The video is excessively pessimistic about difficulty levels. Difficulty levels work fine in a lot of games. The big issue with them most commonly cited is that players don’t know what the difficulty levels are like before they try them, so they can accidentally get slotted with the wrong one. I played Nier on hard and it was a shitty experience. I for some reason chose to play Metroid Prime 3 on easy, I still don’t know why, and that was entirely too easy. Players are basically being asked to be mind readers about which of your difficulty settings is right for them.
I’m a bit conflicted on how exactly difficulty should be handled here because I’ve accrued some beliefs that don’t totally line up.
You should do everything you’re allowed to do with all the tools you’re given in order to succeed. Hold nothing back.
A weapon, character, strategy, technique that is so powerful it trivializes the game is a flaw in the game.
Hardcore or dedicated players should seek to overcome the hardest challenge they can find within reason.
Self imposed challenges can be really cool and emphasize parts of a game that normally get overlooked, or can make a game entirely better (like 1 credit clearing arcade games, or only using level transition autosaves in games with save states)
A bad game cannot be apologized for or excused through the use of self imposed challenges.
My first and second beliefs comes from a history as a competitive game player. I’m no scrub, deliberately avoiding throws because they’re “cheap”. Ostensibly a player should be allowed to be clever and seek whatever solution they can find for a problem without needing to hold themselves back. My third and fourth beliefs come from being the type of guy who always tries to complete the bonus content, who always picks the hardest difficulty mode, from appreciating speedruns and other associated challenge runs. My fifth belief comes from dealing with people who insist a game like say skyrim is good if you just ignore alchemy or if you mod it, and it’s related to the purism of my first and second beliefs. I’ve also seen people insist Bastion is good if you turn on all the pantheon idols and I was like, nah. It doesn’t feel legitimate, it also seems to give way to this sense that we should all play dark souls with a guitar hero controller for a real challenge, which was cool when that one guy did it, but is honestly a horrible way to experience the game. Each of these comes from a legitimate place, however all these beliefs together can’t totally coexist.
It’s really easy to fall into this belief that games are defined only by their code, hence beliefs 1 and 2. On my part this is probably influenced by my interest with Melee, Speedruns, rejecting story and aesthetic information as being a part of the game, and being born at a time when we have digital games at all. Digital games are essentially highly specialized tools for facilitating a specific game, as opposed to the more traditional format of using tokens as placeholders so we can keep track of the game, or toys that are less specific in their ability to facilitate a certain game. So for a while I honestly believed that the rules of the game were basically just what’s defined in the code as possible. It’s a really purist view and an elegant approach. Even things like the Avenger Controller sort of support this type of idea. This controller shell is advertised as improving your skills “without cheating,” because cheating is implicitly taken to mean altering the game code.
But it’s more complicated than that, games are contracts. They exist in a weird state between death of the author and complete free reign of the player. The player needs to accept the rules of the game and the goal condition. Rather than being these death-author impartial arbiters of what occurs in a game, we each recreate this idea of what we think the author intended based on the design of the game, and accept this as our contract. In strict terms the author is still dead, but people operate in this weird state where they sort of follow what is suggested as the author’s intention. Using something like the Avenger Controller or Tool Assistance like complex button macros might not be altering the game’s code and therefore not cheating in a strict sense, but they might violate the rules you choose for the game, because the game is defined by the player, and the code is only an instrument. This is why we get all the weird cheating accusations on TAS videos or speedruns in general, because we’re cheating by their rules, even if we’re playing within the bounds of ours.
Because games are contracts with ourselves, we’re free to self-impose restrictions and those can be a perfectly good thing. They can be fun, they can even be better than the original intended game. The KMS challenge in God Hand or 1CC arcade game rule are great examples of this. The trouble is that we also feel like those aren’t legitimate. Skyrim with mods might legitimately be an amazing experience that you need to check out as an aficionado of games (it isn’t, but lets pretend it could be), but something seems really wrong about saying Skyrim is good because of this mod. This is why when I rate games, I don’t factor in the speedrun, that’s (almost) always an aside. Most reviewers review what they think is the intent, not just inform their audience of interesting experiences as more general critics and commentators are able to like me. players form a vision of how they think the game is intended to be played based on how it is made. I feel like reviewing all the stuff outside the strictly intended game feels less legitimate. Most people will experience the game a certain way and you should speak to that, plus a review in part is recognizing the accomplishments of the developers and evaluating the game as it is designed rather than what its potential might be. Again, as a more general commentator I’m free to review how I want, because I am an aficionado, or I’m trying to pass myself off as one, and I’m writing for other people who are presumably interested in seeing what the limits of games are and finding fun experiences.
So disregarding all my crazy beliefs on difficulty and how they conflict, what’s the actual ideal game difficulty-wise for me? I’d personally want a game with only two difficulty levels at most, hard and harder, with the latter being an upgrade specifically intended for people who beat hard already, like the twilight levels in Nioh, or higher difficulties in any stylish action game. I’d want all the cheesey strats nerfed, limited, or excised from the game, like the wall lock in god hand, or black knight halberd in dark souls. I wouldn’t want any level grinding, I’d want static power gains in coordination with the levels and levels built with the knowledge of how powerful the character is. I’d appreciate a few KMS style challenges or optional challenges.
Unfortunately, this isn’t really feasible. On some level, games need an easy mode. Not all games, but some games need to be easy. There need to be easy games somewhere in the ecosystem, or perhaps more accurately, games that teach people how to play games. If these don’t exist somewhere then there is nothing bringing new players in. I’m fine with a valve portal style approach, where you figure out how to make the challenges afford being solved and suggest their solutions on all levels, so as to avoid patronizing the player, stopping them in their tracks all the time, and generally making the game seem explicitly like a tutorial. I’m not okay with a game like that not ramping up to more sophisticated challenges, but we collectively need simple challenges to exist somewhere. Side benefit is that advanced players can get through that type of design really quickly, so it’s less annoying for them.
The seeming suggestion of a lot of “organic difficulty” proponents is that games should have a ton of factors that players can choose carte blanche to make use of in order to make them easier or harder, like using either a black knight halberd or a whip in dark souls to make it easier or harder, like summoning help or going SL1 the whole way. The idea is that each player is essentially changing the rules of the game to suit themselves. The trouble I have with this is, I’ve had people say this dumb shit, “Oh dark souls is easy, I just used the black knight sword and havel’s gear.” When you place total responsibility for the difficulty on the shoulders of the player, many players just choose the strongest gear, not really thinking about the type of experience they’re after and whether they’re ruining it or not. This is especially true because RPGs and other games with character upgrade mechanics are basically designed so you need to level up or the game becomes impossible. Leveling up is a matter of course, and being overleveled or underleveled is inevitable at some point. Players have this incredible power to basically ruin the game for themselves and nothing beyond willpower and experience instructing them to do otherwise.
It’s more obvious that you’re making the game harder when the enemies get more difficult, and it’s less obvious that you’re making the game harder when you limit the abilities of the character. So getting gravelorded, or intentionally using a bonfire ascetic or entering the covenant of champions are really clear ways to increase difficulty, but not buying the invisibility augment in Deus Ex HR might be less obvious. However there’s still weird cases, like King Vendrich in Dark Souls 2, who was given an obscene amount of health that clearly wasn’t meant to be tackled right away, but you could weaken him by collecting giant’s souls, which lead to the weird case that you’re making the boss easier with each one you collect, but in the process of collecting them, you had to go through a lot of tough challenges, like fighting two giants below black gulch, or defeating the ancient dragon, so maybe it’s not all bad.
Because games are contracts that every person forms based on the way the game suggests it should be played, organic difficulty kinda fails on its premise because it’s so implicit to how the game’s function, as opposed to the explicit and authoritative difficulty modes that give a very clear idea of how you’re choosing to play the game. This also makes it harder for players to relate their experiences to each other, because they’re not only dissimilar in playstyle, but because they can’t even agree on how hard the thing was. The advantage of clearly labeled difficulty modes is that we can be very certain that what we’re experiencing is authoritative, rather than totally individual.
So what’s the actual solution here? To just make 3 (or more) difficulty modes and be sure to balance them well? To have a steady difficulty curve on a single difficulty mode that starts off super easy and eventually gets extremely hard, then let players just quit whenever they feel like the going is too tough? To have a ton of specific difficulty settings that players can tweak? (Bastion, Thiaf) To have different difficulty “routes” that are triggered by performing specific actions and are rather explicit in how they’ll alter the difficulty? (Undertale) To have an evaluation level, then assign the player a difficulty based on their performance, or suggest one and let them pick? (Infamous) To leave the making of easy games up to other developers entirely? (Guilty Gear) To have the ability to finely adjust and tweak many small parts of the overall difficulty level, like enemy health, aggression, damage, etc? (The Dark Mod) To have difficulty increase on the spot as you perform well until you reach a maximum that is likely to kill you instantly? (god hand) To have more difficult optional methods of completing sections? (speedruns) To have a grading system that might allow you to pass a section, but not be graded well? (stylish action games) To lock off the harder difficulties until players prove they’re good enough for them? (DMC and other stylish action games)
So one of the clear problems with explicit difficulty selection is players are making a big choice before they’re really familiar with the game. Maybe the solution to that is to have them choose after they’ve played the game a bit in a normal difficulty section, then either ramp it up or down? Maybe the solution is to have players try each one briefly? Maybe the solution is to have each difficulty be more like it’s own mode, to be mechanically distinct from one another and more like their own unique experiences. Maybe the solution is to have players start off on easy mode, but if they beat a boss you’re supposed to lose to, you can instantly skip to a harder difficulty (ninja gaiden sigma)? Or you could do it like Infamous, where you run players through a short mission, evaluate their play, and recommend a difficulty to them based on how they did and let them pick there. Perhaps every difficulty level could be a wildly different experience due to other factors getting changed so players are encouraged to try out each difficulty for a unique experience, and the easiest ones could be designed with antepieces to teach players how to play the game? Maybe you could have multiple complexity layers, and steadily release players to new layers of complexity when they pass a certain minimum number of challenges and agree to move on? Maybe dynamic difficulty could be represented something like a pokemon evolution, and you can hold it back by mashing the B button? (would probably get annoying if you’re getting bumped down) Maybe it only ramps up and never down, and ramps up more slowly for bad players and quickly for good ones? Maybe you secretly allow more direct difficulty selection through a slightly hidden menu, so you can have casual players get the dynamic experience and allow hardcore players to get it the intended way? Maybe you could have an option that restricts the difficulty from changing after you select it, like a hardcore mode check box for many games?
I think solutions like this: http://dukenukem.typepad.com/game_matters/2004/01/autoadjusting_g.html are completely wrong-headed. It’s missing the point. It’s probably also always setting the difficulty too high or too low for people on a crazy rubberbanding scale. It could potentially end up seesawing between levels too hard for a player and too easy for them, as they perform really well on easy levels and really poorly on hard ones. If you never die, then dying eventually becomes a certainty, if you die all the time then success eventually becomes a certainty. It keeps the game from hitting the extremes of a section ever being too hard to bypass, but it also means the player never really needs to buckle down and improve to overcome an obstacle, the obstacle will eventually make itself easy enough to bypass. This violates the flow principle, where we’re kept interested in a game when the difficulty is always slightly above what we’re capable of. For the game to achieve that, it needs to stay consistently hard. It can also be patronizing and frustrating. Many players want to seek out a challenge that will kill them many times repeatedly. They aren’t satisfied unless they can overcome something like that. Playing without dying feels empty, unless you’ve worked through many deaths to reach that level. In dynamic difficulty schemes, that would mean you’re not able to consistently play on the difficulty you actually want, you keep getting shunted down to lower ones. The further issue is that the balancing of the dynamic difficulty system itself can be flawed. The easiest level can be too hard for bad players. The hardest difficulty level can be too hard for good players. It could shunt you down difficulty levels way too fast if you’re good, or not fast enough if you’re bad. It could take good performance on an easy level and not recognize that you need or want to stay on that easy level and thrust you up to a harder one. Further, dynamic difficulty systems, as noted by the page in question, are abuseable. In RE4, when you hit the water room, the optimal strategy is to kill yourself like 5 times to get through the fastest. In Max Payne itself, the dynamic difficulty never worked as intended and always slided people up to the highest difficulty because whenever people got hurt they tended to reload from a save rather than die properly.
The email about dynamic difficulty above notes, “Also, my view is that as developers, it should be *our job* to properly play balance the game, not the player’s choice.” I feel like this misses the real issue and ignores that many players are deliberately seeking certain difficulty levels, ignores that many play games for the challenge in the first place. What is dynamic difficulty trying to actually do? It’s trying to match the player to the right challenge level of something right above what their current level is. This is perhaps necessary because bad players will steadily improve past easy mode and may need to be moved up to higher challenge levels, so it will be slightly harder than their skill level, and they don’t want to get stuck on easy mode until they restart the game. On the other hand, you don’t want to compromise the challenge of harder difficulty modes by letting people switch difficulties whenever they want (like skyrim). On the other other hand, I played Nier up to Hook and if I didn’t have the option to switch back down to normal difficulty, that would have sucked, because hard difficulty was screwed up. Of course if hard difficulty weren’t screwed up with massive lifebars on enemies, then I would have been fine, which I guess goes to show that the real real answer is just getting the levels of difficulty right in the first place. Perhaps the problem is just completely unsolvable and every solution has its own advantages and downsides, except some which have more downsides than others?
Lemme try to lay out all the issues with difficulty.
Players don’t know what difficulty is best for them until they try it, so a static difficulty selection menu is broken.
Players given the choice to freely change the difficulty at time may trivialize challenges by simply switching difficulty modes to bypass hard bits instead of getting good. Onus is on the player in these situations to agree to play fair rather than use the system to their advantage.
Players may be intimidated by higher difficulty modes and choose one too easy when given a choice, or feel a need to prove themselves and choose a mode that is too tough for them.
Players on an easy difficulty might find it too easy as they improve and need a ramp up without requiring them to start the game over completely.
Being forced to start the game over completely to play on a higher (or lower) difficulty is frustrating and time consuming unless the game is already really short.
Players on hard difficulties might get frustrated and completely quit the game if not allowed to ramp down the difficulty, or hard difficulties may simply be poorly balanced.
Difficulty levels slightly above the player’s skill level help arouse the player’s interest and promote development.
Difficulty levels should stay consistently at or slightly above the player’s current skill level and not fluctuate wildly, especially not to allow players to bypass challenges through attrition.
Players should not be forced to switch difficulty modes automatically when they don’t want to.
Players who insist on playing on harder difficulties feel patronized when given a way to lower the difficulty, even if it’s optional; doubly so if it is done subtly without their consent.
Games without a consistent level of difficulty between players make a gap between people’s analysis of the difficulty in conversation and don’t create a bond between people through overcoming the same challenges, and make strategy-swapping less feasible.
Players naturally seek the easiest way to beat a challenge within the tools they’re allowed to use, even if they’re knowingly seeking a challenge, even if the easiest method is really boring. It takes willpower and knowledge to avoid the easy path, and players may give themselves a worse experience without really considering it.
Choices presented as playstyle choices, like weapon selection, or stat allocation aren’t often recognized as altering the difficulty when they do.
Assessing a player’s level of skill depends on measuring their consistency over time in broad strokes, and can fail to account for a player’s rate of improvement or true skill level without careful tuning. If the difficulty level changes, then it becomes harder to measure consistency as it’s no longer an independent variable.
I mean, the only viable solution to all of these seems to be psychically reading the player’s mind to know exactly what’s slightly harder than their current skill level, or just making a game with one difficulty level and doing it really well. I dunno, it’s open to experimentation.
Personally I think having difficulty levels is just asking for trouble. The more difficulty levels available the harder it will be to balance the game. If a game ends up being too easy, so be it, if the game ends up being too hard so be it. Trying to please everyone, ends up pleasing no one.
Though they are more acceptable in shorter games.
That’s one perspective. It’s hard to come to anything definitive on this, I think. It might not be something we can readily come up with design rules for, and might be something to leave to taste.
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True it does come down to taste. Personally I like having closure with a game knowing I had completed it on the hardest difficulty if its available. If a game is 10-20+ hours it can be a bit disheartening to know I might have to go through the whole thing again just to experience the proper challenge.
I think from a business standpoint though its very smart to put in difficulty levels obviously. Somehow Dark Souls was able to get away with being challenging and not having an easy mode while being successful, but it’s more the exception.
Great articles by the way! Kind of been binge reading them. I feel like games have been kind of boring to me lately, so maybe having a better understanding of them might increase my appreciation.