I was watching a video review of Bioshock by one of the funnier reviewers I've ever come across (thank you ever so much for the link, Chris!), in which said game is found to be lacking compared to "more complex FPS/RPGs", of which two are Deus Ex and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Well, being the impressionable being I am, that comment actually made me feel like giving S.T.A.L.K.E.R. another chance. My first impression of the game was that it's just too incredibly hard: the enemies kill you by spraying bullets at you (on the second level of difficulty they only hit about once per clip) until you run out of medical supplies and die. This works very well, because there is one of you, and many of them. Actually, it's rather like Bioshock in that enemies are so incredibly hard to kill that combat becomes actively un-fun, which of course leads me to question why I am playing a game if it is not enjoyable. Well, I re-started S.T.A.L.K.E.R. on "Novice" difficulty, and immediately set to work aggro-ing the Russian guards at a base not far from the "n00b village". Needless to say, everyone in the n00b village died for the cause, but by the end there were a lot of dead Russians, and I was laughing like an evil Santa Claus while toting around an AKM-74U with about 400 rounds of ammunition (yes, the guy in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is quite the packhorse). My cousin added a master stoke, by suggesting (and playing the first time through) that I knife the lead border guard for his upgraded pistol, so I did that, too. It turns out that being a Jackass is fun in any game! (Note: The Russian military is actively hostile towards the player at the beginning of the game, so my actions were not exactly unprovoked...)
By the time of writing, my S.T.A.L.K.E.R. dude is running around with enough medkits to stock a field hospital, and enough firepower to destroy an entire planet...actually, the guns are still pretty weak, but the game gives you more ammo than you can carry. Finding medkits on every dead enemy - or at least half of them - certainly makes the game feel too easy for my tastes, while the next difficulty rating makes the enemies bullet sponges in heavy kevlar! This got me thinking about game difficulty, and how the current model of Pathetic -> Easy -> Standard -> Hard -> Masochistic -> Impossible just doesn't cut it. Crysis, for example, requires you (well, I bet one could hack this, but...) to play on the highest difficulty in order to hear the North Korean soldiers to actually speak Korean. This is kind of daft, because it was being touted as an immersion feature back at the various E3-alikes, as far as I could tell. Now, I suspect that a comparatively small audience will actually be able to complete the game with Korean enemy dialogue, simply because they're not in the top 5% of people with the hand-eye coordination and patience to kill enemies that can absorb bullets like a fucking roll of bounty sucks up spills in those ads. Each level of difficulty comes with hard-wired settings, some of which a player may enjoy, and some not. Now, the people who call themselves "hardcore" will tell me to quit my whining at this point and just play the game on Easy if I want all the niceties, but what if I don't want them all? What if I would like the AI soldiers to employ challenging and effective tactics, but don't find it fun or immersive if I have to dump a half-clip of ammo into them at point-blanc range, because every shot will miss at over 5 meters?
Since games should change more than just weapon accuracy, damage, and enemy health with each level of difficulty, I propose a gradient system, wherein the player is given control of their challenge level. Instead of a simple "easy-to-hard" scale, I think it would be more accurate to "rate" each option based on the effect it will have on the game's "feel". For example, setting "weapon handling" to "ACTION MOVIE" will make guns handle like they would in a game like Half-Life 2, that is to say the player can jump, run, move, and shoot at the same time with minimal penalties to accuracy. There would be a "Counter-Strike" setting (although not named that for copyright reasons) which would introduce slightly more realistic weapon handling, and perhaps reduce the player's capacity for ammunition. Further up the list we would find "Realistic" which would be familiar to players of the original Ghost Recon. The top setting would be "Masochist" which is just like "Realistic", except the guns would have drastically reduced accuracy. This would be included only because some people out there MUST enjoy it, based on games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R., where even your crouched, stationary accuracy is on par with that of a fleeing Stormtrooper who has been set ablaze by a butane-torch-weilding wookie! Similar sliders would govern everything from the frequency at which the player will encounter health and armour, to how many bullets your health and armour can soak up before failing. Already, I can see that the replay value of a game could be increased manyfold by such a system, because reducing the potency of armour doesn't just make the player easier to kill, it makes cover of paramount importance. By allowing the player to choose to what extent this is true, the game play like Doom, or like Gears of War! I can imagine people comparing the settings they use to produce the grittiest, most enjoyable, and silliest experiences!
The obvious issue with such a system is that it would take a lot of work, but I think that as it became a standard, it would become like any other part of level design. The developers start by placing the objects that will *ALWAYS* be in the game, and then add "conditional" objects (ie. "if DifficultyPickups = "ACTION MOVIE", spawn Object_Ammocrate here") to fill in. The user interface, enemy AI scripting, and other assets would be handled much the same way: start with the basics and then add extra functionality to suit either the higher or lower difficulties, depending on what the baseline is. For example, "base" items would be those appearing in the most strict setting, whereas more lenient settings would cause the "conditional" spawns to trigger, as established above. Enemy AI would start as cannon fodder for the spastic crowd, scaling upwards to cunning foils for the player. The other issue is that not all games would be suited by all gaming styles: the pulp aspect of Bioshock would not fit with tactical-shooter gameplay, whereas the grim wastelands of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. are clearly not meant to be bunny-hopped. I think that the developers could get around this while working within the system. They could build in a set of "recommended" difficulty settings, scaling from "easy" to "challenge", having selected their preferred mix of settings during the development project. The final potential issue is playtesting: with some games offering hundreds of potential combinations, how can you ensure that each is balanced? My personal opinion is to disregard the notion that every combo should be balanced! It's obvious that selecting "action-hero" weapon handling and "player is a real human and can take one bullet only" at the same time will only lead to tears as the player is exterminated by hordes of hopping hombres holding heckler&kochs, why try to balance that? So they could do the opposite and brag that they "beat the game", so what? The whole purpose of independently-variable difficulty factors (or IVDF, if/when it catches on) is that people aren't playing and beating the same game (unless there's co-op and they agree on those settings, or something, or they happen to like the same things in a game, etc), they're playing and beating the game that they want to play!
Ok, I lied about that being the final potential issue, because I have thought of one more, considering the above: would this cheapen the artistic vision of the game creators? I don't think so, because they can always have "recommended" settings to produce the experience they envisioned. I myself might be inclined to appreciate their work MORE if given the ability to use IVDF, because there are games with brilliant high-concept, and amazing art-direction that fall flat because of how much they punish the player for wanting to see the pretty stuff (*cough*S.T.A.L.K.E.R.*cough*). With IVDF, people could buy games without the fear that they might have to humble themselves in order to have any fun playing them, people could spend long hours concocting better, harder, sillier combinations of difficulty factors, to share with the world. Multiplayer afficionadoes would no longer have to decide whether they want a game with tongue-in-cheek team gameplay, Battlefield-style engagements, or Deathmatch a la Quake. This would probably go a long way towards remedying games that ship with inspired SP, but bland-as-Halo multiplay.
Ok, all you Gamers who read my ramblings - would you want to see this, or are you more the "can't stand the heat get out of the oven" types?