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Ok, so you just downloaded a new game and are about to begin playing it. The title screen is pretty awesome. For the last few months you haven't read reviews on it because you didn't want to be spoiled. You press the begin button, excited to play, then BAM you have a screen which says "Select your difficulty" (or "choose your pain threshold", or "experience level", or any other fluffy combination that means the same thing). And you have a couple options to choose from. Easy, Normal, Hard, Impossible, Baby, Training, Veteran, Expert, Amateur, Soldier, Lieutenant, Colonel, Hero, Loser, whatever.
Which mode do you pick? Whenever one of these comes up, I'm at a loss. I don't have a baseline to choose from, but this choice will effect my entire gameplay experience. I rarely play a game twice (until a significant chunk of time has passed, and only if I really like the game), so whatever I pick is it for the game. Does the game feel repetitive because hard mode packs more enemies with greater health into the world, or is that just the nature of the game? Would easy mode have been more fun? Is it boring because it's too easy? I don't know, because I don't have a baseline to pick from. What mode was the game designed for? Normal mode? That's usually a good bet, when it's available. In some situations, the difficulty names are "cutely" named, or just have "Easy" and "Hard", so you are up shit creek if you're trying to guess the right difficulty.
So you basically have 2 options. First is to go read reviews and try to figure out if people are complaining the game is "too easy" or "too hard", so you know whether to pick the easier or harder modes. But what if you don't want to? Also, I don't want to break from the difficulty select screen to go research the game, even though it it probably the most important decision you'll make besides choosing to play the game in the first place. The other option is to play a little bit, and if you decide the difficulty is wrong then go and change it.
Except there's a big problem with that option: Games are usually easy in the beginning. How will I know if I chose the wrong difficulty if I need to play a couple hours in to realize it? By then it's not worth it going back and changing, cause I'd have to play through that same beginning sequence again. You might think the solution is to let people change difficulty anytime in game. Ya, Oblivion did that and it's one reason why I hated it. I could level grind for a bit, get new equipment, etc and improve to beat that part of the game, or I could just pause and turn down the difficulty and kill things in 1 hit. And that's what I did after dying a few times in a row, then blew through the tower and grew bored and never touched the game again.
Dynamic difficulty adjustment is always being discussed as a solution to difficulty problems, and it's been discussed a ton elsewhere so I don't feel the need to talk about it here.
Even worse is when you get to the end of a game, then get a message "play on hard mode to access the final area". You mean I just played through all of that, and need to do it AGAIN because I picked the wrong difficulty? Coulda told me that only hard mode is the real game BEFORE forcing me to make that decision.
I see this a TON in web based flash games (because sadly those have been the majority of my gaming recently). I also see it a lot in professional big budget games too. Make that decision for me please.