The Fine Art of "Perfect" Difficulty

I have a confession: I don’t always play games at the highest difficulty. As a matter of fact, I sometimes play games in easy mode.

I would have never admitted this in my youth. Back then, I took pride in my neighborhood-renowned NES skills. But as I've grown older, and my time has become more precious, I've often found myself thinking about the easy way out.

Sue me.

It’s not that I fear higher difficulty settings: As a matter of fact, I don't find anything more satisfying than completing a game with a finely-tuned, ultra-difficult mode. And although my twitch skills have undoubtedly declined with age, I still have a grasp on what is normal. My real issue is that games don't scale anymore.

Tougher difficulties often substitute fun for frustration. They present a number of challenges, but too often they make bad choices. It's wonderful when they get it right, but it's horribly frustrating when they get it wrong.

Unending mobs

Doubling the number of enemies while cutting the available ammo in half isn’t challenging, it’s maddening. The famous "monster closet" has to be the most heinous sin imaginable. Re-spawning mobs makes a lot of sense in MMOs and Gauntlet, but that’s about the extent of their applicability.

It’s horribly frustrating to slowly and carefully clear a room of bad guys only to have them pop up again before you can continue. If I have to run like a little girl in hopes of hitting the next checkpoint, you’re doing it wrong.

Extreme enemy damage

I understand if you can’t take beatings in hard mode like you can on easier settings, but a single gunshot wound to the foot shouldn't kill me. Boosting enemy damage tables is the easiest way to boost the difficulty, but it's also the least imaginative. It doesn’t add anything to the experience in terms of skill. Instead, I just kind of tires me out.

Extreme enemy resilience

Nobody can take 10 direct gunshots to the chest and keep going -- not even Arnold in his prime. I’m fine with faster, stronger enemies, but just don’t make them God-like bullet sponges, please.

Cheap A.I.

Cheap A.I. comes in a lot of different flavors, but when the bad guys seem to be able to see through walls and predict every move you make, that's no good. I like fighting smarter enemies, but don’t give them the ability to ignore the rules of physics.

When they get it right, though....

It’s magical. Some of the most satisfying gaming experiences I have had came courtesy of the highest difficulty settings: Uncharted, Uncharted 2, and Batman: Arkham Asylum. When you finish one of these on hard mode, you really feel like you've accomplished something.

One game that I find really epitomizes the idea of a finely tuned difficulty curve is BioShock. If you think it's easy, go ahead and turn on the hardest difficulty (without the Vita-Chambers). Early on, you can't just unload your arsenal into the Big Daddies. You have to set traps, think ahead, and use all the tools at your disposal. It's a ton of fun. Sure, the Big Daddies are bullet sponges, but since BioShock is so booby trap focused, it makes sense.

BioShock's highest difficulty setting doesn't introduce more enemies, nor does it endow the bad guys with invincibility and supernatural intelligence. It was one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had in recent years.

What are your thoughts on super-difficult game settings? Can you think of any examples, either bad or good?

26 Comments
26 Comments
Posted by Irishdoom

I have a confession: I don’t always play games at the highest difficulty. As a matter of fact, I sometimes play games in easy mode.

I would have never admitted this in my youth. Back then, I took pride in my neighborhood-renowned NES skills. But as I've grown older, and my time has become more precious, I've often found myself thinking about the easy way out.

Sue me.

It’s not that I fear higher difficulty settings: As a matter of fact, I don't find anything more satisfying than completing a game with a finely-tuned, ultra-difficult mode. And although my twitch skills have undoubtedly declined with age, I still have a grasp on what is normal. My real issue is that games don't scale anymore.

Tougher difficulties often substitute fun for frustration. They present a number of challenges, but too often they make bad choices. It's wonderful when they get it right, but it's horribly frustrating when they get it wrong.

Unending mobs

Doubling the number of enemies while cutting the available ammo in half isn’t challenging, it’s maddening. The famous "monster closet" has to be the most heinous sin imaginable. Re-spawning mobs makes a lot of sense in MMOs and Gauntlet, but that’s about the extent of their applicability.

It’s horribly frustrating to slowly and carefully clear a room of bad guys only to have them pop up again before you can continue. If I have to run like a little girl in hopes of hitting the next checkpoint, you’re doing it wrong.

Extreme enemy damage

I understand if you can’t take beatings in hard mode like you can on easier settings, but a single gunshot wound to the foot shouldn't kill me. Boosting enemy damage tables is the easiest way to boost the difficulty, but it's also the least imaginative. It doesn’t add anything to the experience in terms of skill. Instead, I just kind of tires me out.

Extreme enemy resilience

Nobody can take 10 direct gunshots to the chest and keep going -- not even Arnold in his prime. I’m fine with faster, stronger enemies, but just don’t make them God-like bullet sponges, please.

Cheap A.I.

Cheap A.I. comes in a lot of different flavors, but when the bad guys seem to be able to see through walls and predict every move you make, that's no good. I like fighting smarter enemies, but don’t give them the ability to ignore the rules of physics.

When they get it right, though....

It’s magical. Some of the most satisfying gaming experiences I have had came courtesy of the highest difficulty settings: Uncharted, Uncharted 2, and Batman: Arkham Asylum. When you finish one of these on hard mode, you really feel like you've accomplished something.

One game that I find really epitomizes the idea of a finely tuned difficulty curve is BioShock. If you think it's easy, go ahead and turn on the hardest difficulty (without the Vita-Chambers). Early on, you can't just unload your arsenal into the Big Daddies. You have to set traps, think ahead, and use all the tools at your disposal. It's a ton of fun. Sure, the Big Daddies are bullet sponges, but since BioShock is so booby trap focused, it makes sense.

BioShock's highest difficulty setting doesn't introduce more enemies, nor does it endow the bad guys with invincibility and supernatural intelligence. It was one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had in recent years.

What are your thoughts on super-difficult game settings? Can you think of any examples, either bad or good?

Posted by ThePhantomnaut

I am glad that Modern Warfare 2 Veteran was reasonable in being hard. Yes they are still pinpoint accurate but thanks to its modified spawning system, they are not a battalion big in one choke point.

Posted by Video_Game_King

I'd say that the golden rule of game difficulty (at least regarding hard games) is that the game should be designed so that you can get through the hard parts on the first try. Of course, you most definitely won't, but it's a good idea to design a level such that when somebody looks at it, they know what they're in for. Also, make sure that failure is the player's fault, not the game's fault. Anybody familiar with the term "RNG" knows what I'm talking about.

Posted by Icemael

God Hand adjusts the difficulty as you play, ensuring it's always challenging but never way more than you could possibly hope to handle. More games should do that.

Posted by Flappy
@Video_Game_King said:
I'd say that the golden rule of game difficulty (at least regarding hard games) is that the game should be designed so that you can get through the hard parts on the first try. Of course, you most definitely won't, but it's a good idea to design a level such that when somebody looks at it, they know what they're in for. Also, make sure that failure is the player's fault, not the game's fault. Anybody familiar with the term "RNG" knows what I'm talking about.
"RNG" is easily one of the scariest things out there.  Who would've thought numbers were enough to break a person's spirit?
Posted by ajamafalous

@Video_Game_King said:

Also, make sure that failure is the player's fault, not the game's fault. Anybody familiar with the term "RNG" knows what I'm talking about.

Absolutely.

Posted by Video_Game_King
@Icemael said:
God Hand adjusts the difficulty as you play, ensuring it's always challenging but never way more than you could possibly hope to handle. More games should do that.
That's always a really iffy way of handling difficulty, since the game's essentially permanently locked at one difficulty. If a certain boss in FF8 is too hard, there's not a lot I can do to get around it, since it adjusts to my power. Maybe it's just a problem in RPGs, but I always prefer a static difficulty, even if the way I'm phrasing things makes the name ironic.
Posted by Claude

@Icemael said:

God Hand adjusts the difficulty as you play, ensuring it's always challenging but never way more than you could possibly hope to handle. More games should do that.

I like that type of game. Play to me.

Posted by Icemael
@Video_Game_King said:
@Icemael said:
God Hand adjusts the difficulty as you play, ensuring it's always challenging but never way more than you could possibly hope to handle. More games should do that.
That's always a really iffy way of handling difficulty, since the game's essentially permanently locked at one difficulty. If a certain boss in FF8 is too hard, there's not a lot I can do to get around it, since it adjusts to my power. Maybe it's just a problem in RPGs, but I always prefer a static difficulty, even if the way I'm phrasing things makes the name ironic.
God Hand is not a JRPG, but an action game. Enemies get weaker or stronger depending on how well you play, not how much XP you've amassed.
Edited by SoldierG654342
@Video_Game_King said:

@Icemael said:

God Hand adjusts the difficulty as you play, ensuring it's always challenging but never way more than you could possibly hope to handle. More games should do that.
That's always a really iffy way of handling difficulty, since the game's essentially permanently locked at one difficulty. If a certain boss in FF8 is too hard, there's not a lot I can do to get around it, since it adjusts to my power. Maybe it's just a problem in RPGs, but I always prefer a static difficulty, even if the way I'm phrasing things makes the name ironic.
That likely is a problem inherent to RPGs, since (at least turn-based) battles in RPGs basically amount to skill-checks. In action games, you can compensate for being under-prepared with mechanical skill. There's little you can do to compensate for a bad roll. 
Posted by tourgen

making a game difficult without resorting to the menu of cheap tactics you listed out is really hard.  It takes a lot of work and thought.  and I hear it also takes lots and lots of testing.  And for what?  Do they get to charge $65 for the game if they get the difficulty right?  No.  Maybe they get a little customer loyalty for making something good but that doesn't translate directly into shareholder profits next quarter.
 
Actually most people will never even play it on the higher difficulties.  We are seeing a downward trend in game difficulty and I don't think it's an accident.  I like well balanced high difficulty settings too but I think we are in the minority.  the general plan out there is to make games easier and shorter so you finish them faster and buy more $60 games.  Not play 1 or 2 really awesome games for 3 months.

Posted by Bumpton

I actually just recently beat a game on the hardest difficulty for the first time in my life. It was Mass Effect 2. I consider myself a pretty serious gamer, but I've always just gotten frustrated so easily with "unfair" games. I thought the difficulty in ME2 was pretty well handled, but maybe gets a little too easy in the late-game. My biggest complain was directed at my AI though. Those squad mates have a tendency to get extremely stupid from time to time. 
 
Overall though? I thought it was a great experience. I just need to find the next game that hits me just right and makes me want a real challenge and see if I can perfect it. After reading what you said about BioShock though... That's awfully tempting! 
 
And  @Video_Game_King: that's a perfect description of how a game should be made difficult! Well said, sir.

Posted by neoepoch

@Icemael said:

@Video_Game_King said:
@Icemael said:
God Hand adjusts the difficulty as you play, ensuring it's always challenging but never way more than you could possibly hope to handle. More games should do that.
That's always a really iffy way of handling difficulty, since the game's essentially permanently locked at one difficulty. If a certain boss in FF8 is too hard, there's not a lot I can do to get around it, since it adjusts to my power. Maybe it's just a problem in RPGs, but I always prefer a static difficulty, even if the way I'm phrasing things makes the name ironic.
God Hand is not a JRPG, but an action game. Enemies get weaker or stronger depending on how well you play, not how much XP you've amassed.

This. Also the game lets you know what difficulty it is on, and if it is getting way to frantic for you, you can actually drop the difficulty mid game by doing a "special move" that lowers the difficulty meter all they way back to 1.

Posted by LiquidSwords

@ajamafalous said:

@Video_Game_King said:

Also, make sure that failure is the player's fault, not the game's fault. Anybody familiar with the term "RNG" knows what I'm talking about.

Absolutely.

Posted by GunstarRed

Both Uncharted and Uncharted 2 on crushing are guilty of the things you complain about. (cheap A.I, Extreme enemy damage)  I don't mind about stupid difficulty in games as it's always optional.  Call of Duty could benefit from balancing their veteran modes a little better, Grenade spam  is often ridiculous and I can't believe Black Ops took a step back from MW2 with endlessly respawning enemies.
Edited by Three0neFive

Demon's Souls. Not soul-crushingly (lolpuns) hard, but it just flat-out won't tolerate your fuckups. You get killed, it's all on you.
 
/thread

Posted by C2C

I am just going to flat out say Bastion does difficulty the best. The way that game lets you crank up the difficulty in specific and incremental ways is just good. I wish more games gave you that type of option.

Posted by Damian

I think inFamous on hard handles this stuff pretty well. It's not a particularly hard game on any difficulty, but if you aren't on the ball you die really quickly and just about always feel it's your error, not the game's. 
 
I also like a game that's tuned so that upping the difficulty doesn't mean they add more challenges per se, but instead that they take away help given at other difficulties. Batman:AA comes to mind. I'm not the type to refuse an advantage in a game (unless it just breaks it, or requires a cheat/exploit) so when they make that call for me I appreciate it. 
The only time I can remember handicapping myself in a game to make it harder is AC where I consider playing without any hud its "hard mode". I love all those games, but too much of it too easy. I know they want the assassins to be badass, and for that to come across, but I already know they're badass, and when I play it I want to be the badass. Instead it feels like I'm slaughtering children in men's clothing. They've made improvements to that, but it's still not there yet.

Posted by Example1013

I have no clue whether it's true or not, but I swear SWBFII sometimes made enemies just ridiculously good. Like, we'd have a nice easy match, and then the next match nearly get crushed, to the point of me having to go commando 50 vs. 3 while my other 3 spawns hopefully didn't die.

Posted by JimmyRedd

I thought Vanquish had a balanced and rewarding Hard mode.  The God Hard mode though cut your ability to slide/slo-mo in half, wich turns it into more of a cover shooter and takes away from what makes the game great.
 
As others have said Godhand's dynamic difficulty levels is one of the best ways I've seen it handled.

Edited by MordeaniisChaos

@tourgen: Yes, but a lot of times, it's the same thigns that you should and should do within a genre. Shooters should generally avoid things like enemies shooting and killing you before you have even a chance to react. One hit kills are pretty much always a no-no. Things like that. However, plenty of games continue to do even the basic poor design decisions, even though the whole industry knows it's wrong. Perfect difficulty IS hard, but they need tro strive for at least good difficulty balancing. A game should strive to be it's best, no matter what. If it isn't as good as it could be, that's 100% on the developer. Plenty of people balance a game really well, sell it for $55, and do just fine.

Also, I may be fairly alone in this, but the harder difficulties in DA:O are incredibly satisfying to play on. They requires a lot more work, but as long as you really worked at it, you could do just fine. It just required more work, rather than purely better skill.

Posted by MaFoLu

Harder difficulty should mean smarter enemies, not more health for enemies and less for you.

More enemies is an easier way to make it harder while still making it seem a little more fair.

Maybe the best thing would be for a game to dynamically change the difficulty during gameplay, but that would be very hard to get working correctly while still making it seem believable and being balanced.

Posted by Scrawnto

@Video_Game_King: Out of curiosity, is there a particular Random Number Generator you are talking about? I know the term from Pokemon FAQs, oddly enough, but RNGs are all over video games, from bullet spreads, to particle effects, to loot tables, etc.

Posted by Video_Game_King
@Scrawnto
 
It's most infamous from strategy RPGs. Fire Emblem's pretty good about it, aside from moments like these, but....I'm not gonna mention the other extreme, since it will derail this thread.
Posted by doejonathan

I often feel well balanced difficulty is presented in games which lack a difficulty slider/selector. Portal, Braid and Demon's Souls come to mind. In both Portal and Braid the game challenges you to adopt a different way to look at the gameworld, by the time you get comfortable with this, the games will ramp up the complexity or introduce new mechanics to get acquainted to and keeps the challenge up. 
 
Demon's Souls let's the player decide how challenging they want the game to be. There are players who completed a playthrough with a level 1 character, others have managed to complete it under 60 minutes. When a boss hits too hard either equip better armor or learn to dodge. A world being to difficult? Go to a different area and level up. Once you feel you've overleveled, there's always New Game+, and ++, +++ etc. 
 
Too many games merely show the flaws of their gameplay on harder difficulties. The challenge the player is presented with in these cases isn't about mastering the controls/gameplay, but understanding the mechanics and finding creative ways to exploit them. For me, this usually takes away any form of immersion and it becomes more or less an unspoken inside joke between me and the developers (I see your grenade spamming AI and raise you a "shooting from behind/through a wall".)

Posted by Irishdoom

It's funny, there is definitely an overall "dumbing down" of gaming difficulty levels over the years.  I started out with an Odyssey2, then the original NES.  Man, games on the original NES could be HAAAARD.  I will always remember the first time I got through Ghosts 'N Goblins, only to find out they wanted me to go through the WHOLE THING AGAIN.  Ugh. 
 
Still, as I get older, I do enjoy a well-made, not-too-difficult game as much as anyone.  Sometimes its the experience I'm after, and not the challenge.  To be honest, if I want a challenge, I'm more apt to look into directly competitive gaming experiences, like League of Legends.