Dynamic Difficulty systems

What do you think about dynamic difficulty systems? Particularly about whether or not to keep them behind curtains. I’m torn after watching Mark Brown’s video about it, because if a player wants to challenge themselves with higher difficulty to improve it’s not negative even if it might frustrate them, the only ones benefited by having the system hidden are those who would cheat themselves to make the game easier, but I don’t think it’s necessary to cater to people with that attitude. The transparent system of God Hand allowed me to constantly try to improve to push it further. Even just allowing players to change difficulty at will during the game seems superior to a hidden dynamic system, because it allows to adjust according to their conscious needs and disallows cheating to make it easier (it’d be easier by choice). So only a transparent dynamic system seems superior to me.

I think you can’t realistically keep them behind the curtains from everyone. I actually didn’t know RE4 had a dynamic difficulty system myself on watching that video, but of course someone speedrunning would notice it and abuse it if it was abusable.

I was involved in a discussion about dynamic difficulty systems recently by someone who took the stance that dynamic difficulty should be the only type of difficulty in single player games if at all possible, always adjusting itself to the player’s skill level so that players will remain in the flow zone tailored for them for the entire experience. It makes a degree of sense in an abstract way, but many people (including me) want to challenge themselves against a static difficulty level. If the game is easier or harder based on your skill, so that everyone is challenged equally, then it removes a lot of the push to improve, a lot of the selective pressure on your strategies.

The thing is, God Hand’s system doesn’t really let you cheat. It doesn’t have terribly forgiving checkpoints and dying costs you time. I don’t think God Hand’s difficulty is exactly a good comparison, because it’s designed in such a way that it fluctuates up and down very directly based on whether you are hitting other people or getting hit. There’s no way to perform efficiently and not have it spike upwards rapidly. This is part of what makes God Hand’s level up system interesting, not just that it’s transparent, but how directly and rapidly it’s affected by your performance. If you are dealing damage quickly and doing weave dodges, you’ll level up really quickly. If you take damage at high levels, you’ll die really quickly and get a major penalty to the level. It’s not just a challenge to keep your level up, it’s a struggle to survive, which is very directly tied to your level. People inevitably raise their level in God Hand, because they don’t want to die and start over again.

I think from a design perspective, there’s benefits to both approaches depending on how the game is structured. Most of the time I find dynamic difficulty adjustment to be a pain in my ass though, because I hate performing poorly, then being slapped with enemy handicap or something. Something might be too hard for me, but I want to stick with it until I win. I want to be pushed to figure out a solution, to figure out what combination of options will allow me to pass.

One funny thing about some games and speedruns is that the highest difficulty level is the de facto standard for speed running because it’s actually faster. Examples of this are Half Life and Jedi Knight 1. In Half Life, Explosive damage boosts you more on hard mode. In Jedi Knight 1, elevators move faster on higher difficulties. Both Easy and Hard are widely played for Quake Speedruns because the enemy positions are different, making them significantly different experiences.

The other thing is, Left 4 Dead has a nontransparent system that works rather well. Demon’s Souls has a cool dynamic difficulty system with the caveat that it’s a pain in the ass to get locked off from PWWT for the current playthrough if you die in body form too much. Dark Souls 2 has a cool one with the bonfire aescetics (except for those being too damn limited). Bloodborne has an alright one with insight.
If you let players change difficulty at will, then they can just turn it down for a hard encounter instead of being forced to stick it out. However people can’t evaluate which difficulty is really best for them without playing each one, so you have that problem. Good rule of thumb for western games is to go for the second hardest difficulty because the hardest was made for no one and tested by no one.

Really what we need to be thinking about are how we can make dynamic difficulty systems fun for the players to play with, to make them something that players are interested in manipulating. In most cases dynamic difficulty is something finnicky that I personally would prefer to turn off altogether (like in elder scrolls where it has been moronic since oblivion at least).

The key things to think about are, what does the dynamic difficulty actually change? (enemy behaviors? aggression? Damage? Number of Spawns? Health?) You typically want the type of difficulty augmented to introduce new dynamics to the play, which is why merely buffing damage and health usually comes off poorly. What actually changes the difficulty? (taking damage? dealing damage? Specific environmental triggers? skill tests for critical success? player decisions?) How many levels of dynamic difficulty are there and how quickly do they shift between one another? (are they static levels with clear divisions between them? are they a more smooth linear shift? Do they shift immediately in response to stimulus or only adjust themselves between encounters/levels/worlds? How much do difficulty shifting events each affect the difficulty level?) Can the system be abused efficiently to bypass the difficulty level appropriate for the player? (RE4) Is the system adjusting itself to a difficulty the players do not want? (enemy handicap, super kong, etc) Also it probably pays to keep it simple like God Hand. Too many variables and you get systems with unexpected results or that are impossible to fine tune.

I think it makes sense to not widely advertise dynamic difficulty systems all the time, because I think many consumers don’t want to know that your game adjusts itself to them via some “advanced” system or will be actively turned off by it. Though if this is the case, I think it’s worth questioning if your system really serves the consumer or not.

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