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Hyper Light Drifter and the Growing Problem of Indie Games Being Too Hard

I’ve been grumbling from my soap box for weeks that indie games are too hard. Rock, Paper, Shotgun has recently echoed my sentiments to a much larger audience and I have to say that I think it deserves the signal boost. I think there’s a lack of quality control and misplaced defending of advertising trends among other reasons for disputes and misunderstandings about designing difficulty into a game.

There are a number of factors. Besides having no Quality Control department to help balance difficulty in games, many indie games treat difficulty with shallow disservice. A lot of games throw in a monster, crank up a simplistic dial, latch onto an advertising mythos to sell the game as being brutal and then call it a day. In many cases a 2D retro side-scroller like Mega Man or Mario reveals more variance and nuance in layers of choice, challenge and difficulty than modern indies that start with a game engine that intrinsically allows much more complexity.

For more discussion on what I mean by Variance and Layers, I’ve started a 3-part series on designing difficulty into games.

Imbalance is another issue as John Walker points out in his Rock, Paper, Shotgun article about Hyper Light Drifter’s boss fight. I see a problem with people defending (on both sides of the argument mind you) games that unfortunately are hard to defend or lambast, because a big issue is simply imbalance. The games have wild difficulty spikes in beginning levels or due to the controls, terrain or seemingly separate feature difficulty is exacerbated. In some cases, the difficulty is there not as design, but as a byproduct of the control scheme or other factors. But when inspecting the game, these important issues are ignored.

Another point is that difficulty that is exacerbated by controls or some other unintended design-result shows that there can be much more complexity in designing challenge and difficulty into a game. While looking at enemies on a starting map to smooth-out a gradual curve between number of mobs at the beginning and ends of a level, other aspects get ignored like how hard it is to bypass or jump holes – which actually adds to the overall difficulty. The result can be imblanced difficulty spikes where monster spawns quickly swarm a player due to them not reacting according to the design document. Night of the Living Dead showed us how slow-as-snails zombies can quickly take over the world.

Taking issue with a lot of the comments on the RPS article, a large number of them repeatedly bring up Dark Souls. On one hand isn’t Dark Souls touted to be one of the “hardest” games out – that’s also super popular? How is an argument for Hyper Light Drifter not being too hard supported by using Dark Souls as a comparison; by saying “it’s definitely not as hard as Dark Souls”? It’s either saying HLD is so hard that it needs to be compared with the hardest game out there or it’s saying Dark Souls really isn’t that hard. And, actually it isn’t. It just seems to be a given to me that Hyper Light Drifter must in some way be hard to justify or rationalize any argument for or against its difficulty by the routine comparison to Dark Souls.

Difficulty isn’t 2-Dimensional. Dark Souls is a Triple-A game, likely with a group that acted as quality control. It also utilizes a lot of choice, variance and rewarded discovery to allow a paced progress. To over simplify, one could see it as disguised difficutly. It’s not really on-the-surface difficutly. There are much more difficult games than Dark Souls. Dark Souls is unique in how it delivers progression to players – that’s the gist behind hype and advertising that spawned some idealistic notion that Dark Souls is the most brutal game ever. Sure, it is hard. Yeah, in many ways, but it’s also a different beast in ways as well.

From an observer’s perspective, it can be difficult to gauge reaction to the point of my entire article. This is similar to MMO forums. There will only be a vocal minority. The rest and larger percentage of the entire player-base won’t be freely offering up opinions and information. The other half of this is that elusive advertising-meme that I still haven’t quite figured out. Why and how is it a selling point to discuss or mention how brutally hard a game is? I guarantee there are more people playing and loving games that are too easy, compared to the all-too-many games being made too hard. It doesn’t make sense from a design standpoint or a selling standpoint to me, at all. If it’s too hard, only a minority will play and pay. If it’s too easy, it’s highly likely the vast majority will still play it, because they all can still play through it.

I read a comment on the RPS article mentioning a [Sea of games that are too easy]. A sea of them? And then another asked for some to be named to which another person replied “Every Zelda Game”. My nano-second knee-jerk reaction was

Oh. You mean some of the most popular, most sold, most played and most beloved games of all time?” /sarcasm

We aren’t policing our own notions properly. Many of the comments seem to share an incorrect sentiment that because we can finish a game at all, the game therefore must be too easy. And of course anything that even slightly falls under that premise is also indication a game is too easy – like only dying once in the first level… or only dying 15 times at the first boss.

How can any of us say something like that and then actually progress through the game let alone come close to even finishing it. I’m starting to develop the perception that an alarmingly high percentage of players are never finishing any of these games, let alone even making it half-way through them, all the while the comments and reception is skewed to make us believe this difficulty is what the masses want.

I also take issue with someone who would say something to the tune of, “Honestly it’s not that hard. Only took me 15 tries.” I wish I could say that I am being humorous or creating my own Saturday Night Live parody, but I’m not. That is exactly the tone presented ad-nauseum throughout the comments on RPS and other sources online. The need for even three tries, especially in early-game is really pushing it, let alone 15. If that’s a comparison at all – which it’s a terrible one, but I’ll go with it for now, then what should the last boss fight be like?

Well. A very early boss fight took me 15 deaths to finally beat it, so I’d say… oh… maybe at level 20, dying about 500 times repeatedly, doing the same thing, should show good, smooth pacing and be adequate to show that it gets smoothly more difficult“.

One issue with this is that difficulty can be an art of design. If I suddenly hit a wall and die repeatedly at the hands of a boss, I’m learning little, progressing none and getting frustrated. But if I’m playing a game where I died literally 100 times while progressing through at a steady pace, furthering discovery, actually learning and being rewarded as I progress, I’m less likely to get frustrated or just give up.

My get-off-my-lawn summation is that indie games are just overly too hard and for not much more than a combination of imbalanced and shallow design decisions(or just the lack of knowledge) and a fake mythos about people wanting hard games. The people that want hard games are a minority. It’s fetishism. It’s fine and dandy, but why design your life-blood around that minority?

I so much wanted to like many indie games. I love what I see of Dustbowl and Serpent in the Staglands. Two friends and I tried to like Magicite. These games and others show brilliance in their design, but are too bloody difficult or have difficulty spikes that are too hard to surmount.

And why, after all is said and done, can’t we just get difficulty settings at the start of these games? At least let us choose to have a walk in the park or a million-death challenge.

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Jeremy Stratton

Jeremy Stratton

Jeremy's lived long enough to see his favorite games making a comeback in High Definition and Indie games with old-school ideals. He also loves cooking and photography.

  • This is one of those things where I believe a vocal minority has gained traction and convinced some developers that this is a feature more people want than actually do want it. And on some level, with indie devs, I think they realize at least they have a bird in the hand with making the “hard game” because there are people that will immediately buy it, but then they don’t look at the bigger picture of the people that would have bought it if it wasn’t insanely hard.

    “Well, fuck those people,” is an easy response, but that’s a very poor attitude to have in the world of business.

    I don’t get why more games don’t take the route XSeed and other great developers/publishers have gone, with putting in difficulty options. I think for the modern “Ys” games, Normal is plenty hard but still fun, yet if you want, there’s a Hard and even after you beat that one, a Nightmare mode.

    But…Well, people will still complain no matter what =/

  • Zahn András

    I completely aggre i just bought the game today and it’s really fun but really hard at the same time.

    • Jeremy Stratton

      It’s also a great looking game. I do think it looks terrific.

  • hraenoa

    Yeah I’m enjoying Hyper Light Drifter, but sometimes it feels like the difficulty destroyed any kind of pacing the game would’ve had. You go through dungeons 5 tries here, 10 there, 15 tries and the story clues, art and music just kind become background noise as you try to memorize attack patterns or get the dash timing right. It makes it easy just to forget how interesting the game was when it forces you to boil it down to a set of commands to be expertly executed over and over.

  • Drew

    I agree 100%. Just rage quit this one and I was falling in love with it. Been stuck in the same room for over an hour, only several hours in.

  • Bizmu

    I’ve been enjoying my time playing this game. It’s tough but it’s definitely doable if you don’t get panicked and learn from your mistakes. I think it’s a very refreshing game that harken back to the old megaman games. Even more difficult than those games at times. But it’s definitely something I had been looking for, so I’m quite happy with the difficulty. I don’t think they should have added a difficulty setting because it can ruin the integrity of the design of the game. It’s good as it is.