THE GREAT DEBATE is a series in which we discuss a question relating to video games, and leave it to you, the reader, to make up your mind one way or another.

In this issue, we will be discussing whether or not games should have a mandatory difficulty rating attached to them, in a similar manner to the already established age rating systems. For example, a game that basically plays itself, has obvious cheats, isn’t made to challenge or doesn’t have a fail state (such as The Sims) would have a rating of one. But supremely taxing games (like the first edition of Devil May Cry 3), would be classed as a five, with all games falling somewhere on this spectrum.

From this point onward, the arguments made in favour of this change will be written normally. All the arguments made against it will be written in italics.

Yeah, we should have difficulty ratings. Nothing wrong with an impartial observer translating challenge to a number, it’s all in the customer’s benefit. In these days where it’s considered normal to try and slip information by the customer until after they’ve bought the product, I can’t really see how it can really hurt to have a little indication of what sort of game you’re dealing with.

Nope, don’t agree with that at all. Why on earth would you need such a change to begin with? Nobody’s really made a big noise over this idea, it’s clearly not an issue.

Not true, but regardless, it doesn’t mean that people wouldn’t be glad to see this system put in place. Besides, what about the times where they wish they had known in advance?

What do you mean?

Think of it like this: If you’re somebody who isn’t very good at hack-and-slash RPGs, but likes the less challenging ones as an experience, what happens when you pick up Dark Souls and find yourself getting killed over the slightest error? You might not have known of the legendary challenge before starting.

Then they find they don’t enjoy the offered experience of a particular game. That’s no big deal, it happens all the time. Annoying, yes, but just the way things go sometimes.

But this isn’t like being given a shoddy story or an odd bit of design. A challenging game will literally stop people playing the whole thing, and if they don’t know it’s challenging before they begin they might find themselves with a genuine problem of not being able to get all the content.

That’s why we have difficulty settings. Easy, medium, hard and the one that unlocks after you beat the others, usually.

But not all games have those. And as I said, they don’t all mention if they’re tough or not, and leave you to find out for yourself. The problem arises when somebody discovers they don’t like the answer, when they just want a stroll through the roses and find too many thorns to proceed.

But what about maintaining the in-game illusion?

I don’t follow.

Some games need to pretend that they’re difficult when they’re not. Hell, think of Call Of Duty, which will make you a four-star colonel for moving a targeting system over a red indicator and watching it explode. Playing the single-player in particular is usually incredibly easy, but it’s set-up visually to make you feel like it isn’t, so that you feel like a bad-ass instead. Yet sticking a flowery two on the front of the box would break the spell, and make folks realise they were playing something about as challenging as a rugby game against a nest of ducklings.

Well, too bad. I’ll sure there are games out there that didn’t like the age rating they were given either, but that doesn’t necessarily make them wrong.

Maybe not, but you’re also forgetting that difficulty is a little more contextual than content. Some people are whizzes are puzzle games and have a different frame of reference for what makes a puzzle game tough or not. How are you going to account for those super-computer types?

That’s why these are more general guidelines than definitive rules. Besides, sooner or later people would start to work out what number equates to what level of challenge just from experience and trying them out, and then the problem is solved.

But it might not hold up even within the same game! What about generally easy games with sudden, brief, difficulty spikes like The Last Of Us? Or what about Undertale, where certain playstyles turn out to be much easier than others? How are you going to rate a game successfully when turning right might give you a Crawmerax boss fight, and turning left might bring you to Dear Esther?

You do it by the most challenging elements, just to be safe, like how age ratings are done by the worst content, instead of the most frequent.

I don’t think it’ll be that simple. And we haven’t even discussed games like FTL: Faster Than Light, in which losing is an expected part of the game and yet manages to reward people even in loss. It’s easier to rate something like age content as it’s based on pure observation, but measuring challenge against an estimated level of player skill is a lot more ethereal, especially when the intention of the game has to be taken into account.

It’s less solid as a concept perhaps, but it’s not just smoke in the air. Besides, this is just a general indicator to show how tricky it would be to most people playing. Whatever flaws the system might have would be worked out with increasing time and people’s understanding of them, and the benefit is a helpful piece of consumer information that would clear up a lot of unhappy purchases, especially in the kid’s market.

I can’t see it, myself. It’s just a minor detail that can’t even be trusted on its own terms. It’s too contextual, too vague and runs the risk of being an annoyance to developers.

What do you think? If you have an opinion on the matter, know of an argument that didn’t appear above or just have ideas of what arguments you’d like to see done soon, please leave a comment below.


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