Recently, I've been trying to get into XCOM again, what with news of Enemy Within on the horizon. I remember the game pissing me off to hell and back in the day, so I decided to skip a gigantic headache and play on the easiest difficulty possible. Since we don't live in the 90s any more, there's no Very Easy difficulty, so I replayed on Easy. This has caused me to reflect on the... Particular challenges of playing an easy game. Because let's face it - an Easy game of XCOM with save scumming galore is... Well, very very easy. It's not unpleasant by any stretch, but I'd be lying if I said there weren't problems.
The reason I decided to write this, however, I just KNOW what everyone is going to say if I just admitted to the above: "Well, what were you expecting? It was too easy! That's not how XCOM is meant to be played." My experiment, though, was to prove a theory I had. I beat the original UFO: Enemy Unknown when I was 10 years old and didn't speak a word of English. I made do with reading the pictures, occasionally having my father or my brother translate a single sentence to me (what does "not enough time units" mean?) and basically going by trial and error. I beat this supposedly extremely difficult game as a dumb kid who couldn't read, so when I'm saying an easy XCOM game has problems, I want to head the obvious response at the pass and actually explore what those problems are.
Yesterday I dropped the game prior to finishing it, as I'd researched everything and was beating the aliens so soundly the game actually refused to spawn story-critical missions as I hadn't failed a single thing ever. Today, though, I played around a bit more, trouncing aliens left and right and realising that even if I couldn't win the game, I could hold the aliens off indefinitely, so I had technically won already - they had nothing to threaten me with. But even so, I found myself rather enjoying the game, trouncing aliens, hitting them for six times their maximum hit points, never losing a soldier without save-scumming in the slightest and so on. I enjoyed that for maybe three or four missions, and then I felt I needed to let the game go again.
Why? Well, because it was never going to change. Oh, sure, Ethereals would eventually show up and I'd research Psychic Armour and Psychic shields and yatta-yatta, but this wouldn't change the way I PLAY. All of my soldiers had high will and were psychic anyway, so mind control wasn't an issue, plus the new facility is story-only. It has no impact on the meta-game. In a way, making the game easy meant that I'd exhausted its... "Content." I'd seen all the ships, I'd fought all the aliens, I'd probably seen all the maps... There was nothing more the game could give me, other than the end which it stubbornly refuses to!
Then I remembered another aspect of the game that bugged me - I skipped A LOT of technologies. Early on I tallied for lack of laboratories, barely inventing lasers, so that felt like rewarding progression. Then all of a sudden I shot past Skeleton Armour and Titan Armour and Raptor Armour and went straight to Ghost Armour maybe three missions in-between, if that. I never used a regular SHIV because by the time I got to it, I'd moved onto the Alloy Shiv. The list goes on. Once I secured money for myself to where my limiting factor was alien resources, I found out that the game reduced itself to waiting for the next ship, inventing one thing, building no more than two of it, and then waiting again. The game's magic was gone because I stopped looking forward to playing it and started looking forward to getting more stuff, which is a sure sign of burnout.
I suspect that both problems are related. XCOM is balanced with the idea that I'll always be behind and will always be under threat, so the situation of literally having more money than I could ever use simply wasn't intended and thus wasn't balanced to be fun. But that's... Not a problem of difficulty, I don't think. It's a problem of game design. Because when you come right down to it, XCOM is a game about doing missions to earn resources and using those resources to do more missions. The only thing distracting from this is the game's "difficulty" making you not want to go on missions when your best guys are hurt, or when your jets aren't good enough to down the alien ships, or when you don't have money to buy more grenades or some such. It's a problem of the game relying on the player's own head to make itself interesting.
Once I realised this, I began to realise where my emotional dissonance with difficult game comes from to begin with - I don't enjoy that feeling of pressure and stress. If the game has little to offer me beyond basically being survival horror by another name if I were to make it easy, then THAT is its real problem. Easy games aren't inherently inferior to hard ones, but they need to account for the player's ability to defeat the game's challenges and find other ways to entertain. A game built solely around flogging you is always going to fail if you take away its whip.
Luckily, XCOM has much more to offer aside from how hard it is for you. Err... Phrasing. What XCOM has to offer is really quite pretty graphics, a very involving tactical combat game and a strategic game which staggers progress so as to ensure (or try to ensure) that you get to enjoy all it has to offer. And if anything, I feel the game becoming easy towards the end actually fits. It shows me how far I've gone from my humble beginnings... If only it would fucking end without requiring me to fail at something!
What I'm trying to say here is that while easy games do tend to suffer from a number of problems, none of those problems are endemic to these games' low difficulty. They are solvable problems of designs, rather than some kind of universal flaws of games that don't spank my ass. So as I sit there and see how one of the lead designers of XCOM: Enemy Within has to defend himself in interview about tweaking the game to make certain aspects a little easier, I can't help but feel that the XCOM brand name might actually be hurting both Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within as much as it's helping them. I say this, because that brand name comes with a mandate of high difficulty and with a stigma against not wanting that. In a way, XCOM worked so hard to be difficult that it really didn't think about what it would do if... No, WHEN it became easy.
What I would take away from all this contemplating our navels is this: If your game offers an "easy" difficulty setting, make sure that setting doesn't snap your game's balance over the player's knee.