The Difficulty Of Difficulty.

Difficulty is one of the hardest things for a modern game to get right. Because games are catering for a much wider range of players than they were even ten years ago, deciding what level you should pitch your game’s difficulty at is very tricky and potentially very risky. Make it too hard and you’ll alienate the coveted “casual” gamer market that makes up the bulk of game sales these days; too easy, and you’ll piss off the hardcore gamers who are most vocal about their hobby and generate most of a game’s buzz. Either outcome hurts sales, and pleasing both camps is nigh-on impossible. This is why the difficulty setting exists.

Difficulty settings are theoretically very, very useful tools for developers. Not only can they provide the best of both worlds by accommodating both extremes of the ability scale, but they’re also incredibly valuable in their pedagogical aspect. Taking the most generic example of an FPS, these will typically start the player out with a simple pistol fighting some weak enemies and gradually introduce more weapons and more enemy types with more complex behaviour that require complex responses. What started as a very basic matter of moving forward and pointing and shooting ends as something that requires the player to think and react very quickly, juggling two or more weapons plus grenades and a melee attack and constantly repositioning to respond to new threats.  There’s a definite difficulty curve involved, and getting the shape of this curve right is half the battle. Most games manage it. Some games don’t. This is bad news for them since nothing will kill a game faster than a poorly-judged difficulty curve, but even games which dodge that bullet can end up being immensely frustrating experiences if they balls up the other half, which is the difficulty level.

Difficulty levels exist as a way of allowing players to choose what point of the difficulty curve they enter the game at. What they shouldn’t be is a simple multiplier that shifts the curve up or down; this is the laziest implementation of difficulty and it’s something that FPSes have been getting wrong for years. With difficulty levels, new players can be eased into the game at the very start of the curve, while veterans can skip all that tedious learning crap and get straight to the meat of the thing, starting the game halfway up it and ascending to greater heights than the average player would normally experience. Even that isn’t the best way to implement difficulty, though; in my opinion, the most important thing about difficulty levels is that they should keep things interesting.

Lets take the FPS example again. Shooting a bad guy with twice as much health as usual isn’t particularly interesting. Fighting a wider variety/larger number of enemies is, since you’re facing a different challenge to the one you did before. Running through the same level you did the first time you played the game isn’t particularly interesting. Having to complete additional objectives that force you to explore and go places you normally wouldn’t is. I’d go so far as to say the key to difficulty is to provide a challenge that is not only harder, but substantially different from the one the average player experiences; this rewards them for taking on that challenge in the first place and provides an incentive for those who might otherwise feel that trying to play the game on Hard is just asking for trouble.

There’s a number of ways to approach this. Some work better than others.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

Otherwise known as How Not To Do Difficulty. Picking a harder difficulty setting in CoD doesn’t make the enemies smarter, it doesn’t add more varieties and it doesn’t even increase their numbers. What it does is turns all the baddies into the terrorist/commie Russian equivalent of a Terminator who has combed the phone book for the player’s name and address. They target the player mercilessly, ignoring NPC allies who are stood right next to them blazing away in favour of picking on the squishy meatbag. They are super-accurate; sticking your head out of cover even for a second is just inviting the veiny red screen of death. And they never, ever die. Watching AK-toting goons get back up after you fired eight rounds from an assault rifle into their torsos reaches the point of absurdity at times, and – worst of all – utterly shatters player immersion. It becomes clear that you’re not fighting people; you’re fighting robots with intrinsic advantages that you can never hope to match. And that’s no fun at all.


Bungie have always had an unorthodox approach to game difficulty (see the article on Myth for more info) and Halo was no exception. It had an advantage in that the sci-fi game universe allowed for enemies that were difficult to bring down but which didn’t seem implausibly tough, but Halo at least paid lip service to the idea that playing on Legendary should be a fundamentally different experience from playing on Normal by varying the enemies you’d encounter at specific points in a level. On Normal you’d go into a room and face down a blue, moderately tough Elite and some grunts. The same room on Legendary would contain lots of grunts, some jackals, multiple blue Elites and a single, very tough gold Elite commander who’d probably be armed with an instant-kill weapon like the plasma sword.  This changes the way the player perceives the game in three different ways:

  • The player can see from the extra enemies and the gold Elite that the game is very visibly different on Legendary.
  • The extra threat of the gold Elite is accentuated by contrasting him with the same blue Elites the player fought and beat before. Their toughness hasn’t been increased and they’re no more accurate than they were the first time around. It’s just that this time they’re flunkies of a bigger, badder Elite.
  • The enemy AI isn’t necessarily better, but the increased number of bad guys means it’s more likely that one of them will throw a grenade or flank the player, making them seem smarter.

Unfortunately while every subsequent FPS stole Halo’s regenerating health, two weapon limit and dedicated grenade and melee buttons, they largely ignored the steps it took in making playing FPSes on a harder difficulty setting compelling.


A half-and-half mix, here. Playing on 00 Agent in Goldeneye could be immensely frustrating since it goes with the tried and tested method of making all the bad guys really really tough (so much so that my defining memory of Goldeneye is walking an entire magazine of AK fire along a closely-bunched line of Soviet guards at head height that didn’t kill a single one), but unlike CoD’s approach 00 Agent was a setting you wanted to play on. This is because the difficulty settings gradually ramped up the complexity of what you had to do in a mission. To complete the first dam level on Agent you simply had to jump off the dam. Completing the same level on 00 Agent required you to plant a bug in one part of the level and then access a computer withing the dam structure itself while shooting out all the alarms, and then jump off the dam. Again, a substantially different experience to the one you’d have on Agent.

Hitman: Blood Money.

A game that allowed an astonishing amount of freedom in the way you could approach (most) missions. Walking in the front door guns blazing was almost always an option, and doing this made the game very easy even if the gunplay was a little bit stale. However, Blood Money was a game that had some very, very creative ways to kill people — none of which involved guns except for the one in the opera where you swap a fake pistol for a real pistol, causing an actor to inadvertently murder his co-star –  and which it encouraged you to find by breaking down your performance in excruciating detail at the end of the mission. Here, I’ll let Wikipedia explain:

If the player, during a mission, gets caught on CCTV or is witnessed committing murder, Agent 47′s notoriety will rise.[3] Conversely, if the player executes the mission perfectly with none of the aforementioned events occurring, 47′s notoriety will be minimal. … The higher Agent 47′s notoriety is, the easier it will be for NPCs to identify him. Players may use the bribery system to negate accumulated notoriety.[3] Notoriety gained in early missions will affect later missions. Earlier missions in which 47 has gained notoriety in can be replayed in order to attempt to reduce notoriety in later missions. The notoriety system is not enabled on “Rookie” mode, the easiest difficulty setting.

At the end of each mission, a newspaper article is displayed regarding the hit, in which the content varies depending on the investigation results and the player’s notoriety. It will detail the weapon most frequently used, how accurately it was used, the number of police, security, and civilians killed or injured, and if there were any witnesses. Any injured people will be counted as witnesses, who affect your notoriety. Sketch drawings are also sometimes visible of Agent 47′s face, which grow progressively more accurate as 47′s notoriety grows.

You see? Killing the crap out of everyone with guns may be easy but it also creates notoriety and potentially makes future missions more difficult. The newspaper headlines you got at the end of each mission were a little generic but were on the whole a very creative way of communicating just how much commotion the player had caused. And the best part is that all this stuff is entirely plausible within the game’s universe. Of course you’d want to do it quietly. Of course you’d want to leave as little evidence behind as possible. You don’t have to, but you’re strongly encouraged to. Using scoring systems to reward good performance like this is fairly common, but the way Blood Money went about it and meshed it with difficulty was rather unorthodox. I really liked it.

Starcraft II.

How do you make a strategy game more difficult while keeping it interesting for the player? There’s the Civilization approach – which I don’t necessarily agree with – of giving the player bonuses on the earlier difficulty levels, but then penalising them on the later ones and giving a boost to the AI. Civilization usually pitches its difficulty levels so that being able to win reliably on one means you’re ready to step up to the next one, but it always sticks in the craw to see the AI marching over your border with a huge stack of troops that you know it didn’t have to pay for. Most RTSes have a highly accentuated version of this problem, where continually having to fend off huge streams of units that a human player couldn’t possibly have built starts to feel more than a little bit artificial – much like the CoD example described above.

Starcraft II’s solution to this problem wasn’t original, but it was unusual. Choosing the Hard difficulty setting would mean facing tougher enemies, yes, and there’d also be more of them, but there’d also be more advanced/harder unit types mixed in you had to deal with and you’d encounter bad guys at a point in a level where there were none before. Additionally the AI was much more aggressive on Hard, and playing missions that were deliberately asymmetric – like the colony defense mission, or the zombie mission – meant that the frequency and ferocity of the scripted attacks were increased. You couldn’t beat the computer by just playing more efficiently than you did on normal; you had to change the basics of your strategy.

Covert Action.

The old Microprose games all had roughly the same approach to difficulty. When you finished a game, you’d see your total score tallied up. This number was essentially meaningless on its own, but it’d always be paired with a verbal equivalent of how the game rated your performance. A low score would invite insulting comparisons with Dan Quayle or Ethelred the Unready, while scoring highly would see you retiring as a Governor in the Caribbean or going on to become President of theUnited States. The highest scores weren’t possible unless you played on the harder difficulty settings; this was a crude but effective way of incentivising the player to do better next time.

However, there’s also Covert Action. Covert Action is a game that casts you as a spy who is out to foil a series of randomly generated plots by terrorist groups, and it wasn’t really possible to make this more or less difficult by giving hardcoded bonuses to the AI. There was no AI. Instead, playing the game on an easy difficulty setting would give you a very, very simple plot to unravel – there’d be no more than three or four conspirators who would be easily identified, they’d use simple ciphers and their phone systems would be trivial to tap. Upping the difficulty level would increase the complexity of the plot, adding more layers, more conspirators and making the puzzles much harder. Often the Mastermind – the guy you were trying to catch – would go into hiding before you managed to work your way up the chain to him, so even though you stopped his bomb plot you’d have to live with knowing he was still at large. Probably the earliest example of a game that was measurably different as you made it harder.

Looking at these examples, the reason why developers often plump for the lazy CoD solution is fairly obvious: going beyond that is a whole load of extra work and you’re cutting a large number of people who have bought your game off from a lot of its content, which I understand is a big no-no in today’s game industry. It’s much easier to just have them play the same game with tougher bad guys and no-one gets left out in the cold! Still, I’d argue that if you’re going to do that you might as well not include a difficulty setting at all. These days you might be able to bait people into grinding their way through your game on Hard with achievements, but unless they’re of a certain masochistic mindset (hi Jim) they’re not going to have fun doing it. Remember the gnome challenge in Episode Two of Half Life 2? Where you had to carry the gnome through the entire game from beginning to end? Nobody really enjoyed doing that because there wasn’t a huge amount of creativity involved in transporting the gnome; you just had to remember where you’d dropped the little bastard when baddies turned up. It was an additional, pointless chore that players who really wanted all the achievements had to carry out. That’s how I feel about playing games on Hard these days. If there’s no additional challenge — if it’s not interesting — then I’m just not going to bother.

Tagged , , , ,

5 thoughts on “The Difficulty Of Difficulty.

  1. innokenti says:

    Also the Thief games. Thankfully they kept up the scheme in Deadly Shadows as well, and can only hope they will do the same in Thi4f (I feel dirty even typing that).

    I think that method also let the amount of work going into making levels a little easier. I mean, the level design was already very very good, but the difficulty level varied the objectives – from what you had to accomplish (a la Goldeneye) to how you could do it – without being spotted and without killing anyone.

    Thus, depending on what your objectives were you may or may not visit the harder, tougher parts of the level and may have to use much more intricate and nail-biting plans to get past guards. The other benefit, I think, is that the challenge didn’t necessarily disappear on the lower levels of difficulty – you could set yourself the minimum plank you were certain of, and try to go one further if you could, setting personal limits.

    Other than that – everything you said. Yes. That. Very much.

  2. jiiiiim says:

    I’m not sure about is whether the benchmark for “normal” has been steadily sliding, or whether I’m just older and better and wiser so it just feels like it has been.

    Anyway I think you could include a callback to your Bastion review here – one of the best things about that game was that you could, essentially, set the difficulty yourself in lots of different ways and those ways went beyond “enemies fatter with bigger guns” to lots of little differences. I think that’s what I want from “difficulty”, lots of micro-challenges you can choose to have or not to have. My most memorable playthroughs of games recently have been doing just that, and if developers could make it easier by including such options as menu toggles rather than a test of my own will, it’d be even better.

    • Oh, Bastion’s a good shout actually. The only problem with it is that there is very little incentive to make the game harder for you – the totems are essentially a customisable CoD difficulty scheme, and you don’t get any new content as a result of the challenge, making it entirely skippable (as I did).

      • jiiiiim says:

        It’s like playing sport, though, isn’t it? If it’s too easy or too hard then it loses a lot of its point, what you want are closely-contested matches and the more options that are available to make that happen, the better. Playing a perfectly-pitched difficulty is its own reward.

    • hentzau says:

      Right yes hello. I kind of agree that there does need to be some kind of incentive behind playing on a harder difficulty level, but that incentive only needs to be something simple on the level of extra points or XP. The game has to acknowledge what you’re doing somehow. Past that as long as the difficulty is implemented correctly, the chances are I’ll take a crack at it.

      (And yes Bastion was originally on my list but I write these things through the murky fog of sleep deprivation but I forgot. Anyway I think I mentioned it in the review so it would have been redundant anyway. NURR.)

Leave a Reply