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Opinion: Difficulty By Design
Opinion: Difficulty By Design
August 12, 2011 | By Lauren Poling

August 12, 2011 | By Lauren Poling
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[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday-opinion piece, independent developer Lauren Poling looks at how difficulty is a useful tool in game design, and explains how taking advantage of it as a design tool can enhance an experience significantly.]

In today's industry, difficulty is a selling point, a curtain that divides demographics, and a constant point of disagreement over which direction our industry is headed. It creates stereotypes that target individual games, entire genres, different studios and publishers, and even video game platforms.

This examination is primarily focused on highlighting difficulty as a useful tool in game design, though it also aims to dismiss the veil of confusion that's fueled by so many different opinions and uses of it in games.

Since the early days of video games, developers have tackled difficulty in different ways. Over the decades, two distinct types have arisen: difficulty tiers and universal difficulty.

In the universal type, two categories exist: standard, and moderated. Difficulty tiers involve players selecting from numerous degrees of challenge when beginning the game, typically ranging from 'easy,' 'medium,' and 'hard.'

Universal difficulty is a different beast entirely, in which the entire game is built on a single difficulty level that all players experience. The distinction between standard and moderated universal difficulty is that standard systems feature no side quests or extra challenges, whereas moderated systems do.

The game Ico is a functional example of standard systems, being a game in which every player is cast into the same situations under the same circumstances, and every puzzle has one solution. The Legend of Zelda franchise falls perfectly in line with the moderated system, with main quests that introduce new mechanics and experiments with them, and with gauntlet side quests that push those mechanics to their limits.

Before going any further, perhaps an examination of exactly why games are difficult is in order, as it's more pertinent to the topic. Games are about having fun. Simultaneously, games are most frequently a system in which players complete goals in the face of opposition. The most basic explanation is that people enjoy challenge, and, with that in mind, it becomes much easier to learn how to harness that.

Difficulty, Thy Enemy

In several games, difficulty is a tool used to influence and guide players along a desired path. However, many developers still approach difficulty solely out of tradition, to compensate for balancing issues, or to market to a certain demographic. While these reasons are not wrong or ineffective, they may blind developers to the potential that difficulty can have in game design.

Some games are even difficult just for the sake of being difficult, such as Mega Man and Demon's Souls, and though that can have an appeal all its own, it's not an ideal system in which difficulty can be used to guide players. What follow are a few problems that may arise with the misuse of difficulty systems.


The best difficulty is one that is always seen but never felt. What lies beyond these doors is deadly at any setting.
First off, one issue with tiered difficulty systems is that a change to the settings may have a significant impact on the way the game is played, such as with environmental navigation and the way in which mechanics are exploited. Though any game that uniformly increases difficulty might be a sufficient example of this, one that has variable shifts would be more fitting.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, then, serves as a perfect example of the imbalance that can be caused by including difficulty out of tradition. Most missions in the game demand a drastic shift in strategies in order to compensate for tougher opposition, but the mission All Ghillied Up remains almost entirely unaffected. Like the setting in which this mission takes place, it's as if the difficulty is a window into a lost world, forgotten about by the developers.

However, every other level, rather than this one, are the ones that arguably become unbalanced with increased difficulty; the unique circumstances are the result of there being more rules at play than simply defeating all armed resistence. The developers designed the opposition as a consequence in All Ghillied Up, allowing their careful guidance to remain intact and in pristine condition even when the consequences increase.

Universal difficulty systems, both standard and moderated, are not exempt from flaws, either. Though there's no risk that the difficulty could be manipulated to distort a challenge, that is not a guarantee that the challenge is designed well. If not handled carefully, challenges may be so passive as to cause players to lose interest or be so frustrating as to be destructive to their own purpose.

From Dust is a unique game that exhibits both of these flaws at certain times. In the beginning stage of the game, Rituals, players are introduced to an entirely peaceful environment in which they're allowed to do anything. Consequently, they are not challenged to do anything.


Imagine handing a controller to players and telling them to have fun. What if they immediately handed their controllers back and said that they had no interest in interacting with something so passive? How would you challenge them to interact?
While many players may fill their heads with ideas like kids in a sand box, it's equally possible that players may feel bored. The level does offer up rewards in the form of unlocking stories for spreading plant growth across the area and finding special statues, but those rewards are made obvious only to players who are already participating.

There is nothing overly compelling about the stage. There are few things more dangerous than creating worlds that don't challenge or interact with players!

Adversely, From Dust also hosts frustratingly difficult stages where players may struggle to keep up with challenges and in which the challenges are destructive to their own design. A good example of this is in The First Power, a stage set between the ocean and a volcano. Players start out at the foot of the volcano and are given two minutes to make a wall out of molten rock in order to protect the village from an impending tsunami. The true opposition, though, is the volcano, as lava slowly pours down to the village.

The stage Raging Earth is similar but much more extreme, placing players at the foot of another volcano and near the head of a river. These challenges compel players to move forward and master their environment before it destroys their progress, but players may spend so much time stemming the flow of lava and scooping out water by the bucket that they might have very little time to actually escape from it.

Challenges are meant to provoke progress and make success feel fun, but when the difficulty is so much that it gets in the way of the goal, in the way of the fun, it becomes meaningless.

Difficulty, Thy Friend

Difficulty is a powerful element that can ruin games if ignored or abused, but taking advantage of it as a design tool can enhance an experience significantly. Understanding and making use of it requires a simple question: what is the goal, and how can challenges be used to encourage and guide players to complete it?

A quick observation of the Splinter Cell series would help to provide an understanding of how to make effective use of the tiered difficulty system. Increasing the difficulty does make opponents more durable and alert, but it doesn't have a notable impact on how the game is played. Having to deal with armed resistance is a consequence rather than an objective in Splinter Cell, meaning that challenges remain the same even if the difficulty changes.


Dinky doesn't get many visitors, and for good reason. Don't be fooled, though. This highway is friendly, downright peaceful, compared to the road through Sloan.
When looking to use a universal difficulty system in a meaningful way, consider Fallout: New Vegas. Players begin the game in the small settlement of Goodsprings with the goal of getting to the city of New Vegas. Despite that Goodsprings Cemetary up on the hill offers an excellent view across the Mojave to New Vegas, players are informed that traveling straight there is not a good idea because of dangerous areas blocking the way.

As players start their journeys along the road, they may be turned away from passing through Sloan because of a pack of deathclaws that have nested in the quarry and a super mutant encampment in the nearby mountains. Players don't have any other option than to go the long way around.

These moments set the tone for the journey to come, as many characters along the road to New Vegas will warn players of dangerous locations nearby such as Primm, Nipton, Camp Searchlight, Boulder City, and Nelson. At the same time, many characters in the settlements along the way will talk about the riches of New Vegas. The game makes effective use of difficulty and desire to steer players in a desired direction. The death traps keep players on the road, and the characters keep players focused on New Vegas.

Both Splinter Cell and New Vegas are built using traditional, proven difficulty systems, but their developers designed them to work with other elements to create unique, fitting solutions. They're only two of many examples of how to take difficulty to the next level.

A Choice of Great Difficulty for Your Consideration

I'd like to suggest that game designers choose difficulty based on compatibility rather than market statistics. I'd like to encourage difficulty by design rather than by default. Moving forward, I hope that difficulty is thought of less in terms of quantity and intensity and more in terms of encouragement and guidance.

[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]


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