Difficulty levels in games

It’s ruined some games IMO. Binding of Isaac used be a challenging rogue-lite in addition to an occasional OP-fest with a gazillion ways to become powerful. But the community pushed in the latter direction, and the dev went along with it, unsure how to balance the game. He added a hard mode and a ton of achievement, but because the achievements are in hard mode as well, the massive community wanted it all to be easily accessible. Fortunately (from my perspective) the new dev wants to make Hard mode what it was supposed to be all along, but I think it’ll be a big fight when the new update drops, especially because of those pesky Hard Mode achievements.

No such thing as well balanced for everyone. Doesn’t exist. We’re all different, and if you want your game to be enjoyed by as many people as possible you’ll think about it and implement some way of making it possible.

The usual way is pretty rough, with hard borders. The adaptive way is better IMO.

But sure, there’s something to be said for a singular experience that is “equal” for everyone, but to me that’s like complaining about having to read the play in the original Klingon to be able to truly appreciate it, or having to learn Japanese to actually grok that manga. Maybe, but ain’t nobody got time for that.

Sure. Which is why difficulty levels should a) be up front about what they change and b) be possible to at least tone down, perhaps also up after starting the game. But you can definitely have an idea of what you value in games ahead of time, and if a stiff challenge is one of those things, you can be pretty safe in assuming that you’ll want something above “easy”. Whereas since that’s not my priority at all, and it’s extremely difficult to make a game unenjoyable by making it too easy for me, I feel entirely safe picking the lowest difficulty in most games. What I don’t appreciate is the game deciding that because I don’t want challenge, I also don’t want 100% completion or access to all the endings or whatever.

Doesn’t seem to be much of an issue for board games. Also, most video games have multiple difficulty levels and it’s been that way for a very long time – the adjustments are usually minor so as not to completely break the balance. I don’t see a problem with how things are.

If by “do fine”, you mean no one but me cares, I agree. But if by “do fine”, you mean the designers are doing their jobs well, I don’t agree.

I’m not really interested in the “hey, you guys find your own fun!” school of game design.


Doom, Quake et al were super fun and rewarding to play at harder difficulties. The only incentive I got out of it was a hearty ‘Fuck yeah!’ when I finally beat a difficult level. Seems to work fine.

I’m firmly in the cheevos-are-dumb camp, however.

Both sides have a point (I know, the can’t we all get along? point of view)

But there are definitely some push-forward-to-play big budget games where combat is simplistic and fairly non-evolving and enemies just hit point sponges. In those kinds of games, where the enemy you meet at the start is basically the enemy you meet at the end just with scaled HP and damage, i don’t really see any reason to be wedded to the idea of difficulty levels;
difficulty isn’t really baked into their goal nor design documents.

OTOH, there are certainly games that are based around “skill”, and in those games, making them easier lessens them. Playing a game like Dark Souls with 10x the HP and 10x the damage wouldn’t be fun, because the very design is about danger, skill, and your evolving interaction with the world (and, might be, why i always burn out them, usually pretty soon after the opening areas).

But the other rationale for adjustable difficulty is to let players overcome bottlenecks that they might otherwise not be. The last hell-game I played this way was Remember Me, where near the end there were three sub-bosses had to be chained so perfectly, with something like 40-60 button presses perfectly timed over a couple minutes, that i nearly through the controller through the wall. But this was because i was playing on Hard difficulty… i could have lowered it. Today, i probably would, because i probably don’t have an entire Saturday to spend trying to grind through it.

I would argue that Dark Souls is a game about atmosphere, worldbuilding, etc and that my inability to get past the tutorial boss makes the game less because I can’t experience 96% of it. But at least I can get much of the experience I want by watching someone else play on Youtube.

I mean Dark Souls is it’s own genre in some ways - there are a lot of side scrolling games that i just stall out on almost instantly. Hollow Knight, Sundered, ect., these games are just too difficult for me to play or even experience. I’m kind of poking through Ori but it’s not looking good.

But in those games difficulty is the game. In a game like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, cranking the difficulty to maximum is a bit of a masochistic experience. It doesn’t make the combat more interesting, unless you find the game so horrifically easy that you’re otherwise bored.

Just watching somebody else play Dark Souls is frustrating to me. I can’t imagine actually playing it.

Honestly the closest to watching (or reading) about people talking about Dark Souls is like listening to people talk about golf. Inadequacy feels like a personal slight. Rather than some twitch FPS dude no-scoping people across the map, whom i feel no competitiveness with, Dark Souls is sedate enough that failing at it (or giving up on it) feels like a slight against your character.

They’re not good at golf it’s that i’m bad at golf, which is something against me rather than for them.

It’s fascinating to me that some people think an incentive to play on a higher difficulty is necessary

This is a great point. I wondered about this myself (how I would do if it were scaled back) and thought about maybe having it start to recede if you put together a string of successful runs. I know my increased knowledge of the game helped a great deal and made the game “easier”. However, I don’t think it is strictly necessary because of the heat system letting you freely rank the difficulty back up.

I just spent a few hours this afternoon playing a new game of Pillars of Eternity, because I just can’t seem to decide on something in my backlog.

I played as a new character for me (male, Fire Godlike cipher), on Story mode. I let the AI handle the fighting while I ooh and aah over the neat things my cipher (and my other party members) throw out. Then I explore, read lore, chat up the NPCs, etc. It was a nice relaxing day. Some may say I’m not playing the game, or that I’m “doing it wrong”, but that’s what I wanted to experience today. And it was great.

Right, that’s not the first time that’s been claimed in this thread, but I don’t agree and explicitly just said what makes those games for me. And the thing is, with difficulty settings, we could both get what we like out of the game. Without, only you get to.

Did I miss where you answered the “Not everyone’s capabilities to play are the same” point, or are you just avoiding it?

I’m not following you, because “not everyone’s capabilities to play are the same” isn’t a question, so I’m not sure how I was supposed to have “answered” it.

But as far as stating facts goes, you’re on solid ground!


Well, I meant “answer” in a (somewhat figurative) sense of “a reply to a legal charge,” but that’s okay! I thought about it and I know what your answer is. If a game designer adds difficulty levels to accommodate less skilled players, they are obligated by Tom’s tenets of game design to give the skilled players pats on the heads for not needing them.

I still contend this is confusing common meta-elements of a game (i.e., players’ skill levels, psychological limitations, or physical disabilities and the game systems that attempt to accommodate them) with internal gameplay elements. You may as well say I should get extra experience for playing a shooter at 640x480 resolution because it’s so much harder to recognize my targets.

You seem to think I’m against difficulty levels in games. I’m not. I never have been.


No, I get that. You just think that properly designed difficulty levels come with incentives, right?

Most people kinda do know, they have been playing video games for years and understand what to expect from “Story” or “normal” or “nightmare”. Working difficulty into a game mechanic that works for most players is great, but I don’t think it’s always possible without harming the game in some way. Not all games are rogue-likes.

The right difficulty level for a given player should still require them to engage with the mechanic. That’s probably not an easy balance for the designer to find, which says something about “game designers not doing their job”.

My assumption here is that we’re not talking about “players who want to engage with all the depth of gameplay on offer” vs. “players who just want to mash button and see the enemy death animations”. The latter can have their story mode but that’s a separate discussion. I’m talking about people, with greatly varying skill levels, who want all the gameplay on offer.

But you do want to select a difficulty level, supposedly finding, on your own, the one that’s fun for you?