Difficulty levels; do they work?

The static method is more accepted befcause it represents a choice prior to initiating the game that represents the degree of challenge you’ve set for yourself. Winning the game means you’ve successfully overcome th challenge. That’s a positive feeling.

On the other hand, changing a slider in the middle of the game to adjust the difficulty down means you’e failed and need to “cheat” your way around a challenge. Failure. A negative. Dialling up the difficulty in the middle of the game means all your accomplishments to that point were easy-peasy cakewalks. No challenge. No win.

I quite like the single static difficulty approach. Means you’re playing the game exactly how intended, and I get more of a sense of accomplishment if I finish it like that.

I’m the opposite–I like a game where I can change the difficulty in the middle. In a game like SS2, for example, you could screw yourself up early in the game if you picked a bad upgrade path, but you wouldn’t know till the end.

Or, sometimes, I’m near the end of a game, and I just don’t want to spend the time to master the trick of the boss monster–“cheating” right near the end just doesn’t bother me. (Well, it never bothers me, per se–I just often don’t do it).

Every so often, someone talks about “playing the game how it’s intended,” and I’m not sure you can meaningfully talk about that. After all, it’s a collaborative product–who’s the person whose intention you’re playing?

Also, I’ve read at least a couple of postmortems where the designer says “we wanted to put in a difficulty slider/save-anywhere system/whatever, but we ran out of time and money.” So now you’re getting a sense of accomplishment because the publisher didn’t give the developer time to implement his vision? That strikes me as kinda wacky.


Sounds similar to System Shock, where you could independently set the difficulty of the combat, plot, puzzles, and cyberspace.

Difficulty sliders can be a great asset to a game as long as players do not need to constantly tweak it.

For example, if you play a game on medium difficulty, but one scenerio requires you to turn it to easy mode to beat, that is a design flaw.

CoH has done a great job with it though. You have dynamic diffculty depending on party size, and you have a chosen one that stacks with the auto one.

  1. YOU are playing the game game as intended, and YOU get more of a sense of accomplishment. I, on the other hand, cannot play at all because the game is too hard!

  2. How is your sense of accomplishment different from a game that does have difficulty levels and you just leave the at the default setting?

The problem with most difficulty levels is that they tend to make simplistic gameplay changes: e.g., they vary the number and health of enemies, but not their AI; or they increase the frequency of ammo and health drops. But what if the reason you’re having trouble playing a game is because you’re always fighting with the camera controls? Or you’re playing a platformer and you keep mistiming your jumps, so what you really want is a longer jump, not fewer enemies? Difficulty levels don’t really address those sorts of problems.

Of course, gamers themselves are an issue: even just in our tiny merry band, we have a broad range of opinions on how hard games “ought” to be; how do you create a game which appeals to as many gamers as possible, of varying skill levels and expectations?

This is why SiN Episodes gets it so right, it’s not just adaptive difficulty, but rather you also tell the game how much challenge you want, and how much assistance you want should you get stuck.

This way not can you determine the level of challenge to overcome, you’re ensuring that challenge stays relative to your skills.

Shame it wasn’t documented worth squat, just a big meaningless slider.

That was like one step short of a debugger. The lowest combat setting had enemies not attack at all…

Steady on, I wasn’t insulting your gaming ability.

With one single difficulty, you know that what you’re getting is exactly what was intended by the devs and it’s exactly what everyone else is playing as well. That’s a little different to have multiple difficulty levels where you might think you’re doing fantastically well on “Hero” level when you find out that the devs actually gimped the enemy AI and really intended the game experience to be “Psychopath” level.

Or, alternatively, you try and work through one difficulty level, only to discover that the devs designed it for “Easy” mode and just insanely boosted the enemies and restricted you massively on “Hardcore” because it was the easiest way to give you multiple difficulty modes.

Like I said, I quite like the single difficulty approach. I didn’t say it was perfect!

And yes, my sense of accomplishment is diminshed a little if I beat a game and there’s a harder difficulty mode…

By “playing as intended”, I mean that as there’s only one game experience in terms of difficulty - whether that means AI, item placement, number of enemies or whatever - then what you get is what was designed and shipped. With multiple difficulty levels (which could change countless aspects of the game) you’re never quite sure which is the one the game devs designed the game around.

I may not be describing this too clearly :)

Perhaps a good example would be Halo. The enemy AI is at its peak (and the game is better for it) at the highest difficulty level. Other games might just boost enemies in terms of hitpoints and numbers and damage, just to tip the balance further away from the player. I get the impression Halo was intended to be played at the highest difficulty; some games are shit at certain levels.

Then you’re playing a bad game. The interface should never (well, almost never) be an explicit challenge in a game.

This is one of the reasons I didn’t much care for the first release of Darwinia – you had to make Street-Fighter-esque “special moves” to summon units instead of just clicking an icon or pressing a key.

Which was why it was likely changed in the Steam release.

I’m going to use Metal Gear Solid 3 as an example of a finely tuned set of difficulty levels that are all condusive to entertainment (and avoiding frustration) depending on the player.

Easy is there to basically eliminate any frustration for the player and let them enjoy it even if they’re not skilled. You can employ whatever tactics you prefer and they’ll probably get you through (stealth, rambo, non-lethal, avoidance, special ops, etc.). The enemies don’t go fetal for you so you’ll still feel good about yourself.

Normal expects more out of you. There’s potential for frustration if you’re totally incompetent, but if you screw up normal areas you can still rambo through the soldiers and usually move on. Here you take enough damage to feel pressure and have close calls, especially at the boss battles, but the mainstream crowd will probably not die much and should feel challenged more than frustrated.

Hard is for the veteran gamer. I say veteran gamer not as in someone who will sit there replaying the same area 50 times without losing his head and smashing the controller, but as someone with good reflexes, patience in shooting and waiting for the right moment in an encounter, and the observational skills to spot patterns and weak spots in bosses. On this mode, expectations are high and the player may die several times, but the type suited for the mode will learn something from each death and is given enough health and ammo to get the time necessary in each attempt to learn patterns before a death comes.

Extreme is unlocked after finishing hard. It’s not meant to be a mode taken on your first time through the game. Here if you make a single mistake you may very well die, so you’ll want to have expertise with the core game concepts and the enemy attack patterns before taking it on. It’s rough but very doable with skill and persistence, and a perfect way to extend replay value for someone who has finished the game one or more times already.

It’s obvious to me that kojima productions takes difficulty levels very seriously, and this sort of fine tuning is something I’d like to see more often. Dynamic adjustment is certainly one way of doing things, and I did enjoy SiN Emergence, but at the same time I prefer taking a challenge head on rather than it being adjusted downward. What was it, Freespace 2 IIRC that would let you skip a mission if you failed it five times? That’s a mechanism to avoid frustration, and a worthwhile one to include, but personally I’d never click that button.

There’s also the issue of the quicksave/quickload inspiring neglect among PC game devs for tuning encounters. I’m used to it to the degree that I won’t be taken too much of out immersion by hitting that quicksave key every couple minutes, but it’s surely a game design crutch. I like what Prey does – when you “die” you’re taken to the spirit world for ~15 seconds or so where you shoot some critters that your body/spirit harvests to regenerate your form, allowing you to continue from where you died. For a linear FPS that takes whole annoying f5 f5 f5 f5 f5 priority off the player, because I know the last thing I want to do in a linear game is die and repeat the exact same thing over again right after I finished it.

MGS2 was a great example. I never bothered much with 3, so I can’t compare it, but MGS2 was excellent with scaled difficulties. Extreme mode made you feel awesome to beat, even though they failed to the “climactic” metal gear battle harder and opted for just longer, and increasing the choke time for that stupid minigame nearly broke the game for me. But the cyberninja fight was money, every time, as was Fatman (the hardest boss for me, bar none, albeit with no radar). I played the hell out of that game, no matter how much the plot irritated me at times, largely due to the incentives provided in the difficulties.

I really like games that don’t assume I’m pounding on the quicksave key every few seconds. Half-Life 2 was very good at this–I played through pretty much the entire game using only the checkpoint saves, and never felt any frustration.

Unfortunately, I now keep expecting other games to be equally good at doing checkpoint saves, and getting screwed.

Oh, I’m not easily insulted over that. I know I suck at action games in general. The problem is, I still like to play them! And without difficulty levels, more often than not I have to abandon a really cool game half-way through, like Metroid Prime.

With one single difficulty, you know that what you’re getting is exactly what was intended by the devs and it’s exactly what everyone else is playing as well. That’s a little different to have multiple difficulty levels where you might think you’re doing fantastically well on “Hero” level when you find out that the devs actually gimped the enemy AI and really intended the game experience to be “Psychopath” level.

So your concern is about the quality of the game varying with difficulty levels? I agree that having a diminished experience at the default level sucks, but I think this is really a question of properly designing and documenting the levels. Even better, have separately adjustable components: AI smart/dumb, weapons weak/strong, etc. Default to the recommended settings, or describe them in the manual. That way you can make sure you get the smartest enemy AI if that’s what you’re after. Moreover, even I (who sucks at action games) can experience the clever AI and compensate with the other settings.

I get that, but I’m not sure it’s meaningful. For one thing, maybe the designers had the intention of multiple difficulty levels–I remember one talk at the GDC which about how that particular game (don’t remember the name) was built around the difficulty levels.

It was a MP arcade game, and the idea was to let newbies play alongside experienced players, so a lot of thought went into the difficulty levels. In fact, since they saw that as the pressing need that was missing in existing games, you could say that difficulty levels were the raison d’etre of the game.

I guess my point is that a game ships as it is, and there’s no way to really correlate that to a designer’s actual vision, short of talking to the design or reading a postmortem.