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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 3 of 4 Next

In short, while some of these objections deserve attention -- and their effects should be ameliorated when possible -- I think that demanding that difficulty levels be "banned" from all games is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

More importantly, Glassner's objections ignore the most important rule of game design of all: empathize with the player, i.e. provide what he wants. Players want settable difficulty levels, and removing them for purely theoretical reasons is not a good way to serve your audience.

Glassner concludes his discussion by saying, "Games should not ask players to select a difficulty level. Games should adapt themselves during gameplay to offer the player a consistent degree of challenge based on his changing abilities at different tasks." In other words, they should do dynamic difficulty adjustment, which I'll call DDA from now on.

(Because DDA is also called adaptive difficulty, it sometimes gets confused with adaptive artificial intelligence. Adaptive AI is one way of doing DDA, but it's much too complicated a subject for this column.)

DDA has been around for ages. The earliest example I can find is in the 1981 Intellivision game Astrosmash, a clone of the Atari classic Asteroids. Astrosmash got harder and harder in typical arcade style, but it also noticed when you were running out of lives and got easier again for a while. Even beginners could play for quite a long time, which made it hugely popular. Because it wasn't a coin-op game, the designers had no motive to kill the player off quickly.

I like the idea of dynamic difficulty adjustment in principle, because it appeals to me as a programmer. It would be very cool to code a game that was smart enough to adjust its challenges to the player's abilities, so as to guarantee him a good time. But despite Glassner's confidence in DDA, I also recognize that it's not necessarily easy to do.

Let's take a look at some of the problems with DDA:

  • Some players hate it. This is the number one reason to think twice about implementing DDA, especially if it can't be switched off. Many players feel patronized when they discover that a game is going easy on them when get into trouble, and they don't want the difficulty level to change at all. For them, playing, and beating, a very difficult game is where the fun is, even if it means dying 500 times on the way to eventual success.

  • Players can learn to exploit DDA by pretending to be worse than they are. It's a bit like hustling pool; you sucker your opponent into thinking you're a novice, then wipe the floor with him when his money's on the table. This is one of the most frequently cited objections to DDA among players and commercial designers. Personally, I don't have a serious problem with this because I don't have an emotional investment in making things hard for my players; but they're right that it warps the game, and can make it actively unfair in multiplayer situations.

  • DDA doesn't work for all kinds of challenges. If the challenges in a game are based on numeric entities -- health points, money, speed and so on -- then it's fairly easy to dynamically adjust these values to change the difficulty of a challenge.

    But what about symbolic entities? Most puzzles are just as hard as they were designed to be, and it's not easy to change them on the fly. If I have to figure out the correct sequence of switches to open the door to the treasure room, it would take a heck of a lot of extra code provide multiple different solutions to the same puzzle -- and every other puzzle in the game -- depending on how good the player is at puzzles.

    Lateral-thinking challenges, such as the rubber-tire-plus-cactus-equals-slingshot puzzle in one of the Monkey Island games, can only have one correct solution; there's no way to make the puzzle easier except by removing it entirely. This objection applies to manual difficulty settings as well, which is why adventure games seldom have such settings; but it shows why DDA is not the universal solution to the problem of setting game difficulty.

  • DDA can create absurdities. In some car racing games, if you crash your car, the game slows down the other drivers so as to give you a chance to catch up. Then there's the notorious rubber-band effect: if you get too far ahead your opponents always catch up, and if you get too far behind, they always slow down. It feels as if your car and theirs are connected by rubber bands. This is absurd and players know it. That kind of thing is OK for a lightweight game like Beetle Adventure Racing, but it's out of the question for serious racing sims. A DDA mechanism must operate in a way that is logically and emotionally consistent with the game world.

  • DDA ruins pacing and obviates good level design. A hypothetically perfect DDA system that always kept all challenges at the same level of perceived difficulty would ruin the pacing of the game. It would be like listening to a Beethoven symphony in which every note is played at exactly the same volume, or walking around an art museum wearing colored sunglasses. A well-designed level, with its varying emotional tones, is a work of art in its own right, and it deserves to be appreciated as such.

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