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The most common purpose for difficulty in games is to keep the game engaging, so why is it so often used to constrain and punish players?

Christopher Gile, Blogger

January 16, 2013

3 Min Read

This is a cross post from my blog here.

A very weird thing about video games is that in order to keep playing you have to continuously prove to the game you understand what is going on. It is the functional equivalent of a book that has a test at the end of every chapter, and the book won't let you progress until you pass the test.

Let us say you are playing a game you really like, but get stuck on a part you can't get past. It is really hard, unfairly hard, and regardless of how many guides you read you can't get the timings right. Your options at this point are: get someone to do it for you, start over from the beginning  Why do games do this to players? I have pointed out that there are games that use difficulty as part of the message and they shouldn't be forced to change, but most, almost all games aren't like that. The difficulty is largely to make the game more fun and engaging. Yet games permanently bind a player to a difficulty they chose without any context for understanding how hard the game is. In games that have variable difficulty the first thing they will ask you is how hard you want it to be, but how would you know your skill level relative to the game's difficulty scale until you have played the game?

Devil May Cry would prompt you to lower the difficulty if you died a lot, but why would it never prompt you to raise the difficulty if you were acing every mission? If the game is to hard it is frustrating and you can't progress which is bad, but how is that any worse than a game being boring because it is to easy? Is it because of achievements for difficulty? Or is only letting people lower the difficulty a punishment for people being cautious?

Dragon Age games let you change the difficulty as you please and they are better games for it.  If you completed the whole game on a single difficulty it gives you an achievement for completing the whole game on that difficulty. It gives the player control and lets them normalize any out sized difficulty spikes you mistakenly left in the game. It lets the player enjoy the game in the way they wish.

Defender's Quest does something even better with the difficulty though. In that game you pick the difficulty for each mission, with each difficulty having different rewards. The lowest difficulty just gets you past the mission, but the hardest difficulties give you big honking rewards. Those difficulties aren't typically meant to be tried on your first time you reach the mission, but are designed to be missions you can go back to later to get some extra loot, money, or exp.

The great thing about this is that it isn't just preventing people from getting stuck and frustrated because each mission is as hard as the player wants it to be, but it also incentives players to go back and replay missions. In this way they can reuse maps and previous content. If there was a map you really liked, well you play it a couple more times on increasing difficulty. It solves the problems of both getting the most out of your assets and making the game more accessible.

I really like Defender's Quest, it does almost everything right. I'm going to talk about it again tomorrow because I think it is one of the best games of the year.


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