THE WITCHERERERER.[“Play Evolution” is a bi-weekly column by James Lantz that discusses the changes that games undergo after their release, from little developer patches to huge gameplay revelations, and everything in between. This week: evolution and progression in difficulty levels]

I picked up The Witcher the other day on a whim – and well, also because Bioware had its magic paws in it – and the first screen it greets you with upon starting a new game is the difficulty selection screen. At this point, you have three options: easy, medium and hard. The game describes “Easy” as a difficulty level where the combat is simple. Under “Medium” it says that the combat is of average difficulty and that alchemy is powerful but not required. On “Hard,” it claims that the use of alchemy is required to survive. That’s it. That’s all it says.

First off: what on earth is alchemy? I know what its definition is and I know that it will probably have something to do with potions and probably something to do with mixing them and maybe even something to do with witches and cauldrons, but how am I supposed to know whether I want to be forced to use it or not? How am I supposed to know whether it’s an interesting and well-developed part of the game or a complete waste of time?

But even these questions are superficial, and don’t really get at the underlying problem that makes these choices so nonsensical: the idea of player preference. There are a lot of games – especially PC RPGs like The Witcher – where difficulty levels that merely represent personal preference instead of genuine difficulty progression. While a lot of people I know praise these personal preference levels as progress, I think that they’re a rather large step backwards.

Guitar Hero 2. One of the most important things in game design is gameplay balance. While you’re making a game – let’s take, for example an RPG – in addition to making a narrative experience you are also trying to create boss encounters that are satisfyingly difficult, you are trying to create monsters that are not unfairly powerful but not mind-numbingly easy and you are trying to make characters that are not so powerful that the choice between branching skill trees is an interesting one and not simply a choice between two nearly equally overpowered branches.

At the end of the process, you have decided through careful testing and re-testing that this is what your game is like. It’s not that you have decided that this is your personal favorite way to play the game, and maybe you can make a setting where everything is easy as pie and therefore none of these choices are interesting, or one that’s so hard that it’s unpleasant -- it’s that you have decided that this is your game, and this is how you have decided to make it. Gameplay balance is just another part of what makes a good game, like interesting and diverse unit types in an RTS – as a developer, you don’t give the player the option to play with whatever units they feel like at any time, because then it’s not really your game, it’s a level editor. What the player wants is for you to give them a number of units to make this campaign interesting and challenging, but not impossible.

Similarly, when I sit down and look at the difficulty screen in The Witcher, I’m not genuinely thinking: “Man, am I a first time pony-newcomer at RPGs, or am I hardened RPG veteran with a axe to grind and a whole load of badditude?” I’m thinking: “Which one of these randomly named modes is going to be the one that makes your game interesting?” On a lot of games, the medium mode is so easy that it’s like reading an interactive novel where none of the choices you make really matter all that much. On a lot of other games, the medium mode is so obnoxiously hard that it’s completely unfun. In the end, it’s not your game, it’s someone else’s and you shouldn’t have to guess which mode makes the options they’ve presented the most interesting.

A lot of people, however, believe this train of thought leads to a stifling conclusion. “Why impose extra rules?” they ask. “Why can’t we just play games like we want to play games, without all these restrictions?” Well, restrictions and rules are all a game is, when you get down to it. To play a game is to take the restrictions and rules given by a developer and to try to exploit them and work within them as best you can; that’s what makes a game interesting. If that wasn’t true, we’d all be sitting around playing Second Life right now because, as the ultimate sandbox with no rules or restrictions, it would be the perfect game.

Devil May Cry 3. But not all difficulty settings are obtrusive. In fact, some games use difficulty settings to incredible ends. In these games, difficulty settings are not personal preferences, but instead something the player progress through as they evolve within the game and become more skilled. Guitar Hero is the perfect example of this. If you say “I just beat The Witcher” no one is going to ask you “well, did you beat it on Medium?” But if you claim to have beaten Guitar Hero, when really you have just completed all the songs on Medium, you’ll be laughed out of town. Completing all the songs on Medium is not beating Guitar Hero. That’s because the difficulty levels in Guitar Hero are progressions that the players go through; they are an integral part of the game experience.

Diablo II is another great example. If you complete Diablo II on Normal difficulty, you have only beaten a third of the game, even though you have technically finished the entire story. That’s because the difficulty levels in Diablo II are progressive. As your character evolves you go through what is, with respect to the narrative, the same story three times but you in gameplay terms you are really completing one game, because your character in Nightmare Act 3 is going to play completely differently from your character in Normal Act 3. The difficulty levels are not personal preference – they are designed to provide an evolving experience as the player progresses through the game.

Finally, there are a few interesting games that lie in the middle ground. Take, for example, Halo 3. Halo 3 is not quite sure about whether its story or offline gameplay is more important. On the one hand, you have technically finished the fight when you’ve completed the game on Normal. On the other hand, Legendary difficulty isn’t quite sure whether or not it’s a progression from Normal difficulty. In Legendary difficulty, you take a lot of the skills you learned from Normal difficulty and apply them, but it’s not too difficult to beat Legendary without having played the game at all before (compared to say, Guitar Hero’s Expert difficulty or Devil May Cry 3’s Dante Must Die mode), so it could also be said that Legendary mode is simply a personal preference based on how much you hate yourself.

[James Lantz is a starving writer who spends a large amount of his free time feeding large pandas to slightly larger pandas in a two-pronged ploy to both wipe out the species and create a giant panda. He also writes a blog, of course.]