Difficulty levels in games

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.)

I agree. Some more thoughts:

  • Which difficulty levels were really tested? Which ones are really balanced to bring out the experience the developers wanted, and which ones are just +1 boosts thrown around, either to player or adversaries, to cater to a larger audience? All difficulty levels are not the same, but there’s often no easy way to know.
  • Higher difficulty levels for people who mastered the game (NG+) make sense. At this point, they’ve gotten full value out of the game and are simply trying to test their skills against harder, but untested difficulties.
  • Not all games are the same w.r.t difficulty levels. Strategy games are very value-specific and cannot easily be ‘tweaked’ for difficulty levels (imagine tweaking the number of spaces a knight can move in chess). Ideally you’d pit weaker AIs against the player in lower difficulty levels, but in reality the AIs are so miserable, it’s just a matter of how big of a cheat they get.
  • The same applies to some degree for RPGs (inasmuch as they have strategic components). It’s worth noting that getting the balance right for these complex beasts is so hard as it is, that adding difficulty levels is usually just silly and turns an imbalance into completely broken systems.
  • On the other hand, twitch-based games (action etc) can be adjusted for different skill levels rather easily, by just changing enemy reaction times. These are games that require coordination, and different ages and abilities have different built-in values for them. The balance of the game is a far less intricate affair, but the key is that every difficulty level must still be properly tested and adjusted to engineer the desired experience, and this rarely happens.
  • Puzzle elements/games could also be adjusted, going from a more difficult puzzle to a simpler one, but this is also very rare as it requires extra design rather than modifying puzzles. Puzzles, much like narrative are not just quantitative: it’s not just a matter of hitting the right number to achieve success. As such, difficulty levels for puzzles are very rare.

Interesting point, Tom, but I wonder if there is a deeper psychological connection between the different forms of media. A movie or book without drama, without a central conflict, is simply not interesting. It appears that when we consume entertainment, our brains go through the ‘challenge’ of a dramatic journey, wondering what will happen next and trying to process the emotions of temporary setbacks. I wonder if that challenge, though passive, is not fundamentally so different from that of our more interactive forms of entertainment. Note how even in the story domain, the ‘challenge’ has to be ‘just right’ aka balanced: if it is too easy or superficial, the enjoyment seems lacking. I’m suggesting that we’re activating similar neurons for all forms of entertainment, and as others here have mentioned, the crossover becomes more apparent when you watch a person playing a game on twitch, thus turning an interactive experience into a narrative form.

Ah, yes! Challenge is a fundamental part of any story, isn’t it? And that’s where the interactivity of a game can be so appealing. You’re experiencing the challenge, the drama, the conflict, rather than simply spectating it.

I don’t want to push this comparison too hard, because it’s nonsensical, but imagine if you sat down to read Moby Dick and the very first page asked you to rate how obsessed Ahab is with the White Whale: a little obsessed, moderately obsessed, or From Hell’s Heart I Stab At Thee.

Well, sure. I love watching videos of boardgame playthroughs. It’s a drama as sure as any soap opera or Russian novel, and because it 's a boardgame, it has to focus on the player rather than any fancy graphics engine!


I find any uphill battle juicy and will revel in it, but I have a friend who is the opposite, he thrives on victory, and will pile onto that and mercilessly drive it in…however, if he gets into a spot of trouble, he is VERY quick to give up completely.

A multiplayer game with him is a difficult business for me at times.

I think I prefer resistance to frustration. A game without resistance isn’t a game, overcoming the resistance is what makes it a game.

Yeah, I know the feeling. We played Unrailed last night and 3 out of 4 of us were enjoying it on medium. It was difficult, but a fun challenge to (try and) cooperate around. My friend just seemed to be getting frustrated with it (and us!), and whenever we got back to the lobby he kept sneaking over and switching the difficult down to easy, and we then ran over and bumped it back up again. Anyway, eventually he caught us out and victory: we got to play on easy. It was sleepy: open fields, no real terrain to plan, cut and build through, no bottlenecks. We didn’t really need to communicate a great deal which, as far as I’m concerned, is a problem if a game is supposed to be co-op. He mellowed a lot at that point and even said he had his feet up and was idly playing. The game’s unique pressure cooker co-op is far too delicious for me to sweep under the easy rug!

That’s pretty much it. The only incentive I want or need from a game’s difficulty is sufficient pushback to force me to engage with the game’s (hopefully interesting and robust) systems and mechanics. Not enough pushback: I’m facerolling through and don’t need to think. Too much pushback: it’s frustrating. I’d much rather err on the side of too much pushback because that’s a more interesting space to learn and grow in (depending on the game).

Managing Expectations on Offworld Trading Company comes to mind. Anyone who has played it remembers how difficult that tutorial/trial was at first but beyond it lies untold real-time strategy riches.

I like that!

Earlier in 2020 I played The Dark Mod, a free Thief-like game, that allows you to adjust the guards’ sensitivity to sound, and maybe increase their visual acuity? One of the things that struck me was that, after years of hearing folk grumble about blind, deaf and dumb stealth game guards, if you crank their senses up it totally breaks the game, and I suspect it would in most other stealth games. At the very least you end up spending longer waiting for them to settle down and blame the rats or wind.

While I’m not generally a fan of having that kind of under-the-hood access (leave that to the designers), it was humbling to see just how game-breaking certain (popular) suggestions can be. That said, I’m all for accessibility options if it means more people get to play more games. Ideally, accessibility options shouldn’t diminish the intent of a design but if concessions have to be made then so be it.

I think back to SOMA and Frictional adding a safe mode where you can’t die. At first I was like ‘but that’s undermining the tension!’ (and I still feel that way to some extent) but then if more people get to experience that brilliant story, atmosphere and maybe a few ‘softer’ scares too, then I think that’s a great thing.

Also, Thief had the best difficulty options. Everything about the game stayed the same, you just got more objectives, had to find more gold, and weren’t allowed to kill anyone.

Yeah, of course stealth games the enemies are half blind for a good reason. In real life I can see someone 200 mts away, so ‘let’s make it realistic!’ would be a bad choice. :P

So basically, if a game designers includes two experiences in one game they failed? If they’d just done a call of duty-tuned shooter it’d be fine, if they’d done a spectacle game with minimal pushback, it’d be fine.

Would your response be different if they’d done both as separate releases?

It also changes how much health Garrett has, such that getting attacked makes you significantly less likely to survive the encounter. (But, unlike most games, you’re trying not to get in fights in the first place, it just gives you less margin of error.)

Yeah Thief is a great example. Even within this one game and given my own mood, I might want to take an easy tour through the game, or I might want to test my skills to the utmost. The same person, depending on the time of day, may wish to experience a game differently. And this, I think, is because games really do contain more than one system working simultaneously. Making the stealth system easier doesn’t affect the narrative system very much.

not sure if Doom is the best example. I think for bragging rights, you could increase the difficulty. Or (in the 90s) when Doom was new, and you already replayed it on HurtMePlenty several times, and it became too easy, lets increase the difficulty and suddenly it felt fresh again.

But today? I don’t have time to replay Doom Eternal, so I play on HMP and it appears there is no reward for playing on harder difficulty, sadly.

A lot of racing games do reward you if you turn off assists with more XP or credits. Then I am actually willing to play above normal difficulty. Diablo 3 did it at some point, you could get better loot and more xp I think when you increased the difficulty. Nice!

I find it is always nice when a game does this. Or Agents of Mayhem. Make it harder, but your rookie agent will level up faster! It is so obvious, that this is a better system than one where “make it harder” only means it will be more stressful and nothing else.

The worst offender I think is Darkest Dungeon (a game I adore). There are so many options in the menu like play without corpses, radiant mode, and what not, I can’t even compare my play through with my buddies if I change a switch. Let me play how it is intended. I don’t touch any of the options, because I don’t know how they change the experience.

Oh you’re right! I’d forgotten about that.

I don’t think it is obvious at all. Levelling up faster is the opposite of what many people want out of a higher difficulty, because you get more powerful more quickly and thus the game is less likely to stay challenging. In extreme cases, it can even ramp up to the point where you’re trivializing the game well before the end. Whereas a system that makes it more stressful is exactly what they’re looking for.

(Not me, to be sure.)

But XP do not level up linear. Usually you will need more and more XP to level up, or in a car game, you get more credits to buy new parts or new cars.

I don’t think I had an issue where Wreckfest got trivial because, I earned more credits for harder difficulty.
The devs really did a good job in balancing it. Also Infested Planet did it that way. Of course it is more work on the dev side.

Agent of Mayhem can get really nasty in a mission on a high difficulty, but if I know that it is worth it for the XP and money, I will try it and leave my comfort zone. It did not make the rest of the game trivial.

It still counterbalances the increased difficulty. Maybe not fully, but when the increased difficulty is what you want, that’s a bad thing. And making it still harder overall is, as you say, more work. So that’s why it’s not obviously the correct solution.

Only to a degree. Yes, players who like their games challenging do want the game to push back more as you make your way up the power curve, and usually a good game design balances it so when you get stronger, the enemy gets stronger. But eventually, those of us who prefer more challenging games still want to get to the top of the power curve. We still want that feeling of being a badass when we get to the top.

What I meant, it is obviously for me as a player the better system and more work for the devs. In the car game example, the game does not get easier when I level up, because the driving is harder. Maybe I can overtake cars now because of greater speed, but the driving with less assists or manual shift is still harder.
But I got to buy other cars sooner or could improve my cars faster. Wreckfest did it that way and I did not breeze through the game at all.

Right, my point is that it’s the better system for you, specifically, but there are other players for whom it would be worse. So, given that and the additional part where balancing it is more work for the devs, it’s not at all the clear choice.