Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
Darwinian Difficulty: How Throwing Players In Headfirst Can Work
View All     RSS
October 23, 2014
arrowPress Releases
October 23, 2014
PR Newswire
View All

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

Darwinian Difficulty: How Throwing Players In Headfirst Can Work

November 3, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Game difficulty is a very subjective topic, as many of the best-crafted games strive to deliver a balanced difficulty curve.

In an age where designers are attempting to attract more gamers with easier games, some of the best games move their difficult moments off of the critical path. Some games offer achievements for those that brave the hardest setting, while others hide the difficulty for the players to discover (see Kirby's Epic Yarn as an example of an easy game that hides its more challenging paths in optional, hard-to-reach areas).

However, there are games that throw the player into shark-infested waters from the get-go -- and that can be a good thing.

How Does It Work?

Ninja Gaiden Black and Demon's Souls are two such titles. Both games are considered by many gamers to be among the best out there, garnering numerous awards. One area that everyone can agree on is that these games are hard from the minute they start and never let up.

The first group battle in Ninja Gaiden Black can easily take apart a novice player, and many gamers couldn't even get past the first level. Demon's Souls was kind enough to give players a 10 minute tutorial... before introducing them to an enemy who kills them in one shot.

From the outside, this sounds unfair -- maybe even cruel. However, there is a method to the madness, and that method is "tough love."

Both Ninja Gaiden Black and Demon's Souls, from the very beginning, are designed around several key mechanics. With Ninja Gaiden Black it's constant movement, reading enemy tells, and knowing when to attack and when to move. Demon's Souls is similar, with the added mechanic of keeping track of the character's stamina, which allows them to block and roll out of the way.

If the player doesn't learn these mechanics at the start of the game, there will be no way for them to finish the game, as both games' combat models are designed around these concepts.

Starting the game at a higher than normal difficulty introduces the concept of "Darwinian Difficulty", which can be summarized by the motto "adapt or die." Button mashing doesn't work with either title, nor does standing still and holding the block button down all day. Both titles rely heavily on telegraphing strong attacks, cluing the player in that if they get hit, it could be fatal.

Putting players through a "trial by fire" does several things. First, is that the difficulty curve for a game like this is different from other titles. The following chart shows the differences:

Normal game difficulty starts out on the easy side and gradually gets harder. There may be a lull here and there, but for the majority of the game, the challenges will be getting progressively more difficult. The difference is that in a game with a higher starting difficulty, such as the games mentioned in this article, the difficulty curve looks like the green line.

Darwinian Difficulty starts out harder, and there aren't any lulls. However, the difficulty of the game doesn't curve up as a normal game. The reason is that as the player improves at the game, the game will becomes easier for them, lowering the curve over the time. This act of basing the difficulty off of the player -- otherwise referred to as "Subjective Difficulty" -- will be looked at later on in the article.

Darwinian Difficulty also forces the player to learn all the tools in their arsenal. One common pitfall of action titles is offering an elaborately-designed combat system that goes completely underutilized. Players will often rely on simpler actions (button mashing, for example.) This leads to two results: the player will find the game boring because it's not challenging, and they'll eventually face a fight where they don't know what to do, because they didn't explore the game's mechanics.

Games like Ninja Gaiden Black offer the player the majority of gameplay actions available from the start, which is one of the reasons why these games are so daunting for newcomers. Within the first level of the game, the player will be asked to make use of all the available gameplay mechanics. In a game like this, the gameplay doesn't change as much over the course of the experience as compared to other games. The player is not going to find an item or power-up that completely changes how the game is played halfway through.

How Do You Design For Darwinian Difficulty?

In order to design a game around Darwinian Difficulty, there are several considerations that the designer needs to keep in mind. First, in order to build a game around this concept, the game has to be predominantly skill-based. The reason is that in order for the player to be motivated to improve, they need to realize that they are the biggest factor to their success or failure.

Design-wise, there need to be as few abstractions as possible for the player to deal with. In a traditional RPG, the character's level and attributes determines who wins a fight. Darwinian Difficulty requires a specific type of challenge that RPGs don't have. Even roguelikes, which are known for their high degree of difficulty, don't fall into the category of Darwinian Difficulty. The reason is that the aspects that make a roguelike challenging are randomization and character attributes, not player skill.

The next consideration is that there still needs to be gameplay growth. If the player is doing the same exact thing from beginning to end, then the game will become boring. There are several ways to introduce growth, such as improving the character's abilities. In Ninja Gaiden Black, players can increase their maximum health and upgrade their weapons, which in turn improve damage output and combo durations.

New enemies and situations are the easiest way to implement growth, and they must be implemented in the design. The boss variety seen in Demon's Souls is one of the best, with each boss providing a unique challenge for the player -- such as the two-against-one Man-eater battle, or fighting the Old Hero boss, who is blind and can only detect the player via sound.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Related Jobs

DeNA Studios Canada
DeNA Studios Canada — Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Analytical Game Designer
University of Texas at Dallas
University of Texas at Dallas — Richardson, Texas, United States

Assistant/Associate Prof of Game Studies
Avalanche Studios
Avalanche Studios — New York, New York, United States

UI Artist/Designer
Bohemia Interactive Simulations
Bohemia Interactive Simulations — ORLANDO, Florida, United States

Game Designer


Michael Joseph
profile image
This feels like educating new school gamers to the game design of yore... I'm glad Demon's Souls and others are seeing success because it makes it less scary for others to take a chance going down similar paths.

David Pierre
profile image
Reminds me of Egoraptor's recent Sequelitis video: Megaman Classic vs. MegaMan X. There's a large section where he goes over explaining the challenges before they even get to it and teaching the player the mechanics of the game passively to the point where they don't even need to be told anything. It's 20 minutes long, and as vulgar as Egoraptor usually is, but it's hilarious and very, very agreeable. The ability to teach people as they play without spelling it out is pretty solid design.

David Oso
profile image
thanks for this.

It showed you really understand the concept of "hard to beat" games.

@David Pierre, thanks for the Megaman X comparison video.

My god, that guy was right! Devs have lost their ways and do not know the true purpose of "Mission Objectives".

I think FPS today have gone down hill, no one is making an evolution in FPS, all they do is follow the same trend and path everybody does. They need to go back to the olding days what made FPS unique. Until I become a game designer, I can finally project the idea in my head for a FPS game:/

The Megaman video was indeed fine but the author should remember who the audience the devs are targeting and why there is no tutorial to those games.

Josh since you did an in dept article and comparison to both games which must prove you have played both games at harder difficulty (Master Ninja?:P) or did amazing research. What did you think of Ninja Gaiden 2's difficulty? do you think it warrants to be a real challenge like its predecessors? You never mentioned NG2 in the 3 page article.

Since you proved that Dark Souls wasn't a record breaking in games chart, do you believe that Publishers should market their games to the target audiences, promoting how difficult the game is? Or do you believe the Publisher should target wider audiences with Easy difficulty settings and use PR to keep the hardcore gamers/fans intact?

Do you believe Team NINJA are processing a smart marketing move towards Ninja Gaiden 3?

Josh Bycer
profile image
My record for Ninja Gaiden Black was getting halfway through master ninja before calling it quits. Someday I think I'll have to try that again but I'm going to have to pump my skills back up before I try it again :)

Personally I wasn't a fan of NG 2. The camera was zoomed in further then NGB making it harder to properly fight groups of enemies. Also, focusing more on ranged combat was a poor choice in my opinion. I remember one boss taking place in a subway was just a very cheap fight, as you had to use your ranged attacks to hurt him while dealing with the camera that couldn't keep up. I died so many times from attacks off screen or being blocked from view by the monster.

The point that made me stopped playing NG 2 was when the designers were crazy enough to throw in a section dealing with those ghost piranhas , but while the player was swimming slowly through water. I just didn't feel like playing after that. Now, I did not play Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2, so I can't comment on if it has a different feel much like the difference between Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden Black, which someday I think I'll have to rectify.

As Harry said below, there is a fine line between something that is challenging and something that is cheap. I believe in keeping the fans happy, but at the same time there are ways of having accessibility without cheapening the experience. Clean UI, a detailed explanation of the basics and responsive controls can go a long way towards easing new players in without upsetting expert players.

Personally I'm not a fan of the traditional difficulty model in action games as I don't think a well designed game needs one. There are exceptions of course, like Ninja Gaiden Black or God Hand. I think there are better ways to promote difficulty in the game design, without just tweaking stats. Having unique enemies or challenges at the high difficulty levels for starters.

From re watching the E3 footage of NG3, looks like the camera is a little zoomed out more compared to NG 2 which is good. Although the constant QTEs could be annoying.

Harry Fields
profile image
Challenge = good.

Fake, "in your face" frustration-inducing cheap difficulty = missed opportunity.

Unapologetically difficult games that do so via contrived and unfair mechanics such as enemies having thrice your life, one shot kills compared to your 40 shot kills, perfect aim and situational awareness just kills it for all but the most masochistic of players.

Games that are challenging by virtue of requiring you to use the skills and resources at your disposal in clever and engaging ways... that's how it should be.

And for the love of God, throw a bone to players who don't thrive on ridiculous challenge or don't have the cognitive capability to endure such challenges by having an easy mode or something so they don't waste 60 dollars on your title that will get played once before being shelved.

Christian Nutt
profile image
I think people who didn't know what Dark Souls or Ninja Gaiden were like going in -- but were aware enough of the titles to be interested in them -- have to be a pretty small sliver of the audience. Dark Souls made the difficulty a central part of its marketing campaign, even.

Jason Bakker
profile image
The difficulty of Demon's Souls is integral to what it is. You may as well ask makers of a romantic comedy to "throw a bone" to horror fans and have a few surprise-scare moments throughout the film.

(Though that'd be a pretty sweet movie.)

Jeffrey Touchstone
profile image
Good Article!

I think what makes the challenges in Dark Souls or Ninja Gaiden good is that the they are extremely fair. All the enemies tells and patterns are clearly telegraphed in advance. Allowing the player to learn and adapt to the enemy behavior. So when you die it feels like you only have yourself to blame. Where as games like "I want to be the guy" are just pointlessly unfair with random deathtraps and unpredictable mechanics.

Both Megaman X and Dark Souls' opening tutorial levels do a great job at letting the player experience all the major mechanics of the game in a natural way. So by the time the player in dropped into the main game they have a good foundation of knowledge to work with.

Charles Stuard
profile image
This was a good read, but I do question whether or not the concept of "darwinian difficulty" can't be applied to turn based games. I grew up playing a lot of JPRGs... primarily the Square titles of the 90's. But lately, playing similar titles (like say, Blue Dragon), I can't help but feel like it's not difficult whatsoever. When I was a kid, fights in RPGs felt hard.

So, ignoring my tangent there, is there room for a MENTALLY challenging game that uses Darwinian Difficulty? One that sort of "trains" the player how to think and approach situations? I haven't played Brain Age, but I'd guess it's something sort of like that. Or maybe Myst? I haven't played that either, so I don't know, but I have heard tales of harrowing difficulty.

Anyway, the article got me thinking, so that's always a great plus to me. Hoping I can come up with some clever (and not soul crushing) designs in the future using some of these concepts.

Josh Bycer
profile image
The SRPGs developed by Sting on the DS and GBA were pretty challenging and about giving the player a lot to digest at once. Knights in the Nightmare and Yggdra Union were unique. The main problem with them both is that they both feature unit health persisting across levels, meaning it's very easy to leave a level with units near death, a true example of "trial by fire."

Also if you have missed the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, it includes some of the hardest JRPGs out there. The Etrian Odyssey series is also a good fit, but it does lean heavily on grinding out levels in order to survive, which has lead me to burning out on them a few times in the past.

Speaking about Blue Dragon, I did play it after they implemented the difficulty patch and I did not find it that enjoyable, mainly because all it did was raise enemy stats up.

I would love to play a challenging thinking mans RPG, something like the old school create your own party and go out adventuring games, but with modern UI concepts.

James Orevich
profile image
A good example of a mentally challenging game using Darwinian Difficulty (or similar design ideas) is Limbo.

The player can jump, push/pull objects and push buttons. That's it.

The game trains the player to use these skills and as progress is made, they're challenged to apply these basic skills in many different and exciting ways.

If the player hasn't mastered the skillset (which is how to think and approach situations) they are unable to progress or killed.

The penalty for death is a 'please try again', so instead of "Adapt or Die" it becomes "Learn or Give up and go home."

In this way, Limbo avoids the "soul crushing" effect.

If anyone hasn't tried it, pick it up for under $10 on Steam or the XBLA. It's brilliant.

Matt Cramp
profile image
The first game I ever did any work for was DROD, which is a darwinian difficulty puzzle game. It's got programmer art but it's utterly unique, and very, very difficult.

Kenan Alpay
profile image
A few comments.

- Both Ninja Gaiden and Demon's Souls/Dark Souls DO allow you to "grind" for XP and increase your life and damage output. So the player has a choice, and it seems like many players *will* put in that time to buff up their character to an acceptable level.

- Demon's/Dark Souls is a game that encourages caution and methodical play. When you first encounter an enemy, you have to carefully discover and understand ALL of their tells and react accordingly. However the tells in Demon's/Dark Souls are a LOT more subtle than games like God of War, and many of the stronger attacks can't be blocked effectively by any level character (and there is no indication that this is the case). Likewise the unblockable throws in Ninja Gaiden do a lot of damage, but the tell is subtle, especially when fighting several enemies at once.

- In contrast to games like God of War, enemies in Dark/Demon's Souls are rarely in a fully "invincible" state. A well versed player who has learned the attack timings knows exactly when and where a quick or strong attack will land, and part of the challenge is not being too greedy. Many of my deaths result in me trying to squeeze too much damage after a skillful dodge, and getting hit by a fatal followup.

In the end, these types of games aren't for everyone, but for those who can enjoy them, there are many many memorable moments to be had.

Thomas Guererri
profile image
@David Pierre. That video was incredible. The comedy was hit or miss at times but it was certainly insightful. Thanks.

Great article as well.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
profile image
I found it interesting that in Dark Souls, they put back blocking as a possible strategy against most bosses. Its more coherent as both game teach you a gameplay of managing stamina with blocking and attacking, but against Demon souls boss you couldnt use that gameplay at all. The result was that people would use ranged attacks against most bosses.

In dark souls, most boss attacks are blockable, they downplayed bows&arrows, and spells have limited use. However almost all bosses have an attack you can't/shouldnt block, so it makes for a very interesting melee combat with a constant decision making betwen blocking, dodging, attacking.

Matthew Mouras
profile image
Great article. Clearly there is a demand today for games with a "Darwinian Difficulty" model. The designers of these games have a lot of my admiration. They are making a product that a smaller group of people will rabidly adore as opposed to making a game that everyone can enjoy.

I do take a slight issue with the chart on the first page. It implies that the difficulty never ramps up in these games. Even with the skills players are forced to develop early in the game, the challenges in the end game of both NG and DS are extreme. They throw you into the deep end at the beginning, but they ask you to swim miles through the ocean by the end. Dark Souls may keep a more even keel as you can grind for attribute improvements that will make the game's difficulty more easily managed, but it still ramps up what it asks of the player as time goes on.

Great food for thought in this piece. Thanks for the article!

Charles Stuard
profile image
I actually took the curve to mean the difficulty never lets up. So it's really intimidatingly hard at the beginning, and only gets harder and harder. However, since your skill level goes up and up (otherwise you couldn't progress) the challenges are akin to a fresh player starting on the first level.

It's more about constantly increasing challenge matched with constantly increasing skill.

R. Hunter Gough
profile image
great article! I disagree with your statement near the end about "grinding", though. I specifically remember spending a lot of time grinding in Ninja Gaiden, and although I haven't played Demon's Souls, all of the lengthy discussions I've seen about it were about how to farm specific items.

Would you classify God Hand as a game with Darwinian difficulty? I loved Ninja Gaiden, but really didn't care for God Hand, and I've always had a hard time putting my finger on why.

Josh Bycer
profile image
I would also not classify God Hand as Darwinian, while it is a difficult game, part of that is because of content locked behind having enough money. I've been working on another article concept that goes deeper into the concept of subjective difficulty, which is where God Hand would be closer to, thanks to the difficulty system and how it goes up and down based off of player skill (with exception on hard mode.)

Brian Stabile
profile image
I think there need to be more releases each year with such fine-tuned "Darwinian Difficulty" models- when I say fine-tuned, I mean to say it seems planned out by the designer, not just the end-result of sloppy game design (ie. old-school games). This would help to cultivate a larger audience of 'hardcore' gamers with an appreciation for these types of challenges. The casual game explosion has had the unfortunate effect of molding a generation of 'soft' gamers who need their hand held every step of the way, and when faced with any form of failure, they tend to call it quits, without putting the time in to hone those skills.

For example, in a play-test event I held for my iPhone game, "The Last Ace of Space", I found that most casual users gave up after the first death because they could not advance past the first 15 seconds, even though I witnessed that those who retried more than 3 times could last more than ten times that! It seems that there needs to be some form of mechanism (a flat-out appeal maybe?) to ensure gamers that sticking it out in the early part of a game to grasp those initial concepts will yield a reward in the form of being able to enjoy the rest of the game, instead of thinking the game too hard and shelving it.

David Holmin
profile image
Good article, but I feel that the term "Darwinian Difficulty" is a bit superfluous, because it simply describes difficulty as it's been known since the early days of action gaming; a requirement on the player to learn the rules of a game and play by them, using their skill to overcome increasingly difficult (but fair) challenges. This is so rare in modern games that perhaps it justifies a new term.

Darcy Nelson
profile image
This article and a couple of in-depth training sessions with a friend have finally revealed to me why I never got into the Street Fighter series (I started with SFII). It's almost like there's a secret language of how the game is to be played -that is not alluded to at all in the actual game itself.

It's interesting, because I do enjoy maso-core games (Demon's Souls, Knights in the Nightmare, NetHack), but there's clearly a line between what I am willing to learn on my own before I hang up the controller. Weirdly, I feel that NetHack is the most forgiving of the previously mentioned titles, as you get a shot at taking an entirely new approach to the game after every death. In Demon's Souls and Knights, I'm pretty sure you can make the game unwinnable for yourself by configuring the party/your character a certain way. The fact that I can't be entirely certain of that fact bugs me as a player. Skill-based actions such as timing jumps and dodges have direct feedback (ie, you die), but increasing your stats with each level not knowing the long-term impact of that particular choice leaves me with the uneasy feeling that I may have unintentionally nerfed my PC.

Plausible scenario: ME: Oh, I will put points in Luck because it affects everything you do, tee hee! My Min-Maxing Friend: You fool! Putting points in luck is a waste! ME: But the manual says that Luck is just as important as every other stat!

This is my bane. I know it's very macho to like games that are super-hard and require a ton of skill to master, but for goodness sake, if you're going to give me the ability to make my character virtually unplayable over the course of the game via selective stat increases, do me a favor and give me a really good indicator of what the impact of my choices are.

I'm all for the Darwin thing, but I feel it loses its charm over a long arc.

Josh Bycer
profile image
I know the feeling and I hate games where they don't give adequate information for the player to make solid choices from and the player can effectively "doom" themselves without even knowing it.

One thing I did like about Dark Souls in this manner, is that when you level up, you see exactly what each point will affect, and every stat will raise the majority of the attributes the same way with some exception. That way, there is a sense of growth as you go up in level without leaving yourself totally screwed by your decision.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
profile image
The fact that you gain basic defense with every level was a stroke of genius IMO. It means leveling will always make the game a bit more forgiving, unlike Oblivion or Fallout where basic critters will one-shot you if you level too much, regardless of how you spend your points.