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The Designer's Notebook: Difficulty Modes and Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment
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The Designer's Notebook: Difficulty Modes and Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment

May 14, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next
  • They're too broad, by which Glassner means that the difficulty settings apply generally across all the different types of challenges in a game, and a player might be good at one kind, such as shooting, but not at another such as driving. Which setting should he choose?

    My response:This is definitely Glassner's strongest point, and one that merits serious consideration. First, his objection doesn't necessarily apply to all genres. Many games concentrate on a small number of challenge types -- Tetris, for example. In racing, the key challenge is driving safely and efficiently, and little else is asked of the player. On the other hand, in a complex game like Civilization, the difficulty setting is not associated with any particular challenge, but applies in a general way across the whole game. Your opponents are just smarter, meaner, richer, and faster than you are. In these types of games, the fact that a difficulty setting is broad doesn't hurt anything.

    That leaves games with separate heterogeneous challenges. Platformers and third-person shooters provide the most obvious examples. I'm OK at shooting, but when it comes to gymnastic moves like jumping chasms or swinging on ropes, I'm hopeless. So how do we deal with that? Well, for one thing, we can obviously offer different settings for different types of challenges. Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space includes two sets of difficulty settings, one for its strategic gameplay mode (traveling around the galaxy) and one for tactical play (starship combat).

    But even if we don't want to go to that trouble, I believe a player chooses a difficulty level primarily in order to set the maximum difficulty he will experience across all challenges. When I choose easy mode, I need to know that everything in the game will be easy, that nothing will be harder than a certain maximum. Likewise, players don't expect that all challenges at a given setting will be equally difficult. Nightmare mode doesn't guarantee that everything will be a nightmare, and in fact shooter players would object strenuously if they found that nightmare mode meant they had to hobble around on a cane and take ten seconds to reload.

    In short, Glassner's right that we can't guarantee that all the challenges at a given difficulty setting will be similarly difficult for all players. But I don't think the players expect that.

  • They're too persistent, i.e. a difficulty setting doesn't adjust to the player's rate of improving skill, especially if he's not allowed to change the setting later. The difficulty growth curve, at whatever setting, may prove to be too steep or too shallow for the player.

    My response: This is undoubtedly a weakness of all games that don't do dynamic difficulty adjustment, but it's not actually an argument against settable difficulty levels. Settable levels don't create this problem; they help ease it little. Easy mode typically provides a very slow rate of growth in perceived difficulty, while hard mode provides a rapid one (sometimes described as a "steep learning curve"). Players know this and choose accordingly. It's true that the difficulty doesn't adjust itself on the fly, but it's better than nothing.

  • They're too general, which is another way of restating the "too broad" objection. Glassner points out that many games introduce new player-actions as play goes on, which require new skills. The player may be better at some of them than at others. Because the player doesn't know what skills he will be asked to learn, he may regret his choice of difficulty level when a new action is introduced.

    My response: Again, I feel that players mostly want a rough idea of the maximum difficulty they will encounter, not a guarantee that all challenges will be equally difficult. And frankly, this is why we have reviews and strategy guides. If you want to know what will be expected of you at some future point in the game ("Watch out, in level five you'll have to fly a helicopter") there are ways of finding it out.

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