7 min read

Difficulty in games

In this post I will be discussing the problems with difficulty in general and in the end explain how we try to implement it in our own game. enjoy

This blog was originally posted on our website where we blog about our current  iPhonegame in development and game design in general.



Christmas is getting closer and our development is still going strong.

It is now time for a blog about a general gamedesign issue, and today it will be difficulty in games.

I will talk about it general and try to clarify the choices we have made for implementing different difficulties within our game.


Most games feature some kind of way to adjust the difficulty of the game. This is to present more challenge to the more hardcore or dedicated gamers. And to make the game more accessible to the casual or new gamer.

Difficulty settings can also make sure that as many players as possible get to see as much content as possible.


There are many different ways to control difficulty and I think that some are more gracefull than others. 

I will be going over a few of them here and one of them will be the one we have picked for our game.


Probably the most known way of adjusting difficulty is to do it by a direct choice from the player, either in the menu or as the first thing they do when the game starts.

The standard ways are usually “easy”, “medium”, “hard” and sometimes a mode for the hardcore “insane” or similar.


I think this way of adjusting difficulty is flawed, and I am going to go in to why I think that.


I think the problem is that when you sit down with a new game and want to start playing it, you are in no position as the player to decide what difficulty will suit you the best.

So as a gamer you end up picking the one you think will suit you without actually knowing for sure.

The result is that you start playing, and not before you are well in to the game do you realize if you made a lucky decision or if the game is way to easy for you or way to hard. 

In any of the last two cases, the game experience is severely impaired.

I think that when you are already 1/3 or more through the game and discover that the difficulty you chose is not the right for you, you actually dont want to go back and start the game all over with the right difficulty. Usually because the gaming experience is already starting to get ruined for you.

If you chose to hard, you may never see the ending of the game and quit it all together. Or if you chose to easy you have a great risk of getting bored and quit before you reach the end.

Neither of these scenarios is something you want to happen for the players of your game.


Some games (in my experience mainly RPG like games) try to compensate for this by giving the player the possibility to adjust the difficulty at any time during the game.

At first this may seem like it actually solves the problem from before, but for several reasons, I think it makes it worse.


Let us look at scenario number one: You started with a difficulty that was to low for you and now you are about 1/3 in to the game and you have decided to make the game harder.

What happens is that the game now adjust the difficulty as if the game has been in “hard” mode all along.

This means that all you have learned so far in the game from all the tasks/fights etc. that you completed with “easy” mode, no longer holds any value (or very little) because some mechanics and/or rules have changed now to accompany the new difficulty.

Result: The player now deems the game to be way to hard and switches back to the easier difficulty where he did not belong in the first place and may end up quitting.


Scenario number two: (yeah you guessed it) You started out with a difficulty that was to hard for you. Again a little more than 1/3 in to the game you decide to switch to an easier mode to be able to progress.

Here the problem is that you probably fought with all you got so far and tried over and over again on the various tasks at hand, and probably completed some over time and got great satisfaction from it. But now you hit the wall, the gigantic amount of trial and error, mostly error, has become to frustrating and you would like the game to be easier, so you switch.

The risk now is that the player gets disapointed that it now doesn’t take any effort or atleast a lot less effort than he usually had to put in. You should think that this is excactly what the player wanted, but its not.

As gamers we want to put effort in and feel the satisfaction of completing a task, but if it gets so easy that we dont get this satisfaction, the game seems pointless.

My point is that the player still would not mind the trial and error, just not as extensive as in hard mode. But there is a big risk when using the ingame adjusting, because it can change mechanics and rules. 

Again like the other scenario this is very bad, because the skills the players have learned so far have a risk of becoming worthless.


In conclusion the player changes the difficulty because he actually likes the game, but would like to enjoy it more, and when you have an ingame difficulty meter, it has big risks of hollowing out the game and removing anything the player feels he has accomplished so far.

In some cases this may feel like the only way to go for the designer in order to make the game as accessible for the player as possible, but I believe there are other better ways.


We have spent alot of time going over how to implement different kinds of difficulty in our game and we have been looking at what other games of the same type are doing, or trying to do.


We both agreed that we did not like the model first presented in this post, but wanted to try for a dynamic approach to difficulty. Meaning that we wanted the actions of the player in the game to have a direct impact on the difficulty.


The way to accomplish this is through very thorough level design.

As previously described, the game is in essence about moving from the bottom left to the top right corner before the time runs out.


What we want to obtain within the levels is, that the player gets a feeling that he is in control of how difficult the game should be, not by choosing in a menu, but directly through his actions.


Therefore we have set alot of design goals for our levels. Some of them are that there should always be more than one way to get to the top, and they should also cross multiple times, so you can change path when you want to.


Following one path may suit one playstyle, and following another may suit another playstyle, or atleast this is what we are aiming for. 

On the different paths, the platform sizes and number of enemies and powerups will vary. 

The design will be done in such a way that the dedicated gamers will be able to find the perfect mix of paths to follow in order to optimize the number of powerups he picks up and the overall time he uses to complete the level, as these two are the main factors in the overall score for the level.


It is our hope, that this will leave a somewhat easy way for new or casual players to see all the content we put in, by making it possible to almost always complete the levels.

And present an actual challenge for those who wish to compete in the leaderboards and optimize how they play the game.

If you have any comments or thought, please let us know. 

Thank you, and a merry christmas to you all


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