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Trying to provide an acceptably challenging play experience to a wide range of people is not an easy task for a game developer.  Here, the matter is explored, looking at solutions of the past, and what the future might hold.




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The Difficulty with Difficulty


As we all know, gaming difficulty levels are a little like those numbers measuring spiciness on restaurant menus.  Just as one restaurant’s “5” pad thai noodles may be life-threateningly hot while another’s “5” are disappointingly bland, thus it is with games.  Whether difficulty level names are straightforward (“Easy” to “Hard”) or more impressionistic (Wolfenstein’s classic “Can I play, Daddy?” to “I am Death Incarnate!”) they’re more relative suggestions than absolute measurements.  The problem here is that difficulty is so crucial to gaming enjoyment.  Most gamers know how rare it is to find a game that perfectly nails that sweet spot between thrilling challenge and hair-tearing frustration.  Rarer still are games where the designers have perfectly anticipated the player’s improvements as the game goes on and ramped up the difficulty accordingly.  Nothing’s worse than the tedium after a player’s improvement curve crosses a game’s difficulty curve.


spicy-thai-food.jpg (52380 bytes)          prey.jpg (79550 bytes)

Above: Sometimes describing the difficulty of a game is like describing the spiciness of thai food (left), perhaps Prey's adaptive AI is the answer (right)


I’m always amused by the talk in gaming forums, where gamers make improbable boasts and heap contempt on anyone who doesn’t play on a game’s highest settings.  “I beat it on ‘Hard’ in eight hours my first time.” “Destroyed it on ‘Ridiculously Hard’ in six,” “Slaughtered it on ‘Not Humanly Possible’ in five -- while doing laundry.”  While most of this talk is b.s. from fifteen-year-olds with poor self-esteem (if not, they should be objects of scientific scrutiny) it demonstrates how difficulty figures not just in the game experience, but in the experience outside the game, and is tied to whatever complex satisfactions gaming gives us.  But it also shows how difficulty levels become something of a trap.  If anyone is truly so skilled that the highest difficulty levels are pushovers, I pity them – gaming can’t be all that fun anymore.


There may be ways out of this trap altogether.  Innovations like scalable difficulty allow enough tinkering and fine-tuning to satisfy most players, though it’s harder to brag, “Just totally owned that game in five hours – on a difficulty level customized to my tastes and preferences.”  Prey’s new adaptable difficulty system, where the game becomes harder as the player gets better, seems like another great development, and maybe introduces a new level of strategy into games, gaming against the difficulty system (ie. What’s to stop a shrewd player from, say, playing poorly in a few early levels to make that later boss fight a little more manageable?)


But sometimes there’s something to be said for raw, undiluted difficulty.  I’ll admit over the past few years I’ve become a sucker for certain difficult games, games that make me feel mildly hopeless, games that make me shut off my laptop and pace and curse for a while before returning.  I also find I enjoy games that are difficult for different reasons.  There are games like CDV’s Hammer and Sickle that are so ill-conceived that the difficulty seems to arise accidentally, just because the designers didn’t think something through.  (ie. “So we’ll start with the player



unarmed and surrounded by a firing squad.”)  Or there’s Bethesda’s Call of Cthulhu:  Dark Corners of the Earth where the difficulty feels deliberate and in keeping with the game’s pessimistic world view (ie. we’re all going to die in the end when the otherworldly horrors come to conquer us, so who cares?)



Then there’s the “it’s difficult because what it’s based on is difficult” ethos of grognards and simulation buffs.  Here I think of Strategy First’s naval combat sim, Dangerous Waters, with its 588 page manual and degree of realism so advanced that the player needs military training and a master’s degree in physics to play without AI assistance.  But it is fun.  I still have no idea if I’m correctly adjusting for thermal layers as I triangulate my sonobuoys’ passive sonar signals, but it’s a great feeling of accomplishment when somehow something actually works like it would in the real world. 


Until some standardized, scientific unit of difficulty is developed that can be printed on packaging (I have dibs on naming it) we’re stuck with an imperfect system.  And though this makes our gaming lives more difficult as we pick and choose, searching for games that suit us, maybe this is all right, and maybe it’s a good thing we can’t adjust the difficulty levels on our lives the way we can in our games.


John Tait

(July 16, 2006)

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