Difficulty in games

Now that we speaking about general gameplay design, like the discussion about health systems, i wanted to talk about difficulty in videogames.

Most people simply comment things like “the game is easy” or “it’s too hard, aghh!” and that’s it. I think difficulty is a very important aspect of games, and sometimes a slightly badly adjusted difficulty can transform the best videogame into mediocrity. So imo a well adjusted, well balanced difficulty settings it’s an essential part of a good game.

So what parts should we look in videogames to judge?

  1. How difficult is the game, in average. It’s easy, hard, kind of normal?

  2. How is the difficulty curve. It should raise smoothly. A too high curve and the game can be frustrating, i think everyone will agree on that. But i also think a curve too flat is bad, the game will seem to lack something, it will be a bit too bland.

  3. Weird “spikes” in that difficulty curve. Sometimes there are high points and low points in the difficulty curve, even if the general trend of the curve is the correct “slightly up”. Depending of how pronounced are these spikes in the game, they can bring up interesting variety to the game with a more difficulty encounter or a zone where you slay fast to all the enemies, or in the other hand they just fuck up the difficulty curve, putting the difficulty all over the place.
    And let’s not speak of these videgames where the game designers fall in the same mistake once and other time, of putting a boss which is much much more harder than the previous gaming experience of the past hour. I hate when they do that.

  4. How many difficulty settings have the game. And, can be changed in the middle of the game? Or if a player was mistaking in choosing easy, can he change to normal or does he have to restart from the beginning?
    Sometimes the games have a problem of having a too big gap between two difficulty settings. I can remember examples like Starcraft 2, where medium was too easy for me, and hard too hard. Of course it’s not the only example.

  5. How the player have to know what is the adequate difficulty setting for him?

This last one is one of the points i feel videogames have barely evolved, even if as i am argumenting having (and choosing) the right difficulty is very important to have an good experience with the game. Nor too hard, nor too easy.
With all the “streamlining” and all the effort in accesibility in games, the system is still the same used 20 years ago. Easy / medium / hard, that’s it.
How easy is easy, how hard is hard? And to whom is hard “hard”? To me, to game developers, to the q&a testing team? the focus testing team?

Because every player is a world, some have 1 year of gaming experience, others have 20, some have a passing interest in racing games, others are hardcore fans, in summary, the very meaning of “easy” and “medium” changes from player to player. In special i can imagine it’s a problem with the really new player, who don’t know how good can be people after playing for some years.

I am a veteran player and still pick the wrong setting sometimes, in some games medium was too easy, in others i pick “hard” to not have the same problem as the last game, but surprise! these other game developers have a different idea of what “hard” means.

I think videogames should make a bigger effort in smart or dynamic difficulty settings, where the game values your skills while playing to know what is really “medium” for you, or put more features like the pit in Modern Warfare to know what is the appropriate difficulty.

Last game I played with a dynamic difficulty curve I could not complete, since the game thought I was johnny rambo and the curve broke halfway through the game. (Shakes fist at Max Payne). I fixed this by gimping my play at the beginning of the game on a new playthrough.
I’m all for an overlord AI like Left 4 dead that is out to kill me tho. I’ll take more of this.

I think i already mentioned the idea of “dynamic difficulty” in some other thread some months ago. It wasn’t well recieved, lots of people seemed to prefer the old ways. I think it’s a case of “Better the devil you know…”.
People also have to understand that i am not proposing an ever changing difficulty which changes in real time to make the game too easy is you are stuck or too hard if you are progressing fast and clean. I am more proposing some kind of pseudo AI system that values what is the real skill and then sets the game difficulty by itself. The same that having the player having to pick up a difficulty in the beginning, but more transparent and with more science and less guessing.

Here is what I would like to see in future video games: Separate difficulty sliders for boss fights. As much as I love the the Metroid Prime games, I’m not sure I ever really enjoyed any of the boss fights. For me it was all about exploration and finding secrets. To have the game punctuated with stupidly hard fights every once in a while would often leave me nothing more than frustrated. Using that game as an example, I would prefer a harder difficulty for the 95% of the game that isn’t boss fights, if it didn’t mean having a tougher time just trying to surpass the big boss bottlenecks.

As for streamlining, I think Super Meat Boy did it best, they know you’re going to die a thousand times, so they don’t force you to watch the same cut scene over and over, or reload from distant save points or save stations. One of the worst examples of a bad save/reload system for me was Gears of War. This fucking game had me stuck watching an UNSKIPPABLE cut scene every single time I needed to reload in a certain spot I’d been stuck in for a while. I ended up being forced to get through the fight using a lower difficulty, not because I didn’t like the challenge, but because I didn’t like the fucking cut scene blocking me from playing the fucking game.

There are better ways to relay information to the player about an upcoming objective, if there is something they absolutely must know after reloading a save, or moving on, unskippable cut scenes… no… god… They make higher difficulty games just that much less fun to play.

I’ve never been one to trust these games with adaptive A.I. that are supposed to change their tactics based on my own performance. I never notice any big differences in their skill level whether I’m goofing up or mowing them down, so I’m still in the camp of preferring a difficulty setting I can manually adjust. I do have to admit though, I prefer games where I can adjust it on the fly if need be. Some game have certain long stretches of repetitive bullshit I just don’t always want to make the time to deal with.

I think this is a hard topic to talk about due to the inherent difference of games.

Let’s take Final Fantasy XIII for instance. One entered every battle at healthy status with full hp. Such a game would of course require much different balance than say Tales of Graces F. Both games have enemies running around the field (that one can dodge) and if one touches them one gets ported into ones own little battle-pocket-dimension, yet balancing needs to be fundamentally different. The former, FFXIII, also allowed retries after every failed combat, as opposed to the latter, ToGF, which made one reload the last save (save-point only, might I add) and also incur some possibly substantial loss of play time.

As such, I think for me it’s less the difficulty it self that is annoying, but more the inconsistency and lack of (optionally choosable) comfort functions like, say, retries instead of reloading upon failure. Just that single feature can make “wonky” design choices a lot more bearable, just like the (several) mid-boss-battle checkpoints of for example Bayonetta.

Very few companies make good boss battles. Games are (mostly) about having fun, are they? Well, then the climatic moment of a boss fight should be the most fun moment of the game. Usually it’s the less fun moment in all the game! Game companies have to learn from Valve and the final fight of Ep 2, imo.
While i understand having a higher difficulty spike in a boss fight, so many designers lose their mind, and instead of having (let’s use % over the normal gaming experience) a 25% difficulty increase, i could swear i have seen a 300 or 400% difficulty increase. Or at least that’s how they felt, several times more difficult than the normal game. Translated to the “difficulty curve”, that’s a vertical wall.

As Kerzain also mentions, other aspects like the save system also affects the experience. In my case, i hate hate hate having to repeat several times a part of the game that i already did once, i feel i shown to the game already that i can do that part. Like him, i can remember some games where i lowered the difficulty only to avoid the repetition. That’s why i will pick normal controllable savegames over who-knows-how-they-are-done checkpoints.

Which remind me of a idea i have from some time. To discuss about how different are videogames, how they aren’t really a homogeneous “medium” like people talk about them, as if they were equivalent to other fiction medium like “movies” or “novels”.
Imo the genres in videogames (action, sports, adventure, strategy, sims, rpg, puzzle, etc) differ much more than between films (action, scifi, drama, tragedy, comedy, etc), for example.

Sometimes the only point in common between videogames is that they are both software, in some way interactive. So each genre should be examined, studied, reviewed, and talked about as different matters.
What’s the connection between Tetris and Final Fantasy and Doom and Civilization? They are too different.

For me, difficulty translates to time. There are many other things I could be doing (or other games I could be playing) instead of trying and failing at the same section over, and over, and over. If I’m stuck on one part of a game I need to feel some sense of progress, that I’m gaining skill with each attempt, or else it’s just frustrating.

I think you are selling other mediums short. What’s the connection between Schindler’s list and White Chicks other than they are movies? Games aren’t inherently special in not being homogeneous because the other mediums aren’t either.

As for difficulty, I love having the ability to make something easier or harder. Typically I play on normal, and it doesn’t bother me at all that some might finish the game on easy or someone felt they wanted more challenge on hard. I do like the idea of being able to scale parts of games though, like bosses. I am not sure I would take advantage, but it sounds like it wouldn’t destroy anything if others did.

What drives me nuts is games with multiple elements where only one is adjusted by the difficulty setting. The xbox ninja gaiden and the first god of war both stopped my progress with platforming bits I couldn’t complete and their difficulty settings just adjusted combat, which I thought was well tuned at normal


I’m ashamed to say, but I have never finished a GTA game, not because I did not like them, but because there was always this “one chase” where I failed and just could not do it. This is why I so like RDR, that game had none of that silliness. A skip feature after x-fails would have been nice.

Dynamic difficulty is bad because it breaks the Forth Wall. It destroys the entities hierarchy which is very important in building an immersive world.

Personally, I always choose the hardest difficulty, especially for games that I am only going to play once. It prolongs the playtime and gives me the full experience. There are too many times the game feels like nothing but a flashing screen until I tune the difficulty up.

And different players picking a different difficulty doesn’t break the forth wall? Oh noes, in some games a guard will be hard to beat and in others it will be easier! My inmersion!

If a game requires the player to actively change the difficulty midgame, it is a sign that the game is not properly tuned in the first place. It is also voluntarily, while dynamic difficulty is involuntarily.

This has been debated back and forth to death.

I think it comes down to this:

  1. In today’s saturated market (console and mobile/tablet that is, with PC it’s albeit different) you can’t do a difficult (more-than-easy) game because it’ll hinder your penetration.

  2. Statistically, the majority of gamers (ANY AND ALL gamers in total, not just casual/hardcore) haven’t much of an attention span or willingness to deal with high difficulty or “nintendo-hard” defeats.

  3. Troglodytes and niche prefer challenging games.

Wait Foxstab, have you read anything on the thread? This thread is not about complaining because games of today are too easy.

Resident Evil 4 was very clever in the way it used dynamic difficulty. If I remember correctly, it just helped the struggling player with better loot, so you would never paint yourself in a corner without ammo or medicinal herbs like you could in the Playstation ones.

To me it felt perfectly tuned in normal.

Persevering in the face of extreme difficulty is the entire point of some games. I’m thinking roguelikes, Super Meat Boy and many other platformers, bullet hell shooters, X-Com, Demon’s Souls, Commandos etc.

None of these games would be served by dynamic difficulty.

First, i don’t think the entire point of Commandos or Xcom was extreme difficulty. They were pretty hard games, but still possible to play. Xcom in particular had like 7 or 8 difficulty settings, for every type of player.

But again, what is “extreme difficulty”? It varies with each player, it’s not the same to me than to you than a newbie.

Also, you are somehow thinking that with a dynamic difficulty system you are not going to have these type of very hard but rewarding experiences. You are wrong. It doesn’t serve to move the “difficulty slider” to easy, they serve to move the slider to a point relative to the player skill. That point can also be “very hard”. In summary, a dynamic difficulty system can also serve to take a normal game a make it harder.
The point is that these type of system should serve to choose the most appropriate difficulty, i never said the most appropriate difficulty was “easy”.

I find it funny how many games have a ‘reverse’ difficulty…

Some Total war games…you start out and its bloody hard, then later on…as you sweep through the world with your huge armies, its just no challenge…

Or almost any RPG where I being with a gun thats held together with glue and finish the game with nuclear swords…that also makes the games just easy…

Just sayin