Difficulty levels in games

So that’s an interesting thought experiment and one i don’t quite have a fully fleshed out answer to; your contention is basically that of, to use an old turn of phrase, a “cheat coder”, ie, if you could cheat code your way through a game, you happily would. Give me 1000x damage in a game? Yes! Infinite ammo, infinite lives? Sure!

Now i suspect that’s a bit of hyperbole though, and that we could find a level of reduction of difficulty so low that even you would be bored.

So to put it another way; would you be happy if developers made their games however they wanted but provided you public info on “easy mode” cheats you could enable? Is there is a difference to you between that and difficulty modes?

When cheats were a thing I absolutely used them all the time without qualm. I originally completed Half-Life 2 on god mode, for example. I would generally prefer to have some semblance of what the game would normally play like - turning on one hit kills would be less my thing than just disabling the ability to die. (I did the latter in Control when I hit the first boss fight and it was perfect.)

And I don’t personally consider there to be a major difference between developer-implemented cheats and difficulty settings (see above re: Control straight up letting you turn off player death in its difficulty options). But I think the latter is preferable because a) framing it as cheating positions it as an illegitimate way to play the game and even if some people (like me) don’t care, others certainly will (some would also consider easy difficulties as illegitimate but those people are jerks); and more importantly b) there is sometimes a feeling among developers that achievements must somehow be safeguarded and thus that they should disable them if cheats (or sometimes just mods in general) are used. And fuck that. I want my stupid pointless cosmetic badges for doing stuff in games if I did them, I don’t think it should matter whether I was using mods or cheats. (And that’s why I myself really don’t want higher difficulties incentivized. I want all the unlocks and achievements to be accessible to me if I want to do them, without making me play at a setting that isn’t fun for me. It’s not the end of the world if it’s just an achievement, I frequently find that 100%ing achievements would make me do stuff that’s not fun and so I don’t. I’d just prefer to have the option without difficulty (or PvP, on an unrelated note) entering into it. But difficulty-based “true endings” or special in-game bonuses or whatever can fuck off.)

Correct! It sounded from your post like you thought I was opposed to difficulty levels. I love difficulty levels when they’re well tuned and they have incentives. Otherwise, a designer is basically daring me to dial the difficulty down to its lowest level, which will almost always undermine a game’s design.


Good lord, no. What gave you the impression that I want to pay people for their privilege of doing their job for them?

Imagine I made a game with a box of monster. I put your avatar in the box and gave it a gun. I’m not going to determine how many hit points the monsters have or how much damage the gun does. I’m going to leave that up to you. I’m going to let you “find your own fun”! Now pay me $40 please.


And Malkav’s take is that those incentives can just as easily undermine a game design by daring you to dial the difficulty up to the highest level (which makes more sense to me, actually).

We already, as consumers, “find our own fun” by deciding which games to play, do we not? After all, fun is subjective, right?

I think the measure of a game’s worth to an individual is the amount of enjoyment they derive from it. That enjoyment might stem from a crushingly difficult challenge that you eventually surpass after many attempts. It could just as easily come from roflstomping hordes of enemies while feeling like a god.

I’m sure there are others here who would think that the amount of damage resistance I had in Hades by the end “undermined the game design” from their perspective, yet it was perfect for me. I wish there were more games that let me find my own fun in this manner.

I think the thing that’s confusing everyone is that a couple pixels and a line of text saying “You completed this game on Hard” count as an incentive when they’re an achievement, but if those couple pixels and a line of text are in the options menu where you set the game to “Hard” and at the end of the game when it says “Gratz u won,” they are not an incentive.

Well, it should go without saying that for an incentive to be effective, it has to be effective. Crazy proposition, I know, so I understand why you might be confused. I mean, for some people, “hey it’s more fun this way!” is all the incentive they need, so they don’t care if the designer tuned anything. They’re happy deciding how many hit points the monsters have and how much damage the guns did. They’re happy “finding their own fun”. For other people, an achievement will do the trick. For yet others, there should be some in-game balance going on.

But my point is that the designers who don’t even try aren’t doing their jobs. They’re leaving it up to someone else.


Yeah, this is a great point. I pick which movies I watch, so all movies should have multiple choice endings.


Uh, okay. Boy, how about that Cyberpunk 2077 fun factor?


Here’s the point I feel like you’re avoiding grappling with:

Difficulty levels aren’t necessarily there to be well-tuned gameplay options for the game’s main audience. Especially these days, they are often there for those on the fringe of the audience: Those who aren’t comfortable with a controller in their hands, or those who don’t like the stress of severe challenge, those who want to spend their time absorbing the story more than butting up against the gameplay systems, or those who have physical disabilities.

I get that you’re not opposed to difficulty levels, presumably for any reason, but what you are saying is that if a designer adds an easier mode for these kinds of marginal groups, that they’re obligated to add gameplay incentives to the standard difficulty levels.

You’re thinking about difficulty levels in one way–with respect only to the integrity of the internal gameplay systems–but they serve a lot more than that. So while I don’t think it harms the experience of a disabled player for the game designer to give achievements to more typical players playing at the typical difficult setting… I think you’re wrong to insist it’s an obligation.

But…they are making those determinations. They’re just doing it more than once, to produce different effects, and letting the player decide which of those will be a better experience for that player, which is something a designer cannot possibly do unless they are actively running the game for that player in real-time.

Why are these lazy designers making me create my own fun?!!?!

Succeeding at a harder difficulty is its own reward!? Lame!

This thread is really just a bunch of people trying to tell Tom his subjective opinion is wrong. It’s absolutely his subjective opinion! It can’t be wrong! It also can’t be right! It’s subjective! It’s like if you think a painting is “motel art.” As long as you’re using that phrase figuratively and the art isn’t literally hanging in a motel, it’s your opinion and can’t be right or wrong!

All we can glean from this thread is that it’s an unpopular opinion. And that’s okay! For both sides! #bothsides

That’s what makes this one fun every time it comes up.

I didn’t tell Tom he was wrong. But he clearly thinks I am. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Cool. This in no way precludes incentivizing harder difficulty levels.

Ah, I see. You want all games to have an easier setting for people who are at a disadvantage. Does the disadvantage have to in the form of disability? For instance, some games require a lot of patience, or fast reflexes, or a lot of dexterity, or acute spatial awareness, or math skills. If I don’t possess those qualities, should the game have a difficulty setting for me?

I’ve been playing Hitman 3 lately. It requires a lot of patience. I’m at a disadvantage if I don’t have a lot of patience. Should it have a setting for me? Or are you just advocating a setting for people with some sort of actual disability? Because I don’t think Hitman 3 needs to have a setting for people without patience. I think Hitman 3 basically has patience as a prerequisite. And that’s okay with me.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me you’re advocating that all games need to be equally accessible to all people. I don’t agree. If that’s a game’s design mandate, ironically, I’m probably not going to be interested in it. In which case, I’d argue it has failed its own design mandate.

So not only do I disagree with your premise, I don’t see how it’s related to incentivizing difficulty levels.


You seem to view difficulty levels as a form of progression mechanic, but that isn’t their function in most games.

I’m willing to bet tuning the game to work well on different level, so that each givess roughly the same experience, is much harder than declaring playing on Expert gives x1.75 XP, so the “Ha ha, lazy devs not doing their job” bit is kinda pointless.

By the way, I agree achievements are a good reward for playing on higher levels. It doesn’t affect gameplay, or make reasonable people do things they don’t enjoy, but players that are good enough get a nice pat on the back. Maybe they can print it out and hang it on the wall.

I think this is the part we have the most trouble understanding. If a game’s difficulty screen has a description like “this mode is for those who just want to experience the story and not worry about combat”, and another that says “this is the standard mode for most people and how they should play”, and another that says “this is for veterans of this genre and those that prefer more challenge”. Then how are they daring you to play the lowest difficulty by not having incentives in the higher difficulty? They’re clearly labelling who should choose which setting. I think if you’re purposely choosing the lowest one and then saying it’s not challenging enough, isn’t that on you, not on them?

That’s a strange claim. Certainly not one I’ve ever made.


Well if it wasn’t a matter of opinion there wouldn’t be a point in arguing. You could just open the Big Book of Game Design Facts and show Tom how wrong he is.

That is exactly my feeling. The designers have set up those difficulty levels for specific purposes. That’s game design. You then pick the level that matches what you want out of the game. bam. everyone wins. Or you could deliberately sabotage your own experience by picking one that you know you’ll enjoy less, strictly because there’s no achievement, I guess? But that’s not the designers’ fault.