Identifying Difficulty in Games.

Difficulty in games is perhaps one of the most awkward topics to discuss in gaming. Everyone’s answer to “what’s the hardest game ever?” will always be different. People tend to lean on older games from past generations, but whereas those games were hard due to the limitations of the technology at the time, finding a truly difficult game in this day and age is certainly rare.

Just like the answer to the aforementioned question, people’s definition of difficulty also tends to be varied, in fact, when you consider the literal definition of the word it doesn't really make that much sense in relation to games. Whether or not something is difficult is entirely subjective, what is difficult to one person simply might not be for someone else. Now I’m not saying we need to change the way we name difficulty levels, I simply think there’s a better way to describe it for games and that is looking at it in terms of identifying the problems that games give us. What makes a game difficult is the problems that the game presents you with, depending on the complexity of those problems is what determines the difficulty of the game. More importantly, it is your ability to deal with these problems that determines the consequences and it is the severity of those consequences that ultimately defines how difficult you think a game is.

Older games fall particularly short when looked at this way, the problem was simply that you died in one or two hits from your enemies and there happened to be half a dozen enemies to deal with. It took more memorization skills to overcome these problems because there was simply no margin for error, the consequence in these cases was simply game over. This is the main reason why games that still use this approach are irritating, it comes across as lazy design. Games usually structure their difficulty in one or two ways, there’s the tried and tested “Easy, Normal, Hard” and one that is becoming far more common, which doesn’t really have a name so we’ll call it the “above very hard mode that is called something else”... mode. So, if we were to look at each individual difficulty and break it down into the problems that you face when playing on them, you should have something like this:

Easy: The consequences of not dealing with a problem successfully are still apparent, but toned down to a degree where they are negligible. For example, trying to Rambo your way through Vanquish on the lowest setting is possible because the damage you’re receiving from enemy fire is extremely low, whereas the damage you are inflicting is tremendous.

Normal: Consequences should be clear and concise and the penalties increased accordingly. Once you’re past easy, each difficulty should prepare you for the one after it by making the strategies clear to the player. Finishing something by the skin of your teeth is fine, but not if the only reason was because you got lucky.

Hard: This is where you should also start encountering new problems along the way. Swapping the tables from easy in the favour of the enemies is lazy, make the enemies smarter, introduce new enemies or different combinations of enemies. Fighting one shadow at a time in the original Devil May Cry gave you exactly what you needed in order to overcome it. Fighting multiple shadows forces you to expand on that knowledge as the core problem has been changed, and when the problem is changed, so should the solution to it.

Very Hard: This is where everything you have learned should be put the ultimate test. Consequences should be severe, but by the time you reach this mode you should have learned the necessary strategies to overcome any obstacle a game throws at you. Ideally, if a game has a very hard mode, it should force the player to utilize everything they have at their disposal in order to succeed. If the player only needs to rely on one or two mechanics to deal with unfair disadvantages, then their skill isn’t really being tested.

Sadly this is rarely the case, everything about most games is always the same no matter what difficulty is selected, it just takes a lot more attacks to kill enemies on harder modes than it does on easy. Which doesn’t give the player any incentive to go back, if the player is constantly encountering new problems, learning new strategies and developing their own methods based off a solid base of mechanics; then once they have journeyed their way through all difficulties, they should feel unstoppable, they have bested numerous different problems and overcome them. They haven’t just stood around and repeated the same sequence of events over and over again.

This leads me to my main point when creating a balanced difficulty structure in a game. I have already given you a clue, the key word here is balance, the importance of balance cannot be overstated. If you’re fighting an enemy that has only one safe way to be punished after attacking you, then the player must be capable of delivering massive damage to that enemy. This is where enemy variety really comes into play, if the ability that the player has works for everything, then the game is unbalanced in favour of the player. A perfect example of this is the square, square, triangle move in the first God of War game. It worked as a counter to anything that the game threw at you and once you figured this out, the god mode setting became more about patience than actual skill.

In order to create the level of balance I am talking about, it is essential that the game mechanics be as reliable as humanly possible. Boss battles serve as a great example here, use the boss fights in Bayonetta as an example. Every one of them has a clear, defined strategy for defeating them and learning that strategy is possible through use of the mechanics. Put simply, things must work all the time; there is no use in mastering the mechanics of a game if they are not 100% reliable. Creating such mechanics is hard, and there have certainly been changes to allow for errors on the players part in games where the mechanics aren’t reliable. Regenerating health being an obvious one, this allows a developer to know that you will always come into an encounter with 100% health which can (and often does) creates very hollow experiences on the highest difficulty. The nightmare difficulty in Alan Wake is a good example of this, if you were to make it to some fights with only a sliver of health left, the less than perfect mechanics would make proceeding forward extremely frustrating. Whereas in Devil May Cry, you can be one hit away from death going into the hardest battle in the game, but due to the reliability of the mechanics, success is always possible.

As I said in the beginning, people define difficulty in different ways, more often than not though, it seems that difficulty in games is simply defined by how many times it takes a player to complete a certain task. Just because something took you over a hundred attempts does not mean it has any depth, actually it’s quite the opposite. Each failure should teach you something, and if you’re failing over a hundred times on something then the game obviously isn’t teaching you much with each subsequent failure. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that difficulty select screens should end up looking something like this:

Complexity level of problems encountered / penalties for not dealing with them successfully =

·           Negligible

·           Apparent

·           Severe

·           Catastrophic

However, I do think it is a better way to describe what makes a game difficult, and while certain games do little more than alter damage values to increase their difficulty which in turn still forces the player to come up with strategies in order to proceed. Those strategies often boil down to harsh repetition rather than exploring the possibilities offered by the game mechanics when presented with a problem. Merely stating that a game is “really hard” means virtually nothing, the problems, consequences and solutions must first be identified before one can even think of using the word difficult to describe it.   

TLDR = It's only 1400 words, man up! 

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Posted by JTB123

Difficulty in games is perhaps one of the most awkward topics to discuss in gaming. Everyone’s answer to “what’s the hardest game ever?” will always be different. People tend to lean on older games from past generations, but whereas those games were hard due to the limitations of the technology at the time, finding a truly difficult game in this day and age is certainly rare.

Just like the answer to the aforementioned question, people’s definition of difficulty also tends to be varied, in fact, when you consider the literal definition of the word it doesn't really make that much sense in relation to games. Whether or not something is difficult is entirely subjective, what is difficult to one person simply might not be for someone else. Now I’m not saying we need to change the way we name difficulty levels, I simply think there’s a better way to describe it for games and that is looking at it in terms of identifying the problems that games give us. What makes a game difficult is the problems that the game presents you with, depending on the complexity of those problems is what determines the difficulty of the game. More importantly, it is your ability to deal with these problems that determines the consequences and it is the severity of those consequences that ultimately defines how difficult you think a game is.

Older games fall particularly short when looked at this way, the problem was simply that you died in one or two hits from your enemies and there happened to be half a dozen enemies to deal with. It took more memorization skills to overcome these problems because there was simply no margin for error, the consequence in these cases was simply game over. This is the main reason why games that still use this approach are irritating, it comes across as lazy design. Games usually structure their difficulty in one or two ways, there’s the tried and tested “Easy, Normal, Hard” and one that is becoming far more common, which doesn’t really have a name so we’ll call it the “above very hard mode that is called something else”... mode. So, if we were to look at each individual difficulty and break it down into the problems that you face when playing on them, you should have something like this:

Easy: The consequences of not dealing with a problem successfully are still apparent, but toned down to a degree where they are negligible. For example, trying to Rambo your way through Vanquish on the lowest setting is possible because the damage you’re receiving from enemy fire is extremely low, whereas the damage you are inflicting is tremendous.

Normal: Consequences should be clear and concise and the penalties increased accordingly. Once you’re past easy, each difficulty should prepare you for the one after it by making the strategies clear to the player. Finishing something by the skin of your teeth is fine, but not if the only reason was because you got lucky.

Hard: This is where you should also start encountering new problems along the way. Swapping the tables from easy in the favour of the enemies is lazy, make the enemies smarter, introduce new enemies or different combinations of enemies. Fighting one shadow at a time in the original Devil May Cry gave you exactly what you needed in order to overcome it. Fighting multiple shadows forces you to expand on that knowledge as the core problem has been changed, and when the problem is changed, so should the solution to it.

Very Hard: This is where everything you have learned should be put the ultimate test. Consequences should be severe, but by the time you reach this mode you should have learned the necessary strategies to overcome any obstacle a game throws at you. Ideally, if a game has a very hard mode, it should force the player to utilize everything they have at their disposal in order to succeed. If the player only needs to rely on one or two mechanics to deal with unfair disadvantages, then their skill isn’t really being tested.

Sadly this is rarely the case, everything about most games is always the same no matter what difficulty is selected, it just takes a lot more attacks to kill enemies on harder modes than it does on easy. Which doesn’t give the player any incentive to go back, if the player is constantly encountering new problems, learning new strategies and developing their own methods based off a solid base of mechanics; then once they have journeyed their way through all difficulties, they should feel unstoppable, they have bested numerous different problems and overcome them. They haven’t just stood around and repeated the same sequence of events over and over again.

This leads me to my main point when creating a balanced difficulty structure in a game. I have already given you a clue, the key word here is balance, the importance of balance cannot be overstated. If you’re fighting an enemy that has only one safe way to be punished after attacking you, then the player must be capable of delivering massive damage to that enemy. This is where enemy variety really comes into play, if the ability that the player has works for everything, then the game is unbalanced in favour of the player. A perfect example of this is the square, square, triangle move in the first God of War game. It worked as a counter to anything that the game threw at you and once you figured this out, the god mode setting became more about patience than actual skill.

In order to create the level of balance I am talking about, it is essential that the game mechanics be as reliable as humanly possible. Boss battles serve as a great example here, use the boss fights in Bayonetta as an example. Every one of them has a clear, defined strategy for defeating them and learning that strategy is possible through use of the mechanics. Put simply, things must work all the time; there is no use in mastering the mechanics of a game if they are not 100% reliable. Creating such mechanics is hard, and there have certainly been changes to allow for errors on the players part in games where the mechanics aren’t reliable. Regenerating health being an obvious one, this allows a developer to know that you will always come into an encounter with 100% health which can (and often does) creates very hollow experiences on the highest difficulty. The nightmare difficulty in Alan Wake is a good example of this, if you were to make it to some fights with only a sliver of health left, the less than perfect mechanics would make proceeding forward extremely frustrating. Whereas in Devil May Cry, you can be one hit away from death going into the hardest battle in the game, but due to the reliability of the mechanics, success is always possible.

As I said in the beginning, people define difficulty in different ways, more often than not though, it seems that difficulty in games is simply defined by how many times it takes a player to complete a certain task. Just because something took you over a hundred attempts does not mean it has any depth, actually it’s quite the opposite. Each failure should teach you something, and if you’re failing over a hundred times on something then the game obviously isn’t teaching you much with each subsequent failure. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that difficulty select screens should end up looking something like this:

Complexity level of problems encountered / penalties for not dealing with them successfully =

·           Negligible

·           Apparent

·           Severe

·           Catastrophic

However, I do think it is a better way to describe what makes a game difficult, and while certain games do little more than alter damage values to increase their difficulty which in turn still forces the player to come up with strategies in order to proceed. Those strategies often boil down to harsh repetition rather than exploring the possibilities offered by the game mechanics when presented with a problem. Merely stating that a game is “really hard” means virtually nothing, the problems, consequences and solutions must first be identified before one can even think of using the word difficult to describe it.   

TLDR = It's only 1400 words, man up! 

Posted by Brodehouse

Good article.

The issue of reliability is extremely important. Nowadays the hidden caveat behind high difficulty modes is the knowledge that it will limit your experience. If a game has ten weapons, on normal difficulty, a player might use them all for some length of time, if nothing but for the variety. On hard and very hard, the player is given no quarter, and focuses on the two weapons that are most reliable. At this point, 80% of the game has been left by the wayside. In RPGs, the term is min-maxing; focusing all progression in the most effective areas. It turns games with a number of options into games with the right option, and a bunch of wrong ones.

I'll disagree with the intentions behind regenerating health. It actually has more to do with encounter design and the effects on immersion. In the past, health was considered as much a resource as ammunition, grenades, magic powers; if you took damage, you were wasting your health resources. As such, players who made mistakes early on would feel a pointlessness in continuing; might as well start over and do it 'right'. I don't think I have to tell you how damaging this is to the narrative and the overall structure of the game. At the point when the player is considering the gameplay demands above the reality of the game world, the game's narrative has effectively ended. The move to regenerating health is to turn resource scarcity into resource abundance; you will always have enough resources to finish the game, it's just a matter of how you play it.

I do think the idea of enemy variety is rarely implemented. I'm immediately reminded of Mass Effect 2, where at higher difficulties, more enemies gain various forms of defense (shield, barrier) that require a small rock-paper-scissors game on the part of the player. What troubles me is it's stated in the difficulty screen that they will use their abilities more often. It seems strange to me that this is limited to higher difficulties. This tells me that the enemy ability use must be 'unfair', there is no reasonable way for the player to avoid it, which kind of reveals the flaws of its design. Ideally, enemy power usage would increase the player's fun as they used their various methods to counteract it... its use as a difficulty toggle tells me that there is no methods, and that's disappointing.

Posted by Apparatus_Unearth

I agree about taking the lazy way out when it comes to hard mode. Usually's it's just more enemies or they do more damage or you have no health. I'm not saying I want to see completely new things in hard mode but I would like to see enemies behave differently. I like the idea of hard mode being a mode where you prove your skills at the game as opposed to proving that you won a battle of attrition with an unfair game.

Posted by Chop

Fantastic post. I agree with all your issues and wanna bring up another. 
 
Because of how games are made now, hard difficulty just means smashing your head against a section and brute forcing your way through it. Games don't require you to learn them anymore, just keep retrying at the check point until you get lucky and push through. Maybe harder difficulties should take away check points or at least lower the frequency dramatically?

Posted by Grissefar

Hard mode in shooters usually just means you're restricted to staying behind cover for long periods of time. I like hard modes in action games like Ninja Gaiden because they're usually very challenging, forcing you to bring your top game in order to beat the bosses.

Posted by ryanwho

One day someone will figure out how to make intelligent AI and then 'difficulty' will actually mean something. I've been walking around Deus Ex in hard mode shooting people in the head with my silenced laser sited pistol. I keep wondering why nobody ever sees the giant laser dot on their head or why they don't just dive into cover when the guy next to them falls down because the shot had a silencer on it. Once it becomes clear there's not much going on with the AI, I kind of lose my drive to really figure out the mechanics on my end. Shooting people in the head with this pistol seems to work, I imagine it will keep working, so I don't have any reason to change it up.

Posted by Apparatus_Unearth

@Chop said:

Fantastic post. I agree with all your issues and wanna bring up another. Because of how games are made now, hard difficulty just means smashing your head against a section and brute forcing your way through it. Games don't require you to learn them anymore, just keep retrying at the check point until you get lucky and push through. Maybe harder difficulties should take away check points or at least lower the frequency dramatically?

I see where you're coming from but I don't think that's the right way to go about it. I think that if you have to restart a level when you die that would just add to a lot of players' frustration more than anything. Having checkpoints is good and bad really. You do have to bash your head against it but it helps you learn the tactics of how to get through that specific area. Clearly you were good enough to get to this point so you shouldn't have to retry the whole level just to get to the point that is challenging you.

Posted by JTB123

Thanks for the comments guys I was afraid this was going to get buried.