness as you mindlessly charge forward in the game.
While not particularly a stat boost — but a boosting to some effect — elite monsters in Diablo III can be even worse than the bosses themselves. Boosting themselves with various abilities like teleportation. invulnerability, reflecting damage, grappling you towards them, the elites are downright monstrous — and not in a good way. It seems like an impossible task, and were it not for taking them on in a certain linear way, there’s no way to kill them. Sure, some would argue that this was what Blizzard was going for in Diablo III, but does that excuse them of making such a cheap, cop-out way of increasing the difficulty?
Quantity over quality is a phrase that’s essential when thinking of a game like Call of Duty. Everyone who’s played Call of Duty: World at War remembers the excruciating pain of finishing the entire game on Veteran difficulty. Enemies would come rushing at you in large numbers to the point that it seemed impossible to kill them all. On normal, there aren’t many enemies and the fights aren’t that difficult. It’s an annoying design choice when a developer opts, or cops-out, and says “More enemies! It makes everything harder!” It’s not a matter of being particularly challenging but rather how patient and how long you can endure the pain of completing such an arduous task. If you have a dozen enemies to kill on normal, I guarantee you that you will be facing about four dozen on Veteran.
I’ve noted earlier that most games don’t follow one type. However, there are games that follow or have the game heavily revolve around one particular type of difficulty. For the most part, I’ve discussed how quantitative difficulty isn’t a great thing for games since it can ruin the experience for the most part. There are games that use quantitative difficulty in conjunction with qualitative to achieve a great experience. Halo has instances where the enemies stats are much higher allowing for cheapness from time to time, but the added addition of weapons and enemy types can drastically change play.
Difficulty in games is an interesting concept. Depending on the game, difficulty may look very different but most of the time will fall under these two categories, with the obvious middle ground. The point I want to make is that developers should take the time to truly understand how varying difficulty should work in a game so it can deliver a refreshing experience on an already existing playthrough. After all, part of the joy of having varying difficulties is to replay the game and make the games last. Why cheapen it?