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The Importance Of Skill

How important is dynamic difficulty? Let's explore that question over a small cup of coffee.

In the middle of wrestling with what I am trying to establish as leisure time, I came to an objective realization:

I'm not good at video games.

Never have been, and I say that knowing full well that I still enjoy them. My friend Jason Emery, now a senior engineer at Griptonite, won about 80-90% of the games he played. I remember him beating the shooter GradiusThe Legend of Zelda and Metroid rather quickly.

The only game I beat that it took him a bit longer to win was Pro Wrestling, and that's because I owned it and he didn't have as much time as I did. I suppose the only title I can take credit for is Mike Tyson's Punch Out!!!. Oooh.

These days I've been delving back into playing an old faithful: Counterstrike and after playing at least 10-20 hours of it I'm no better than when I began, meaning that when I join a game I hardly ever make any kills and am almost always killed within 30 seconds. But let's examine why:

  • Counterstrike is the most competitive multiplayer FPS title ever (well, okay, Left 4 Dead might have it beat at this point?)
  • Counterstrike relies on certain techniques based in reality such as cover, knowing the ground, and firing in short bursts as well as requiring rock solid aim to succeed
  • Some servers, even those that are VAC secured, have people who somehow manage to hack / cheat

Therefore if I play using my own server and bots on "Normal" difficulty the odds are much more in my favor.

Now let's take another game such as Nuclear War, a much older PC game. I never win that one. Ever. Period. Fortunately I've worked with Mark Caldwell at Midway (he also did code for Nuclear War) a few years ago, so I can bug him about it, but I keep wondering what the secret is to actually winning for folks like me? Just finishing what you can and being happy with that, or constantly trying new games? Well, yes... dynamic difficulty, but how often is that really used, and used effectively?

An older example of a game that had used dynamic difficulty would be Zanac for the NES. The more power ups you get, the more enemies appear and the more shots existing enemies might fire.

Pretty clever, most importantly it was tuned so that if you were at a high level of power you weren't overwhelmed as if you were the guy from Robotron 2084. ;)

No conclusion really, I suppose I find it interesting that difficulty still appears to be taking a backseat to quite a few other design mechanics, probably because dynamic difficult ain't that easy to do well. 

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