Credit: DocChewbacca via Creative Commoms

The difficult problem of the difficulty problem

By Bruno Citoni

A walkthrough of difficulty choices in video games.

I’m getting so old that I remember sneaking out of some family friends’ house to go to the smallest of seaside arcades. I’d spend all the coins I was able to scramble from my parents just to repeatedly die before the first boss of Metal Gear Slug III. Coin after coin, I’d acquire just enough new information to make it a few steps further next time.

This trial-and-error gameplay was perfect for arcades, especially compounded by the lack of clear-cut game guidance in the pre-YouTube wasteland that was the early-noughties internet. In short, those cabinets were designed to suck money out of gullible six year old me – not unlike the discount codes from Uber Eats that are sucking money away from gullible 27 year old me.

With the progressive shift to home consoles people began discovering that – while they were happy to spend £1 every day to infinitely replay the first twenty minutes of a game – they were really not cool with spending £50 to buy a game that they could not finish. The “arcade fallacy”, if you will. 

To cater to the expanding, less-experienced audience, developers began introducing what we know as a game’s difficulty level. These range in style from the political skin colour slide of South Park: The Fractured but Whole to the easy-mode mockery of the Wolfestein’s series “Can I play Daddy?”, but they all present some way for the player to tailor the experience to their skill level. 

What you see most often referred to as artificial, or fake, difficulty, is the concept of simply increasing some numbers, such as enemy stats, without changing the core gameplay. This is the case for RPGs series like The Elder Scrolls and Fallout, where higher difficulty translates to less damage dealt and more damage received.

This is not in itself a bad thing. If done cleverly this will drive players to develop more efficient strategies. Rely on it too heavily though and you get something like The Elder Scroll IV: Oblivion, a game that, on the highest difficulty, can only be played in a very specific way. When raising a game’s difficulty renders some of that game content obsolete, I’d call it a design failure.

Trial-and-error gameplay is not inherently bad, either. I personally love the trial-and-error of Soulsborne games where you are expected to learn enemy placement, movesets and abilities. But once again, rely on it too heavily and even Call of Duty turns into a game of Simon.

What is hailed online as fair difficulty, which makes for “Easy to learn, hard to master” games is what is referred to as dynamic difficulty. By dynamically altering the rules of the game itself according to the player’s performance this method tries to keep players in the “flow”. This is defined as the ideal state of maximum enjoyment achieved where a game is neither too easy and boring, nor too challenging and frustrating.

Despite gaining some traction lately, this is far from a recent idea. Already, in the late ‘90s, Crash Bandicoot games used to subtly slow obstacles down or give extra hit points if the player was repeatedly dying in the same level.

But alas, this is not a perfect system either, as you may have shamefully already discovered if you forced that one Tinder date to race you at Mario Kart. “Rubber Banding” is a classic example of dynamic difficulty adjusting, and it involves, especially in racing games, helping those who are behind by giving them a much higher chance to obtain better items to catch up, supposedly to create exciting underdogs scenarios. The extent to which this is to be considered fair is, personally, uncertain.

And what about massively multiplayer games, in which endgame content is meant to entertain a multitude of different players over an indefinite amount of time?

The difficulty problem is indeed a difficult problem, and it’s one that I have only just scratched the surface of here. But for me, the bottom line is, despite an ever-increasing audience, no single game can possibly be made to please everybody. I love the idea behind Football Manager, but every time I tried making AS Roma win the league, I felt like a toddler sitting through a math exam, and not a particularly bright toddler either.


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