Difficulty levels in games

So an insult, an appeal to authority, and a lecture on How Games Are Supposed To Be Played. I’m not swayed. :)

And for the record, I don’t touch the options menu. I play on normal and let the chips fall where they may (e.g. Prey).


I want to add that I keep taking part in this conversation because I think it’s legitimately fascinating. Tom’s perspective is unusual (I think that’s safe to say), but it exposes interesting things about the nature of features in video games, different ways to play, and also unique features of games as a medium.

So Tom deserves a thank you for hopping into the firing line and being peppered with challenges, especially when it means he has to say the same things over and over again.

I wonder if an aspect of this debate has to do with Tom as a movie aficionado. Movies are just simply much more self-contained than video games, and I think Tom’s arguments here reflect a desire for games to be more self-contained, with fewer meta-concerns. In a movie, you might have to worry about the quality of the projector or the comfort of the seats or the disruptiveness of the audience, but you can’t lay these things at the feet of the filmmaker. I think the nature of games is that some of these kinds of meta-concerns are folded into the product itself, and that fact is exposing the fault line here.

You’re still arguing about the designer asking you how many hitpoints the monster should have (which, on a side note, continues to not be what’s happening - they’re telling you the monsters can have 40, 50 or 60 and you’re deciding which makes a better experience for you), when the question is “why should it be okay for them to ask you that question, but only if you get that cookie if you pick more?” Your response makes perfect sense as an argument for why they shouldn’t be asking you that (though I don’t agree, obviously) but not as a response to the actual question. So it’s easy for me to see why people assume you’re against difficulty levels, because all your rhetoric seems to be about that and not why they need to be incentivized.

Right? Like, “Games shouldn’t have difficulty levels” is a completely bog-standard opinion. If that was his POV, I may or may not agree, but I would understand it!

But, again, I don’t have to understand it. I feel like we’re all looking at the color tile Tom selected for his bathroom and being like, “I don’t like it.” We don’t have to like it!

I hadn’t really considered it from that perspective, but you might be on to something.

But I think it’s mostly that games have that necessary “frustration” component. There’s an inherent adversarial relationship between a game designer and a player; the game designer has to throw down obstacles to the player’s success. That’s a unique element in how games tell stories, with no counterpart in other forms of entertainment. And if there’s no incentive for me to overcome the obstacle using the tools the gameplay provides rather than some external difficulty setting, I’m going to be less inclined to engage the obstacle and therefore the game.

So my feeling is if one of the tools is a setting on an options menu, there needs to be some bias towards using the gameplay tools instead. A designer who doesn’t provide that bias isn’t doing his job*.

And I appreciate you guys giving me the opportunity to articulate this stuff. I know it gets rolled out a lot, but now we can have it all in one thread!


* this is admittedly a provocative way to put it, since I’m sure people don’t like being told they aren’t doing their job by someone who’s never had to do their job

And I don’t agree that frustration is a necessary component. For me, what makes game storytelling unique is being directly immersed in it, having the story happen to and around me, especially if my actions then change the path the story is on or the color around it. I mean, yes, there have been attempts to add some of that interactivity to other media - CYOA books/“gamebooks”, Bandersnatch and interactive DVDs…but at that point I feel like they’re starting to be games, at least a little.

(And this, incidentally, is why while I will settle for watching other people play games on Youtube or reading screenshotted AARs, I’d usually rather have a setting where I can reasonably complete the game myself. Because once I’m not the one playing, we really are just talking about the same storytelling tools other media employ.)

I understand what Tom is getting at but I also kind of recoil at the use of the word “frustration.” Too much baggage there for me, it has a negative connotation - I’d put down a game that frustrates me. But I don’t know what a better word would be; “challenge” seems so overused as to be meaningless.

But it does put me in mind of Doom Eternal most recently as a game that I overall enjoyed and also respected for pushing me out of my FPS comfort zone. But I totally had to dial the difficulty down to easy in order to complete it. And I definitely felt frustrated at times, though I kept at it. What’s different about that game? I’m not really sure, but then that’s probably why I don’t write reviews. “I dunno, I just liked it”, as I shrug and wander off.

For all that I’ve contended I don’t need or care about challenge in games (and I still do), I do actually enjoy a satisfying challenge. To me, that’s when things are gauged such that, on average, I feel like I need to pay attention to the game to progress, and that things that are supposed to be major events I pass with what feels like a narrow margin, or I fail but with a clear idea of how I will succeed the next time and then do. I find games are by and large terrible at gauging things to that exact degree and much, much prefer passing without friction to having to repeat content more than once or twice, so I almost invariably err on the side of not having friction.

I think a lot of the issue here is really about immersion or verisimilitude or whatever version of that you want to call it. If the game includes side quests you can do that get you better stuff and more power and that therefore make the challenging parts easier (at the cost of taking longer), then it maintains the immersion because you had an in-game solution to the difficulty issue. As long as the side quests are still fun, the game can then be fun for many types of player. I assume Tom would have no issue with this sort of approach.

If instead, the game gives you the option of purchasing better stuff and more power, most people would have an issue with that. Is the issue only the monetary cost, though? If I made a game that was incredibly difficult but free, and then sold powerful items that reduced the difficulty (by upping your armor or damage or whatever), that could still be fun, as long as there was some trade off to which items to buy and the cost wasn’t outlandish, but you would lose the immersion of any in-game item earning.

Take exactly that game and make all the items free (but then charge a purchase fee for the game itself) and you’d have something like the LCG vs CCG style of card game. Still potentially fun, because of the combinatorics. But the issue then is that the menu isn’t like playing a CCG or even something like the MOO2 or CK3 character creators. You don’t choose your build from a set of trade offs, and you aren’t locked in while playing. It’s like the Diablo 3 skills, if the only thing the rune choices did was increase your damage and resists across the board. And it feels like an external manipulation to boot, so it ruins the immersion of skill choices.

It’s similar in this way to the question of having a “hardcore” mode with permadeath. You don’t have to include a mode where one death means your saved game is deleted. People could choose to just start over when they die. But it feels wrong or unfun to make that choice for yourself when the game gives the option to respawn.

There’s a related idea that I think also comes up - the consequences of moral choices. So, a game like Heavy Rain, where you can let you son beat you at fencing early on or you can whoop him. There’s no incentive to either choice, but it still feels like a gameplay choice even though one is a little easier to do. Similarly, a game that has situations where you can slaughter a bunch of people, many of whom will eventually become enemies, or choose to let them go. If letting them go means that you have to face a stronger force later and so the game is just harder, it feels like the game is incentivizing bad actions while providing no incentive for good actions. It doesn’t feel quite right as a customization option, a gameplay decision, or a moral dilemma because it isn’t fully developed - it doesn’t flow naturally within the world because the world isn’t rich enough to model the good opinion or religious reason you might choose the higher difficulty of the moral path.

Thanks Tom, for the prolonged discussion, I think I finally understand where you’re coming from.

This part in particular is key to understanding your position and why you’re willing to set the difficulty easier, but not willing to set it harder.

I guess for me, I’ve long viewed it not as an adversarial relationship. Me and the designer both have the exact same goal: to provide me, the player, a good challenging experience. So when I enjoy the core gameplay loop, I usually want it to be as challenging as possible without it being a brick wall I can’t get past. But if I don’t enjoy the core gameplay loop (like in games with Real Time with Pause combat like Baldur’s Gate, Pillars of Eternity, Final Fantasy XII, Dragon Age Origins, etc), selecting a difficulty that provides a challenge is the opposite of what I want. In those cases, I want the parts I don’t like (the combat) to be over as soon as possible. So I’m on the same team as the designers: we both want the optimal experience for me, and depending on the genre, I can choose the difficulty that best suits that goal.

I’m reminded of this principle: learning is necessary for fun. A successful game design teaches players how to use its systems to overcome its challenges. The player who fails without learning becomes frustrated and quits. Some can’t or won’t learn or lack essential skills or need extra help (easy settings, cheats, accessibility), and some learn quickly and want more difficulty.

Because the gameplay is supposed to be fun. Players who don’t want to engage with the tools and obstacles probably picked the wrong game (or hobby), or they do need to change the difficulty, or else they’re struggling against bad game design.

Market forces. Developers want the widest possible appeal for sales with as much of the game to be reachable as possible to avoid wasting resources building unseen content, and nobody can afford to alienate interested players when there is so much competition. AAA budgets especially require compromises because universal balance for all players is generally not possible.

“Making a game for everybody is the same thing as making a game for nobody.” -Soren Johnson, reflecting on the development of Spore.

Their goal is usually not to defeat or frustrate the player. It’s more like mentoring. Players must decide how hard to push themselves based on what they want from the experience. The “losing is fun” idea (as in Dwarf Fortress or AI War) is insightful and valuable to some of us, but not all.

I’m in favor of what I call “geographic difficulty”, where most content is accessible to the player in an open-book or open-world format, rather than gating difficulty behind play time or progression or options. Think Ghost Recon Wildlands or Crusader Kings 3, where the player can tackle whatever interests them or feels appropriate. A game world can have guidance and warning signs without blocking the player’s path. The difficult content can be there to entice players even if they opt out.

A downside to this may be choice paralysis, where having too many options becomes a disincentive. It’s a bit like the map-marker spam problem, as having some absurd checklist to optimize before you play feels much worse than just exploring.

There’s also a practical reason why you don’t start the game on hard: it’s never really clear what hard means. Those who want the easiest possible setting can’t really go wrong with easy. But what does hard mean?

Does it mean, “it’s meant for players going through the game a second time who already know all the tricks and might have New Game+ items” or “we made normal piss-easy, so hard is still a joke” or “screw it, we literally didn’t do our job, we just tripled all the values, have fun banging your head against a wall”.

Can you think of a better word? I’m always up for better options for how to articulate it. But when I heard “enjoyable frustration” many years ago – I don’t even remember who is was, sadly – it felt like the perfect description of how game design works.

Don’t get hung up on the term adversarial! Think of it more like a dungeonmaster throwing down obstacles. What kind of lousy dungeonmaster puts you through a dungeon without traps and monsters? Ultimately, he’s an entertainer and a storyteller, but part of the experience he’s engineering involves monsters and traps. Obstacles. Frustration. Game design is the same way, and the adversarial component is what sets it apart from entertainment from a novelist, filmmaker, sculptor, or juggler. None of them presents obstacles. None of them has an adversarial component in the entertainer/consumer relationship.

Dude. Don’t even. :)

I have to disagree, because there’s no adversarial element to mentoring. A mentor doesn’t create obstacles to his student’s progress. A mentor has no interest in frustrating the student’s learning or challenging his ability to proceed through a lesson. I mean, teaching is its own kind of skill and I wouldn’t necessarily compare it to any form of entertainment, especially something unique like game design.


Flow theory uses the word “anxiety” or “frustration” to denote when a task isn’t going well because it’s consistently too difficult (it’s “boredom” when it’s too easy). So within the flow space, you have a sense of challenge without overwhelming frustration.

I don’t know if this chart makes sense without a full explanation, but the moments you’re talking about are the parts of the wiggly line that veer up toward frustration, before you learn how to address a challenge and the line flattens out.


Flow? I’m going to vote against using flow.

I’m pretty sure that chart really wants “flow” to be labeled “fun”, but it knows if it did, I would scold it.


By the way, I usually don’t do either of those things! If the game designer can’t be bothered to do his job, I just play on normal and let the chips fall where they may. It’s not my job to find the fun.

The only exceptions are when I’m basically done with a game but want to see it through for whatever reason. By the time I got to the end of Cyberpunk and was doing the last mission, I honestly couldn’t have cared less about any challenge level, so I dialed it down to easy and just cut everyone up with a sword to get to the ending cutscene.


Frustration is a problematic term because games can produce the psychological element as well as the intended hindrance.

Students do get challenged and tested. A game designer provides both training and tests.

Maybe coaching is a better analogy. A sports coach has to push you out of your comfort zone to excel and will put you in competitive situations where you can fail. Some sports are games too, but not all.

Finally, something we can agree on.

But I more generally agree with this:

If difficulty levels are harmful to the game, how do “incentives” make them right? how would an achievement or XP bonus for playing on hard make your description of playing Prey on normal any better?

By the way, the word you’re looking for in the frustration talk is just “challenge”. This carries, in the context of a game, the whole concept of obstacles that are satisfying to take on and overcome.

And incidentally, that description of Prey sure sounds like an unbalanced weapon to me, which is a different problem than difficulty levels undercutting the design. (Personally, what I’ve played of Prey was on Easy, because those Typhons are brutal as hell in at least the early game and I was getting super frustrated with the game on Normal. Easy didn’t make anything a cakewalk, it made it manageable for me with some ingenuity.)