How to Make a Good Hard Mode

In quasi celebration of the release of the Devil May Cry HD Collection, I thought I would take the time to talk about Hard Modes, as Devil May Cry’s Dante Must Die mode is a very good example of what to do to make a good Hard Mode. I am about as hardcore a gamer there is. I play almost all genres, I play them all obsessively, and I have been doing so since a very young age. Games are not exceptionally difficult for me anymore. So, you may be asking what mode do I play when I start up a new game. The answer will always be Normal Mode. Why is this, you may ask? If you’re so good (And not just stroking your ego), then why not play on Hard Modes from the get go? The reason for this, my imaginary friend, is that most developers couldn’t care less about making a good Hard Mode. If you want to play the game they designed, you should play Normal. That is the experience that was crafted for you. Today we are going to be discussing Hard Modes, the ideas behind them, and how a good Hard Mode should be crafted.

This seemed apt

What do you get with the vast majority of hard modes? Usually the only thing any developer does is make enemies do more damage and make you do less (Or some kind of inversion on this). It is really simple to adjust the damage values and, poof, you have Hard Mode. Change the variables more against the player and, poof again, you have Extreme Mode. This is lazy, but understandable. To craft a good Hard mode requires time and effort, and enough of that goes into making Normal mode. Nevertheless there are good ways of making Hard Mode and bad ways. Most companies go with the bad way. The biggest offender would have to be shooters. The only thing their hard modes usually do (There are some shining stars) is up the damage. The only thing this does in terms of gameplay, is force the player to move slower through the level, and rely more on saves (Auto or manual). The core gameplay does not change, and it rarely, if ever forces the player to approach the game differently, other than force them to hide behind the same cover for twenty minutes instead of bum-rushing the aliens/space nazis/whatever.

I swear this game isn’t even a little bit different on Hard Mode

What is the purpose of Hard Mode? That’s the biggest question and there are multiple answers that vary depending on who you ask. Maybe Hard Mode is about punishing the player in order to push them to higher skill levels, or perhaps Hard Mode is simply a way of extending a singleplayer game. The way I see it, Hard Mode is both of these things. Back before DLC, achievements, or multiplayer, singleplayer games weren’t any longer than they are now. Go back to the NES and you’ll see that the length was compensated for by the difficulty. This was also due to the arcade roots of the medium, which required a hard game in order to extort quarters from hapless children. Well bad news 80s kids, the arcade died and games weren’t made as difficult any more. Difficulty modes were an obvious way of getting kids to keep playing the same game. Before achievements even existed, there was the schoolyard, but the concept of bragging rights is fundamentally the same.

Now that I’ve beaten Battletoads, I’m THIS much better than you!

So here’s where I tell you how to make a good Hard Mode based on the assumption of what Hard Mode should actually be. Hard Mode needs to be distinct from Normal Mode in some serious way. This can be as simple as changing enemy locations, to creating drastic overhauls to the game system by using creative Hard Modes, as I discussed in this post. Look at Hard Mode as requiring two major elements. Firstly, it needs to extend the singleplayer experience for all gamers, not just the hardcore, and secondly, it needs to push the player’s skill level and force them to approach problems in new and creative ways. These two elements are very strongly related. If you feel as if you are playing a new game then you are more likely to finish it on the more difficult mode, as you are less likely to get bored from repetition. Repetition is the singleplayer game’s biggest weakness, and it is something that a good Hard Mode can fix, and a bad Hard Mode can draw attention to. If you are simply playing the same game again, but taking more damage, you are more likely to notice the repetition. On the other hand, if Hard Mode encourages new tactics, involves different enemy placement, or other more drastic steps, the player will be far less likely to notice that they are playing through the same game. So let me use actual Hard Modes to illustrate my point.

1.) Devil May Cry – Changing Enemy Locations

Manages to be badass, while only requiring a trench coat, oversized sword, twin pistols and being a demon,… actually that’s a lot.

The father of the modern action game is none other that Devil May Cry, and its developers knew what they were doing when they designed its Hard Modes. Firstly, there is the fact that the Hard Modes both rewarded the player with something awesome (Legendary Dark Knight, and Super Dante), which is something that many games have lost now that developers only have to slap on a trophy to encourage people to play harder modes. Hard Mode in Devil May Cry replaced weaker enemies with their stronger versions, and put much stronger enemies (Such as the Shadow) early on. This required the player to approach combat situations completely differently and forced them to make better use of early game equipment. Hard Mode was definitely a mode which required skill, but it also developed that skill, which made it very fun. Dante Must Die Mode is the hardest mode in the game. It didn’t change the location of the enemies or the quality of them from Hard Mode, but it allowed them to go into a “super mode” after enough time had passed in a battle. This made them considerably harder and encouraged killing enemies far more quickly. Altogether Devil May Cry gave the player two Hard Modes, which were very different experiences from the main game.

2.) Fallout: New Vegas – Forced Use of Items and Skills

Badass even on Easy

I know what you’re thinking, internet. I do use this game too often in my examples, but what it does well it does really well. New Vegas allows for a selection of modes from Very Easy to Very Hard. Unlike Devil May Cry, you get nothing at all from playing on harder modes. No trophy, no extra experience like Fallout 3, nothing. Why would anyone want to play on Very Hard then? The answer, my inquisitive friend, is that the game is a lot more fun on Very Hard. New Vegas is an easy, easy game, and one that throws an obscene amount of tools at the player. On Very Hard, you actually have to make use of these tools. On Normal, you are a god, but on Very Hard that stash of stat-boosting drugs looks far more appealing. Very Hard in New Vegas makes you play the game differently. This is ignoring Hardcore Mode, which is an added feature. This mode also forces you to make use of items that you would ordinarily not even give a second thought. Of course, as an open world RPG, New Vegas can be broken even on the hardest mode, but I’m assuming the player isn’t a power gamer. If you have ever played non-Hardcore New Vegas, did you ever bother with the Survival Skill? It is useless without Hardcore, and in that way, among others, New Vegas’ harder modes bring a lot to the table.

3.) Mass Effect 2 – Different Tactics

This has to be the worst box art ever made

Mass Effect 2’s big claim to fame over its predecessor is that its gameplay wasn’t terrible. Actually, it was pretty damn good. The entire game worked on a basic resistance system. Biotics only work on unshielded enemies, but spelled death if an enemy was affected by them. Shields could be taken down by Overload, Disrupter Ammo, and rapid fire weapons. Armour could be taken down by Incinerate, Incendiary Ammo, and single shot weapons. Then there was Barrier, which had a weakness to Warp. On Normal mode, most enemies are unshielded and those who aren’t are easy enough to strip of their armour without special tactics. On harder modes on the other hand, more and more enemies get shielding so even the weakling husks have a layer of armour on them, and enemies do enough damage that special tactics are in order. Harder modes benefit from a knowledge of the game. If you know you’re going up against the Blue Suns, you know they are often shielded and that can help you select the proper squad mate to accompany you on the mission. Mass Effect 2 is a thinking man’s game on the higher difficulties, prioritizing proper skill use and team selection than simple shooting skills. Once again, this changes how the game is played. Before, you could rush in with no thought to enemy make up, or properly specializing in skills, but harder modes truly reward the prudent gamer.

Back then the difficulty slider was stuck on Extreme

If you’ve ever played a Hard Mode, the chances are you played a bad one. Good Hard Modes are few and far between. A good Hard Mode isn’t simply something to frustrate players, but a tool to further develop the player’s skills and to give them something to keep coming back to the game for. I understand that development time is tight and properly testing a Hard Mode is often very cost prohibitive, but a good one is worth so much more than I think developers realize. A good Hard Mode that is accessible to all players and creates a truly unique experience can elevate a great game to legendary status in my books.

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer

3 thoughts on “How to Make a Good Hard Mode

  1. Not sure what you are getting at there. Is it a reference to me only using three examples and you wanting more, or some insight into hard modes I don't understand?

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