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Not long ago, we had a discussion about difficulty within games on the Limit Cast, and, as often happens with this kind of discussion, my mind carried on ticking over long after the podcast had finished.

The subject is still wide enough that we may go back to it on the podcast one day, but until then, allow me to regale you with the bizarre workings of my mind as I discuss more areas relating to difficulty in games, and how that can affect your gaming experience.

It seems these days that the hardest choice in a game is the first one you are asked to make. The difficulty.

Are you at the bottom of the ladder, playing at easy? Super Easy? Rookie? Beginner? Are you punching above your weight by playing at hardcore? Legendary? Insanity? Somehow, you’re expected to know how hard the game is before you’ve revved your first engine, or fired your first bullet.

Recent years have seen a new tactic in games such as Need for Speed: Shift and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The first level acts as a skill barometer, testing what level it deems you fit to compete at. But is that really fair?

The first time you fire up a new game, of course you’re going to be rusty as you pick up the controls. It’s rare in these situations that people actually stick to what they have been given, and instead alter it to the setting they think they should be playing at.

Perhaps the future is in dynamic difficulty. Wonderful buzz words aside, this means that the game adjusts itself to your performance. Left 4 Dead‘s director is a great example of this, staging a variety of action and an increment of difficulty depending on how well the survivors are doing. It seems a perfect example, except for one glaring oversight. You still have a selection of difficulties, and as such the director merely works in parameters of each setting.

A better example comes in the form of the plastic instrument-friendly Guitar Hero 5. The game comes equipped with a unique ‘momentum’ mode, starting you out at the lower difficulties and boosting you up to higher peaks of gaming challenges as you perform well, or knocking you down a peg when you fail.

Then again, when looking at the topic of difficulty in games, it does almost beg the question, “Is a difficulty setting needed?”


Many games pave the straight and narrow with a slight learning curve, and offer an extra challenge for those who want to go off the beaten path. Burnout: Revenge allowed the player to progress through each stage of challenges by earning stars. Why, even a casual gamer could do that. The hardcore challenges lay in getting that bright and shiny status symbol of five stars, no matter how tricky the level got. Likewise, in JRPGs, the hardest parts are there for the players to discover as they lose themselves in the world. Anyone who has sought the GF Eden in Final Fantasy 8 can attest to that, I’m sure.

Whilst that may work in a RPG, with the freedom to allow the player to explore the world and find the challenges dotted around, not all games can afford that luxury. For those that can’t rely on exploration, some have already been using a great tool to enhance the gaming experience with various levels of intricacy, without having to turn the dial up to 11.

Achievements. I will admit that sometimes these are used horrendously, and when I see a title offering me a gamerscore-boosting glory by simply using every special move with every character in every level, I start to cry. When I see an achievement asking for the 100% collection of every item in the game, frankly, I’d rather go and make myself a sandwich.


This isn’t the case with every achievement, I am glad to say; some genuinely enhance the game they have been crammed into.

Take a look at Mirror’s Edge‘s “Test of Faith”, in which you must complete the game without shooting an enemy, or Bioshock‘s “Brass Balls”, where you must complete the game on hard mode without using a vita-chamber. Then there’s the down right ludicrous “Little Rocket Man” of Half Life 2, which will see you carrying a plucky garden gnome across your Earth-saving escapades.

Each one of these, and I’m sure there are many more out there, add a layer to the game by making you play games in the same crazy way that I’m sure we all used to do growing up. We put these restrictions upon ourselves not because we had to, but because it added another layer to the game. To me, that is where the distinction of difficulty needs to be. A game must be open to all, but let us get a little bit crazy some times.

  1. Dynamic difficulty definitely has a large place in gaming future. Even without developing this technology, there are a lot of strides to be made simply by eliminating the lazy ways difficulty is implemented right now.

    Instead of making Easy = HP x 1, Medium = HP x2, and Hard = HP x3, we need to see the strategy employed by the AI for the enemies jump in complexity. Ex. Easy = Stand and Fire, Medium = Use Cover Strategically, and Hard = Flanking and Team Tactics.

    Nice write-up!

  2. What I really enjoy are games where you unlock the hard mode. That way, you never feel emasculated when you try out a hard difficulty and fail when playing the game the first time. Also, you don’t have to bother with dynamic difficulty, which I think is really insulting (there’s nothing like losing at a spot twice, knowing it was easier the second time).

    When you unlock a hard mode after beating the game, you can decide if it was fun enough to try again with a greater challenge. I guess, theoretically, you could do that with selectable difficulty too, though.

  3. I’ll always love games that include a sick, twisted “Dante Must Die Mode”. There’s nothing worse than beating a game on hard only to find out…well..that’s all she wrote (Arkham Asylum).

  4. avatar Jazzman

    I believe I may have some relevant imput.

    Originally when I made my first functioning version of Part 1 of Theoria I realized it had little feeling and seemed monotone despite fun combat.

    I decided the best way to increase the mood of the game is to add TENSION. I did this in a number of ways. For one, a couple of gunmen can chase you and if you stop running for more than a second a bullet will hit you and you will die (You can fight back, BTW, this isn’t just a cheap plug in). For two, I added in advanced lighting to make the game seem dark and dystopic.

    Original: You’re running through a bleak blue corridor, killing everything you see in fury. Nothing stands in your way, there is no dispute over death. You’re looking for Laura

    New: The city streets are filled with chaos. The savages paint the sky red with the blood of the innocent, it’s hard to see, but you don’t care. Your old friend is after you, with his knife, bloodstained clothing, and worst of all, he’s psychotic. You don’t care how many people you have to hurt, you don’t care about if your flashlight dies out, all you care about is the girl. You depend on her, and she depends on you.

    So yeah, I kind of reeled off subject like always but hard difficulty is ONLY handled well when the rest of the game meets it halfway with stunning scenarios, stories, lighting, and character.

  5. Great write-up Paul! I really like the idea of a game adjusting it’s difficulty on the fly spending on how good or bad the player is doing. It would be really interesting to try that out with a game like God of War 3.

  6. I agree with Sean, I think the AI changing with the difficulty level would be the best possible way to change difficulty. I hate when they give enemies more health or make them ridiculous sharpshooters and hit any part of your body that is visible regardless of what happens (COD comes to mind here….they’re obnoxious on Veteran…not even fun…just obnoxious)

  7. avatar Anonymous

    I don’t know, dynamic difficulty sounds great in theory, but it sorts of takes out the challenge of the game. If I suck at a game then hey, the game gets easier, but then what’s the point of me really trying?

    I like the fact that playing God of War 3 on God mode is insanely difficult and you need skill in order to finish it, I like the fact that only true hardcore fans of Wipeout HD are able to master all of its tracks and races. If you have dynamic difficulty, it’s like everyone can essentially be good at the game, and you don’t really need any skill in order to finish a game.

    I personally believe that playing the first level and giving a score based on that is the best idea. It gives you a feel for the game, and allows you to change the difficulty if you think that the rating they gave you is inaccurate.

    Most of the time I just choose normal/medium anyway, as I believe the developers aimed to make that mode the most accessible to all, and most people should be able to finish that mode fairly easily.

  8. avatar Jazzman

    Oh, trust me, we don’t want you to win, we want you to have a great experience ;)

    I cannot think of anything good about dynamic difficulty, it’s few (if any!) pros are overshadowed by the cons!

  9. the difficulty of an experience is only one facet of the experience.
    Play Passage, is it hard? No. Is it a fantastic experience? Yes.
    I play A LOT of games on the lower settings for the experience of the game, and very little of this is based on being “challenged”. Aesthetics, Design, Immersion, Narrative and more are wonderful things to be engaged in.

    It works if the difficulty is added in a way that works, but if not, the game becomes something that will turn a lot of people off.

  10. I have to disagree with the unlocking difficulty side of the fence. I hate when a game does that, I want to be able to choose what difficulty I play on. i have only just unwrapped this $60 game and I am being told that some of its content will be denied to me until I have performed a task. The majority of the time when I see a game needs its difficulty unlocking it makes me feel the designers lacked the confidence that their game was worth two playthroughs on its own merit.

    To me i thought mw2 handled this well with the ssdd level – a refresher for older players a learn the ropes for new ones and it ends by giving you a guestimate of what level you should play the game on based on your time accuracy and how many civ casualties you racked up. It may not of been in depth but it did the job

  11. @Cynical
    I agree that it’s a HUGE pain for me to have to complete normal to “unlock” hard sometimes. Depending on the game, it can ruin my experience by being way too easy the first time through, and once I’ve learned all the ins, outs and tricks, hard becomes easier.

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