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RPGs, challenge, and grinding
by Lars Doucet on 08/22/11 01:00:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Cross-posted on my personal blog.

As part of an ongoing series on our upcoming tactical RPG Defender's Quest, I'd like to talk about RPG's, challenge, and "grinding." Let's start with accessibility.


Accessibility is about expanding your game's audience by removing barriers.



The word "accessibility" immediately brings disabilities to mind, and as I'm disabled myself, let's start there.  Many games require good vision, hearing, reflexes, as well as two hands and ten fingers.  Often, these physical requirements are arbitrary, and the game could easily be redesigned so that a person with poor vision, no hearing, slow reflexes, and only one hand could still play the game to completion. These accommodations are rarely difficult or expensive to implement, and include such simple features as customizable controls, variable game speed, and visual choices tailored to the color-blind.

Of course, you can't accommodate everything.  It's tough to make visually intense games accessible to the totally blind, for instance, just as it's tough to make mountains accessible to quadriplegics.  I'm talking about printing books in braille here, not installing chair lifts to the top of Mt. Everest. 

But the disabled aren't the only people who are often turned away from games, and physical skills are simply one barrier among many.  Plenty of non-disabled players are turned away in droves from games they could have otherwise enjoyed, usually by the game's difficulty.



Difficulty is probably among the top three reasons why people never finish a game.  Just as removing assumptions about physical skills expands the game's audience to the disabled, removing difficulty expands the game's audience to less hard-core players.  But how can a game remove difficulty without under-mining the experience?

A perfect example of an incredibly difficult and hard-core game that expands its audience through accessibility is VVVVVV



The accessibility options allow you to slow the game down, turn visual effects on and off, and even make yourself invincible. These options help expand the game to both disabled and casual players alike. It's quite surprising to see such features in such a hard-core game, especially given how many developers like to brag about how hard their games are (Demon's Souls, anyone?).

 As my disabilities (Narcolepsy and Tourette's Syndrome) don't affect my ability to play games, I just kept the normal settings.  For me, slowing the game down or making myself invincible would "ruin" the experience.  So you know what?

I didn't turn them on.

I played the game and had a blast.  Furthermore, the game has extra difficulty modes and challenges for those who somehow find it too easy. These are normally unlocked through play, but you can unlock them yourself from the main menu if you want.  Personally, I like the feeling of achievement that comes with unlocking things myself - so you know what I did?

 I didn't unlock them from the menu.

Meanwhile, I'm sure some gamer who hates being forced to unlock content they already paid for got to enjoy the bonus features immediately.  Another controversy solved through choice - everybody wins, so long as "winning" isn't defined as "forcing everyone to play the game the same way."

 Removing barriers for other players, and even adding special features just for them, in no ways affected my enjoyment of the game.  Instead, I got exactly the experience I wanted, and so did plenty of other players.  This took a game that started with a narrow, niche appeal, and expanded it as far as its core design would allow.  I've heard some hard-core gamers argue in comment threads that any extra effort spent making a game accessible should have been spent "making the game better," instead.  Not only does this smack of entitlement, I fail to see how enabling diverse play styles doesn't count as "making the game better."

 But more importantly, an interesting principle seems to be emerging here:


Players naturally seek out a level of challenge that matches their abilities.


  1. If the game is too easy, players will try to make it more challenging. 
  2. If the game is too hard, players will try to make it easier.

I think games should be designed so that all the tools the player needs to make the game easier or harder are right at their fingertips, without forcing the player to resort to hacks, cheat codes, and custom mods just to get an experience that's right for them.  This should be done in a way that doesn't insult the player or cheapen the experience they're trying to set for themselves.

 So, what does this have to do with RPG's, grinding, and Defender's Quest?



Grinding is one of the oldest accessibility options in games.  If the player can't beat the next boss, she can always beat up some monsters, level-up, and try again.  This allows players of widely different skill levels to complete the same game on their own terms.

Whereas elite Final Fantasy I players could beat the last boss at the recommended Level 35, noobs like my 8-year old self  had to grind up to level 50 to stand a chance.  It wasn't a perfect solution, but it did offer a convenient "safety valve" that ensured that the game would not be impossible.  Back when it was an uncommon experience to see the end screen of any video game, RPG's were the only kind I could expect to finish.


At its best, grinding assures the player that victory is possible if they just keep playing.

 At its worst, grinding artificially extend the game's length, and exploits the player through Skinnerian principles and addiction mechanics (as in certain facebook games*).

 *Full Disclosure: I work on facebook games for my day job.

Grinding is simultaneously crude and elegant.  


It is crude because it punishes weaker players, who must spend more time grinding, and who often have less time to spend in the first place.  Furthermore, grinding itself is usually tedious.

It is elegant, however, because it lets the player smoothly adjust challenge just by playing the game, without any up-front commitments.  Not only can a casual player lower the bar by grinding, a hard-core player can raise it by refusing to grind, like trying to beat the Final Fantasy I at level 25.

When done correctly, the game's challenge becomes self-regulating. The player can naturally adjust the challenge level up or down as she progresses through the game.



Sam is a player that has weaker skills than the designers expected, below even what the game considers a "casual" level of play. Sam thus has to grind throughout the game to keep the challenge low.  Sally grinds a little bit, keeping the game around the "normal" level of challenge, whereas Bob refuses to grind except for just once late in the game, raising the bar as high as possible.

Now, let's see what happens to Sam's experience if we remove the option to grind.  Sam must now pick from "Easy," "Normal," and "Hard" difficulty modes at the start.  Being a weak player, Sam opts for "Easy" mode, only to find that most of the experience is still too hard for him.  Game designers often misjudge what counts as "easy," so I will join with Ernest Adams' in demanding that "Easy Mode is Supposed to be Easy, Dammit!"


The dark blue curve represents the level of challenge Sam would like to pursue, but without the ability to grind, he has no choice but to follow the difficulty curve dictated by the game's so-called Easy mode.  With no way to adjust this, Sam will probably quit soon after Dungeon 1.


Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment


A common solution to this problem (besides grinding) is "dynamic difficulty adjustment", or DDA. In this method, the game adjusts the difficulty mid-game in response the player's performance.  One of the earliest examples of this is the arcade shooter Dragon Spirit.  In this game, the first level was a hidden test - if you die, instead of losing a life you simply continue the rest of the game in "easy" mode, but if you survive, you  continue in "normal" mode.  This effect is largely invisible to the player.

Of course,when the player finds out they can feel cheated, and might respond by resetting the game whenever they die on the first level.  Other approaches to DDA, such as in God of War and Devil May Cry,  fix this problem by explicitly offering the player the choice of an easier difficulty mode after several deaths.  This puts control back in the player's hands, but sometimes feels like an insult:



DDA works, but it's not perfect.  The problem is that any pre-ordained difficulty mode can never match an individual's unique challenge curve, and switching between difficulties mid-game often just means choosing between "too hard" and "too easy."

Grinding doesn't work for all genres, but I prefer it to DDA for RPG's.  Both methods lower the difficulty bar, but grinding at least makes me feel like I've done something.  DDA just makes me feel like a loser who needs to go back to the bunny slope. 


Player-Driven Goals


Another solution to the difficulty problem is to let the player set their own goals.  Donkey Kong Country 2 is a great example, which I'll leave to David Sirlin to explain.  Summary: simply beating DKC2 is "fairly easy," but finding all the secrets and going for 100% completion is difficult, and the player gets to decide for herself what she wants to achieve. In this way, DKC2 lets the player chart her own difficulty curve.  When the game is "too easy," she can go after more secrets to ratchet up the challenge, but when the game gets "too hard," she can settle for just beating the level. 

I'll disagree with David on one minor point - simply beating DKC2 is not "fairly easy" - either that, or my wife and I totally suck at classic video games.  Either way, my point is that so long as the player is free to chart his own path, you can't go wrong by both lowering the floor and raising the ceiling on the game's difficulty.

Back to the Grind


For Defender's Quest, we combined player-driven goals with grinding in a way that we feels expands the game's appeal to as wide an audience as possible, without watering down the core gameplay or wasting anyone's time.


Let's start with a screenshot:



In keeping with the conventions of tactical RPG's such as Final Fantasy Tactics, and other tactical games like Advance Wars, each battle is a unique set-piece on a large map.  This comes at the cost of foregoing a free-roaming overworld, but given our non-existent budget and disdain for random battles it felt like the right choice.  Our game tightly focuses on battles, customization, and story.  Exploration will have to wait for the sequel.

There are exactly zero random battles in Defender's Quest.  Each battle is uniquely designed, and comes with several challenge variations ranging from very easy to very difficult.  To progress to the next battle, all the player has to do is survive a battle on the easiest challenge.

The three "main" challenge modes are normal, advanced, and extreme, which correspond to the three stars underneath each battle on the map.  The different modes are balanced such that "normal" is the natural starting point, with "advanced" and "extreme" being extra challenges the player should come back for later when they've gained a little experience.  


This lets the player set their own goals, as well as making grinding less boring.  If the player just wants to play through the game, they can ignore the higher challenges.  If they do get stuck, however, they don't have to waste time playing the same battles over and over again - instead, they can try some of the harder challenges from earlier levels, which are now within their reach.  

Furthermore, each of these different challenge modes features a unique variation on that level's basic design.  This lets achievers ratchet up the difficulty and go for 100% completion, while still allowing weaker players to progress without getting stuck or bored. 


Even with these challenge modes, however, we found that some players still needed the ability to "drop down" to something easier than the baseline.  This caused a bit of a dilemma, since we didn't want more advanced players to get turned off if they accidentally picked the easiest challenge, mistaking it for the intended starting point.



To solve that, we added a vertical separator, made the star smaller, and gave the new challenge mode the name "casual," as well as tool-tips to explicitly spell out the differences between challenges.  

And, rather than adding a fourth star underneath each battle, we made beating casual mode simply fill the first star half-way, so that "normal" mode is still clearly the baseline and intended starting point:


Casual mode was a hit with many of our testers.  It not only opened up the difficulty space, but also increased the game's appeal to an unexpected audience.  Many testers mentioned that since they'd grown up they have a lot less time to play games, especially 60+ hour epic RPG's.  Not only does casual mode offer a solution to getting stuck, it offers a solution to not having time.  The upper and lower bounds for completing Defender's Quest now sits at roughly 5-50 hours.  Players can fly through in casual mode (ideal for the sub-set of RPG fans who are "just here for the story"), or they can squeeze every ounce of tactical goodness out of the battle and upgrade systems by trying to go for "perfect" on every single challenge.

We made one last choice, however, that I feel might be controversial:

Story is never held hostage by difficulty


Beating a level's casual challenge with only a passing score is all that is necessary to progress and see the next cut-scene.  Furthermore, the game has multiple endings, all of which are equally achievable no matter which challenges you beat.  Let me relate a quick story so you can understand where I'm coming from on this one.



Certain games are appealing because they are difficult.  The reward of conquering an insanely-hard game is all that much sweeter, especially if that reward is a better ending.  For instance, I will never forget the feeling of triumph I had when I beat the "Running Hell" challenge in Cave Story for the first time, unlocking the best ending, which prevents the death of a beloved character I previously thought to be inevitable.

Conquering a tragedy by being totally freaking awesome adds punch to a happy ending in a way that schmaltzy Hollywood fare simply can't match.  It ranks among the best experiences I've ever had in a video game.

As a designer, however, I wonder how many Cave Story players ever made it that far.  Furthermore, this particular challenge was right at the edge of my abilities.  Wouldn't a weaker player have felt the same sense of challenge and triumph if he could play right at the cusp of his skills?  Would allowing him that triumph cheapen my victory, knowing that I could have lowered the bar for myself?  And even if supposing it would cheapen my victory, why should the game's designer pander to me rather than the other guy?

Inevitably, some small fraction of players will find ways to see the endings to games they can't beat.  Either they will use a cheat code, hack the game, or wait for tools like emulator save-states to arrive that let them play the game in a way they can handle.  Rather than forcing these persistent few to jump through hoops simply to enjoy a video game, why don't we as game developers meet them half-way, and just give them well-balanced tools up-front that don't spoil the experience for anyone?


Those are my thoughts. I'd be interested in hearing yours!


And for those of you who are wondering, yes, I beat the "Running Hell" challenge in Cave Story, as well as the punishing spike-fest that is VVVVVV, but somehow never beat Donkey Kong Country II, even after 16 years.  Those bramble levels with the stupid parrot are tough, man!

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E Zachary Knight
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You missed one other option for those who can beat a game and want to see the ending, YouTube. I did that for Metroid Prime 2 after spending 10 hours trying to beat the Ing Emperor and failing.

Thanks for this article. It expresses a number of points I have made in the past about why accessibility is not a bad thing in games.

I do have one critique. That is grinding. I find that the accessibility brought by grinding is often cancelled out by the amount of time needed to grind. I remember playing a number of games (RPGs) in the past where traversing a dungeon could be done with little to no grinding, but the boss at the end required that I grind for the same length of time, if not longer, than it took to reach it. So this would take a 30 hour game and turn it into a 60+ hour game. For some people, that is not accessible.

I don't have any solutions off hand that could provide a fix for that. One thing that I can think of are accessories or enchantments that increase experience or whatever else you need to get to what level you need to be. This would be something that would make a game more accessible for those who don't have the time or skills needed to grind and beat a boss, while not hindering other players. Might not be the most elegant solution, but it is at least one option.

Lars Doucet
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Howdy Ephriam!

You're absolutely right - I've definitely watched the endings to many games too difficult for myself to play through watching a "Let's Play" series on Youtube.

As for grinding, I definitely think it's inherently got limitations. I still feel it's worth keeping as a "safety valve," and ideally a player should be able to play through the game on their chosen difficulty curve without being FORCED to grind.

My main goal is to give the player alternatives to boring grinding (such as letting them drop the difficulty bar by setting an easier goal), and if they somehow DO find themselves obliged to grind, give them something interesting to do (such as playing extra challenges on early levels they're now strong enough to beat), rather than just forcing them to farm anonymous monsters for hours.

And of course, grinding is no replacement for good game balance. Many RPG's get lazy about balance because they know the player can always grind to get through. Given enough of these games, RPG culture becomes resigned to this behavior and developers start to get away with it. It's not a practice I intend to implement in Defender's Quest.

Lars Doucet
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....And your post gives me an idea:

If VVVVVV is bold enough to put in variable playback speed and invincibility for an action game, dare I put in a "200% experience" mode for an RPG, along the lines of the amulet you suggest?

I'd have to check how it affects balance, but it might be worth doing...

E Zachary Knight
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200% experience mode sounds good to me. I remember replaying the original Dragon Warrior recently. I played through the game but by the time I reached the Dragon Lord I was well below the recommended level of 25 to beat him. So rather than do what I did when I was a kid (travel to the Dragon Lord's castle, grind until I had enough magic left for a exit spell and a return spell, repeat for many many hours) I popped in the Game Genie and fought slimes for about an hour getting max experience until I was sufficiently leveled.

Sylvester O'Connor
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Hey Lars, I think you along with Ephraim are 100% right. I played Oblivion and I absolutely loved the difficulty slider. I have been told this has been done on PC games before, but I don't play PC games so it was my first time seeing this done on console.

It helped me out so much because there were some enemies that were really difficult due to their levels being the same as yours. When you reach leve 20 to 25, they would slaughter you at times. Being able to adjust the difficulty on the fly was an awesome feature and it should be included in more games. Although I haven't heard anything about it, I hope Skyrim features the same kind of slider.

Bart Stewart
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Which "accessibility" are we really talking about here?

There's interface accessibility, which tries to tries to insure that people with widely varying levels of physical ability can play the game as designed.

And then there's gameplay accessibility, which alters gameplay features and mechanics right down to the level of design.

I think (I hope!) most of us would agree that the former kind of accessibility is highly desirable. It's that second variety that causes problems... and this is especially true when developers or marketers promote their games as "accessible" merely as a spin on "feature incomplete."

In PC gaming circles at least, "accessible" has nearly become a code word meaning "simplified to the point of banality to run on consoles." Some uncouth souls even insist that the word "accessible," when used to promote a game, is synonymous with "dumbed-down." But when they express this concern with *gameplay content*, they are accused of hating gamers with physical disabilities -- this is the case of confusing interface accessibility with gameplay accessibility.

I don't expect people to use different words for these two different ways of allowing more players to enjoy gaming. Such efforts never take, and they're a touch manipulative to boot. But it would be nice if game developers, at least, would be clear about which of these kinds of accessibility they mean when they use the word.

And if it's the latter kind -- if they really mean that they are changing not just the interface but *the game itself*, then I think it's not unreasonable to ask them to explain how simplifying the whole game makes it objectively better.

Lars Doucet
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I see what you mean about conflating the two terms.

In my case, I'm talking about BOTH kinds of accessibility. For instance, our game lets you speed up or slow down the gameplay during battle (our battles are real-time), even to the point of pausing the game, during which you can still issue commands. This is nothing new - it's common in Bioware RPGs, but it helps both disabled people and folks who want to stop and think for a second.

I agree with you that the second kind of accessibility (audience accessibility) does require the game to be altered at the fundamental level of game mechanics. When you go there, you basically have to decide what kind of game you're making at it's core, as you're always going to be turning SOMEONE away. For instance, VVVVVV is not going to attract the same kind of people who regularly play Hidden Object mysteries from Big Fish Games.

However, the "slow the damn thing down" feature expands the game's accessibility FAR beyond just the disabled. It increases the appeal of a niche game to a larger niche, which is good for everybody. I just told a friend about VVVVVV's accessibility features and he said, "VVVVVV lets you slow the game down? Damn, if I had known that, I might have bought it."

My friend has no disabilities. He would just find the game more enjoyable if he had an extra half-second to react. I offer this as evidence of an "audience accessibility" feature that makes the game better without diluting the experience for us hard-core types, as we're perfectly free not to use these options. It also happens to be a "interface accessibility" feature, but I acknowledge these two don't always overlap. One-switch controls and epilepsy-friendly visuals don't usually help casual players.

As for "dumbing down" and "simplifying" games for consoles, I'm all for maintaining the integrity of our game's fundamental designs. I'm not interested in compromising mechanics in a misguided attempt to reach "as wide an audience as possible." I am, however, interested in reaching "as wide an audience as is reasonable," given that many of the barriers that come from difficulty are pretty arbitrary when you come right down to it.

Bart Stewart
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Great points, Lars, and I want to be sure to add that I personally don't have a hard-and-fast rule that "all simplification is bad." Sometimes it really is about making the primary gameplay loop more enjoyable by removing things that seemed fun at first but which don't really contribute.

It's also just a hard fact that there are a lot more casual gamers than hardcore gamers. The implication of this is that if you simplify a game's mechanics, the odds are pretty good that you will attract more casual gamers than you lose in hardcore gamers.

I accept that fact. I just don't like people making a business decision to simplify the standard version of a game and then sugarcoating that choice with happy-talk words like "accessible" and "streamlining!"

And I'm definitely not a fan of the ongoing marginalization of interestingly complex gameworlds through the subtle suggestion that such games must be the opposite of accessible. Some are, but it's not an inherent quality of depth. The presentation matters.

The bottom line is this: how can developers promote the beneficial aspects of expanding access to their games (through both interface and gameplay) without sounding like they're putting down games that do offer depth of systems and freedom to make interesting choices?

Lars Doucet
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Sounds like we're on the same page, then, Bart. :)

I like me a deep, complex strategy game, and I fully intend to keep making them even if that leaves some casual players out to dry.

Is there a better way I could frame what I'm talking about here to avoid the conflict and conflations you mention?

Bart Stewart
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Honestly, while I have some ideas they're not yet well-formed. Mostly what I have right now are questions.

How can I know what a developer really means when he says his game is "accessible?"

When did "deep" and "complex" become bad things?

And how can developers reclaim those descriptive terms as positive, desirable forms of play?

I don't pretend to have answers. I'm just hoping that by asking questions and listening to thoughtful opinions, maybe I can work out some constructive ideas. Thanks for allowing me to piggyback these notions on your very reasonable thoughts regarding how grinding -- properly baked into the gameplay -- can make RPGs more fun for more people.

Lars Doucet
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Sounds like the topic for a new article! I look forward to reading it ;)

We might take some cues from some of the stuff that's been written about interface design, as the world of web 2.0 has done a lot of similar things with interfaces. Dan Cook touches on this to a certain degree in his "Princess Rescuing Application" article :

Like, sometimes you just need a really complex and deep interface for something, there's no way around it. So, in order to make it more "accessible," where do you put your emphasis - learnability? discoverability? or intuitiveness?

Obviously, something that's intuitive from the start, with the shallowest possible learning curve, is very "accessible," but might come at the cost of a lot of important features. Joel Spolsky has a lot of interesting things to say about the misleading lure of simplicity:

For my money's worth, I prefer (in both games and software), something that gives me a nice entry point, doesn't skimp on features, and then gives me all the tools I need to learn and discover the deeper, complex depths that it has to offer.

Jheng Wei Ciao
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Thank you for sharing the insight! I concur that grinding is a powerful tool to achieve accessibility, but also must be carefully tailored.

In regard of Defender's Quest, I am curious that how you implement the difficulty options. Between 4 challenge variations, do you raise the bar by increasing enemy numbers and/or their stats? Do you rearrange the timing of each enemy and each wave? Do the rewards (exp, loot, etc.) vary?

When player enters a level at the first time, will he be able to select which challenge to take? Or maybe he has to complete a level once, and then he can choose to replay the level in further difficulties? In my opinion, make players to select the difficulty options each time they enter a level might be a little tedious.

Lars Doucet
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Hey there!

Here's how we do it: each battle comes with 4 challenges, and each of them is uniquely designed, so there's no general formula.

The basic level layout is the same in each one, but the enemy types, stats, levels, and wave configurations varies with each challenge. Furthermore, harder challenges sometimes feature extra spawn points, spawn points in different locations, and/or different on-screen doodads, such as explosive crystals the player can strategically detonate, etc.

Each challenge also comes with unique rewards, for merely passing and for getting a "perfect."

The only challenge level that uses a blanket formula is casual mode, which is the same layout & enemy data from "normal" mode, but with a pretty strong nerf to the monsters and a smaller reward.

The challenges are balanced so that you should be able to handle normal or casual mode right away. Advanced and Extreme generally require you to come back in a bit when you're stronger. Of course, if you're a completionist and always go back and beat them as soon as possible eventually you'll be strong enough that you can start with "advanced" or "extreme" on a new mission.

When you select a new battle, it brings up a window that shows you what enemies you'll be facing, a brief description of the story context, and what rewards you will earn. The "normal" challenge is selected by default. I would probably show this screen anyway just to show a preview of the enemy waves, even if there weren't challenge modes to pick from.

Also, if you beat an advanced challenge mode, you get credit for beating easier challenge modes (getting "pass" on advanced counts as getting pass on normal and casual, getting "perfect" on extreme counts as getting perfect on advanced, normal and casual, etc).

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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I'll have to clarify something: casual does not mean the game has low difficulty, it means the game is easy to learn how to play. Ease of understanding how to play is ultimately the defining characteristic why casual games pervade through the mass market.

About difficulty for multiplayer games, here is how Blizzard does it: first of all, make the game balanced for competitive play for hardcore players, then add ways to make it accessible for first-time players (add tutorials, add challenge missions to test their skills in particular areas, add feedback on why you died and what you should do next time).

A multiplayer game can't adapt to you since you are up against a human opponent, so at best, all it can do is teach you to become better.