I am not the kind of guy who plays Hard Mode in video games. For as long as I have been a gamer, I never necessarily tied my passion for video games to my skill at them. Any skill comparisons were always relative to the people closest to me that I played games with consistently. But as someone who played predominantly roleplaying games and did so for the story, I didn’t feel particularly motivated to try out the hard mode in any of the video games that I played. Naturally as a kid it never occurred to me to even think about the difficulty of the games I was playing. It was only as a teenager and then an adult where people (mostly internet people) would say something about players who didn’t ever touch the Hard option on the difficulty screen.
This isn’t to say that I have never played games on hard mode or some equivalent of it. I just really needed to love a game in order to even think about it. As soon as I heard about Ocarina of Time Master Quest I knew I wanted to pick it up – trickier versions of the classic game’s dungeons? Heck yes! I’d played Ocarina of Time backwards and forwards, so the idea of changing the game up and giving me a fresh experience was appealing. I’d push myself to compete at higher and higher levels in Super Smash Bros. because that was a game that I actually played “competitively” with other people and so I needed to push my skills. Outside of these specific exceptions, though, I’ve never really been a hard mode guy. My play experience was casual, keeping the mechanical challenges simple so that I could focus my efforts on the stories of the games I played.
A couple of days before writing this article I was talking to a buddy of mine and we were chatting casually about what we’d been up to. I explained that I was finishing up the main campaign of Bug Fables and as he asked me questions about the game, I brought up that I was particularly enjoying the game on hard mode. He said that he was unsure he had ever played a game on hard mode before. I agreed and said I normally didn’t play hard mode either, but that Bug Fables made me want to play hard mode for a couple different reasons. I’ll break those reasons down in detail here.
Bug Fables implements hard mode through its Medal system. Medals are equippable items that mechanically change the game in many ways. This can be as simple as increasing your stats but may also add new skills or give you special advantages in exchange for trade-offs. These medals cost points, and you can gain more points when you level up. The Hard Mode medal is a zero point medal you get right at the beginning of the game. You’re able to use it immediately but you can take it on and off at will. In others words, Hard Mode is a totally optional commitment. You must actively make the decision to turn it on, you have the option to try out the game first to see if you even want to turn it on, and if you ever change your mind once you’ve started you can easily flip it back off again.
So how does the Hard Mode badge work? When equipped, it makes the battles you fight more difficult. Because I played the entire game on Hard I actually wasn’t sure what specifically this entailed, but according to the Bug Fables Wiki this actually changes a lot of aspects of battles. Enemies have higher health, many have increased attack and a few have increased defense. Their multihit skills hit more often, they can use more skills for free, and status problems are harder to inflict. But in exchange for fighting these more difficult battles, you get a multiplier for explorer points (the points needed to rank up and increase your stats) as well as more frequent item drops and most of all, special medals for defeating particularly challenging enemies during hard mode. These more powerful medals would cost your characters money if playing in normal mode, but if you push yourself to play on hard you earn them for free instead.
I didn’t describe the mode to my friend in this much detail, but what I did tell him was that hard mode gives you more experience and more rewards. I explained how this gives you an incentive to play the game on hard and that essentially if you choose to play the game at a higher difficulty, Bug Fables gives you the tools you need in order to have a fighting chance at doing so. After reading my explanation my friend made a statement that caused a light bulb to go off in my head: “I don’t know if I’ve seen that happen.” And in that moment I realized that I hadn’t really seen it either.
Think back to any video games you’ve played on hard difficulty. What was your incentive to do so? In my experience the reason for playing on hard for most games comes from outside of the game, or at least from the metagame and not the game’s core mechanics. Anything with a trophy system might give you a reward for beating the game on hard, requiring you to play at that difficulty if you want to platinum the game (or whatever the X-Box equivalent of platinum is). For many games, the incentive is nothing more than bragging rights. I as the player have to decide for myself that I want that degree of challenge, and I have to care about being able to say “yes, I went the extra mile and played this game on hard mode.” If I don’t care about those things then what’s the point?
Thinking back to some specific hard modes that I remember, many do the opposite of Bug Fables in that they actually restrict your rewards rather than multiplying them. Many Fire Emblem titles give you less experience points for defeating enemies when you play on higher difficulties. This means that you will regularly be underleveled compared to your opposition, which is part of what makes hard mode hard. In Dishonored, at higher difficulty you recover a smaller amount when using potions and your stealth tactics are less effective. These types of hard mode make the game harder by limiting your mechanical options; for me, that creates even less incentive to play the game on hard. “If you turn up the difficulty, we’ll give you less to work with” is not an appealing approach for me.
No wonder, then, that I typically did not play video games on hard difficulty. The message, whether implicit or explicit, was that doing so had no purpose. Imagine if someone came up to you and said “I’m going to make your life twice as difficult as it is now. I’m going to take away from your resources while also adding additional complications to your daily routine. Once you commit, you can’t back out. But if you somehow manage to overcome all of that, you can tell all your friends and family how cool you are for overcoming it.” How appealing of a pitch is that? Why would you ever want to do it?
Bug Fables flips the script on the hard mode pitch. Bug Fables says to you “I’m going to make this experience more challenging for you. You’ll have to deal with multiple complications that make your life harder. But to help you succeed, I’m going to provide you with a few extra tools to give you a leg up, tools you wouldn’t normally have available to you. You’ll be meaningfully rewarded throughout the journey, not just at the end, and if at any point you decide this isn’t for you any more, you can back out no-harm no-foul. And if you do decide to finish out this way, you can tell all your friends and family how cool you are for overcoming it.” It’s a much better pitch, one that makes hard mode a lot more appealing – at least for me!
I think a big part of this is because when I play a video game, I want to fully understand the mechanics and push the systems to their limit. When a game – specifically an RPG – says to you “I’m going to give you less experience to make this harder for you,” that’s limiting my ability to enjoy the mechanisms of the game. The Bug Fables approach instead says “I’m going to make this so hard for you that you’ll need extra experience and abilities to keep up,” which for me is a much more exciting proposition. Yes, level me up faster and make me think twice about every decision about which stats to increase. Yes, give me more medals and throw enemies at me who challenge me to rearrange my medal configuration on the regular. Yes, drop more items so I can use them to replenish the extra resources I am depleting to keep up. Hard mode in Bug Fables gives you more of everything: more challenge, more resources, more rewards. And I think there’s a lot more appeal in a game that gives versus one that takes away.