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Motivate Me: Crafting Better Game Difficulties

Video games are evolving, and we're struggling to keep up. Difficulty design in games has changed, and this is about what it does to us psychologically, how we as developers can make better games, and, in turn, how games can make us better people.

I snapped. Guys with armored vests kept blowing holes in me with shotguns; snipers with floating red dot sights scattered my precious cranium meat on the stones; that Aztecan death music looped endlessly in my addled brain, and I just snapped. I opened the Uncharted 3 menu, scrolled down to difficulty selection, and did the unthinkable.

I took a deep breath and clicked “Very Easy.”

It troubled me then and it troubles me now, but for very different reasons.

This could change the way we not only create games, but enjoy them.

You see, this isn’t just a question of video game difficulty levels – if they’re superfluous or essential. It’s a question of motivation – both from a developer and gamer standpoint. It’s about what motivates us to play games, and ultimately, it’s about what motivates us psychologically – in relationships, in decision making, in life.


The traditional model of difficulty selection communicates and triggers something in the mind of a gamer, and that has harmful effects not just for the player, but for game design. So in looking through this issue for a development of my own, I stumbled upon some far reaching implications for game designers and gamers that could change the way we not only create games, but enjoy them.

It all comes back to motivation – our desires for the future, beliefs about ourselves, and the very meaning of improvement. So we turn first to the traditional system of difficulty selection and what it says about us.


The Road Most Traveled

Game developers are plagued with a host of fears. Most hide below the surface, bubbling up at night while we lie in bed after a particularly long, stressful day. Because our lives are variable, we want guarantees. And the greatest guarantee we can get? That our game can be all things to all people.

DifficultyBut we can’t all be GTA V, so devs must get a little creative. We understand that some gamers want a solid story, some want a bone-crushing challenge, and some just want whatever we’re giving them.

Hence difficulty selection was born. A series of modifiers, relatively easy to implement, that can be changed at the push of a button. Everyone wins.

Or maybe we all lose.

The reason why lies in understanding player motivation.


The Heart of Player Motivation

What is a man? Well, if you’re Dracula, we’re miserable little piles of secrets. But I’m not Dracula (so put away the stakes); I’m just a miserable little pile of desires.

That’s why when I approach a video game, I want something. Enjoyment? Sure. Entertainment? Almost certainly. A time sink? Likely.

But we’d be mistaken to think that’s all we want. We want riches, titillation, companionship, jokes, explosions, tears, escapism, and a miserable pile of other things.

This is literally everyday of my gaming life.

This is literally everyday of my gaming life.

And at the heart of these desires lies motivation – the impulse that keeps us chugging along. It feeds us a constant supply of desires and desire fulfillments when done correctly, and we stop playing when done poorly.

The key to all this is simple: we’re motivated in different ways, and those motivators affect our response to challenges. Psychologists have subdivided motivations into core categories (see here and here for more on that if interested), and two categories are of particular interest to us:


“Nature-of-Self” Motivators

This motivation stems from our perception of self, and you can see it at work when the player justifies decisions with phrases like, “Well, I only really care about the story” or “I don’t have time to screw with these stupid shotgunners rushing at me” or “You know, I’d like this game way better if I had more patience.” And it usually leads to a person turning the difficulty level down.

The person who turns the difficulty up? Similar concept. They say, “I like a good challenge” or, “I’m a rabid completionist” or, “That platinum trophy is calling my name.”

The common thread in all these statements: they are about us, not the game. The player is central. We have to know ourselves or form opinions about ourselves to make them.



You often find this motivator in any game with difficulty level selection, and that’s because this type of motivator is actually encouraged by including a difficulty level selection. We as the player, and not the developer, are now responsible for deciding how we fit into the game’s challenge, which turns us internally.

This self-evaluation takes place before we even begin a game. We’re asked to decide – am I hardcore enough? Am I casual? What niche do I occupy in this space? – and that question constantly recurs as we struggle through the game. The choice is always present, and so is the self-reflection.


“Improvement” Motivators

Operating on the opposite end of the spectrum, improvement motivators are progress and skill based.

Players experiencing this sort of motivator will make comments like, “I’ve got to figure out this attack pattern,” or “With a bit more money I can get better armor for that boss,” or “So this time I snuck around him and put a sword in his gut and took him out.”

You often see this motivator in skill and memory based games (and so much of skill is just muscle and pattern memory) or games with RPG elements. Especially now, the two are bleeding into each other. These motivation tools target complex parts of our psyches, including how we weigh risks and uncertainties, work through puzzles, and how we measure short-term gains in the interest of long-term goals.


Long story short, improvement motivators make us think more, and in complex ways. Just as a sword fighter has to gain years of experience to be truly proficient, improvement motivators target repetition, skill, and stat improvement to give us the video game equivalent of experience.

And there are inherent advantages of this kind of motivator over the nature-of-self variety, which we will consider by looking at a few games that utilize them.


Shining Examples of Challenge

You may have heard people say a certain game isn’t difficult, but challenging. While largely a matter of semantics, it reveals something inherent about which motivators a game targets.

Nature-of-self motivators (and having selectable difficulty levels by extension) tend to make players reactive and games more static experiences. Instead of rising to meet a challenge, players will have the nagging feeling that they could, if worse comes to it, just bump the difficulty level down. This may self-validate the player’s current view of themselves and their desires, but it doesn’t challenge them in a way that will actually lead to self-improvement.

Here are some games that do, however, and the means by which they manage it.


Bloodborne (Souls Series)

Ever wonder why From Software’s games are so popular? People say the Souls series and Bloodborne are incredibly difficult but fair, and that’s largely because it uses improvement motivators.

A common scenario in Bloodborne runs like this: you die and lose all your progress. It’s sorta terrible, really. But hey, you think, at least I opened a shortcut and learned if I shoot this enemy in the gut, it’s a one-hit kill.

So you run back through, hopefully using that wisdom and that shortcut to further your progress. But if that fails, you can always gain an advantage by improving stats or buying better equipment.


These are both improvement motivators at work. They don’t give you an option of selecting a difficulty level, but they do give you an option. And that’s key. The option here is more complex - multiple paths of improvement - and it depends on the developer creating systems that allow players to gain the advantage in creative ways.

That challenge is at the heart of From Software’s games, which means they create their games around that framework – planning and intense testing are required. But it also fosters a better player response – namely, deep satisfaction. It actually informs self-image rather than draws from it, which quite literally makes us better people.


Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes

So you’re not into RPGs and the stat-boosting craze of recent RPG-inspired games? No problem, because there are still skill-based experiences out there that allow us to approach things in multiple ways, the difficulty as variable as the approaches.

I dare someone to try MGS:GZ, say, “I’m terrible at stealth,” and quit. Why? Because it kind of expects that. I’m that guy, the one who plays previous MGS games and just wants to pull out a gun after 4 hours of crawling like an idiot on my belly and mow every person down in sight.

And MGS:GZ is totally cool with that. But more fascinating? It makes stealth so damn fun that you’ll probably prefer it. For the first time I gladly crawled on my belly, pumped round after round of knockout darts into hapless guards, and pulled out binoculars to mark everything that moved.


The reason is simple: it has such inventive rewards for every style of play. Stealth is rewarded with bonus weapons, ammo, and conversations. But run and gun is rewarded with sheer volume of hilarious. Rocket a guard in the face, close-quarters-combat a poor bloke into submission, or set intricate C4 charges in a line and lure everyone into your wall of flame. Either way, you’ll get unlockable bonus missions and backstory cassette tapes to fill out even more of the characters and setting.

And while MGS:GZ has selectable difficulty levels, it hardly needs them (and the hard mode is blocked anyway until you complete it on normal). That speaks to the strength of the game Kojima has crafted – pure challenge that requires players to improve, always rewarding that improvement in spectacular ways.


The End of Improvement

So the question then becomes, what does this mean for us?

First, what it does not mean: selectable difficulty levels are not bad. They have existed, arguably, since Tempest released in 1981, and they serve a necessary function. Namely, they give people an excuse to come back for more and developers one less thing to focus on. I understand that developers have limited resources, and sometimes tossing a selectable difficulty level into the mix is the clearest, quickest way of achieving a goal.

Life is full of long, arduous roads, and I wouldn’t hold it against someone for taking the path of least resistance (God knows I’ve done the same), but I do think we rob ourselves of something when we do.

Make no mistake, the path of improvement is tough. It requires developers plan challenges and multiple paths to success ahead of time, and constantly re-evaluate throughout development.

But the end of improvement is always better, because it strikes at the heart of overcoming adversity. It makes the game a stepping-stone to moments of euphoric air punches, of howls of victory, of deep, soul-satisfying joy.


Instead of just reflecting our preconceptions, it changes them, and that’s powerful. We as developers have a chance to make challenges that scale as players scale, pushing them to improve – yes, even those who play on easy.

Because if we don’t give them the choice of easy, medium, or hard, we give them a greater choice – the choice to rise to the occasion their own way.

And that’s what life is really about: making us better, one trial at a time.

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