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Feature: 'The Designer's Notebook: Difficulty Modes and Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment'

In Ernest Adams' <a href="http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3660/the_designers_notebook_.php">latest Gamasutra column</a>, he digs into difficulty levels in games, interestingly suggesting that player-set difficulty might be preferable to the imagined

May 14, 2008

2 Min Read

Author: by Staff

In Ernest Adams' latest Gamasutra column, he digs into difficulty levels in games, interestingly suggesting that player-set difficulty might be preferable to the imagined utopia of pure dynamic difficulty settings. Adams' investigation into the subject began with a read-through of Andrew Glassner's book Interactive Storytelling, particularly the author's assertion that settable difficulty levels should be banned. Adams, on the other hand, has precisely the opposite view, and after responding to Glassner's points, admits that the alternative, dynamic difficulty adjustment, has its share of problems: I like the idea of dynamic difficulty adjustment in principle, because it appeals to me as a programmer. It would be very cool to code a game that was smart enough to adjust its challenges to the player's abilities, so as to guarantee him a good time. But despite Glassner's confidence in DDA, I also recognize that it's not necessarily easy to do. Let's take a look at some of the problems with DDA: * Some players hate it. This is the number one reason to think twice about implementing DDA, especially if it can't be switched off. Many players feel patronized when they discover that a game is going easy on them when get into trouble, and they don't want the difficulty level to change at all. For them, playing, and beating, a very difficult game is where the fun is, even if it means dying 500 times on the way to eventual success. * Players can learn to exploit DDA by pretending to be worse than they are. It's a bit like hustling pool; you sucker your opponent into thinking you're a novice, then wipe the floor with him when his money's on the table. This is one of the most frequently cited objections to DDA among players and commercial designers. Personally, I don't have a serious problem with this because I don't have an emotional investment in making things hard for my players; but they're right that it warps the game, and can make it actively unfair in multiplayer situations. [...] * DDA ruins pacing and obviates good level design. A hypothetically perfect DDA system that always kept all challenges at the same level of perceived difficulty would ruin the pacing of the game. It would be like listening to a Beethoven symphony in which every note is played at exactly the same volume, or walking around an art museum wearing colored sunglasses. A well-designed level, with its varying emotional tones, is a work of art in its own right, and it deserves to be appreciated as such. So what middle-ground solution can be struck? Read Adams' full feature for more on the problems, alternatives, and potential solutions for the difficulty problem.

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