6 alternative ways of handling difficulty in games

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There are two classic ways of handling difficulty in games: either the game gives you no choice in the matter and you play through it in the one way developers intended or you are faced with a choice at the beginning of the game between easy, normal, or hard, with optional fancy names or extra additions like very hard or very easy. While functional and few people are likely to complain about it, we have seen developers and other industry names like Extra Credits work on changing the way we handle things when giving players a choice in how tough they want the game to be.

The argument for this is that, at the start of the game, players have no way to guess what setting might be right for them besides comparing your game to how well they do in similar titles. Even then, hard mode in Uncharted is nothing like hard mode in Doom or even Gears of War, so it’s a deeply flawed system. Play-testing has also revealed numerous times that, even when giving players the option to change the difficulty at a later time, they will refuse to do so or even outright quit.

So what are some interesting alternatives?

Narration in RimWorld

The game that prompted me to write this article is the newly-released Rimworld by Ludeon Studios, which is kind of like Prison Architect in space. In fact, I initially thought this was made by Introversion Software due to how similar the two games are, but that is not the case.

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Rimworld has you crashland on a planet generated from a seed and there are multiple ways players can manipulate the difficulty of the game. Firstly, they are allowed to choose their starting location and given information on the kind of climate and terrain each tile has, as well as the proximity to friendly and unfriendly settlements. The second and more interesting option players are given is the narrator they want for their story. Rimworld is a game where you build a base on this new planet and must strive to become a sustainable settlement while dealing with random events like storms, raiders, and plague. The narrators decide when these events occur and how severe they are.

As of now players have three options: a narrator that builds up tension over time, allowing you to have an easy start before the game gradually becomes harder, a narrator that is more laid back, and one that is all random all the time. While you still set a separate value for the difficulty, for a management simulator this creates a clearer picture of what players can expect. While the first one might seem the most logical, starting raiders off with melee weapons before slowly giving them armor and guns, you may not want to have difficulty climb consistently. This was my main gripe with XCom, I always disliked how it keeps climbing, making you feel like you are playing catch-up and rarely letting you train new recruits against early-game enemies.

The random one may sometimes pit you against challenges you are ill-prepared for, but I find it a lot more fun that way.

Modular difficulty 

An issue with traditional difficulty settings is that it tends to downgrade a lot of functions at once. Players may feel comfortable in the amount of damage they can take on a difficulty, but find that enemies are too bullet-spongy for their liking, yet setting the difficulty down a notch will make enemies do less damage and now your player feels like they aren’t threatened enough.

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Modular difficulty is maybe not a term, but it describes what I intend. When developers allow you to go into the menu to switch off or alter individual elements of the game to suit their specific taste. This can be seen in the recently-reviewed rhythm game Melody’s Escape where I wanted the speed and density of notes found on the Overload difficulty, yet didn’t want to deal with having to use both the arrow keys and WASD, so I set the input method to just the arrows (as it would be on normal difficulty).

A similar feature is found in the tactical RPG Darkest Dungeon, where you can disable a whole load of gameplay elements. Want your attempts to flee always succeed? You can. Want to get rid off the corpses and heart attacks? Just turn them off. The developer insists that it’s not the way the game is meant to be played, yet it allows people to disable features that are really a thorn in their side without losing access to the challenging elements they do like.

This can also be done the other way around by letting players add additional challenges to the game, like the shrine in Bastion or the skulls in Halo, in return for more experience points or some other reward.

The AI director

Left 4 Dead, the 2009 multiplayer zombie FPS from Valve, would not have been anywhere near as popular as it ended up being without the help of the AI Director. To some he was a poltergeist, tormenting players as they ventured through the post-apocalyptic ruins of America, whereas for others he became a deity to be worshiped in return for medkits and safety. Jokes aside, the AI director solves both the problem of managing difficulty and allows significantly more replay value to be created.

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AI directors are somewhat rare and in the best of cases players don’t notice them. A director is an AI feature that rates the performance of the players and adapts accordingly. If players are breezing through a stage, it throws up more obstacles, like special infected in tricky locations in Left 4 Dead, but when they struggle it backs off or provides them some much-needed aid. Another game that is often shown as an example is Capcom’s Resident Evil 4 where dying repeatedly would make the game reduce the amount of enemies in a room or add better items to various chests.

While in Left 4 Dead the AI director was a much-beloved function, this may not always be the ideal solution. Players may not actually want you to adapt the game to them; take, for example, Dark Souls, where repeatedly throwing yourself at a challenge until you figure it out or outlast it is the whole appeal of the game. If it started to take away enemies in tricky locations after dying to them a few times, players would certainly feel cheated or mocked.

A helping hand

We have all found ourselves in situations where we just can’t get through a particularly nasty part of a game. We might have had no issue jumping our way through any prior stages in a Mario or Donkey Kong game when we come to a part that just doesn’t click for some reason. We throw ourselves at it time and time again, but our pool of lives is dwindling and it’s just not happening.

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Many of Nintendo’s latest platformers have solved this by offering players a little help. A box will appear at the start of the stage and if players opt to use it, the AI will take over and do a perfect run of the stage, or players receive a power-up that shields them from damage entirely. This can be treated in many different ways. Maybe you’ll want the run done by the AI to not count, so it just shows the player the ideal path and then expects them to repeat it, or maybe you really do want this to be a skip-functionality, allowing players to leave a level that tormented them behind forever. Maybe you’ll allow players to jump in, so when the AI gets past the section they hate players can resume control and finish the level on their own.

This one is even trickier than the AI Director because not many people will willingly accept this help from the game. In a way it feels like giving up, yet at the same time it reminds me of my childhood platformers where you could call support lines for advice on parts that you just couldn’t figure out. For casual players this is an ideal solution to help them get further in a game they want to enjoy, but not necessarily master.

Adjusting objectives

Difficulty in games comes from different elements. For some shooters, the problem might be how long the game expects you to go on for with your limited amount of health while in another game it might be the number of objectives you have to do before proceeding. This is where it helps to alter the amount of content the players get to experience on any given difficulty.

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This is best seen in TimeSplitters 2 where entire sections of the level are locked off but clearly in sight, allowing starting players to see that something is there without letting them interact with it. On higher difficulties these parts of the level then open up and objectives that were optional at first are made mandatory. In the case of TimeSplitters this has many benefits: players get to experience stages anew, it creates a sense of wonder and mystery, it makes the levels pretty easy to manage for newcomers, and it allows veterans to get more out of the game.

In a similar move, the old Tony Hawk game Underground 2 would simply put players in a level with a long list of objectives to do. Nothing changed as you upped the level of difficulty, except the amount of items on the list that had to be done. This allowed beginning skaters to get away with not mastering some moves the game teaches you and simply do the objectives they could figure out.

Betting in Kid Icarus and Smash

Another clever idea from Nintendo, the long awaited return of Kid Icarus introduced us to a novel idea for a difficulty setting that would eventually flow over into Super Smash Bros. for the 3DS and Wii U: betting in-game currency to make levels harder.

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The more you put in, the harder the level becomes and the bigger your payout will be. This allows players to potentially experience the level or even the entire game as a cakewalk or make playing it a true test of their skills with risky bets. Further improving this system is the idea mentioned above, locking off content unless players meet a minimum level of difficulty. This is best shown in Smash where you fight increasingly harder versions of the final boss depending on the difficulty, whereas Kid Icarus had several doors that clearly labelled what difficulty you need to play on for them to open up.

While it’s still not entirely clear to players how difficult any setting in particular will be, this allows them to experiment a bit to find out where the sweet spot is located and replay the first few levels a few times before they advance the game further.

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