Doing Difficulty Right – How the Hard Mode of Bug Fables Encourages You to Push Yourself

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 Hard Mode Medal
In Bug Fables, hard mode can be equipped or unequipped at will – except mid battle.

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.

Bug Fables Bonking Heads
Bonked some extra hard heads? Bonked heads…head bonk…Headbonk! Paper Mario reference?

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 Wont Hurt Much
Same energy.

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.

14 thoughts on “Doing Difficulty Right – How the Hard Mode of Bug Fables Encourages You to Push Yourself

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  1. This is super interesting, and yeah I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a hard mode like that (not that I have much experience of hard mode, haha!). It sounds like the developer has put real thought into it too, rather than just making the enemies super hard and halving the drops. I guess one game genre where my take on hard mode would be a bit different is survival horror games. Yes the enemies are harder and there are fewer drops, but the hard mode brings the ‘survival’ element much more into perspective and forces you to look for other options than simply to fight – it forces a different style of game-play than normal mode and I do appreciate that element of it as it can really change your experience of the game.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That’s a good point – in a horror game, removing resources emphasizes the strength of the genre whereas in an RPG taking them reduces the game’s ability to lean into those strengths. So perhaps the lesson here is that how hard mode functions should more thoughtfully target what makes the game fun to play in the first place!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Definitely! In general I think it would be nice to see all difficulty modes given a little more care and attention to optimise the experience of using them.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Counter point, and I hope I don’t sound like an elitist A-hole for making it: playing on hard mode is its own reward for some because the default difficulty is too easy to be fun. When I play a game on hard mode that’s entirely because I need to in order to have fun playing it. I need a bit of challenge or I’ll mentally check out.

    Difficulty is one of those weird things to implement well because you’re ideally looking to give a variety of players the option to play the game at the level they find the most engaging. For some that means a little bit of challenge, while others want to be pushed to their limits. It all depends on what individual players find fun.

    So, for example, I found Captain Toad a complete snore fest (it is the only game to ever put me to sleep) because it didn’t offer enough (any) challenge. But there are a ton of people who enjoyed it entirely because of its more relaxed pace.

    By the same token, I really enjoyed playing Bayonetta trying to get platinum medals on every level. There is no in-game benefit to pursuing this additional challenge. It was its own reward.

    That said, I’m generally in agreement with you on how hard modes should be implemented. I only disagree with the “more is better” bit. I prefer when difficulty settings push players (myself) to experiment with, learn, and understand more of the game’s systems. Sometimes limiting your resources or reducing the power of a dominant strategy is required to coax players into actually using their full tool set.

    It sounds like Bug Fables accomplishes pushing players to discover its depth wonderfully from what you’ve written. You’re experimenting with multiple different tactics, while obtaining and using a variety of additional options that aren’t normally available. Thus you’ve built a stronger understanding of the underpinning mechanics and how best to counter certain enemy types. But while Bug Fables has benefited from more, not every game does – it largely depends on how the underpinning systems work and what kind of experience the game is geared toward.

    I…spent way too long writing this. I hope I didn’t come across as condescending. I think we generally agree on how difficulty can be used to best make a gaming experience fun, but there are a few specific details we are at odds on haha.

    Aside, the hard difficulty in Fire Emblem is indefensibly poor. At least in Awakening it was. That just encouraged grinding. 😐

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I don’t think you came across as condescending and I can appreciate your perspective. I personally am not the kind of person who is typically a “hard mode gamer” but I know plenty of people are primarily drawn to games that push the player to overcome challenging circumstances. That play style is totally valid and as you said, the trick for developers is finding that sweet spot where their difficulty settings can appeal to as many styles as possible.

      I agree with your point, too, on the way in which the real selling point of higher difficulty is pushing you to engage the game’s mechanisms more fully. Pix1001 pointed out as much in her comment about survival horror, where giving you more would actually make the game less hard or allow you not to think as much about the mechanisms. As you said, high difficulty should push you to experience the game to its fullest and utilize all of the tools it gives you, which looks different for Bug Fables than it would for games in a different genre.

      That is to say, I agree with your points and I think the perspective you’ve shared here helps to clarify what I was ultimately trying to get at. Thanks for the insightful comment!

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Yeah I definitely find with some games that the hardest option is the most enjoyable to play, Guitar Hero being the main example of that for me – It is zero fun on other difficulties. As an aside to your Captain Toad comments, I don’t enjoy it because it is relaxed, I enjoy it because I am able to play it. The vast majority of games like that are too hard for me, as in, I actually can’t play them, but Captain Toad is accessible. What I guess I’m trying to say is that ability is also an issue to consider, not just how much of a challenge a person wants – games aren’t universally easy or hard.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That opens a whole ‘nother can of worms, too – different people are good at different types of games! I haven’t played all of Captain Toad but I loved the demo because it was a puzzle game where I could actually solve the puzzles, versus something like Baba is You where I liked the concept of the game but found the puzzles way too obtuse to solve. Looking at it another way, I was able to manage the hard mode in Bug Fables being challenged but never really overly so, whereas even the standard difficulty on a 2D platformer or action game would probably be more than enough to push my skill levels and help me to feel suitably challenged.

        I think if both of your points highlight anything, it’s that there is a lot of nuance to the discussion of difficulty that keeps any one principle from being broadly applicable across video games. What makes a game challenging differs across genres and what makes that challenge interesting or fun differs across players. The best we can do is to recognize what works for us and look for games that fit our style!

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Sorry Pix. In using the word relaxed I’d intended to convey that the game was asking for a much lower threshold of ability from its players. However, for someone who only just meets said threshold the experience wouldn’t be very relaxed. It’d be just right for the optimal experience. As you said, the perceived level of challenge that a title has is variable based on the individual player’s own ability.

        Ian wrote as much in his own reply, which is waaaaay smarter than mine is.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m completely with you on the point of “giving you less to work with” is a bad approach. A Hard Mode should be adding to a player’s experience, not taking something away. Especially when it’s tied to experience points, so you have access to less abilities. I want to try out new stuff, find new OP tactics and fight against the enemies with my full power!

    However, I find that there is an exception to this: A game can take away some of my abilites, if I get a more streamlined experience for another part of the game. For example, Mark of the Ninja (a Stealth Platformer) gives you different suits, with varying abilities. The Stealth Suit has no room for weapons, so your offensive capabilities are absolutely mutilated. This means you must not be spotted, or you’re pretty much done. Effectively, this takes away abilities. BUT, in exchange, you get to sprint silently and carry more stealth gadgets. It is some sort of a Hard Mode, takes away some abilities, and technically does not “reward” you. Still, I find this approach really cool.
    Similar to this, but to a lesser extent is a loadout system, where you choose at the start of the level how you want to approach it.

    I disagree on this feature being unique or even uncommon, though. I find that many games, especially those focused around loot reward you for choosing higher difficulties, venturing into NG+ modes or completing additional challenges. Borderlands, Dark Souls, or Diablo come to my mind.

    The best thing games can do in this regard is to let the player choose which parts of the game he wants to ramp the difficulty up. My favourite example would be Bastion, where you can find idols within the world that make enemies stronger, but give you more xp and money. You can mix and match them as you see fit. Some give run-of-the-mill stat boosts like more HP or damage, others provide more complex challenges, like enemies exploding on death.

    Some games even feature dynamic difficulties, where the better you do, the harder the game gets, and the better loot you’ll find. My example for this would be Lichdom: Battlemage (kind of a Shooter, but you’re a mage!), where each checkpoint you reach without dying gives you a higher chance of epic loot.

    Where I do agree with you is that difficulty should be adjustable mid-game, not just at the start. Difficulty within the same genre can vary greatly, so you’ll have no idea what really to expect. Generally, I start at the difficulty that says “intended way”. If that’s not available, it’s medium for me, or – when it is an even number – the one on the higher end.

    Nevertheless, interesting article and a cool read. Frostilyte has a post about granular difficulty that ties in nicely here, in my opinion 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This is a great point about the number of games which handle difficulty in this way – I’ve never played any of the ones you mentioned and have only even heard of half of them, so it just goes to show how vast the world of games is and how different of an experience you can have based on what you play! I don’t think I’ve ever played anything with a dynamic difficulty setting, for example. There’s a ton of nuance to this topic and it has been great seeing the unique perspectives that different bloggers are able to bring to the forefront.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Agreed, difficulty in video games is like a Martini. Everyone has an opinion about it and a best way to enjoy it! Although it seems that bloggers are far more civilised in their discussions 🙂

        Dynamic difficulty often is pretty well hidden, as developers don’t want to take away the tension from players. The most famous example would probably be Resident Evil, there are many great videos about it. If you played a tense game with one fixed difficulty, chances are there’s some sort of dynamic difficulty at work.

        Liked by 2 people

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