Difficulty levels in games

In a perfect world for me, on games where reflexes, aim, etc. matter (non-MP) the games tutorial dynamically determines my difficulty setting.

So, on a game like Tomb Raider, where I suck at jumping puzzles maybe the game gives me a slight boost to jumps to stop me from just missing. Or increases the hit box slightly on enemies. By running through these situations in the tutorial the game can take a guess at what is a good challenge for me.

It’s impractical for a game to be equally accessible to everyone, so we can set aside that possibility.

However, designers design for an audience in mind. And that audience can be more or less broad, more or less diverse. That’s a choice that designers make. Let’s set aside cases of physical disability. Let’s talk about action adventure games with strong narratives. If I’m designing one, I might spend a lot of time tuning combat or traversal mechanics to cater to the large part of my audience that is engaged by that stuff. But I might also perceive that basically this same game can provide an enjoyable experience to a different sort of player, one who doesn’t want shooting challenges, etc, but who wants to take part in the adventure’s story. I can accommodate that kind of player–without in any way changing the experience for the first set of players–with an auto-aim function, or by lowering the enemy hit points, or having a game setting that means the player never dies.

As the game designer, I can intend both of these experiences within a single product, and can very simply cater to both. I think what you’ve been saying is that I’ve somehow let the first group of players down. Actually, you’ve said I’m a bad designer who can’t do his job.

The reason I think you’re wrong is that the rationale for having that “no death” button or whatever is a meta-concern. It’s a question of audiences and accessibility. It’s not actually a decision made for the integrity of the gameplay systems, so there is no need for a remedy of that kind.

“We?” Well, I’m not sure you’re speaking for, but it’s not that hard to understand that lower difficulty levels can undermine a game’s design. Consider Prey. I played Prey at the default difficulty level. By the time it was over, I could kill almost anything with an upgraded shotgun. All those cool systems and abilities and options for solving problems were useless to me because the shotgun trumped everything at the default difficulty level. All that design work, right out the window. All those tools for varying gameplay went unused. I suspect Prey falls apart even more at the lower difficulty level. Which is a shame, because a lot of work went into creating that world, its hazards, and the options for navigating its hazards.

Or consider a game with monsters that have interesting and unique AI behaviors and abilities. If I play on an easy difficult level and they’re all dying before they can demonstrate any of these behavior and abilities, the easier difficulty has undermined the game’s design. I’ll never even see the creature designs.

These are the worst. “Standard mode”? “Veterans of the genre”? “Those that prefer more challenge”? I especially love the “intended experience” line. “This is the intended experience” implies that all the others are unintended experiences.

These kinds of difficultly level descriptions are the worst, because not only do they have no idea who they’re actually talking to, but now I have to make a choice based on who I think they think they’re talking to, before I’ve even set foot in their game.

Because the moment I experience frustration, rather than engaging the intended game design, why don’t I just turn down the difficulty? Presumably the game is about, say, zapping dragons with magic wands. Now they’ve made their game about going into settings menus and reducing the dragon’s hit points. They’re both equally viable solutions to the problem that the dragon didn’t die. Shouldn’t the designer bias the actual zapping with magic wands? Isn’t that his job?


So what is the point of “incentivized” levels? Why is wrong for a designer to say “pick how many hit points” but okay to say “pick how many hit points, if it’s over 50 you get a cookie”?

If it was part of the game progression then it can work as game design and balance. Players start on a lower level then get rewarded as they improve. But otherwise what is it for? If the cookie is intended as part of the design, let everyone have it. If it isn’t throw it out. If you put in a difficulty level, it should be balanced and rewarding to play on it’s own, for players of a given level of skill.

That sounds like an incentive to play at a higher difficulty.

So Uncharted? You want a shooter in your adventure game. And you want it to be challenging for Call of Duty players, but accessible for people who aren’t good at shooters. I would say you’ve done a poor job designing your game. You’ve either diluted your shooter, driven difficulty spikes into your adventure game, or both. And now you want to add difficulty levels to smooth over your lack of design focus.

At this point, incentivizing difficulty levels is the least of your problems. :)

Okay, but I get what you’re saying.

Not can’t do your job. Didn’t do your job.

I think we both agree that a game designer’s job is to engineer an experience. I think we can further agree that the experience will be based on the calculus of “enjoyable frustration”. So when you were making Uncharted, during the shooter parts that “frustrate” the “enjoyment” of the adventure, you knew that some players will fail during the shooter parts. The frustration might be too much. So you wanted to give them a way to get past that frustration if they’re not good at shooters.

So you put in an option to make the enemies have fewer hit points or do less damage or whatever it is that’s going to get them past that part of the game. My assertion is that part of your job when engineering an experience is keeping the player in the experience when it comes to solving the “frustration”.

But you’ve now shifted the experience to an option in the settings (see my previous post about zapping dragons with wands). You opted out of engineering the experience and left it up to me. Do I try the shootout again? Or do I go into the options menu and make the shootout easier? Why would I play the shootout twice when I could just turn down the difficulty and play it once? And more to the point, in future shootout, why would I play carefully – using cover, making sure to reload my gun, aiming carefully, flanking enemies – when I can just play the options menu instead? As a game designer, part of your job is making me want to play the shooter part of your game instead of your options menu.

And if you can’t do that, if you can’t make me want to play your shooter, you didn’t do your job engineering the experience. You probably shouldn’t have even put the shooting bits in there. So if you want to undercut them, you should find some way to incentivizing not undercutting them. In other words, if there’s a way to opt out of parts of your game, why is it even in there?


For the same reason you presumably didn’t turn it up in Prey. You didn’t want to do the designer’s job for them. So why turn down the difficulty so that the dragon will have less hit points? Isn’t that tinkering with the designer’s job? Instead, to NOT do the designers job for them, when a game gets hard or frustrating, you don’t tinker with the difficulty and keep playing. Just like you seem unwilling to raise the difficulty when a game is not challenging enough, you should be unwilling to lower it for the same reason, right?

It’s not my job as a player to increase the amount of pushback a game offers. In fact, that’s the opposite of my job. My role in the equation is to get around the pushback. If you ask me how many hit points the monsters should have, why wouldn’t I say 1?

Your answer is “because monsters with 50 hit points are more fun”. With all due respect, you would make a terrible game designer!

Yes, we’ve already established that you’re an advocate of “finding your own fun”. :)


You’ve discovered @justaguy2’s secret weapon. Unfortunately, he makes up the book as he goes along and he doesn’t let anyone else see it. He’s got a whole library of similar books on topics ranging from games to movies to politics.


Because a video game (like a movie) can be different things to different people.

Notice how I keep making arguments about different strata of audiences, and you keep responding with arguments about one player’s experience?

More critically though…

Because you understand–or, well, YOU don’t understand, but preeeeeety much everyone else in this thread understands–that the settings in the options menu are a convention that exist outside of the gameplay itself to accommodate multiple kinds of players, that just because the button is there doesn’t mean that you should use it when you’re frustrated, that your experience can be better for not pushing it, and that gameplay incentives probably won’t change those fundamental facts.

So he put the tools in my hand and didn’t expect me to use them?


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.