Adjustable Difficulties in Games: My Sad Experience With The Witcher 3

 

The Witcher 3 is pretty much universally agreed upon as one of the greatest video games ever created. The vast world, the gritty story, the deep combat. What’s not to love? Having a lot of experience playing Role Playing Games in the past, I was ecstatic to dive into this masterpiece as soon as I got a computer that could do its beautiful graphics justice. Unfortunately, my experience was wounded by the difficulty system. I want to share my experience with the game and explore options that could possibly prevent my experience from happening in future games.

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Screenshot from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (CD PROJEKT RED)

The honeymoon stage:

The beauty, the attention to detail, the quick-paced and responsive combat; I could not get enough of this game. I had just gotten done playing Dark Souls III, and all I wanted in life was to take that combat and use it in a beautiful open world with engaging systems. The Witcher 3 delivered that desire tenfold.

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Screenshot from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (CD PROJEKT RED)

I started a save of the game a couple of months before actually getting into it. I had selected the second easiest level of difficulty (Sword and Story!) because I just wanted to enjoy the game. I had no interest in pushing myself to the brink of insanity or even challenging myself as a player or person. I played for about three hours, then decided to play Dark Souls III first because the combat was similar. If I got through Dark Souls III, I could come back to The Witcher 3 and be in a better position to kick butt, I figured.

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Screenshot from Dark Souls III (From Software)

After beating Dark Souls III a couple of weeks later, I decided to return to The Witcher 3. I opened up the save I had started and was able to get through several combat experiences completely unscathed, and I was loving it. The experience was similar to jumping out of an ice-cold pool and into a hot tub. I swung through enemy after enemy, sliced and diced, and watched corpses fly left and right. The Witcher 3 was quickly becoming an all-time favorite game for me.

Our first fight:

About fifty hours into the game, I grew curious (oops). I had completely forgotten that there were adjustable difficulties in the game! Am I playing at the appropriate level of difficulty for a gamer of my experience? I asked myself. If I am not playing at the correct difficulty, the game might stop being fun later! I thought. This is something I definitely wanted to avoid.

“If I am not playing at the correct difficulty, the game might stop being fun later!”

-Past, stupid Alec Ellsworth

To the internet! Naturally, I decided to trust a forum of gamers that had nothing better to do than go online and brag about their ability to play video games. It seemed that the general consensus was you should start out on the third difficulty (Blood and Broken Bones!) and adjust from there. It was also explicitly written, by some random person on the internet I never should have listened to, that if I had played a Dark Souls game I should be playing this game on the highest difficulty (the fourth difficulty, Death March!) without a doubt. I even went so far as to read an article about how playing on the highest difficulty was the way to play! The arguments were absolutely sound: if frequently put into dire situations, you are forced to use more game mechanics in order to survive. Thus you are playing closer to how the game designers intended.

I loved the sound of that.

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Screenshot from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (CD PROJEKT RED)

And that is exactly what I did. I played on the highest difficulty (Death March!).

I did fine. I won battles. I died occasionally. I played on this difficulty for over five hours and then stopped for the night. I went to bed, woke up the next day, and sat down to play some games.

I looked at The Witcher 3 icon on my steam account, but instead of hitting play, I scrolled past it and looked for another game to play.

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Trying to work things out:

What happened? I stopped playing for a couple of days before I realized why. The pacing went from non-stop slashing fun to ten-minute fights where I spent most of my time in the menu trying to figure out which potion and oil to use next. Spending time in a menu is boring! Those final five hours of gameplay on Death March difficulty were not fun, which is exactly why my response to my own question was absolutely wrong.

“Video games are supposed to be fun”

– Lots of people, including Alec Ellsworth

When I asked myself if I was playing on the right difficulty, I should have asked myself whether or not I was having fun. The response to that question was an absolute, definite yes. When that was the case, I should have kept playing the game at that same difficulty and never looked back.

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Screenshot from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (CD PROJEKT RED)

Realizing this, I tried to salvage the problem. I went down one difficulty to see if that helped. I started playing on Blood and Broken Bones, still, one above the Sword and Story I started on. I was still bored. Back down to Sword and Story I went!

Things would never be quite the same again:

Going back down in difficulty did something else to the game entirely. My entire experience had been cheapened, my immersion had been broken. I could once more swing through enemy after enemy, slice-and-dice, and watch corpses fly left and right. But this time it felt bad because all of a sudden I didn’t feel like I deserved it. All I did was turn the difficulty down. I didn’t explore and find a super-special-awesome weapon, I didn’t spend hours questing to level up and pour more skill points into my attacks (which is how you’re supposed to progress through the game). I just went into the menu and clicked a single button.

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Screenshot from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (CD PROJEKT RED)

Immersion is the ability to suspend disbelief and live within another reality. Breaking it means that I’m painfully aware of the fact I’m not Geralt. I am just some guy at his computer with a controller and I have no control over anything. That is not a fun reminder. Many play video games as to not be reminded of this fact.

“But, being able to choose your own difficulty has been in video games for forever! What makes it so bad for this game in particular?” – Random Citizen (Alec Ellsworth)

“What an incredible question, Random Citizen!” – Alec Ellsworth

What makes adjustable difficulty harmful for The Witcher 3 is the fact it is a level based role-playing game. The player has a level and each quest is tied to a level of difficulty you should be as a player to be able to take on said quest. The game’s difficulty setting has no effect on the rewards of your quests; it only affects the health enemies have and the damage they deal. This can ultimately just lengthen quests without making them any more fun.

Remember how we define fun:

Total fun  = (Meaningful decisions / Time played)

– Soren Johnson

Giving the enemies more health is not increasing the number of meaningful decisions you as a player encounter over time. It lowers this ratio, which is bad.

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Screenshot from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (CD PROJEKT RED)

There are several times throughout the game where you are in a low-level area and you come across a high-level enemy that you are not supposed to be able to beat yet. This is the game taunting you, telling you how powerful you will become later! In about 20 more hours of gameplay, you can return to these enemies and obliterate them. That feels absolutely amazing! You went, you struggled, you improved, you came back, you conquered. That’s a great game loop, one that cheapens like crazy when you are handed the ability to lower the difficulty of the game on a whim, destroy these enemies, and receive the same reward.

It’s not me, it’s you:

As someone who wants to design games professionally, I make it a habit to look at a game’s design and see what could be altered to improve a player’s experience. With the Witcher 3, I saw two solutions:

  • Have fewer levels of difficulty (one or two).
  • Don’t let the player adjust difficulty after the beginning of the game. 

Have fewer levels of difficulty:

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Screenshot from Borderlands (Gearbox Software)

The best example I know of a game almost exactly like this is Borderlands. Borderlands has no difficulty settings: players have levels, as do the enemies and quests. If you aren’t at a high-enough level to do a quest yet, you must complete other quests that you are adequately leveled for or kill enemies until you can tackle that high-level quest. RPGs that work like this only need one level of difficulty because if a certain quest gets too hard for you, just leave it, raise your level and return when you feel prepared. Giving the option to lower the difficulty cheapens the hard work you put into getting better gear and levels. 

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Screenshot from Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition (From Software)

Another two examples are Dark Souls and Bloodborne. These game are very difficult but it is only difficult because it wants you to develop a necessary skillset before advancing through the game. If the game wasn’t so difficult, you wouldn’t get nearly as much out of what the designers put into it. If you were not pushed, you wouldn’t be forced to use all the mechanics that the game has to offer.

Sound familiar? If The Witcher 3 started out at one difficulty and stayed at one difficulty, then the game designers could have optimized the player’s experience for a single difficulty curve, allowing them to design an experience that pressures the player into exploring the mechanics. The designers want me to use potions and oils? They want me to explore and find Places of Power and legendary weapons? Make me need them. I don’t need them if I can merely lower the difficulty.

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Screenshot from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (CD PROJEKT RED)

Don’t let the player adjust difficulty after the beginning of the game:

If the player can choose their level of difficulty at the start, give them a starting area to play around in. Make the first area a candid display of what the rest of the game will be like (difficulty spikes and all). As the player leaves the opening area, tell them the difficulty locked once they’ve exited. They get the entire opening area to figure out if they are having fun or not, and then they get to enjoy that difficulty for the rest of the game.

I love this solution as well. Non-gamers and gamers alike can play the game, and no one will run into the problem I did. This also introduces a reason to replay the game. Play it once on a lower difficulty and then bump it up when you come back to replay it later.

I think we, maybe, should still be friends:

As the player, there are several things I could have done to avoid this difficulty fiasco. Once again, I am a big believer that if the player had a negative experience, most of the blame should be on the designers. I think this about everything, even outside of video games. But, as a consumer, how could I have avoided this problem from happening (if I saw it coming)?

  • Pick a difficulty and never touch it again.
  • Don’t look up other people’s opinions or don’t change your mind based on others.
  • Don’t fix what ain’t broke.

Pick a difficulty and never touch it again:

This is a simple solution, but honestly, I never thought it would be a big deal. Now I know, and I will be doing this on every game in the future.

Don’t look up other people’s opinions or don’t change your mind based on others:

This is more of a personal problem. I shouldn’t have cared what difficulty other people were playing it at, I was just worried that I was missing out on something everyone else was really enjoying. Which brings me to my last and most important point…

Don’t fix what ain’t broke:

If you are having fun, you are playing the game right. It doesn’t matter the game. If the player isn’t playing the game the way the designer intended and is still having fun, let them have some fun. The fun might not last as long for them, though, which as a designer you should take into account and see if it is possible for you to allow whatever the players are doing in your game they find fun and plan for it.

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My goto example is Elder Scrolls: Oblivion where my favorite thing to do is randomly kill people in that game for no apparent reason. (This is after playing hundreds of hours of the game so don’t worry, it was beyond exhausted.) The game world never responded well, which made spontaneous homicide boring, after a while. If the designers accounted for everyone in the game to be murdered and made events with such, I could have had a lot more fun in the game towards the end there, but I didn’t. Fantastic game, but alas, an opportunity lost.

I think we should give it another shot:

Now, where do The Witcher 3 and I stand?

I’m taking a long break and anxiously waiting for everything to settle so I can play it again. I’m waiting until the familiarity of the game dies down for me so when I go back in, I won’t feel the effects of the changing of the difficulty in my gameplay. I adore this game and am approaching being ready to play it again.

In conclusion, if this article seems very negative, that’s because I didn’t waste any time praising this game when the rest of the internet has got that covered for me. I love this game and it deserves all the praise it has garnered! However, there are always things to learn from the negative aspects of amazing games as well as the positive ones. I love looking at amazing games and finding their negatives because it’s easier to talk about and break down fully. It’s a more focused tasked than dissecting a terrible game and saying, “Okay, let’s find everything wrong with this game!”

This is well over 2000 words just on the difficulty system of one, great game. I don’t want to write a textbook on every failing of a bad game.

Thanks for reading! If you hate me for writing something petty about The Witcher 3, good.

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