Difficulty is not easy to design

Game difficulty is a wacky concept. I remember playing Super Mario Land on my Gameboy during a particularly long roadtrip and I got incredibly frustrated, because I wasn't able to finish a certain boss and was punished for losing by doing everything again from the start. I found that very difficult for multiple reasons: First, I wasn't super comfortable with the execution of actions in the game. I knew how to defeat the boss, but I wasn't able to do it. Second, there was emotional stress. I hated that I had to start again and I hated that it made me angry. Of course, every time I had a good enough run to approach this boss again, I was nervous and played even worse.

There were suprisingly many games that offered me a similar experience. I think there is some kind of self-help group for players of the SNES Lion King game. Well, I was little back then and I was not really good at games. My motoric and affective abilities weren't ... sufficient. Like any good angry gamer, I blamed the game and the design. Don't get me wrong, Lion King is absolutely brutal, but there is another side of the story.

Man gets angry while playing a video game You know the feeling.

There is a simple solution for my struggles, which is simply to get better. There are people out there, loving every minute of the most difficult games, precisely because they are so difficult. Maybe you've heard of Kaizo Mario, a notoriously hard ROM hack of Super Mario World made by someone who just wanted to challenge their friends - and it spanned a whole genre of 2D Mario Level Designs for online communities that chase the hardest Mario experience that is possible.

There is an almost natural appeal to overcoming challenges and games have a great potential to scratch that itch. Games like Dark Souls or Cuphead are very well known for being hard, but in a way that rewards growth and not in a way that punishes variables out of players' control. Modern game design provides many examples of "challenge done right" - clear rules, learning opportunities for players, deep challenges. A platforming challenge is "good" when it asks players to perform well within their ability space (and is not dependent on inconsistent camera movements or random encounters).

Screenshot of Dark Souls' Game Over Screen, reading 'You Died' in big, red letters Yeah, it's that feeling. Some find it motivating - some not.

But now, thinking back at little me, playing Super Mario Land in the car - my "ability space" was so different to the space of other people. My personal skill ceiling was quite low - especially compared to Kaizo Mario players. Maybe I was physically able to beat the game, but I certainly wasn't emotionally able to. So now we have a problem: If a great challenge experience is dependent on individual abilities (and these abilities are not necessarily learnable within the span of a game), difficulty should be adaptive to these differences.

This is mostly done through "difficulty settings", where players can themselves indicate how good they are. In theory, this is a great tool for accessibility: Players who aren't able to or don't want to play a game on hard, can just play it on easy. On the other hand, players who chase an ever-growing challenge can chose to play on hard, or intense, or whatever hardcore name the highest difficulty setting has. Everybody's happy!

But it's not that easy. Looking at popular games, there are many, many design decisions that go comepletely against the idea of having difficulty settings seperate ability spaces. From condescending "baby modes" to special rewards for harder modes, difficulty settings are very often used to represent the skill progression of one player and not the differences between types of players. Unlocking the hardest difficulty after finishing the second hardest does not benefit players who are on the second-hardest level (what kind of reward is a less enjoyable version of the same game?) and also not players who are on the hardest (why should they play a worse version first before they have fun?). But it can be seen as a reward for players who started on the second hardest and want to improve.

This is a valid design decision because people change. Ability spaces change not only between players, but constantly for the same player, with everything they learn in a game (or even between games with similar mechanics). And this is why difficult is such a wacky concept. It seems quite hard to design a game that has the optimal difficulty for the personal progression of any one player, regardless what ability level they start out or end up with.

Some games therefore only worry about personal growth: Dark Souls starts out hard and only gets harder, because the already good player base gets even better. Pokémon starts out very easy and supportive of low-ability players and only increases the difficulty in small steps when familarity with the systems are ensured. This gives the game the ability to be super focused and satisfying for a given player base, but it also may exclude everyone who is not part of this group.

Having difficulty levels in place that players can choose from can help, but it is such a heavy task by itself. Simple tweaks often change the game into a version that plays differently (and maybe not as intended). Tweaking enemy health for example could make harder difficulty settings just slower and more annoying. I still regret starting Breath of the Wild in Master Mode (I just felt I was good at Zelda), but the whole fighting system lost its charm for me. Enemies would constantly regenerate, meaning that creative and fun fighing solutions were out of the picture, while efficient and fast strategies were preferred. A potentially interesting version of the game for some, but for me it lost what the game was all about and I stopped engaging in fights altogether. Carefully designing each aspect of the game that influences difficulty could also mean creating completely new games for each difficulty level, so the cost of development might not be worth it at all.

Screenshot from Hades' Pact of Punishment: Players can choose which game aspects they want more or less difficult for specific rewards. There are some ways to handle this - like here in Hades

There are some creative solutions to this problem. Hades has the Pact of Punishment where players can increase the difficulty of certain game aspects if they want (like enemy speed, boss attacks, or healing effects). This system is highly adaptive for individual differences and personal growth, as players can increase and decrease values for whatever suits their situation. It does still reward higher difficulties (so high-skill players have an adventage by design), but at least every player can choose which parts get more intense. The flip side of course is that this will not be the tailored experience Dark Souls provides and the player has to design some of the aspects themselves.

A lot of words for a seemingly small problem and we're not done yet. Game difficulty shapes the experience of playing and is much more complicated than "tweak the numbers to make it harder". There is research out there that explores some new possibilities - so I will report back when I know more.

Written by Maximilian Croissant