What ‘Easy Mode’ Means For Disabled Players

Ruth Cassidy6 minute read

Game difficulty, particularly easy modes, frequently comes up in conversations about accessibility. There’s often confusion over how easy modes can specifically make games better for disabled players, in the absence of an obvious change attached to a discrete need like a colourblind mode. 

Below, I lay out some common implementations of ‘easy modes’ and how they improve play for some disabled players, as well as address several common questions.

Enemy Vulnerability

Enemy vulnerability is possibly one of the first things people think of for game difficulty: how hard combatants are to kill.

Screenshot of Mass Effect options screen. The option for "Combat Difficulty" is highlighted and set to "Casual". At the bottom of the screen is the description: All enemies, including bosses, are scaled down relative to the player's level. Most enemies have no special protection or immunities.

Examples of how enemy vulnerability is affected by easy modes:

Enemies have fewer hitpoints: For disabled players with pain, weakness or fatigue in their wrists and hands, the quick reactive play of combat can become increasingly painful over time. When an enemy is weaker, they die faster. Combat that isn’t a marathon takes strain off weaker hands and wrists.

Auto-aim or aim-assist: Precision aiming can be difficult for players with motor difficulties, pain or fatigue. Aim assists compensate for shots that would otherwise be missed.

Enemy lacks higher level immunities: When enemies or boss fights have specific immunities and resistances, it’s to incentivise players to use a different approach. Some disabled players may focus character builds around approaches they find particularly accessible – for example, stealth attacks from hiding that skip the mechanical demands of face-to-face combat. Difficulty modes that strip these immunities allow disabled players to focus on methods of play that work best for their needs.

Enemy Threat

       For all a game can change an enemy’s vulnerability to you, you need to stay ”onstage” long enough for the above measures to be useful. Enemy threat is the factor of how much of a risk the enemy in a game poses to you.

Screenshot of Rise of the Tomb Raider. The easiest difficulty, "Adventurer" is highlighted. The description reads: "Focus on Lara's adventure, combat will be easier" with two bullet points beneath: "Combat has aim assistance enabled", "Enemies have lower health and damage".

Examples of how enemy threat is affected by easy modes:

Enemies deal reduced damage: For players with impaired reflexes or reaction times, managing the opportunity windows for “do damage, don’t get hit” can be difficult. Reducing immediate enemy threat keeps disabled players in the game who otherwise could have been limited by unforgiving windows of opportunity.

Fewer enemies spawn: For players who have difficulty with spatial awareness or information overload, having too many enemies onscreen – and the moment to moment decisions of how to react – can be too much to process. Reducing the number of enemies in an encounter decreases that cognitive load.

Stealth detection is less sensitive: When stealth detection is less sensitive, players can spend longer out of cover, peeking around corners, or get more up close and personal with threats in their environment. This makes the game more accessible for players with cognitive difficulties or with low vision, who may need more time to process their environment.

Resource Availability

Access to resources, such as food, potions and checkpoints are often significant factors in game difficulty.

The new game start screen from Dishonored 2. "Easy" is highlighted, out of five difficulties including "custom", and the following description shows: Enjoy the scenery and narrative, exploring at a leisurely place. Enemies have limited perception, inflict less damage, and will give up the chase sooner. Elixirs have increased restorative value, and your Health regenerates faster.

Examples of how resource availability is affected by easy modes:

Health/stamina refill over time: When you sustain your injuries from encounter to encounter, there comes a point where healing items aren’t something you use in a pinch, but something you have to use repeatedly to get back on form. Whether it’s with a “quick heal” button or deep delves into layers of inventory, repetitive actions can cause strain for players with motor difficulties. With health and stamina that refills over time or after encounters, disabled players can avoid the strain caused by repeated resource access.

Resources are more plentiful: Many resources (such as healing items) affect enemy threat and vulnerability, and therefore affect accessibility in the same ways. Having resources in abundance means disabled players don’t have to worry about saving them for a potential future “more difficult fight”, and instead can continue to progress through the game.

Manual saves instead of only checkpoints: Some disabled players may only be able to play for small intervals at a time, or need to abruptly stop for their own comfort or safety, such as players with photosensitive or motion sickness triggers. Being able to quit and resume the game at any point ensures disabled players can progress through the game at their own pace, without repeatedly being exposed to triggers that may otherwise take place after their last checkpoint.

I Still Have Questions

  • Do adaptive controllers mean that you don’t need easy modes?

Adaptive controllers are another method of input, in the same way that a mouse and keyboard is a different set of peripherals to a standard gamepad. The hardware somebody uses to interact with their computer or console is a separate consideration entirely to one of game design.

  • If a game has an easy mode, is it inherently accessible?

No. The tools in easy modes reduce some mechanical and cognitive demands for some players, but that’s only one aspect of accessibility, even for players who benefit from them. Some features in a game will always be barriers to entry for disabled players, such as a lack of subtitles or of full key remapping. You need to let disabled players in to the game before you can begin talking about difficulty as accessibility. Accessibility tools need to work alongside each other, not as a choice between one or the other.

  •  If a game is accessible in other ways, does difficulty still matter?

Yes, because accessibility is never a yes/no thing. Easy modes include a number of tools intentionally designed to reduce the stress and demand of a game, which benefit many disabled people. You could implement the same tools as accessibility features without ever grouping them as ‘easy mode’, but if you’re avoiding thinking about difficulty, you risk leaving out a crucial tool. Considering difficulty as a part of accessibility is only one part, but it is always going to be a beneficial part of game design thought.

As games improve at addressing explicit and specific barriers, game difficulty has often become more customisable. While easy modes may not have been initially designed with disabled players in mind, asking the question of “how can we reduce this game’s demand on players?” has resulted in a number of tools that increase accessibility. The effect of this broad question means game difficulty will continue to be key in conversations about accessibility as games get better at accessible design.

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Ruth Cassidy is a freelance games writer and self-described velcro cyborg. When not playing video games or running people over in her wheelchair, she can be found getting very emotional over her favourite musical theatre soundtracks. You can buy her friendship with pictures of especially nice mountains, or your cats.

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