Game developers wonder if it’s time to move away from the term “Easy Mode”

Written by. Nick Mosier based on the original Japanese article (original article’s publication date: 2022-05-31 19:56 JST)

Game developer Taro Masuda recently took to Twitter to ask gamers how they felt about the term “Easy Mode” on difficulty selection screens and if it gives them an unpleasant feeling.

It’s common to see “Easy,” “Normal,” and “Hard” difficulty levels in games, but naming conventions have become more diverse in recent years.

Even among games released this year we can see different terminology used to describe difficulty levels. The action RPG Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin uses “Story,” “Action,” “Hard,” and “Chaos,” with the easiest difficulty level being for those that just want to enjoy the story.

Instead of the easy/normal/hard convention, Kirby and the Forgotten Land uses “Spring-Breeze Mode” and “Wild Mode,” while the difficult action game Sifu goes with “Student,” “Disciple,” and “Master.”

Of course, many games still use easy/normal/hard, but the number of titles using terminology that more aligns with the game’s setting is increasing.

From a language standpoint, the easy/normal/hard convention is simple to understand. But if that’s the case, why are we seeing a trend toward different terminology? Besides just matching a game’s setting, the term “easy” seems to leave a bad taste in the mouths of some players.

Behind the question

We asked Masuda why he decided to post the Twitter poll, and he mentioned that he once saw someone tweeting out how they don’t like the term “easy” to describe a game’s least difficult mode. This prompted Masuda to post the pole, which has since gathered over 53,000 responses, with over 90% answering that “easy” doesn’t make them feel bad.

While a slightly different topic, some players did lament that they don’t like when games lock content behind certain difficulty levels. One example is how the Kingdom Hearts series hides its secret movies behind different criteria depending on the difficulty level. And depending on the game, there’s content that can’t be viewed when the game is played on Beginner Mode. While the intent is to reward players that clear the game on higher difficulties, changing the content that can be accessed is a sticking point for some.

On the other hand, easy/normal/hard is a tried-and-true convention, and some developers chimed in to say they leave the terminology as it is. Daraneko, the developer behind The Use of Life which recently entered Early Access on Steam, said they released their game with Easy, Normal, and Hard settings as other terms that matched the game’s setting didn’t come to mind.

A culture of honor

The stigma a player may feel towards Easy Mode likely comes from the glorification of beating difficult games and the badge of honor that comes with it. This idea creates a sort of hierarchy of gamers that can beat hard games and those that can’t. The culture of glorifying players that beat hard games also brings with it a perception of shame for playing through games on Easy Mode.

For example, Wolfenstein: The New Order calls its difficulty levels “Can I play, Daddy?” “Don’t hurt me,” “Bring ‘em on!” “Do or die!” “Call me Terror-Billy!” and “I am death incarnate!” And when you pick “Can I play, Daddy?” the game’s equivalent of Very Easy, your character icon is dressed like a baby with a pacifier. Contrast that with picking “Call me Terror-Billy!” which splatters blood across your character’s ferocious looking face. While well received by players, it does suggest that Easy Mode is for babies.

This humorous depiction of difficulty levels has been around since the dawn of the FPS genre with Wolfenstein 3D and Doom and still persists to this day.

The popularity of difficult games is strong, including titles like this year’s Elden Ring and Tunic. However, big developers and publishers are also making stronger pushes toward accessibility. One example is The Last of Us Part II which is a fairly difficult game reportedly being completed by a gamer without sight. Developers are continuing to devise ways to not only help those with disabilities play, but to help those that aren’t skilled at games complete them.

The challenge of being inviting for beginners

While steps are being taken to make games more friendly to beginners, there’s still a culture that equates shame to playing on Easy. For that reason, some players are likely put off by the idea of the term “Easy Mode.”

In the previously mentioned Twitter poll, 90% of respondents did say that “Easy Mode” doesn’t give them a bad feeling. However, there’s also a possibility that the poll didn’t reach players who are more likely to play on Easy. There’s a good chance that the poll skews more toward the hardcore gamer that passionately discusses gaming on Twitter.

Super UFO Fighter. An upcoming title Masuda is involved in

At any rate, what’s most important is that we respect the choice to play and enjoy a game how one wants to enjoy it. There’s a tendency to admire those who are supremely skilled in any field, but everyone has to start somewhere. Beginner gamers may eventually become skilled players. But even if they don’t, players shouldn’t feel looked down upon or obligated to play a certain way if they’re having fun doing what they’re doing. Hopefully we can come to respect both skill and enjoying a game how one pleases.