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 =
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!