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Difficulty Levels: Do they really represent how our players experience our games?

Is difficulty actually an adequate metric for differentiating how our players want to experience our games? Is Easy, Medium and Hard really an effective choice, or could Short, Normal and Extended be a more useful choice for many?

Game Developer, Staff

February 5, 2018

7 Min Read

One of the first choices a player has to make on starting a new game: Would you like to play this game on Easy, Medium or Hard difficulty? As gamers we’re conditioned to this question, and it seems a fairly straightforward one. For those of us who consider ourselves hard-core gamers, there is an element of pride even in the decision. After decades of gaming experience would I really choose to play a game on its easiest setting? Surely, this is just there for the casual gamers, the ‘noobs’ who need their hands holding and a twelve point tutorial on how to point the mouse or open an inventory screen?

A number of years ago, I designed a racing game based on a famous real world racing license. As part of that development, we included metrics to study intricate details of how players were interacting with the game. One of these was which difficulty level people were playing on. When I had balanced the difficulty, I deliberately made the easiest level incredibly easy. With my traditional gamer mind-set I had assumed that this would provide new players with an entry point into the game where they could enjoy the experience and learn the basics before quickly moving up to a more ‘interesting’ experience on a higher difficulty. 

When the metrics came back, I was stunned to see that my pre-conceptions were utterly and completely wrong. Between 70-80% of players played the game only on its easiest difficulty level. Not only as an entry point to the game, not as a brief introduction to mechanics, the vast majority of players simply wanted to boot up the game and win a race as their favourite driver.


So why could this be? Do most people not want to experience a challenge in their gaming? Is an easy reward a more compelling experience than a difficult one? Then I remembered a rule of thumb that has haunted game designers for decades. The number of players who finish games is shockingly small. Estimations vary that only between 10-30% of people who purchase a game will ever finish it. This holds true across gaming genres, including strongly story based titles where completion seems like a natural outcome. One of my personal favourite story led titles ever, Red Dead Redemption, had only 10% of players ever finish its final mission. For those players, their story was only ever completed if they watched a YouTube video or read a spoiler article.

So why do our players not finish our stories? Why do they play our games on the easiest settings to reach the highest rewards? Well interestingly, in those racing game metrics I described, those players using the Easy difficulty also committed much less time to their gaming than the players using the higher difficulty levels. Their experience was quicker and they wanted to hit the high notes in the time they had available. So this raises an obvious question, if those Red Dead Redemption players could have experienced the full story experience in a much shorter timeframe, how many of them would have done so? Would that 10% suddenly climb to 50%? 80%?

So who is buying our games, and why is available time such a problem? Well there are several answers to this, firstly we develop in an environment far richer in content than at any other time. The number of gaming experiences available to players is vast and constantly refreshing itself. You can purchase games at price points ranging from free to full premium, and every week dozens of new titles enter the market. Is it a surprise that people’s attention spans are shorter? But especially for premium titles, this doesn’t answer our question completely. If someone invests $40-60 into a new game, then we should still expect they will want a satisfying return on that investment. So who are the people buying our games?

Well according to a 2016 survey 155 million Americans play games regularly (more than 3 hours a week), a figure very close to half of the population. The average age of gamers sits at a venerable 35 years old and with an average gaming history of 13 years (https://www.bigfishgames.com/blog/2016-video-game-statistics-and-trends/). Gaming it appears has come a long way since the days when it was perceived to be largely the preserve of teenagers and college students. This should be predictable however, the teenagers and college students of 10-20 years ago, are the parents and families of today. So what is new for these people now? Well two fair assumptions would be that firstly they have more disposable income available than they did back then, and secondly that they have considerably less free time available with the pressures of employment and raising families. 

So why would a gamer with many years of experience, but little free time, be playing on Easy difficulty levels? Suddenly the picture becomes clearer. To experience the later stages of many titles involves substantial investments of time from the gamer on the higher difficulty levels. If that time is not available, then the player is left with a simple dilemma: either never see more than the start of a game, or play at an easier level and experience more in the limited time available. The people buying my racing title were choosing to experience the thrill of winning big races against top drivers rather than only ever getting to struggle at the back and never see the big payoff.


In essence this raises an interesting question for us as designers. Is difficulty actually an adequate metric for differentiating how our players want to experience our games? Is Easy, Medium and Hard really an effective choice, or could Short, Normal and Extended be a more useful choice for many? Could time be a much more decisive factor than talent in determining who plays and how?

If we accept this premise, then it raises many question about how we could even achieve this. Difficulty can often be a fairly cheap way of providing variety. Although we still need to balance, there are usually variables you can tweak to soften or harden the challenge. A monster hits less hard, the player has more hit-points, collision does less damage, etc etc. When we consider creating a game with varying lengths however, this potentially becomes a tougher proposition, but still one with potential solutions. Do your players really need to experience the long combat or gathering level between the story driven missions? Is it completely necessary for the map to take five hours to traverse, or could you close off one section, open up another and create a much faster experience for those playing on a shorter setting?

In some ways difficulty is a way of achieving the same goal. If a battle is easier it can be completed quicker, if a race can be won without lots of practises or car upgrades then the player reaches the final victory faster. But in many ways it’s still an ineffective tool for the job. We know this to be true, because we know that players are still not finishing our games in substantial enough numbers. We can still use some of the lessons we’ve learned over the years from balancing difficulty to create these express routes through our games, yet it also requires us to adopt a new mind-set which accepts that time spent playing does not necessarily equate to the ability and talent of the player.

Like everything else in design, this will not be a ‘one solution fits all’ answer to our problems. There will always be players who are less experienced, who want to play for a long time but on an easier setting, and who will get stuck and frustrated if the game is difficult yet who still want to devote many hours to the game. Finding a solution that allows both difficulty and game length to be customizable might seem like an undesirable level of design challenge to approach, yet as gaming continues to grow and competition in the market steadily increases, the complexity of meeting customer expectations will inevitably grow. 

It may well be that approaching design from this standpoint does result in requiring more development resources and time (which as we know is always a difficult proposition to sell internally), yet if we can find ways to make our players feel greater satisfaction in their purchase, is this not likely to lead to much better customer retention and larger future sales? Is there not also something deeply unsatisfying for us as developers in the idea that our games are rarely being fully experienced? Would Star Wars be the franchise it is today, if only 10% of people ever watched the final scenes?

[All opinions expressed here are my own, and are not intended to represent the opinions or views of BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment Europe]

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