Difficulty levels in games

I’m not even going to try to follow the implications of that statement, because I disagree with your premise. Games are interactive, sure. But the creation of a game is NOT participatory.

Oh dear, a food analogy. I mean, the taste of food and the challenge level of a game are both subjective? That’s about all they have in common.

Look, a game designer engineers an experience based on the concept of enjoyable frustration. Right? As a player/customer/consumer, it’s not my job to engineer either element of that experience. The more accurate analogy would be me going into the Thai restaurant, ordering the pad kee mao, and the chef replying, “Coming right up! But first, I need you to tell me how to make it?”

Here’s a better analogy if you want to get reductionist. When I play an RPG, I know a kobold has a certain number of hit points. I know a sword does a certain amount of damage. The game designer combines these elements into an experience. Maybe he throws a goblin me, which has more hit points. Scary! Maybe I get a +1 sword to make it easier to kill monsters. Cool! Game design 101.

Now imagine that the game designer instead asked me how many hit points the kobold should have. Imagine that he leaves that up to me. Do I want them to have 2, 3, or 4 hit points? The experience of getting the +1 sword is completely subverted when I can just decree that all kobolds have fewer hit points. The experience of fighting the tougher goblin is subverted if I decreed that the kobolds have more hit points.

That’s simplified, of course, and plenty of games have smart and carefully built ways to adjust the challenge level so a wide range of people can play. But plenty of games also ignore the issue entirely because they can’t be bothered to work out how to tune enjoyable frustration, so they just shrug and dump it in the player’s lap. Which plenty of players don’t mind, by the way. I think a lot of players are happy to just do the developer’s job for them, because they’re not interested in how a good chef might make pad kee mao. They just want to taste the same thing they had at their favorite restaurant, so they gladly tell the chef how to make it when he asks.

Boom! Food analogy brought full circle!


I think Thraeg was right the first time with his analogy. Difficulty and rewards aren’t the “whole recipe” of a game, as you seem to be arguing. They are indeed more analogous to the amount of hot sauce stirred into it. Point: Thraeg.

Anyway, I feel like it’s worth restating your premise, Tom, in terms of inherent gameplay elements and what we might call meta-elements. You want difficulty to be integrated wholly into the gameplay design. Most people think of it as a meta-element, used to accommodate other external meta-elements, like the player’s skill level, tolerance for frustration, fear of challenge, or desire see the story more than wrestle with gameplay.

Game designers are starting to think of difficulty in an even more important sense: As an accessibility option. Not everyone has the same physical capabilities to, say, manipulate a controller, or see things on the screen. Difficulty is a standard feature of games that, if implemented right, can offset these unavoidable challenges and make a game playable by a segment of the audience that would otherwise find it impossible.

Because of this new (long overdue) way of thinking about accessibility, I expect that difficulty in all its varieties is going to continue to get more and more freely tuneable by players. And that probably means it will less often be integrated into the game design, but will remain more “meta.”

Achievements can’t be part of the game design, they’re external to the actual game.

One reason Hades is so brilliant is that God Mode gradually adjusts the challenge level to the individual player, such that a player of most any skill level feels rewarded. This allows the base difficulty to be quite challenging while allowing the wisest range of players to enjoy it. I believe it’s the best use of difficulty level in any game I’ve ever played. And, of course, the heat level layers on top of that to add even more challenge.

Difficulty is super important for a game. If the game is way too hard for your player, they will surely drop the game. I’m sure you have seen the steam stats of games where half the players didn’t play for more than one hour to whatever game. Well, this is one of the factors.
And if the game is too easy, well, they may play the game for some hours but it won’t be as satisfying as it could be. Imagine for a moment a game where the dev worked for 3 years to finish it properly, and because he didn’t spend one or two more weeks adding a extra difficulty, the player’s opinion is ‘ehh it’s fine I guess. Kind of boring in places’.

In that sense, Difficulty settings is one of the most important things a game dev can do, in the sense of level of effort required vs what you get. So I will never understand devs that neglect them.
This may happen even in AAA games. For me Starcraft 2 campaign was too easy in Normal and too hard in Hard (beyond the first 4 missions). A fourth difficulty in the middle would have been ideal for me, but Blizzard didn’t think the same, it seems.

Some developers indeed doesn’t seem to understand their own numbers. I have seen games where Hard was +100% harder than Normal, numbers wise. That’s huge. A 25% “step” can be already very noticeable already. It’s as if they are really designing their game for the default difficulty and dismiss people who want to play with a higher difficulty as masochists, so they make a big jump in difficulty supposing people will be happy smacking their heads against that wall.

So ideally you want the difficulty to be just right for the player. And that’s the thing, it’s impossible to do it with a single default difficulty. Some may be super good at the genre, others could be super bad. Some could have 20 years of experience with similar games, others have 0. Some players are teenagers, others old people with less reflexes. Etc etc. This is why you need a good range of difficulties.

You also have those game designers who reject this line of thinking saying "players should raise their skill up to this if they want to play my game’ and won’t have any difficulty settings. This is wrong, even forgetting for a moment accessability reasons. I think these kind of designer doesn’t really understand that by asking for the player to reach a fixed level of skill, what they are asking is something not fixed, but that varies by players. In their minds, they may think players will need, let’s say, 30 hours to master their game, so they are asking 30 hours of their time. But there may be people interesting in the art style of your game and in the idea of playing it, but they are truly bad and may need 90 hours, not 30.
That’s not considering the other side of the spectrum, they are making a disservice to a minority of hardcore players that are too good at your game if you insist in a single “true” difficulty.

Indeed. To me, this is a very important aspect of “difficulty settings” in games nowadays. And it’s completely separate from “in-game reward” considerations.

Difficulty settings are there to make the game accessible or challenging for a wide range of players with different abilities and in-game goals. That’s the reward. It’s not laziness or abrogation of duty to not reward players for upping the difficulty. Though I’m sure there is always the possibility of the lowest form of effort / reward: granting an achievement. Woohoo.

I can see why Tom likes the game to acknowledge the choice and do something for the player. But that’s unnecessary and not the purpose difficulty levels fulfil (IMO, of course).

here we go again :D

Yeah, I remember this discussion waaay back when Torchlight II’s loot system was first clearly understood :)

I didn’t understand it* then and I still don’t.

(*it = if the monsters are 25% harder to kill, the loot they drop should be 25% stronger (if I recall the premise correctly) which is just “normal difficulty” once you get the first few drops (but the numbers on screen are bigger!))

New year, new difficulty levels discussion. You know it makes sense. No point resisting it. Join in. :)

*joins in “2021 - Difficulty in games thread”*

my take from this is for some people the difficulty is the content,

for me the content is the story and the gameplay
is possible for me to conceive people that for them the content is the maps, models, animations and music

people that consider difficulty the content, they want challenge

I don’t want challenge at all, I want a good time, experience some escapism, a good story and hopefully something to think about

I’ll second this. Gaming is all about escapism for me. I think the recent Spider Man games did a really good job of giving the player individual tweaks for difficulty/accessibility that allowed both ends of the spectrum to have their own enjoyable experience.

If you think of the Souls games, then you are very wrong, sir! You can make them as hard or as easy as you want. Play Dark Souls as a Wizard and summon help by other players, super easy. Only summon NPC, it get’s harder. Do not summon players for help in boss fights, hard sometimes. Don’t use magic. Harder. And so on.The developers did the job for you! No difficulty settings required.

I use a weaker version of Tom’s approach: a difficulty level must be balanced properly. I don’t mind at all if there are difficulty levels, or even dynamic difficulty, so long as it still provides the kind of experience planned by the developer. An egregious example of breaking this premise is Tesla vs Lovecraft, where under ‘graphic settings’ you could select the number of enemies that could appear on-screen (I’m not sure if that’s still there). Effectively, the developers couldn’t care less what kind of experience you had – just go ahead and find the number of enemies you want to kill. At that point, if the game design involves some sort of skill or mental challenge, it’s all gone – just do whatever you want. It’s a toy at that point - a creative outlet where you make up the rules as you go along - not a game.

I also find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with some of the views expressed here. Almost all games involve some level of challenge, the main exception being purely narrative games (though aside from visual novels, even those games have a level of challenge of some sort). If you don’t believe this to be true, imagine your favorite, easiest FPS, except enemies immediately die when you see them until the game is over. That’s right, even the easiest shooter on easiest difficulty requires the basic ‘challenge’ of clicking the crosshairs on the enemy and avoiding their shots.

At the same time, there’s something to be said for a difficulty level and its applied domain, and this may be a dimension we’re missing in this discussion. All of us can understand that there’s a big difference between selecting a difficulty level ahead of time - whether for a level or an entire game session - and modifying the difficulty as soon as we hit any roadblock. Rogue-lites in general can be seen as an extension of this principle: the very choice of the game may be a choice of a difficulty level. If you wish for a different difficulty level, you can play another game. Games with a heavy narrative element may wish to allow the user fine-grained control over difficulty (minimal difficulty domain), so that the user can proceed through the narrative. Games with a minimal narrative element (e.g. rogue-lites) choose the largest difficulty domain - the whole game - or scale the difficulty up as the player wins (e.g. Slay The Spire). Strategy games, where a particular game balance determines the experience (since the same rules are applied throughout the game, and the current state of the game depends on previous application of the rules), tend to provide the player with per-session difficulty domains. In action-adventure games, balance tends to have little impact beyond the current moment, and so they can apply more dynamic and minimal difficulty domains, etc.

I haven’t played Dark Souls for more than a few minutes. What you wrote sound nothing the Developers did and more of player compensation to artificially increase difficulty. .

you can increase or decrease the difficulty in a Souls game, it is up to you. For O&S boss fight I had to “lower” the difficulty and summon a helper. The option is integrated in the game, the developer did the job for you, no need to tinker in any options menus. You always play as intended by the dev. There are drawbacks when summoning help, risk/reward, you can get invaded by other players…

Unless you’re a poor soul on console and have to pay for multiplayer, heh.

pay to win haha

God Mode or something like it should be implemented everywhere, it’s genius. The game is still hard, but gets easier as you lose until you reach a point where you’re great at the game and you don’t quite realize if it’s you or God Mode, instead of the usual game is impossible, game is easy toggle.

But some games are based on challenges provided. Shumps are the general example I normally use. If you have a God Mode in Gradius III then I think the game will lose all meaning.

Hades use of it is perfect due to it’s overall design but I really wouldn’t want that in other games.

Meh, you implement it in a way that’s similar, the player chooses and once the God Mode setting gets chosen your highscore and achievements and whatever gets shuffled to god mode track, you might even track how high your god mode “resistance” or whatever it is.

And believe me, if things keep going the way they are and games continue to be something that’s available to the public (who the hell knows in this world), you’re going to have 60, 70 and 80 year olds as part of the target for your latest AAA RPG shlooter and whatever, and good luck trying to make something that’s equally hard for the 20 year olds and the 80 year olds in the target audience.

That, or leave money on the table, which, okay, sure, that’s something I’m sure is going to happen.