When I was a kid, I would boot up a new game in Super Metroid and customize the controls to be as close to Mega Man X as possible. When I loaded up Street Fighter II, I changed the strong attacks to be on the X and Y buttons instead of L and R (look, I was a kid and didn’t consider that the weaker attacks were also faster and better for chaining combos together or breaking through slower attacks).
As I was nearing the end of middle school, my brother took our old computer away to College and my old man bought a brand new one. I didn’t really know anything about computer gaming at the time, just that this computer was better than the old one. So I got Aliens vs. Predator 2, my first real PC game, without thinking about system requirements at all. Thus I was introduced to the tricks of upgrading the hardware of a machine, as well as adjusting the graphics settings in the menus.
Fast forward years later, and it feels as if games are providing fewer customization options available. A lot of PC gaming enthusiasts have a tendency to blame this on console gamers, often throwing about terms like “consoletard” and speaking about how awesome a keyboard is for game controls (because modern controllers simply aren’t complex enough). Maybe they’re right. After all, I’m a gaming enthusiast that simply prefers console gaming, but I cannot argue that there’s been an explosion in the sorts of gamers in the past ten or fifteen years.
The myriad of voices of gaming are becoming more and more contradictory as a variety of tastes call out for the industry to cater to them and only them, but it seems the loudest simply like things straight forward…at least, allegedly.
Halo is one of the largest selling game franchises of the past decade, and a franchise that most avid PC gamers will use as a prime example of console games being simplified. After all, it only allows you to use two weapons at a time as opposed to a dozen!
Yet in recent years, Halo has been introducing things like Forge and skulls, allowing players to customize small details of their game playing experiences. All of these menus and interfaces and options, all of which is evidently too much for the “tiny brains” of mainstream console gamers, and yet the game has seen major success.
Most of all, the game allows for players to adjust the difficulty of the game through the Skulls. Of course, it’s not a very precise system. It takes the base difficulty, such as Normal or Heroic, and advances a single variable or set of variable to the next level. You can have Grunts toss grenades more frequently, or increase the odds that they’ll jump out of the way of your own grenade. You can change all the enemies to the next highest, and therefore more tough, rank. You can boost an enemy’s health or adjust how vulnerable they are to certain weapon types.
These sorts of adjustments used to be called “Mutators” in Unreal Tournament, a game franchise well-known for its customization options (amongst other things). While Halo doesn’t approach anywhere near the same level of customization, it proves that plenty of console gamers are willing to go through systems and make adjustments to gameplay. Super Smash Bros. also allows customization, down to adjusting the precise percentage chance of certain items dropping.
So why hasn’t this sort of things caught on? I don’t mind having base difficulty levels, but sometimes I’d like enemies to deal more damage while retaining the same amount of health. Or maybe I’d simply like to increase the enemy’s A.I. while everything else remains the same. Or perhaps I want to simply decrease the item drops in my game so I have to focus on being more resourceful.
Not all games allow for this much adjustment, of course. A simple glance at some of the skulls reveals how much complexity and care has gone into the behaviors of enemies throughout the Halo franchise, right down to how likely the Grunts are to run away in terror to how likely an Elite is to draw a sword and charge in.
However, these variables are already mostly available to testers and developers from the start. Developer tools often allow a programmer or tester to open up a console, change some settings around, and see the changes. It’s the same logic that brought cheat codes to the table in the first place. Simple commands a developer put in the game for testing purposes that they never really removed.
So why not keep these same tools built into the game? Just attach a user interface and now players are able to customize the game to fit their preferences. Allow them to save custom settings. Only allow online players to use these settings in private games while ranked or matchmaking only permits basic difficulty settings. Achievements can still only be earned by the basic casual, normal or hard settings.
Yet think of how many players complain that a game’s normal difficulty is too easy while the hard mode is too hard. Instead, allow them to just adjust and customize until it’s just right.
If Halo can do it, so can you.
I know I put a lot of words into the mouths of avid PC gamers. Blame this on my College roommates and friends from RIT’s Electronic Gaming Society.