Difficulty levels; do they work?

In my time I’ve seen a lot of people complain about how a particular game is “too easy” or “too hard” or whatnot despite the fact that those games would have a difficulty option or slider that allowed the player to adjust to something that feels more their “speed”. This is generally implemented in one of two ways:

  • The Static method- usually employed by games with high degrees of replayability (Civ IV, Doom, etc.) you select what difficulty the entire game will be at the start

  • The Dynamic method- usually employed by RPGs or (to some extent) RTS campaigns because people can change it between maps. In this mode, you can go in and adjust your difficulty on the fly to best suit your needs.

What I’ve noticed is that the first method usually is successful which the second usually fails, which brings me to the point of this message:

In RPGs (ie- Oblivion) can a difficulty selection system work, and how should it be done? The current “go to options and adjust” thing doesn’t work at all, as people complain all the time about an RPG getting “too easy”. When told they can adjust the difficulty mid game to be harder, they reject that and continue to gripe it’s “too easy”.

Chris Woods

I think having “Too Easy/Too Hard” buttons is a better idea than a slider. Don’t give the player an absolute representation of the difficulty, then they won’t be so likely to gripe about it. Having a difficulty system that scaled indefinitely would be a good companion to my relative difficulty adjustor.

If Civ was a 100-hour game (instead of “just” a 10-20 hour one), we would probably have to think about dynamic difficulty levels. The longer a game is, the more it would sprial out of the control of a difficulty system. Not sure if dynamic works, but a fixed static level would not necessarily be better for games of huge scope.

I don’t like tuning a difficulty level up and down as I play. I like to be handed a challenge of some type, and to try to overcome it–cranking down the difficulty doesn’t count as overcoming anything. And anyway, getting the game balance right is part of game design, so I’m going to be ticked off if the designer just punted on it.

I do like having difficulty levels to select from. If a game is good enough, I’ll enjoy playing through it again on a higher difficulty setting. I played Max Payne 2 through about four times on different settings.

I like having a “oh, fuck me” difficulty level, which is absurdly hard, but fair. Games tend to be too easy these days, and it’s nice having a setting where I have to work my ass off for every gain. This only works if the difficulty is fair, however, which is a lot harder than it sounds. It’s not just a matter of turning up the number of enemies or the health of enemies.

Creative difficulty levels can also be a lot of fun. I’m thinking in particular of things such as Tenchu’s “finish the level without ever being seen” or Thief’s “don’t kill anyone”.

Oh, hey, one thing I forgot: I can’t stand dynamically-adjusting difficulty levels. If I got my ass kicked the last three times I walked into a room, it’ll be very disappointing to have the difficulty suddenly drop just as I’m starting to get the hang of things. I enjoy working at a difficult task until I overcome it; having the game helpfully lower the bar kills that enjoyment.

… while catching 'em all! On one level I enjoyed exploring every nook and cranny of the map, on the other it felt pretty stupid and unfun scanning every square inch with my nose pressed to the glass hoping to find a hidden coin.

Yeah, I liked the no-killing and do-all-the-secondary-objectives bits of Thief on hard a lot more than I liked the find-every-last-penny part.

If I have to change the difficulty in a static game when it was fine during stage X, then that game has failed.

IMO, SiN Episodes Emergence with its dynamic difficulty is the way to go, a game that varies the challenge to match your skills, and if you’re having a particuarly shit day then the game is still playable. They just need to label the damn slider to something meaningful. Frankly, they should dump the slider and have it handled by the game entirely.

However, I still want challenge, I want the game to be trying to kill me, not trying to ensure I never die.

The types noted in the original post are both Static, it’s simply that in some games you can change from one static level to another, they have nothing to do with true dynamic difficulty, which is handled by the game not the player.

No, they really don’t.

Well, they’re easy compared to the “not designed to be finished… ever, and BTW you need to start me from scratch every time” experience that was 80’s gaming.

Well, okay. Games tend to be too easy for me these days. :>

I kind of like the rpg/survival horror games that draw a distinction between, say, puzzle difficulty and action difficulty. While the first can be difficult to scale, it should be possible to differentiate between the two, and allow the people that just enjoy the setting/ story/ whatever enjoy it unhampered by whatever broken combat system of the day they’ve implemented. It saved Silent Hill 2 for me, and will probably end up being pivotal in Cthulhu. Sure, they could go all RE4 and just find a tolerable combat mechanic, but I’m betting the difficulty change is easier.

I think adaptive difficulty is the way to go.

On a bit of a tangent…

Modern games often feature one impressive set piece after the other; with the discovery of each being very rewarding for the player. Moreover, these types of games really appeal to the explorer in all of us. The problem with this type of game(flow) is that difficult situations (battles, puzzles, etc.), that is, ones where the player can’t advance at a decent rate, break the flow of the game.

As an example, I loved playing Quake at the hardest difficulty level – even with mods that made it harder, and I rarely got frustrated when I died repeatedly at any point in the game. I simply considered it to be a good challenge that I had to rise to meet. But Quake could get away with this because it didn’t really feature distinctive set pieces or environments, and it certainly didn’t try to tell a story.

Now, take a game like Half Life or any of its expansions/sequels, and the same type of difficult situations where my progress is brought to a halt bugs the living hell out of me because I wanna see the next set piece, and I wanna learn what happens in the next chapter and so on.

I don’t know how many game designers take any of this into account, but if they do, and I hope they do, it could be one reason for many games being easier these days.

One thing I like about having a good range of difficulty levels is that you can play through the game once on a level that lets you see all the cinematic set pieces without too much obstruction, and then go back and get the real challenge.

God of War was good for this, except that the harder difficulty level kicked my ass into submission in the first ten minutes. :>

I think difficulty was best implemented with Warlords Battlecry III. You could choose everything about the game, so that parts of the game could be difficult and others easy. You could even change the AI of each computer player, so some would be easy and others harder. That’s the best difficulty model I’ve seen.


Halo had perfect difficulty levels - a romp on normal, challenging and fun on hard and insane (but fair) on legendary. And of course they had that great flavour text for the different levels, a crib from Myth IIRC.

Freespace 2 had excellent difficulty levels too, as well as a simple frustration sensor - if you failed the same mission five times in a row you had the option to proceed to the next. That was a good compromise, i thought.

Ninja Gaiden worked because of the phenomenon that Shadari describes, I think; nothing but the individual fights mattered as an achievement. The story cutscenes were just spicy transitions from one ass whupping to another. For people that figured out the cheap shots early, I imagine it was less gratifying…by the time I’d figured them out consistently (I was having too much fun with a variety of moves), NG Black was out and it was almost a whole new ballgame.

I just wish Nintendo would start to implement any kind of difficulty levels in their games. Preselected, adaptive, whatever… just allow me to finish at least one Metroid game. :(

I like difficulty levels, but I don’t like difficulty levels where the computer CHEATS by doing things the human player simply could not do. So yeah, make the computer player smarter, or more aggressive, or maybe even give it some bonuses, but don’t go overboard and give the AI no fog of war or the ability to build certain items instantly. If you can’t make the game harder without cheating, the don’t bother.