Development of Difficulty in Games

This post dives into the general development of game difficulty starting from the first display of a difficulty curve designed on accident to dynamic difficulty adjustment, mainly focusing on Japanese game design.

Difficulty found in games is one of the main factors that draws people to them. Games evoke such a variety of emotions which motivates the reasons why we play them. Players desire internal experiences such as getting better at something or feeling better about oneself, hard fun where players strive to test their skills, easy fun where players are just around for the story or world exploration and lastly social experiences (Lazzaro). I will dive into how different types of difficulty manifest themselves in Japanese games.


First, what is difficulty?

Difficulty refers to the amount of skill required by the player to progress through a game experience (Suddaby). A skill can be defined as, “…  a combination of mental and physical effort and capabilities… [Players] can vary heavily in skill, depending on their previous experiences, motor skills, cognitive capabilities in the game, etc.” (Valerio). Challenges derive themselves from players following the rules and limitations set upon them by the developers and developing skills to overcome obstacles that block the player from achieving an overarching goal. Some which may include: survive all waves of enemies, beat a high score, collect all the items, etc. The overarching goal is what gives the player Motivation.

Motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic. An intrinsic motivation for players can include: enjoying the emotions a game provoke, the desire to go from start to finish, or create stories of their own. Extrinsically motivated players desire things like praise, achievements, rewards or items. When players fully immersive themselves in a difficult challenge they enter a state psychologists call ‘flow’ or ‘being in the zone’. Csikszentmihalyi introduced the idea of physiological flow in 1975 and this mental state is one of the most important concepts to know for game developers. If the game is too hard, the players will quit from frustration but if the game is too easy they will quit due to boredom. To recap, difficulty refers to the relationship between skills needed to overcome challenges. Fun difficulty is found when players are given a challenge that is overwhelming but not too easy. The way that developers can make sure that players are having fun, even in failure, is that they always feel as if they are learning or improving.


Types of difficulty

The games that are mentioned in these categories will be further analyzed in their respective timelines later in this paper. It is also possible for some of these categories to overlap with similar themes but they have enough distinct themes to reside on their own as well.

Dynamic difficulty adjusts gameplay based on player progress on the fly. If the player is doing “too well” or failing constantly, the game will adjust certain parameters to keep the player in a good state of flow to players quitting out of boredom or frustration. We can look at games like Mario Kart, God Hand and Resident Evil 4 as reference.

Fundamental difficulty requires a minimum amount of skill to complete. Things like Twitch abilities, cognitive abilities, etc. Shigeru Miyamoto believes in the game design philosophy “Easy to pick up, hard to master”. Mario and Kirby games  fall under this category.

Scaling difficulty could overlap with dynamic difficulty but those games can make their games easier on the fly without consulting the player. Scaling difficulty is designed to modify difficulty from the get go.  RPGs like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy and games like Dark Souls fall under this category.

Artificial difficulty is when the computer/AI drive the difficulty by changing basic numbers that reside in the code where player’s can’t see. Artificial difficulty is found anywhere there is a difficulty menu (easy, medium, hard, etc.). This can feel cheap both to the developer and the player if not handled correctly.

Designed difficulty is when enemies, levels, puzzles, and other interactions are hand-crafted to provide a challenge that requires the player to use learned skills to overcome challenges in new ways. The main focus for designed difficulty is that it should force the player to use the mechanics they already know and use them in different way or learning new ones. “ Designed difficulty is about introducing or combining different mechanics, which force the player to learn and master specific skills.” (Valerio) Games like Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Kirby, Demon Souls, and Castlevania all fall into this category. It’s also possible to combine Artificial and Designed difficulty to create unique experiences but will require a large amount of work.

Ways to establish difficulty:

There are countless ways to provide difficulty in games. Developers must be cautious when establishing or tuning difficulty in their games. They must keep in mind the audience they wish to reach out to since there is a wide spectrum of player skill and time commitment.

One of the first way that developers can establish difficulty in their games is the way they teach players mechanics of the game. If players aren’t taught anything at all and just get thrown in, it will create a level difficulty that players will most likely respond negatively to. Conversely, holding the player’s hand with a grotesque amount of tutorials and keeping the player from getting to the main content for an extended amount of time will quickly make players bored.

One of the best examples of intuitively educating players comes from the 1985 Super Mario Bros. The player is presented at the left of the screen indicating that the player needs to move to the right. They will encounter a box that is visually appealing, encouraging the player to interact with boxes and that they can jump at the same time. Next appears an enemy who marches toward them. If the player does nothing they learn that they cannot touch enemies (on the sides at least). On their next attempt they will either jump over or on top of the goomba, teaching them that hitting things from above can dispatch them. At this point the player knows everything they need to know to play the entire game from start to finish. However, Miyamoto’s 1986 Legend of Zelda does the complete opposite. The player is thrown into a world with a peculiar entrance at the top of the screen. Inside, players are given their sword then sent off to figure out what they need to do next with no instruction. This resulted in players having to call a help hotline in order to get hints on what to do next. Without that hotline for players to call, players wouldn’t have been able to get to the 10 hour mark where they finally started to report that they were having fun.

One other way to create difficulty for players is to provide challenges that slow their progress to achieving their long term goals. Platformers can provide death pits, dangerous platforms, and other mechanics that when the player interacts with it. This results in the player having to start over. As Miyamoto states, “It’s the players who have to find their own road to the end.”(Paumgarten). AI can act as a barrier that stops the player until they either kill or avoid them all depending on the type of game. An example of why developers should be careful when balancing this kind of difficulty comes from TECMO’s 1988 infamously difficult NES title, Ninja Gaiden. Masato Kato stated in a reunion interview, “Mr. Yoshizawa was great at enemy placement and pacing …  unfortunately, the game's difficulty was too hard, even for the development team. So during the bug-checking process, team members were basically crying while trying to get through the game."(Leone). One last way to create difficulty in this category is to add Mechanic Depth or provide the player with a challenge that changes the way they think about the currently established rules. Jumping back to Super Mario Bros., the spiny enemies don’t allow the player to jump on top of them. Instead they must either use a koopa shell (an interaction learned at the beginning of the game) or they must hit it from underneath. This requires the player to take an existing mechanic, that of disposing enemies, and figure out a new way to dispatch them. In an interview with Game Informer, Dark Souls creator, Hidetaka Miyazaki, stated that the bosses were made in a way that they challenged the way the player strategize in combat so that the player always had to think on their feet (Koller).

Giving players various amounts of Cognitive Loads throughout gameplay is a great way to create various levels of difficulty. The first and most basic cognitive load that developers have to take into consideration is Twitch vs Strategic gameplay. Twitch refers to fast-paced decision making and skills based on reflexes. Games like Super Mario (especially newer ones), Sonic the Hedgehog, Street Fighter, Super Monkey Ball and Contra fall into this category. While there may be hints of strategic thinking in these games, Twitch based games quickly become too difficult if developers try to incorporate too much of both at the same time. One game series that manages this well is the Dynasty/Samurai Warriors series. They control the flow of direct combat between the main character and onslaught of minions accompanied by enemy officers making the player think strategically about where to send officers or how to handle the sway of morale in real time. This usually happens after players finish off an enemy head officer where players will get a notification that an event has been triggered on the battlefield. This is usually a new enemy showing up, ambushes, or enemies trying to escape.

Input Complexity can create a large amount of difficulty incredibly fast. Fighting games like Bayonetta, Street Fighter, and Music/Rhythm games like Dance Dance Revolution are excellent examples. Dance Dance Revolution requires that players provide specific input at precise moments. The harder songs require much more input per second than an easier one. Someone who hasn’t attempted the song before might find themselves quickly overwhelmed, but what pulls them back is they feel like they made progress and feel that they could do better a second time. Fighting games are almost exactly the same. If players want to win with maximum health, they will have to utilize combos. Combos are complex strings of input that must be entered incredibly fast with precise timing and correct order as well. The player must know when to block or evade and to attack which can feel like rhythm to someone who’s mastered the mechanics.

The opposite of the Twitch spectrum is strategic games. This includes games like Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics and Nobunaga’s Ambition. These games are slower paced but require that the player plans each of their moves in accordance to what enemies will do in return. Some strategy games increase the amount of difficulty by using “real time” turn based combat. The fast paced strategy games encourage players to think faster or master the system so that they can make decisions with positive outcomes faster.

One last option to create difficulty through Cognitive Loads is through Endurance. There are a couple variations to Endurace which can be combined with the previously mentioned Cognitive Load methods. A player can be forced to endure long stretches of a Twitch game by having to survive until they find a rare save point like in Ninja Gaiden and the Souls Series. The difficulty stems from the fact that if players die, they will have to restart and lose a large amount of progress in the process. In a rhythm game, players will have to endure physical activity for a set period of time and perform perfectly. In a strategic game, it could mean that the player must endure a long battle where if the player loses toward the end they will have to restart the fight from the beginning.

One of the last ways to create difficulty that I will cover is the management of player Failure. As a developer, it is possible to make things more or less difficult depending on how one handles the player dying or failing in the game. The most basic way to increase difficulty based on death is to lower the frequency of save points or checkpoints. This is prominent in horror and hardcore action games like Resident Evil/Biohazard 1 & 2, and Ninja Gaiden/Ninja Gaiden Sigma. Making the player aware that if they die they will lose a large amount of progress can make the player cautious unintentionally if developers are not careful with this mechanic. The reason players aren’t cautious in Ninja Gaiden (Sigma) is that they empower the player with a strong character with chances to recover health semi-frequently. However, with horror games, making players feel dread or anxiety because of fear of losing progress emphasizes the dread that takes over the player when enemies show up emphasize the desired effect that horror games hope to evoke on players. Games like the Souls Series (Demon & Dark Souls) and Nioh build off the scarce saving mechanic and go one step further. Causing players to lose their items after death makes death more terrifying for players however they made it so that players can recover their items as long as they can get back to the place they died without dying a second time. Miyazaki commented on the bloodstain system in an interview stating, “…the main reason we settled on [the bloodstain] system is that if the Souls could be recovered anytime, there would be no suspense or sense of accomplishment. [We want players to feel] like, ‘I can’t die until I get all those souls back,’ or ‘I did it! I made it to my bloodstain!’ (Kollar). This same feeling can occur in the rare saving mechanic as well when players finally reach a save point after a grueling period of back-to-back combat.

Permadeath is a mechanic from the Roguelike genre that has made its way into other games like Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics, and Valkayria Chronicles. Permadeath evokes emotions similar to the lack of save points because the player knows if they mess up, all the work they’ve done is for nothing. The tactical games mentioned take some of the weight off the seriousness of permadeath by allowing gameplay to continue, the only loss players face is the time they put into a particular character of the group instead of having to restart from the absolute beginning.


Where did varying difficulty start?

Before: Games were a static difficulty or depended on a second player to act as the competition. Pong required a second player to create a majority of the difficulty while Breakout’s difficulty stayed consistent as long as the player didn’t get messed up by the paddle’s sensitivity compared to the size of the paddle. However, in 1978 the Taito title Space Invaders was released and became a hit almost immediately. The game create its initial difficulty by being the first to have multiple enemies “attack” the player. Attack is quoted due to the fact that the behavior was simply dropping a deadly sprite down the screen but not necessarily targeting the player’s exact position. This was only the beginning of the game creating a challenge for players. A glitch in the microprocessor caused the animation for enemies to speed up as fewer were rendered. While creating this difficulty curve was an accident through technical issues, this feature was a success in creating an optimal challenge as Space Invaders sold over 300,000 machines in japan and over 60,000 in America by 1980.


Difficulty in the Age of the Arcade

Games were punishing to increase longevity of the game usually accompanied by a score leaderboard to encourage players to come back and spend money.  These games utilized the increasing difficulty over time model similar to Space Invaders. Games that fall into this category are Pac-Man, Centipede, Asteroids, and Galaxian/Galaga. Due to technical limitations, fundamental gameplay was not extremely varied and most of the time required strong Twitch based skills to consistently make it onto the leaderboards.


Post Arcades: Consoles, Computers

Consoles initially followed the arcade style of difficulty due to the renting businesses such as Blockbuster. They felt if the games were difficult enough that people had to check them out multiple times, they would just end up purchasing the game. As technology advanced, game modes started introduce 3D worlds which added a new dimension to difficulty for platformers and action games. Eventually Artificial difficulty settings were being implemented. Games still do it to this day but many developers feel that it’s a cheap way to alter difficulty unless the designers took care to edit each difficulty level so that it’s more than just number boosts so that the game still feels cohesive. Miyamoto stated, “One of the issues with action games is how to make something that can be enjoyed by all skill levels, from beginners to more advanced players. One way is to add an “Easy Mode”, but I think the best method is when the player can adjust the difficulty himself while playing.”(Monk). Soon after games like Biohazard, Mario Kart and God Hand kept track of specific variables within the game and slightly boosted or nerfed some aspects of the game using a technique called DDA (Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment). This is still frequently used to this day.


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Kohler, Chris, and Shuhei Yoshida. Power-up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life. Dover Publications, 2016.

Kollar, Phil. “Demon's Souls Director Discusses Difficulty, Sequels, And More.” Game Informer, 5 Nov. 2009,

Lazzaro, Nicole. Why We Play Games: Four Keys to More Emotion in Player Experiences. 2004,

Leone, Matt. “Ninja Gaiden Developer Reunion | Life in Japan - An 18-Part Look inside Japan's Game Industry.” Polygon, Polygon,

Paumgarten, Nick. “Master of Play.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 June 2017,

“Super Mario World – 1990 Developer Interview.” Shmuplations Galaga Comments, Official Guidebook for Nintendo Super Mario World - Super Mario bros.4 (Wonder Life Special Nintendo Official Guide Book) Mook - 1991/1

Valerio, Ricardo. “Make It Difficult, Not Punishing – Ricardo Valério – Medium.”, Medium, 10 July 2017,

Wan, Zhiqing. “From Software's Hidetaka Miyazaki Explains Why Souls Games Don't Have Difficulty Settings.” Twinfinite, Twinfinite, 21 June 2018,


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