In finishing up Airport Mania, one of the things that was really a struggle was the difficulty. As the designer/producer of the game, I had played it a bizillion times by the time we were ready to go to beta. I used my scores as the starting baseline of what a 'good' score was to be on a level. (if you haven't played it, every level of the game has 4 skill levels that are based on your level score and are shown to you real-time as you are playing)
After putting together my baseline, we went to beta and I started gathering back in the results of how the players did and of course (for those who have done something similar) I found that most people were scoring about 1/2 to 1/3 of what I scored on each level. The highest score on any level was 60% of my score. Unfortunately I'd set the high scores on each level at 75% of my best scores. There was a pretty big gap.
So of course I moved the score needed to 'excel' down...a lot, and I kept tweaking the score goals all through our 6 week beta. In fact, by the time we released I'd dramatically changed all 4 skill levels at least twice on every one of the game's 84 levels. In the end I thought the game was incredibly 'easy,' but then I had played it a bizillion times.
Once we released I started reading player reviews and found that while some people found the game to be easy, some still found it to be impossibly too hard. I was certainly sad that the game couldn't be all things to all people, it only underscored the difficulty in getting the difficulty level in a game right.
While in hindsight I might have liked to add a second difficulty level, I have to say that I think making the game 'easy' was the right way to err. (honestly, based on sales, I'd say we definitely went the right direction for this particular game)
The similarities between movies and games fascinates me. One great advantage that movies have over games is that they control everything. Everyone watching a movie sees the same thing and regardless of whether the audience understands things or not, the movie will end and resolve the plot (unless the movie is just horrible or trying to be artsy).
Movies don't have to worry about whether or not the people in the theater are of different abilities. The people in the audience don't have to fight to save Endor or to save the White City themselves, it's all done for them. Unless they walk out of the theatre, movie goers get the whole experience from start to end.
Most people who play video games don't go all the way through most of the games they play. I can't count the number of people I've talked who start games, proclaiming their adoration of the title, and yet haven't finished the game...nor do they have any plans of doing so. (and of course I'm a member of this club)
Why don't people finish games? Well it's a topic big enough for 2 semesters of coursework, but one of the reasons people don't finish games is the difficulty.
I was talking to a long-time gamer last week who gave up on Mario Galaxy because they just wanted to play and hated the challenge of the boss fights. My own experience with the horrific 30-minute boss fights in Metroid Prime 3 is similar. I often consult guides and gamefaqs to figure out bosses...I have zero interest in figuring it out...I just want to move on to the next piece of the game. Boss fights are often like that lull in a bad movie when you wish they could just get back to the plot.
Like when I see a movie, I want to see the whole game. I like the story and the set and the characters...there's just parts that don't thrill me. If the game was a movie, I'd wait it out, knowing that a bad scene can only last so long. But in a game, I tend to quit, and the game joins the hundreds of others on my shelf that are unfinished despite how good I thought they were. (how many GREAT unfinished games are there on your shelf?)
Of course...at 34 I'm old for a gamer (as I'm often reminded) and I'm not very good at games (though I was VERY close to cracking the Top 10 in the last Mario Kart Wii Tournament).
I also work increasingly in casual games, which are focused on making it easy for players to immediately play. So clearly I'm biased towards easy...
...but I'm also clearly not alone in my desire. A very healthy percentage of players of Half-Life 2 Episodes 1 & 2 are playing Half-Life on easy! Fairly or unfairly I label Half-Life players as a very hard core group. One that eats wild animals for breakfast and calls a 3-inch cut a mere flesh wound. They're the ninja masters of gaming. ...and nearly 20% of them like their games easy. It's like watching an army field general do ballet in front of his troops. (not that there is anything wrong with that!) It's amazing to see the ninja masters of gaming looking for their games to be easier.
With Airport Mania, I made it easy. Part of that comes from my belief that the majority of people who play casual games are looking for relaxation, not metal taxation. Part of it comes from my own experience in thinking that most games, even those made for kids are much more difficult than they should be. (THQ...seriously? what is up with the difficulty of your games...take a note from Travelers Tales...please!)
A lot of players aren't playing games through to the end. They are giving up very early on. Developers who have played the game over and over don't realize just how much harder it is for the average player to do what has become second nature to those who created the game. I think hard difficulty levels for those who are looking for the challenge and apparently have nothing to do all day but play games are great! Just be sure to include the easy difficulty level when you make your game. I want to see how it ends!