Assassin’s Creed III devs: “Easy mode often ruins games”

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Many games are ruined by developers’ desire to ensure they’re accessible to as many players as possible, according to Alex Hutchinson – the lead designer on Edge 245 cover star Assassin’s Creed III.

“A lot of games have been ruined by easy modes,” he asserts. “If you have a cover shooter and you switch it to easy and you don’t have to use cover, you kind of broke your game.

“You made a game that is essentially the worst possible version of your game.”

It’s a problem unique to videogames, he continues, lamenting the fact that this is the only creative industry that needs to provide difficulty options.

“It’s like if I picked up a book and it said, ’Do you want the easy version or the complicated version?’ [Game designers] can simplify the language, you know; we can make it two syllables.”

Lead gameplay designer Steven Masters chimes in to stress that, in spite of this position on easy modes, the team’s goal isn’t to make a challenge of each passing moment in the game, but to make sure they are passed well. And a big part of ensuring that that’s the case, is playtesting, which the team has been conducting since January. Ubisoft is taking the task very seriously, setting up two labs and ushering in a fresh batch of players each week.

“I have crazy data analysis tools for these things,” Masters explains. “I can reach in and pull a video of any moment in a playtest; I can sort different events and say, ‘Okay, I want to see when this guy got detected and then failed within 30 seconds’, and watch that.

“So in terms of difficulty balancing we can do quite a lot of fine tuning. It’s something that I look after very closely just to make sure that everyone’s having a good experience. We don’t do it on the fly but we take a lot of care over it.”

Hutchinson adds: “We’re not trying to make a brutally difficult game, so we go through all the playtest data and make sure it works.”

It will still be challenging, of course, and Ubisoft is building on the optional objectives system it ushered in with Brotherhood: executing any given target won’t necessarily be difficult, but doing it in style will up the ante considerably.

“We’ve got some missions like the reveal mission that was that big battle on bunker hill, thousands of NPCs on screen and such,” enthuses Masters. “We can let you get through that pretty straightforwardly, but we can put a lot of constraints in like ‘don’t take any damage when you’re coming down there’ or ‘assassinate the target without being detected’.

“When you’re standing in the middle of this incredibly fortified scenario it’s a serious stealth challenge. It’s really difficult and we’re going to challenge you on all of your different skills and abilities.”