What difficulty do you like to play on?  Some people prefer Easy.  It usually removes most of the challenge, so less skilled gamers or people who are only interested in the story can make it all the way through as easily as possible.  Others like to crank the challenge to Insane or Nightmare or I’ll Never F**king Beat This (it varies from game to game.  The allure of completely dominating a game (or its achievement list) is the main draw for some, and a lot of gamers simply like the challenge.  Most people probably don’t even mess with it, and just stick with the default.

But how does changing the difficulty change the game exactly? The majority of games (and almost every FPS) simply ups your opponent’s health bar while reducing yours.  They are harder to kill, while you become easier to kill.  Difficulty up!  Right? This practice has been standard for awhile now, but I think we can do more.  More specifically, I think we could achieve that by doing less.

The traditional method of upping the difficulty may indeed make the game harder, but good game design should transcend mere challenge.  Good puzzle games illustrate this point best.  Games like Portal, Fez and Braid offer one game experience, and manage to make it both challenging and fun.  Difficulty is introduced in ways ancillary to the gameplay:  Portal offers a selection of challenge maps, and all three games have numerous secret collectibles to grab.  Imagine if Portal had a Hard mode.  One turret shot kills you, and your portal gun ran on ammo.  Sure, that would make it harder, but would it make it more fun?

"Yeah, that's hard enough, thanks."

Platformers are (usually) another good example of how to do it right.  Think about Super Mario Bros., back on the NES, the platformer that started it all. I always thought of it as having perfect game design.  It didn’t need to change the mechanics in any way to be a great game, and it never felt cheaply difficult nor overly easy. It was just…perfect.  More recent entries in the genre such as Limbo, Rayman Legends, and Donkey Kong Returns are really just offering updated versions of Super Mario Bros., when it comes down to it.  Again, you don’t need a Nightmare difficulty level to feel like you’re being tested by these games.  They up the challenge in different ways, usually through optional collectibles.  People who would normally be attracted to Easy can simply beat the game without worrying about all that extra stuff, while completionists can go out of their way to beat everything.

"Some games are getting it right."

Of course, simply sprinkling some extra trinkets around the map won’t suffice for everything.  Halo on Legendary simply wouldn’t be as frightening if you only had to find some more hidden skulls.  Unfortunately I’m no master game designer, or even a novice game designer, but it seems to me a few options present themselves.  Consider Star Craft II.  Yeah, enemy units are a bit harder to kill, but extra objectives are also introduced in the mix.  The difficulty ramp comes from increased or tougher goals, not simply higher health pools. This originated, as far as I know, in GoldenEye 007 on N64.  If you bumped it up to 00 Mode, you may have had to hack some computers somewhere, or save some scientists. It was a great idea then, and it’s a great idea now.  I've never understood why that system never really caught on. It’s a great way to increase the challenge if you want, but the base mechanics remain the same.  Brilliant.

The point is we had a good system.  It couldn’t stay the same, I know that.  We have too many trophy and achievement hunters out there for that, but simply straining the game mechanics to their limit isn’t going to cut it anymore.  I don’t necessarily enjoy having to pump a thousand bullets into an Elite on Legendary, but I like having a reason to smartly bypass him.  Call me a dreamer, but imagine if, instead of simply making the enemies tougher, you had to turn on an extra two generators to get that anti-aircraft gun working, or maybe the original path is blocked on the harder difficulty levels, and you have to take a longer detour.  Isn’t that a bit more intelligent than “make ‘em harder”?

"Wait, this is on Easy?"

While I don’t see the latest iteration of Help Me, Please difficulty going away anytime soon, I have faith that game makers will eventually get it right.  For every game with an Insane option, there is a game like Dark Souls that manages to be great, and tough, without doubling the bosses’ hit point pool.  I would like to see more of that.