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Opinion: Ten Tips For Managing Difficulty In Games
Opinion: Ten Tips For Managing Difficulty In Games Exclusive
February 19, 2009 | By Brett Douville

February 19, 2009 | By Brett Douville
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[How do you make games appropriately difficult for all players? Bethesda and LucasArts veteran Brett Douville offers ten practical tips for managing difficulty in games, from "make the metrics known" through "don't conceal assistance" and beyond.]

Lately I've been playing Buffy the Vampire Slayer on last gen's Xbox, and it has stirred up a few thoughts I have about difficulty -- mostly because it gets it so horribly wrong.

I've been gaming a long time, and have come up with a long list of must-haves for most games, particularly games which target the mainstream audience.

In my career at LucasArts, I helped steer difficulty in some specific directions, some bulleted below, and I actually got a game credit in the "hey, thanks" list for a late but timely suggestion to the project's design director when he used it whole cloth.

The other thing that I ran across in the last few weeks was a little video project by a blogger in which he discussed what he felt was the most innovative game of last year -- Prince of Persia, which in a way dropped difficulty altogether by making the Prince more or less invincible.

The Prince was accompanied by a companion who would rescue him when he misjudged, bringing something we saw in the beginnings of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time to fruition: a less punishing form of death.

Now, I'm fairly certain that I would prefer the latter to the former, but I understand the impetus to applaud the designers. After all, they took a thorny problem and tried something different -- they eliminated difficulty altogether.

Now, bear in mind that I'm targeting mainstream games -- these bullet points are not for games like Ninja Gaiden, which use their difficulty to club gamers into submission.

That is more or less its design goal -- to provide an extreme level of challenge, and managing difficulty for them is and should be about making the game as difficult as possible.

Similarly, performance games like Guitar Hero, which have difficulty levels where the practicing and not the "getting through the narrative bits" is most of the fun, are exempted -- they should adopt and have adopted some of these, but ultimately, it's not what they're about.

Here I'm basically talking about mainstream-targeting games with a narrative through-line, primarily action-adventure titles and shooters.

1. Don't Make Players Start Over To Change Difficulty

Make it easy to switch difficulty whenever the player wants. This may have been somewhat more difficult last-gen, but not appreciably so, so I'm not prepared to give Buffy a pass for this. I'm several levels through this game, and I've decided that the difficulty level is distracting from my enjoyment of the game.

I came in looking for some basking in the Buffy-sphere, and picked the "Normal" difficulty, thinking that I'd take it easy on myself, as I used to play games like this on "Hard".╣ However, here I am, maybe a third of the way through the game, perhaps half, and I'd like to dial it back and coast awhile, probably to the end, get a little extra Buffy fix.

But changing the difficulty in this case means... starting over. Wow. What. Were. They. Thinking. This is rule #1. This one can't be broken.

2. Explain Difficulty Levels Clearly

Name your difficulty settings well; describe the user experience for each. We have enough space on the screen to say, "Use this setting if you are unaccustomed to first-person shooters; you can always make it more difficult!" or "You will die. Many times. Most of them unpleasantly. Regardless of your experience level."

It's okay to say Easy, Medium/Normal, or Hard... but we have to know what that means to the designer. I thought "Normal" for Buffy meant, "Normal for the sort of person who would watch Buffy" but apparently it actually meant, "Normal for a game designer, who has played more hours of games this week than you do all year."

Note: there may be a temptation to name this stuff from your fiction, but there's a fine line there. If Buffy named its Hard mode "Slayer", I'd want to play just because, hey, I want to be the Slayer. Isn't that why I'm playing this game? Mainstream players may not understand that you're being cute, and may be turned off when you call your easy level of difficulty "Puppy mode".

3. Adjust To The Player

I'm not talking some extreme form of dynamic difficulty adjustment, that fabled Shangri-La of difficulty design which somehow magically keeps the player in the sweet spot of perfect level of challenge (and which we will never reach).

Sucker Punch did an amazing job with this in Sly Cooper; I don't recall it making a return in the sequels, but it was in the original game and was inspired.

After dying a few times on a level, the game would grant you a "lucky silver horseshoe" when you returned; this would prevent your death, returning you to full health once over the course of the level. If you died several more times, it'd give you a gold, which was worth two deaths.

It was a simple little crutch, accommodated different levels of ability and the fact that the developers may have been unable to judge the difficulty of their levels. I recommended a variant of this to my friend years ago, and that's what they implemented.

4. Make The Metrics Known

Make it clear what dials the difficulty knob turns. This is one we sort of failed on my LucasArts projects; we had a very clear idea of what difficulty was going to be, but ultimately we didn't communicate it to the player.

It's a few years back now, but what I recall is that we simply applied a multiplier to the damage enemies did to the player. The thinking was that players would get the same experience, they'd just survive longer and thereby be able to defeat more enemies.

5. Allow For More Control

Provide the player with more knobs. It's great to say Easy, Medium, and Hard, but it's even better to allow the player to adjust certain aspects of the game themselves. Perhaps a gamer wants harder puzzles but simpler combat or vice versa.

If your game supports jumping puzzles, feel free to give the player a knob saying, "OK, you can jump a little further." The best example of this I can recall is System Shock 2, which gave three axes of difficulty via its configuration files.▓

6. Don't Conceal Assistance

Do not hide the things that make the game easier. Buffy hides secrets in each level, and tells you on the pause screen how many there are to be found. Unfortunately, in almost all cases, these are things that make the game easier -- health potions that you carry in your inventory, and health and power crystals you give to Willow to power you up in between levels.

This is insane. Not only is the game difficult, but I have to seek all over your levels (risking more spawning vampires) to find the things that'll make my life easier? Legend of Zelda has been hiding hearts in stray clumps of grass for years -- don't be stingy! Your mainstream players want to get through the game and feel a sense of accomplishment. Be big-hearted and let them.

7. Use Real Player Feedback

Test your difficulty settings on real people. Years ago I was playing Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight, which LucasArts had released shortly before I started working there. I was playing on the hardest difficulty setting and got to the mid-game level where Kyle Katarn has to escape a falling Star Destroyer, or whatever, within a certain time limit. I tried again, and again, and again.

Finally I asked a designer friend of mine, and he said that the way they set the time for that level was to take the fastest tester's time to complete it... and to subtract ten seconds. I could have played that for days and not beaten that time. Finally, I just asked for the cheat code to move to the next level and moved on.

Particularly when we develop for the mainstream, we are not our audience and we do not share our audience's goals. This is true for me with Buffy: I'm looking for more Zander-Cordelia banter and Willow-isms... not another ten nailbiting vampire combats.

This is true not just of combat. I knew someone who struggled with getting out of the Black Mesa lab -- because it didn't occur to him to break the glass on the elevator door with the crowbar he was carrying.

8. Let Players Adjust

Give players time to get used to new tools before you throw a challenge at them that demands those tools. Buffy has thrown several new kicks and spins and other combat moves at me to absorb into my arsenal of moves. However, because I can only really use these in combat (since they use up a resource that I can't otherwise recharge), I'm kind of stuck.

I'd like to be able to practice these before I have to use them in combat, but I don't have any option to do so. Zelda games have historically done this well also -- big challenges appear after you've gotten a new ability, but usually you have an opportunity to use that ability in a safer, less threatening environment, typically in level navigation.

9. Offer Hints When Needed

Make suggestions. We have the tools to fight player fatigue. If a player spends a long time in an area, we can detect that and give them hints. That can even be one of the knobs, "give me hints when it looks like I'm lost."

I know that Perfect Dark Zero got some flak for this particular decision, but honestly, I think it was a good one. Hardcore players should be able to turn it off, and it should never be a crutch to avoid careful level design... but it should be used as a crutch for players who are easily disoriented in virtual spaces.

10. You Can Always Make It Easier

Your easiest setting should basically be "push button, win game". You will think that it can't be made easier, that there are no wall missions. You will be wrong. Make it easier.Give them an out.

I'm sure there are more, and almost certainly I had another one or two in mind last week, but I'm getting tired and thinking of finishing a movie before hitting the sack. I'll add to this if anything from last week occurs to me again, and I encourage comments to throw out ideas I might have missed or forgotten.

Difficulty often breeds frustration, particularly in the narrative-plus-action games that licenses lend themselves too. Give your players a break... and they'll come back.

╣Sad but true, I'm also getting older, but it's not a lack of finger dexterity that gets me in the end, it's the lack of time to play on a more regular basis. I got very close to the end of Metroid Prime 2 some years back and then got quite busy with work. I've never gone back, because attempting to play once your skills start to fall away is no fun at all. (back)

▓Normally I'd say putting it in the config files was bogus, but it was definitely a hobbyist game, and it was on the PC, where config files were practically the latest and greatest tech. :)

[Brett Douville joined the industry eleven years ago as a senior programmer with LucasArts, working on such titles as the Starfighter series and SW: Republic Commando. He is currently the Lead Systems Programmer at Bethesda Softworks, of Oblivion and Fallout 3 fame. He thinks that building games is difficult enough, and playing them shouldn't be.]

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James Renaud
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Fantastic article, absolutely a great read.

Jake Romigh
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One thing I'd like to add to the list is that you should provide opportunities to the player that showcase how much better the player has gotten from the start of the game, whether that be purely player skill or, in the RPG genres, avatar progression.

The one design in Oblivion I hated (and somewhat in Fallout 3) was the idea of monsters leveling with you. It not only breaks the game fiction for simple thieves wearing the best armor in the game consistently (or, in FO3's case, Deathclaws [one of the hardest monster encounters] suddenly being EVERYWHERE in the game world, where before there were only simple dogs), but it also fails to reinforce how much work you put into the game. If you keep some areas of the game the same, it provides a great contrast to the player's character or skills when he/she returns to that area. Players will think, "Wow! Look how far I've come when I thought THAT was challenging."

Adam Bishop
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Plenty of good points in this article. #1 seems to be so obvious, yet a lot of designers miss it. The worst offender in that regard is sports games; while most sports game do allow you to change difficulty mid-season, I have played a couple which don't, and that's completely unforgivable. As my skills improve and I start to out-smart the AI, I want to be able to make them play smarter so that I can continue feeling challenged.

A really good example of allowing the player to change the difficulty level is Company of Heroes. You can play any level in the game at any difficulty, and no matter what difficulty you use, once you defeat a level you open the subsequent level on all difficulties. I was playing the game on normal, but got stuck at a particular level. I played that level on easy, defeated it, and continued playing the other levels on normal. If I hadn't been able to change difficulty at that point I likely would have just stopped playing the game.

As for #5, another good example would be the early Silent Hill games (I haven't played the more recent ones), which have one skill setting for "action" and one for "puzzles". This makes perfect sense, since the puzzles and the combat in the game use competely different mechanics and skills. For someone like me, who enjoys mind-bending puzzles but doesn't like having to replay large sections of a game due to death, it's great to be able to play the puzzles on hard but leave the combat at normal.

I know this is getting a bit long, but I think point #10 is an important one as well. Unless your game is a competitive online game, there is absolutely no reason to prevent the player from having an easy time of the game if they want one. The easiest skill mode should allow virtually any player to complete the game, regardless of skill level. It should be up to the player, not the designer, to decide what they find to be engaging about a game, and if a player has a great time running through a game mashing the X button and never dying, it seems silly and limiting to tell the player that isn't the right experience to be having.

Seth Gorden
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Mr. Douville, this was a great refresher on the subject. Some of these suggestions I've seen sprinkled throughout Adams' Designer's Notebook over the years. And this is a great compilation of the more important aspect of difficulty design, as well as a few new ideas I hadn't seen before. Kudos. After all, taking care of the player and ensuring a quality experience is the only real way establish a relationship with them. Some of the great companies are talked about by players like they are old friends, on a first name basis. These relationships are real and take a lot of effort to maintain. Without that, they'll go and play some other games, elsewhere.

Jake Romigh mentions the scaling difficulty in Bethesda games. It should be noted, I really enjoy Bethesda RPGs. However, the scaling is truly Not about the player. I was never able to play the main quest in Oblivion because I leveled up to being a master thief first. I then decided to play the main quest thinking "It should be fun and easy now, since I'm so good." Not at all. The game actually slowed down to a crawl, due to the dozens of monsters it pumped into tiny courtyards, never intended to be played at a higher level. It practically locked up the machine, it was chugging so hard. It was not only unplayable, but it was a technical nightmare to boot. Think about this. Major oversight. The whole point of open non-linear worlds is that I can do what I want, when I want. The unwieldly scaling factor in this game totally prevents that.

Bart Stewart
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Many of the suggestions here are variations on a theme: design games so that they can be enjoyed by both the hardcore twitchmaster gamer and the casual gamer. (We could also think of these types using Nicole Lazzaro's terminology as gamers looking for "hard fun" and gamers looking for "easy fun" respectively)

That's got to be tough to do well. But it's probably impossible to do well if controls for adjusting the level of challenge aren't baked into a game's design from its conception. That might be the meta-tip that encompasses all of the specific good suggestions made in this article.

A few minor notes:

1. I'm a little surprised that the "AI Director" in Valve's _Left 4 Dead_ wasn't mentioned in regard to suggestion #3 (Adjust to the Player). That's probably about as close to challenge level Shangri-La as any developer has yet come.

2. The config file-based "sliders" for adjusting the challenge level of different aspects of gameplay in _System Shock 2_ were actually exposed in its predecessor, _System Shock_. The Options screen in _System Shock_ allowed players to select one of four levels of challenge for each of the areas of Enemies, Puzzles, Cyberspace, and Story. This level of control wasn't implemented in a deep way -- "puzzles," for example, referred only to the two "connect the lines"-type minigames, not to larger-scale thinking challenges -- but it was an excellent attempt at that sort of thing for 1994.

3. I vividly remember "The Falling Ship" level from _Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight_. Among the many amazingly well-designed levels in that game, this one was unique. With the deck of the ship pitching at crazy angles, explosions going off, enemy droids attacking, klaxons howling wildly, and a timer remorselessly ticking down the seconds until destruction (and failure), this was without question one of the most frustrating levels of any game I'd ever played.

Finally beating it became one of the most satisfying and memorable moments of gameplay I've ever experienced.

That fact may signal another useful suggestion when designing game challenges: it's OK to have the occasional really difficult set-piece... but make the setting unique (not just a particularly hard boss fight), and only do it once in a game.

Mike Patterson
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Well organized. I feel sorry for the guy who couldn't find his way out of Black Mesa. =(

Tom Auger
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Wow, great article, and a timely one. I was one of those folks, addicted to the PoP franchise who was completely, er, disenfranchised by the ridiculous romp that was the new "Prince of Persia" title for nextGen consoles.

I totally don't agree about allowing the player to switch difficulty mid-stride. I think the issue here, as in probably a lot of these points, is the sense of achievement, sometimes of "pride" that one gets from "winning" the game at a certain level of difficulty. Now maybe this is an old skool way of thinking about games, but as long as games are not all open-ended and have a linear narrative, you have a definitive end where you "win" or complete the game. Winning in Hard Mode is definitely a greater accomplishment than walking through in Easy Mode. When you can switch to Easy mode whenever the going gets tough, you just get lazy. And the sense of accomplishment, at the end of the day, is lost.

@Jake - that's exactly what I was going to write next, and about Oblivion in particular. That totally turned me off the game (and now Fallout 3, I guess) - what's the point of getting better stuff, higher stats, nicer armour (other than the skins) if they do exactly the same damage to that rat that almost beatyou when you were crawling out of your first sewer? Where's the sense of progression? Absolutely as you level up you want to be able to be challenged by more powerful mobs, but you also want to feel like you can go back to those mobs that a few levels ago were humiliating you and give them a little righteous payback.

@Bart, wrt your comment "Finally beating it became one of the most satisfying and memorable moments of gameplay I've ever experienced."

I think that really sums it up. When I think back to the most memorable moments in my (long) videogaming life, many of them (though not all to be sure) were those times where the game was really hard, and I had to sweat every step of the way to finally win.

I think it should be mentioned that how you IMPLEMENT difficulty is often as important as how you allow the player to interact with the difficulty level. Simply pumping up a mob's stats, increasing damage, throwing more balls at the player, whatever can often seem arbitrary. Arbitrary difficulty, in my experience, is what most often leads to frustration. When the player runs up against a limitation in the game's mechanic, that's frustrating. When luck, a good spawn, or a random bonus is what makes the difference between winning and losing, that's frustrating (once the player savvies up to it).

The (arguably) MMORPG game GuildWars did something interesting in their Hard Mode (which can only be entered after completing an entire campaign). The mobs, which in Normal Mode don't handle AoE (area of effect) player skills very well, got a lot "smarter" in their AI with respect to this particular aspect of the game. In addition to them being a lot tougher, having different special abilities than their Normal Mode counterparts, and generally being upgraded all-around, this AI upgrade makes it really feel like you have a more significant mental challenge as well as a purely statistical one.

Jake Romigh
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@Tom: My case about Oblivion exactly! They did much better in Fallout 3, but similar stuff happens anyways. They are moving the the right direction, and I applaud their experimenting instead of giving us prove but stale gameplay.

But I want to just say one more thing about your comments on switching up the difficulty ramp. I'm with you in saying that you get a sense of pride when you overcome a part of a game that proved difficult. Accomplishments such as these are one of the main reasons I game, along with other factors. I think the point Mr. Douville is making is some people don't play for these reasons. Some people play solely for the experience, and if said experience proves to be overly difficult, those people won't try to forge their way on like you and me; they'll just quit and feel unrewarded.

Perfect example would be Vitacambers in Bioshock. Vitachambers would resurrect you after you die with no penalty (as far as I remember). Some people claimed this took a large portion of difficulty away, and I can really see their opinion is valid for their preferred style of play. Others applauded the idea, and were free to enjoy the rich story and environment without the worry of harsh death penalties. So what did Irrational Games do? They made an optional choice to turn them off, so hardcore gamers could truly fear death and more casual players could have more of a easy going.

My point? You can include a mid-game difficulty slider for people who want this sort of thing, but if you design it to be completely optional to mess with it, the hard core players can sleep soundly knowing they are getting their game is as tough as they specified it to be.

Stephen Chin
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Here's a few other points I've remembered from similar articles.

Don't Break The Rules Arbitrarily: That is, if you've spent the entire game so far doing one thing for one sort of situation, don't force the player to suddenly -not- do that (or do something entirely different) without forewarning and knowledge. Doing so isn't increasing difficulty just frustration as the player will have no idea why they're no longer effective. Prince of Persia 2008 avoids this by making enemy shields have a distinct color as well as giving equipment the Prince is wearing a glow as well as making Elika say any number of relevant lines. Thus, even when the player has tutorials turned off from the get go, they're cued in that something has changed and one type of attack will not work.

Bigger Numbers Does Not Equal Harder: You touched this briefly and it sort of covers many of the points you've made, but it bears mentioning. Simply giving the AI better numbers (shorter targeting time, higher percent of headshot, whatever) doesn't mean the game is necessarily more difficult. I'll use Madden as the prime culprit for this one. On harder difficulties, the AI does -not- play better football (they don't use better strategies, are not more or less prone to trick plays, don't necessarily try to counter what you've been doing specifically). Instead, the AI players simply get superhumanly better meaning that people start running-jumping-catching in frustrating ways (unless you exploit such behaviors). And, bizarrely, changing how well certain positions play will increase the likelihood of their counterparts doing better or worse - changing the slider of Wide Reciever Catch Ability will also change how often Cornerbacks will make interceptions and deflections, regardless of how close or in good position the CB is.

Use Rubberbanding AI Carefully: A recent article on Pure covered this in length, but essentially, while rubberbanding can be useful to provide constant tension, it can also result in the player never really feeling like they are accomplishing something other than merely enduring.

- -

To respond to other commenters, I would say that some of the solutions to some issues may be solved through other game systems. For instancing, being able to change game attributes mid-way -is- a good thing (heck, for all the customization in MAss Effect, why can't I tweak the way I look mid-way through). However, reward those that tough it out. Mass Effect, again, has an achievement for beating a difficulty level without changing it thus rewarding those that want to play on that level and stick with it. Something more concrete than that would be equally valid in other genres - an unlockable reward, an special cutscene or story change, etc.

As far as adjusting difficulties, as mentioned, this isn't always a straight good-bad but rather in the means that it occurs. While I don't think the intent of the leveling monsters in Oblivion was a bad idea (the player -should- have some challenge at all times), the way it was done was not. That is, a universal increase in all monsters just doesn't reward the player (as has been noted) in various levels. And, as Tom said, it's essentially arbitrary and random.

Though I've yet to play enough on various difficulties to make a real observation, Mass Effect and some of the other open-world RPGs do this better. Some enemies remain static (or only adjust very slowly) - you can always beat up the mooks and later on, you can -really- beat up the mooks. When mooks aren't enough, add other types of enemies or have other difficulties involved to consider. Some enemies level with you - the bosses and important fights will always be more or less challenging. Some may level up with you but hit a cap - they're only dangerous for a certain period. Some may not so much level so much as be allowed to use more skills and AI foresight. Some have adjusting mobs similar to Oblivion but only when you first explore an area - then, that area is locked in.

Galactic Civilization 2 does difficulty very well too (especially compared to it's contemporary Civilization 4). Higher difficulties can be tweaked on many ways, even on a per-opponent basis. The player can change how efficient an AI opponents economy is, their military prowess, and even how much CPU usage the AI is allowed to use and how far in the future the CPU is allowed to predict. Civilization 4 simply goes the bonus/penalty route for difficulty on a global scale - on Noble using large maps, I've seen the AI produce multiple stacks of enemies that number in the 20s of units.

- - -

The recent article on Pure's AI system (a very good read) is also relevant in some of the ideas it suggests. Essentially, the the AI in the game is designed to shoot for a target scenario at any given time and this scenario changes as the player progresses. Thus, at the start, some of the NPCs are trying to stay far far ahead, others stay just ahead and others stay behind the player while a handful of free agents stay with the player. As the player progresses the three groups slowly retreat in their target scenario so that by the end of the race, two groups are shooting for behind the player while the initially far ahead group is shooting to stay with the player with free agents remaining free.

L4D's AI director I believe does something similar, on a basic level (whether conceptual or mechanical), to gauge difficulty adjustments. Any given level has a target scenario - the survivors limping through the safe room door, low on everything with some supplies here and there.

This idea of creating difficulties based on target scenarios and AI rather than simply changing what may be otherwise balanced mechanics was an idea I liked that seemed applicable to a wide range of systems. If nothing else, it gives designers and any dynamic difficulties something to aim for to gauge how well or poorly the difficulty or any other system is working. And that system can respond to the player - a player doing poorly or well will still do poorly or well, but do so based on their own metric rather than the designers baseline. As the player gets better, the game does as well until it hits a limit and the player 'masters' the game.

Stephen Chin
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Er... quick addition. Something that's related to difficulty that only some recent games have done is to track player progression over the lifetime of play. This information is used between play sessions to allow the AI to respond not just to general skill levels but particular tendencies if any given player. This information can be used in other ways as well.

All-Pro Football for instance tracks not just how well you play but how often you use certain plays, where you like to throw or run the ball, how often you change formations or plays, even how often you use special moves! The game uses this information to generate how the game responds when you play so that any given game feels appropriately challenging in all areas. In addition, the game allows you to use this data as AI parameters to play against thus letting a player play themselves to a degree.

L4D does this to great effect as well - an advanced player playing with new players will find the game to be relatively difficult for the new players and relatively easy for them (based on the overall difficulty) but more so, they will find that the AI will respond to them more often. That is, Special Infected seem to target the more advanced player more often (if possible) for instance requiring the advanced player to be just as skilled as they would but also allowing the newer players to feel like they're contributing as well as learn the game. Frequency factors of horde events are spaced out as well as approach. In particular, this also means that L4D's difficult scales well into other environments (ie co-op and competitive) as the game allows players to use their strengths without necessarily punishing others for them doing so.

Adam Bishop
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One think that I'd like to clear up here is the scaling of enemies in Fallout 3. While it is definitely true that enemies do become somewhat tougher over time, and more difficult enemies appear more often as you level, this is complete balanced out by the fact that the player's skills grow at a far faster pace than those of the enemies. At the beginning of Fallout 3, if I ran into a Super Mutant I knew that winning was going to take every last resource available to me, and that I was still going to get hurt pretty badly. By the time I hit level 14 or 15, I could take on a few Super Mutants at a time, and by level 20 Super Mutants weren't any harder than dogs were at the beginning of the game. So yes, the enemies do scale, but levelling does still have a very tangible feeling of growth to it.

Joel McDonald
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Great article.

Wanted to say one thing about dynamically adapting difficulty--be careful the player doesn't catch you doing it too often. As soon as the player knows that you're throttling back the difficulty because they suck it's going to take away from the feeling of accomplishment when they finally do beat that particular challenge. And on a game-wide level, the player has, in a sense, lost the designer's trust when he sees the man behind the curtain.

Joshua McDonald
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In the numerous articles and comments that I've seen about game difficulty, not a single one has managed to bring up this point:

Difficulty is a key part of a story. People always talk about the need to tell story more through gameplay and less through text/cutscenes, yet nobody sees the great application of difficulty here.

If the player is killing rats and squirrels, the game should be easy, no matter what difficulty it is on. If the player is put up against a wild boar that is more difficult than the great demon lord he was fighting earlier, then the demon comes across as a lame enemy, no matter how awesome looking it is.

I have disagreements with both #1 and #10 because of this. Easy difficulty should be easy, yes, but if you make it so easy that it doesn't take effort (or at least that it can not show contrast), then you can lose a lot of atmosphere and story (same with on the fly adjustments, where players will make the hard parts easy, then raise the difficulty again when they get past).

I understand the cases for these, but I also believe that it would really hurt the game experience if Ganondorf, Illidan, Sephiroth, or any other super villain can be slain by a few quick button mashes or a couple fireballs. Note that all three of these examples came from wildly successful games that did not give the players "win buttons". People should consider that there's a lesson there instead of simply saying that these games would have been better with a super-easy mode.

For each player you lose because they hit that brick wall of skill, think of the possible players you gain when people come out of a game experience raving to their friends about how epic certain parts were.

I'm not saying that all these points are wrong. Mostly I feel that the issue of difficulty doesn't get both sides properly debated. The points in this article are old news for anyone who has been reading gamasutra or similar sites very long, yet I've never seen a good article on the benefits of difficulty (briefly introduced in my post above) on any prominent website.

Tom Newman
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I agree with everything except I strongly disagree with #5. Some level of difficulty has to be set by the developer - games with too many options often seem unfocused.

Personally, with few exceptions, I don't like difficulty options. If given the choice, (and I know no one wants to hear this) I usually pick the easy way out. If the game is too easy I don't have a good experience, and am usually unwilling to replay at a harder difficulty. If given no option, I will meet the challenge the developer presents.

If given an option, #2 is very important. As a player, I want to know if I'll be missing out on anything by taking the easy route.

Spencer McFerrin
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I notice a lot of people have been mentioning the Bethesda RPGs, and I think the subject of difficulty is a very tough balancing act for them.

First off, one major component of a Bethesda game is the totally open world, where one can go anywhere at any time they like (as opposed to games like Mass Effect or Fable, where certain areas are "roped off" to the player). This type of game world produces a bit of a design quandary when it comes to difficulty. Look at Morrowind, for example: In that game, you really could go anywhere from the get-go, and they didn't even give the player any instructions other than "find Caius Cosades in Balmora to the north." Morrowind also did not have any of the enemy-leveling that has been mentioned in here. What resulted was sort of a double-edged sword, if you will. On the one hand, I think it really made the fiction seem much more dynamic; the world felt much more alive when you really had to think twice before barging into a cave, and thus made the overall experience of the game feel that much more, I dunno, "epic." On the other hand, a lot of players complained that there was this vast, open world to explore, and they had to wait til they were level 30 to see it all without getting annihilated by bands of marauding Orcs.

Now look at Oblivion: As has been mentioned here, all enemies level with the player. As has also been mentioned by Jake Romigh, this not only ruins the fiction of the game world by having lowly thieves sporting Daedric armor as often as not, but it takes away from the sense of accomplishment (also, I believe there's a quest where you have to go find 5 wolf pelts or something, which is impossible to do after around level 12 because I'm pretty sure wolves completely disappear from the game at that point).

Then, of course, there's Fallout 3, which has a mix of both systems but still fails overall (in my opinion). What they did in Fallout 3 is area-based leveling: certain areas contain deatchclaws at all points of the game, while other areas level with the player. The one issue I have with this is that I don't think they had any static areas that stayed easy the whole game (for instance, I don't think they ever had an area where the enemies never got tougher than feral ghouls).

So, what to do about this? It's obviously not in Bethesda's best interests to start "roping off" parts of the world, since that's one of the trademarks of their games; otherwise the issue would be solved. I think it's a really interesting design choice that doesn't necessarily have a "right" answer. Personally, I would keep it Morrowind style (no enemy leveling whatsoever), but I would start incorporating the difficulty into certain aspects of the fiction (for instance, if you talked to a villager, they might say "Dude, don't go in [such and such cave], my buddy went in there and got straight #$@!ed up by some Orcs" or the like).

Ed Alexander
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I hope it wasn't mentioned in some of the comments (pressed for time) but one thing that really irritates me in racing games is rubber banding.

When I take a racer down and fly ahead of the pack, that massive lead should be my reward for performance. I totally hit better angles on corners and dropped well thought out strategically placed mines and waited until the perfect time to fire that missile into the rear of the guy ahead of me... That was all me!

When I'm cruising around and everyone mysteriously catches up, despite having the fastest car and the best player performance... It drives me nuts. Mario Kart is a pretty big offender to this. Road Rash 2, however, got it right. I've chained racers down and caught up to the lead, took them out, then accidentally hit a car crossing the road, ran back to my bike, got on and got back up to top speed without automatically going down to 10th.

This was a great article! As it would just so happen, I'm currently playing a frustratingly difficult game that I know the designers didn't grade on difficulty, they just thought "Doing this will make this section difficult, and since it's in the latter half of the game, it should be difficult!" In all reality, I'm cringing because they're introducing new platforming elements so late in the game that were never even touched on before. I've found myself ascending the return path and "doing it wrong" but the visual language never lead me to believe there was a better way of doing it at all.

Designers these days really need to make sure to always keep difficulty scaling through the game in mind. ;)

Adam Bishop
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@ Joshua

I don't think anyone is saying games should be made cakewalks. I think it's very clear that many people who play games would like a challenge, and I don't see anyone arguing that those people should be ignored. The argument here, as far as I can tell, and certainly the argument that I'm making, is that games should also have the *option* of being easy for players who want them to be. I'll give you an example:

I've been a fan of the Civilizations series of games for well over a decade now. A huge part of the appeal for me is in managing my empire and trying to develop strategies that will enable me to overcome the other nations in the game. The typical "challenge" mode of games is entirely applicable to me in this instance. Now, alternately, my girlfriend also really enjoys playing Civ IV. But she has absolutely no interest in being challenged by the game. She doesn't play because she wants to test her strategies, and she has no interest in learning to manage land development. What she does enjoy is watching her nation expand over time, through increases in technology, land mass, etc. And so she plays the game on the lowest difficulty setting, where it is practically impossible to lose. And games can provide both options - provide a good challenge to players who want one, and let other players experience the game risk-free.

When you say "For each player you lose because they hit that brick wall of skill, think of the possible players you gain when people come out of a game experience raving to their friends about how epic certain parts were", you're focussing on only one kind of game player - the one who plays to be challenged. And yes, some players will get through a tough section and tell their friends how epic it was. But many others will not. Why cater to only one? Why not provide a challenge to players who want one, and let players who want a leisurely experience have that as well? Why force a challenge on players who aren't interested?

The idea that challenge improves a game is rooted in the idea that everyone is, or should be, like the kind of people we think of as core gamers. You're basically playing amateur psychologist at that point - "I know what players will enjoy, even if they think I don't." The fact of the matter is that many people *don't* want play that way, and they shouldn't be forced to. In the example I mentioned in a previous post about Company of Heroes, if I hadn't been able to switch the one mission I got stuck at to easy difficulty, I wouldn't have persevered and then felt great about eventually defeating it, I would have stopped playing and moved on to something that was more interesting. What does the game lose by letting me do that? Anyone who wants to be challenged is still free to play on the tougher difficulties.

Reid Kimball
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Well said Adam. If a designer wants to craft a specific experience for players I think they should be up front about it to the player, in a sort of "designer statement" and say, "Here's how I intended this game to be played. I hope you get the most enjoyment out of that, but if not, you are free to change settings to play how you want."

An example is the official walkthrough of Braid, on page 2:

"Braid does not have a linear story the way most games do, so Getting To The End is not necessarily what you would expect. The idea of "beating the game" does not apply so much, here. Braid is about the journey, not the destination. If you use a walkthrough to bypass some of the puzzles, you will be robbing yourself of that journey."

It was this paragraph that motivated me to play and complete Braid without a walkthrough. Some puzzles took me hours to beat, but in the end, it was a journey because that's the experience I expected to have and wanted to have. I think we should be more upfront with players on what they can expect in terms of difficulty.

Bart Stewart
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I also think Adam makes a great point. That understanding of gamers as people, and of people as having different motivations for what they do (including what they enjoy in the games they play), is what I was trying to get at when I mentioned Nicole Lazzaro's concepts of "hard fun" and "easy fun." If a bit of extra design and implementation can make your game more attractive to more potential players, why would you not do those things (time permitting)?

I think Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight provides another good example of this. The original Dark Forces was generally beaucoup fun (even more so for those of us thrilled to see a FPS in the Star Wars universe). But it had a flaw: you could only save your game in between levels. That felt less like a challenge and more like arbitrary difficulty. At one point it actually caused me to set the entire game aside for a while.

So it was fascinating to see what the design team for Jedi Knight did. Players were allowed to quicksave and quickload at any point in a level... but choosing not to do so was rewarded by receiving better rewards at the end of each level. (Force Stars, which could be spent to purchase new Force powers and improvements to powers. Not saving at all in a level produced the maximum number of Force Stars possible for completing that level.)

The design team for Jedi Knight was still clearly laboring under the assumption that ad hoc gamesaving was somehow inherently undesirable. But they recognized that not being able to do so made gameplay less fun for some players. And they acted to address that understanding by modifying the design of the sequel to Dark Forces so that those players could still have "easy fun," but the "hard fun" gamers would still be rewarded for playing the game at the level of challenge the designers felt it should have.

So why isn't this player-centric "allow both low- and high-risk play and reward each style appropriately" design philosophy followed in more games?

Lo Pan
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For the me the AI Director in L4D made is challenging and fun, but if felt like a cheap shot. Since the NPCs spawn everywhere, you can and were ambushed at anytime. Took out the logic to the conflict since you had just cleared an area and now 30 zombies are coming from behind you.

Andrew Hopper
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While the discussion in these comments and this article is full of good points, I can't help but wonder if people are looking at the idea of difficulty too narrow-mindedly; difficulty is capable of being valuable tool instead of just a "problem to be solved".

Poorly implemented difficulty will simply create frustration. Well implemented difficulty can add a layer of tension that can enhance a number of things (based on the context of the game), including making success more rewarding, motivation for improvement, a more "epic" feel, etc.

One thing I vehemently disagree with is that idea that the player should be able to change the difficulty mid-game: allowing difficulty changes mid-game takes the teeth out of a challenge/reward system, breaks immersion, and removes tension from dramatic gameplay moments. Adjustable difficulties work in games like The World Ends with You and Ninja Gaiden (ninja dog mode when you die a bunch of times) because reaching high difficulties is the primary goal for those games: blindly apply the idea to another game and you can break things.

The point I'm really trying to make is: difficulty is not something to "avoid" or "fix", it's something to be considered and used effectively.

Joshua McDonald
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I understand what you're saying (indeed, I've read the same thing many times), but I'm afraid that you missed both of my points.

1. I'm not talking about challenge for the thrill of challenge (which is perfectly valid as well, just not my point). I'm talking about challenge as a part of the fiction.

Many people (such as Tom Newman from above) will set the difficulty low because they want to "see" the whole game, but in doing so, they never "experience" the whole game. Even if they come back at higher difficulty, they will still have the memory firmly ingrained into their heads that the great villain who was constantly talked about and foreshadowed throughout the game and introduced by an amazing cutscene fell in 30 seconds of random button mashing. Game design is about crafting experiences, and making things appropriately hard or easy is an extremely powerful way of doing this.

2. The key part of my post wasn't saying that difficulty settings are a bad thing (indeed, I support them on most cases). The key is bringing up the fact that there are aspects that need to be considered but are never discussed (at least, not on Gamasutra). Indeed, I'm in favor of a variety of game modes and game difficulties, which will appeal to different types of people. Which games these should go in and how they should be applied, however, varies enormously.

I do believe, however, that for many (not nearly all) games, it is a mistake to let somebody pass through a series of carefully planned enemies, puzzles, and story elements without any effort, as it will seriously water down the experience that was being created.

If I could get one point through, though, it's "There are two sides to the difficulty story. The other side needs a lot more discussion than it gets."

Joshua McDonald
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They need an edit button.

Andrew Hopper just above me said it very well and succinctly: "difficulty is not something to "avoid" or "fix", it's something to be considered and used effectively."

That's one of the key points I've tried to get at.

Jason Seip
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Since a couple of people disagreed with the notion of being able to change difficulty mid-game, I'm going to add a strong vote with the author for being able to do so. I'm an adult with a day job and a relationship and scant hours to play video games. If I'm 10 hours into a game and it becomes a difficult grind, I'm sorry but we're done. I can't afford the time to spend half an hour to move three feet further in the game world and I sure as hell will not be starting over from the beginning again. Like I said, I'm an adult and am fully capable of judging how hard the game needs to be for me to enjoy it.

But what I really wanted to add with this post regards situations in which the game monitors your failures and suggests lowering the difficulty if you die often. This is all well and good, but please take into account *what* it is that is killing the player. For example, In God of War, if you died several times in a row in the same location, the game would ask you if you wanted to lower the difficulty. But it doesn't discern between platforming deaths and combat deaths. I was doing just fine with the combat, but was absolutely offended when it asked me if I wanted to switch to Easy because I kept dying on some spinning-blade climbing challenge. Maybe if the environment were to change on an easy setting, like the blades moving slower and the jump timing being more forgiving, I could understand that. But "easy" usually just means that your weapons do more damage and your enemies' weapons do less.

On a topic slightly tangential to difficulty, could developers *please* start putting in practice arenas if their fighting games have loads of combo moves? Having some safe area where I can experiment and not have to face reloading as the price for failure would be much appreciated.

Aaron Knafla
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This article nails it.

Making software isn't about dictating what is right and wrong to users... Remember?... You are providing an entertainment service here. Do you forget? Are you a pretentious geek?

Of course you should provide the ability to change difficulty settings at any time. Why not? Because you don't think the user EARNED the right to finish your game?

You are selling a piece of software to the users right?

It's not about you. It's about THEM.

And, that's why difficulty has to be managed properly. Software that makes money needs to reach a wide audience.

Once again, it's about making money. People don't want to be told how their software is going to work. They should be allowed to make up their own minds.

Hoby Van Hoose
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Good rules, a little bit of player watching and a lot more preferences make players a lot happier, having a lot more fun.

Charles Forbin
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Too many people forget how subjective this is. For example, I liked Oblivion's enemy leveling because previous RPGs would wind up with areas you could play while asleep. Instead of a sense of accomplishment, I found up getting bored because there'd only I could only effectively level up in the latest area that I reached. On the other hand, yes, I would have had the better armors and weapons be a little more rare.

And I always find it hard to fault Bethesda for anything when they happily provide the tools for a vast modding community. How much more player control could you ask for? Don't like how hard it is to be a mage in Morrowind? Add regenerating magika mod. Done.

"One thing I vehemently disagree with is that idea that the player should be able to change the difficulty mid-game: allowing difficulty changes mid-game takes the teeth out of a challenge/reward system, breaks immersion, and removes tension from dramatic gameplay moments."

Yes, in *your* opinion, which is the whole point here. I like games with teeth but prefer them not to be sabertooth fangs. *I* want to play a game *my* way. For example, I like immersion. I play with wireless headphones, so when I sneak around a tomb in Morrowind and I hear that crackling torch pass me on the right, it's cool. However, "dramatic tension" is where I personally draw the "it's just a game" line. Don't care.

"Many people (such as Tom Newman from above) will set the difficulty low because they want to "see" the whole game, but in doing so, they never "experience" the whole game."

And that is *his* choice, and he should be allowed seek out his own experience. Why is that so difficult to understand? I think Aaron Knafla above is right. There is a bit of pretentiousness here. I want to be entertained. Demanding gamers suffer for your game is like a poorly written EULA.

EULA Article #6: Player must feel the urge to break his/her controller at least seventeen times before he/she will be allowed to see the awesome cutscene after fighting the radioactive wombat queen. So let it be coded, so let it be done.

Adam Bishop
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@ Joshua

You say "If I could get one point through, though, it's "There are two sides to the difficulty story. The other side needs a lot more discussion than it gets."

I'm open-minded, I'd like to think, so if you could explain to me the benefits of players quitting a game in frustration I would be quite interested. If a player doesn't enjoy the level of difficulty and quits in frustration, how does that improve their experience as a player? How does it benefit the developer?

Stephen Chin
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@ Joshnua debate (too many participants): I don't think either side is saying that the mooks or minions should be difficult or that the bosses shouldn't be hard (regardless of difficulty). I think most of use would agree that of a boss could be beaten blindfolded by tapping one button, that's a failure.

I think what everyone is trying to get at though (just from different approaches) is that what it means to be tough or easy (regardless of difficulty) should remain relatively consistent internally and through player skill. Regardless of whether the game is on Easy or Hard, Crowning Moments of Awesome should -always- be so rather than a range of Awesome to Anti-Climatic to Disgusted Relief.

I don't think that's really something that can be designed for all the time. Every player approaches the game in a different way. And within the context of the player story which may be radically different than the designer story what may be Awesome for one may be very different for another. Some players Crowning Moment of Awesome may be simply an overall sense of victory... others may remember a very specific but trivial (designer story wise) fight that they did something interesting or that was otherwise interesting. Some may find designer moment's to be entirely not awesome.

I think it's just a very grey and vague area between challenge and frustration, one that may be heavily dependent on the kind of game one is making. Certain genres and their respective audience tend to one side or another while others have such a wide open range it may not be possible without more complex mechanics.

All that said, can you (Joshua) give us a more concrete example (or better, more than one and also maybe some real world examples) with which to work with? Can you describe specifically something to help illustrate your point. It's easy to talk avoid vague concepts and ideals, but if we all have a better visualization of what exactly is meant, we could talk about it more clearly.

@ Tom Newman: Valid point (both specific to the topic and on a general note) though that's partially the players choice in the matter - a designer can't anticipate a player that wants challenge but chooses not to do so in the same way that they can't anticipate a player doing any one thing. Assuming a game did have difficulty options, what sort of mechanics would encourage you to pick a harder difficulty? What sort of options (better AI over difficulty, different/more rewards in game, meta-game rewards)? I think having such questions answered by a player like you might be a good way to help improve our concept of difficulty as not merely a static barrier but a way of making difficulty something to be anticipated positively rather than merely a game of player-versus-designer.

Stephen Chin
profile image - It's a review of My World, My Way. The relevant point to the discussion is the reviewer's description of the Pout System (bear with me here). I'd like to hear people's thoughts on that sort of per-instance difficulty as, presumably, the game as an RPG doesn't really have much in way of a overall difficulty level.

Brett Douville
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Wow! Thanks for all the great commentary -- I've just got off work and kid duty for the day and am going to dinner with friends, but I'll come back to comment here over the weekend (and probably post a follow-up to my blog).

A couple of quick comments: In my original post (deleted by a Firefox crash), I did actually mention Left 4 Dead's story manager, but I decided to leave it out of the rewrite because I really haven't played enough to comment intelligently. I will though, and I've blogged about L4D in the interim.

And the other is that I really am talking about a wide audience here -- a game for Buffy's audience can't afford to alienate.

Anyway, thanks all, I'll be back and come on by the blog for more discussion, my name links there. Happy Weekend!

Brett Douville
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I've gone ahead and done a follow-up post over on my blog touching on some of these points. Great thoughts here -- I really need to think about some of them more for sure. I appreciate it.

Tom Auger
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Dying and difficulty:

I'd love to hear people's opinions on the trend in most nextGen console games (mostly the 3rd person and 1st person action genres) to treat player "life" as a fluid thing rather than the more conventional "life bar" approach that needs to be refilled with some kind of health upgrade (potion etc)? I'm referring to all these nextGen games where if you get hit a few times there is some visual indicator on the screen that you're in trouble, but if you duck under cover for a while and wait it out, you get better and eventually are back to "full health".

I think this is relevant to a discussion about difficulty because now you've really changed one of the major parameters in how players perceive a game's difficulty, and you've eliminated at least one control mechanism (the frequency / availability of life potion drops).

Hey, I'm all for changes to the typical gaming paradigm - and it does appear that we've completely left the "life bar" paradigm in the dust now (it will be interesting to see how Diablo III deals with it). Does this new "regenerating life" approach add more options for the game designer to massage a game's difficulty in order to move the story forward? Joshua makes a great point about how difficulty is a key element to complementing / moving the storyline forward. Does the fact that you're not hunting around for potions etc help this? I suppose in a sense it does.

One last thought. I will still pick up PoP:Sands of Time and play it through at least once every few months, whereas I will probably be selling PoP 2008 the next time I'm at eB Games.

There are many reasons I so love PoP SoT, but the one that's apposite to this discussion is that I'm when I replay it, I'm now trying to play the game through from beginning to end in one sitting _without dying_. I'm trying to approach that movie-like quality such that if you were sitting on the couch just observing the game it would be entertaining from beginning to end. In PoP 2008 you don't really have this at all. In a way, this is emergent gameplay, but it is one that is facilitated by the mechanic of dying, which, like I mentioned earlier, is one of the primary means by which the player experiences difficulty.

Kimmo Vihola
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When it comes to design philosophies, I'm with Tom Newman when he says having many external options (ones that are less suited for being external, in particular) often makes the game seem unfocused. I would go as far as to say multidimensional and dynamically changeable difficulty settings may be a symptom of a larger underlying issue.

You should first differentiate between what is external and internal to the experience. While not many people would argue with having surround vs. stereo an external option, the case with difficulty is somewhat more complex. Difficulty originates from the rules of the game (with respect to an individual) and is thus tightly woven with gameplay. Making it a simple external option, while certainly possible, is not always as care-free and beneficial as one would like.

The premise of the article is that you are making a mainstream game. You want the game to be enjoyable by as many people as possible. The first thing to realize is this does not equal to catering for everyone. Your design ultimately sets a limit on how many people will be able to enjoy your game. This is the set of people your design resonates with. For others it may be that it is not a suitable theme, they don't like your characters or... they find it too difficult.

You can do three things. One is to accept your game is not mainstream and simply move on. Other is to hand the player the option to change difficulty to suit their needs. You can break it down further into sub-categories to account for a wider variety of tastes. The last option is to remind yourself where difficulty stems from and try finding a solution at the root of things.

Once you start working from within the confines of the game design, you see that the only way for you to broaden the game's appeal is to change that design. You start thinking about the choices the player should be able to make as they play in order to adjust the perceived difficulty to their personal skill level. Difficulty is not constant over time. Individual challenges in the game evolve alongside with the player, but the two are not dependent of each other. They evolve independently. Any need to chance difficulty mid-game arises from this realization.

It is by no means easy to design games that account for difficulty in this manner and there are many situations warranting the use of an external difficulty setting. However, the more you find yourself re-balancing the various difficulty levels due to the fact that you are unhappy with how the experience changes from one difficulty to another, the more you should consider solving the problem in your design, instead.

"My World, My Way", as pointed out by Stephen Chin, has one approach which recognizes the role of difficulty at the heart of the experience. Other possibilities include things like non-linear mission structure coupled with character development. Patapon is an example of a recent game exhibiting that to a certain degree.

Tim Randall
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In a game that has challenges of different types, it may be worthwhile to have multi-dimensional difficulty controls. For example, a game that features combat, puzzle solving, and jumping / coordination tests will benefit from allowing individual players to adjust the difficulty of each element relative to the others. Brain power doesn't always correspond to dexterity or reflexes.

To those who're opposed to changing the difficulty ingame... don't be. A player who plays through the entire game at the hardest level can still get an achievement for it, assuming that you track changes to difficulty. At the end of the game, you could report the min/max/average difficulty if you wish.

My main point is this, though:

Assuming that there is a variable within your game that can be adjusted along a sliding scale, such as a multiplier for damage taken by the player, providing three or four presets (and going through the problematic process of naming them) is really missing the point.

I think a better solution is to provide two buttons labelled "Make it easier" and "Make it harder" or just +/-, which make a *small* adjustment and which can be pressed by the player as necessary. You may wish to display the difficulty as a percentage, to allow for bragging rights.