What is the purpose of difficulty in video games? It’s a question I have found myself asking quite often. There is an obvious answer and I personally believe that there is a lot more to it than just a player’s skill level. I almost always prefer to play a game on the hardest difficulty, unless it’s an RPG, because I don’t have time for that. It’s not because I am super skilled in all games, but rather that I prefer to be challenged. The interesting thing I thought about though was that not every game has difficulty levels, I mean look at a game like Dark Souls.
(Dave, It’s just one little skellying—–OH MY GAWD!!!)
So it got me thinking. What is the purpose of a difficulty level in video games? I came up with two main schools of thought on this and they are as follows. First, difficulty exists on part of the design of a game. It is a design choice to prevent a player from progressing through their creations. It is a type of reward system for skilled players who can deduce weaknesses or patterns in a difficult section/boss/area. These are intentionally designed to test a players knowledge basis or ability to learn in specific situations.
The second school of thought is that difficulty exists for a sense of achievement for the players. This type of difficulty is created by developers, but only affects things such as damage, health or even attributes of the metadata. This type is a set level of parameters that is designed to give a player a greater sense of reward when overcome. It is less skill based (typically) but more based on intelligence and understanding of the game itself. These would be more typical of First Person shooters or even some adventure games. The design of the game will never change, only the parameters in which you play.
(It’s all in the numbers)
I started off thinking about games where difficulty is pre-determined and never changes. I thought about Bloodborne, and yes I am bloody aware that there is new game +, but that doesn’t really count as you it is a set difficulty every time. Bloodborne is a difficult game, of that I don’t think many would questions me. This difficulty is elaborately designed by the game developers. It isn’t some arbitrary numbers game or even picking easy, hard or medium. It is an essential design choice from the very beginning. The developers put things in the world to drive you as a player forward, whether it is story elements or even shiny loot at the end of a hallway.
Everything has a purpose to draw you as the player into that game world. This could be considered an achievement style of difficulty, but that would be driven by a players want for the game to be harder. Bloodborne doesn’t utilize this way of thinking. Since everything is pre-determined (health, damage output, abilities, or even loot) it can’t be changed by the player. This makes it a more progression based difficulty, that sense of achievement is just icing on top of the cake.
(I mean don’t we all get that excited over new clothes?)
Then we get to the more achievement style difficulty. Which I think is becoming the more prevalent style of modern game development. In this style I think of games like Halo or even Persona 5. In games like halo difficulty is nothing more than your ability to keep smart as a player. It forces you to change-up tactics, dependent on difficulty, and utilize things you may not have on easier difficulties. In games like Persona 5 it makes you watch your every move and maybe use abilities or items you normally would have reserved for later.
These types of games may even utilize trophies (YAY!) or have special endings for the winning/defeating of the hardest difficulties. Games like the Witcher 3 have trophies for beating the game on the hardest difficulty, but little else for a monumental task.
(A monumental game to platinum, and I did it, I’ll talk about that one later)
Class is in Session
So the question is posed in the beginning is what is the purpose of difficulty in games? With two schools of thought I figured I would break them down into classes, yeah i’m keeping a theme here, so let’s look a bit deeper shall we?
Class 1 Design Based
1-1 Design must challenge, but not overwhelm
In a design based difficulty is a balancing game. The difficulty can’t be too immense as to prevent a player from ever progressing, but it must be difficult enough to make it seem challenging. These games have to be wary of their audiences, such is the case for platformers. Games like Crash Bandicoot or Mario have challenging sections, however through perseverance and experience you can persevere. The developers are also aware that there will be a variety of age and experience playing these games, so they have to challenge but not overwhelm. If the challenge is too hard you push away players, ala Dark Souls, if it’s too easy you may never interest someone, ala Kirby.
Challenges in these games may also have similar answers that are not evident to players from a first glance. Like the Ancient Wyvern in Dark Souls III. You can fight him in a traditional sense, or you can go around the level and one-shot him with an plunging attack. It’s a challenge that at first overwhelms, but is easily tamed with some experimentation. Without these types of challenges the games progressions would be little more than a walking simulator, so the progression must challenge, but not overwhelm.
(Challenging and overwhelming, but you will learn…or die…a lot..)
1-2 Difficulty must progress as the player progresses
Think about the original Super Mario Bros. It is probably the most iconic game of all time, with good reason. First, it teaches everything the gamer needs to play the game with-in the first handful of levels. Second, it everything is explained with no text to the player. You aren’t told how to jump, if you don’t jump you die. It forces the player to experiment with the controls. This is game design 101. The game does not stay this consistently simple though, eventually traps, bullet bills, koopa troopa’s and a wide variety of other hazards are thrown your way to challenge you.
No one challenge in the original Super Mario Bros. is impossible and in fact they are all just building blocks off of one another. You can take this thought process and apply it to a Zelda game from the N64 era. The Legend of Zelda thrives off of the idea of difficulty progressing as you get further in the game. Dungeons show this off especially, many enemies in these dungeons are inherently more difficult due to you lacking a piece of the puzzle. You have to find the weapon or hidden item in the dungeon, once you do you now have the weakness of those enemies. Then you meet the boss, the boss takes what you learned up to that point and then challenges you on your current knowledge.
This type of difficulty design is extremely popular in some of the older school RPG’s as well. Take a game like FF8, yeah I know I could have used 7 or 6, but FF8 actually has a progressing difficulty system. In FF8 enemies scale with your level, meaning that from a base stats standpoint, you will never overpower them. This is combated from systems used in-game, aka the junction system, but it means that you have to stay one step ahead of the game. The further that you as a player progress in FF8, the further the enemies progress.
(As if he needed to level up with my party….)
1-3 Progression must be seen in the design of difficult sections
Imagine that you just beat the water temple in Ocarina of Time and then you are informed that your princess is in another castle. It’s kind of a kick in the head, right? You worked so hard to defeat something and then you are told that you did it for no real reason. Of course I’m not hitting against Mario in this aspect, it’s actually kind of brilliant. The point is that there has to be a sense of reward for defeating that difficult part, a sense of progression. It doesn’t have to pat you on the back, but it does show you that you are making some sort of progress.
This is really easy to see in action or adventure style games such as Zelda or Ratchet and Clank. After every new dungeon or area you get rewarded. This reward can be monetary, weapons, items or even magical abilities. The point is that the design rewards you with something after a difficult section. You don’t go through the water temple for no reason or even traverse a dangerous planet just to be told good job. You do it because some kind of external reward is also present.
Class 2- Achievement Based
2-1 Achievements must have clear goals
It seems pretty basic for a player to have felt like they have worked their way to overcome a challenge. In trophies or actual achievements in-game (ala XBOX) this can get kind of funky. Some achievements, like difficulty based ones, are well-known. The one’s that unlock as you naturally play though are the one’s that must be questioned. Why is it an achievement to kill 1000 enemies whenever you kill over 10,000 naturally in the campaign? It has a clear goal, but it wasn’t much of a challenge was it?
So for an achievement based system we have to focus on a clear set goal. Play through the game with no kills. Play through the game on the highest difficulty. Don’t be seen. The ones that have no clear goals are some challenge that says be No.1! It doesn’t give a lot of information on the challenge being presented. Do I have to win everything in the game, make all of the baskets in a basket-weaving contest? I mean it’s not clear… Games with this design have to give the player the information for the challenge, otherwise it falls flat.
(This game has the most obscure trophies on the planet)
2-2 The Reward is what matters
In Achievement based difficulties the only thing that matters in the end is that sweet, juicy reward. The difficulty in and of itself is merely the obstacle. It is not designed to be hard to prevent you from progressing (although it might be), but rather the prevention of you obtaining that reward. Games like Resident Evil VII best embody this, such as after beating the game on Madhouse difficulty you unlock unlimited ammo. The reward does not have been stated though; in fact it’s better if the reward is unknown in most cases.
Rewards in achievement based difficulty can and should be varied. From in-game items to digital rewards aka trophies or achievements. Resident Evil VII rewards you based on difficulty, collectibles found, or even how fast you beat the game. These are common ways but they can also be rewarded based on how you play. Like Dishonored with a no kill play through, or even a never being seen play through. These are just a few small examples, but the point is that the difficulty must give an achievement.
(Who cares if you scream like a girl, you have a saw!)
Why does this matter?
Now I know what you’re asking, why are we talking about game design here? Why does it matter about what the purpose of difficulty in games is? It just does…live with it. You’re right, I should just live with the fact it exists, but I have started to become troubled as I have existed on this giant rock floating in an ever-expanding ethereal plane of existence. The trouble is that as time has gone on, I see less and less of the design difficulty being utilized. It’s not that it’s gone, I don’t think it will ever truly disappear, but it has been vanishing over time.
I’m aware that I could say there is a 3rd school of thought and that is a merging of the two, and I would say that this is what I truly want, but I see gratification being the main point now-a-days. It worries me. I used to play a game like Ocarina of Time or Majora’s mask merely because they were great games. Enjoying the game for what it was. I never had to question if it was too hard, that was just the difficulty of the game. Would I have wanted a difficulty back then, probably not. Today I feel the same way, I don’t think I would have preferred to have a more easy or difficult game, but I can see that some gamers would.
The thing that worries me is that it no longer becomes about the accessibility of a product with difficulty, but rather just a way to determine your skill level and the reward you deserve. In fact I hate the idea that video games have secret endings for players who beat games on their hardest difficulties. Not everyone has the time to dedicate to a product to be the best in the world at it. Difficulty and rewards are important, but make them different kinds of rewards. Trophies, achievements, stupid skins that you can only use in-game.
(ARES!!!! ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED!?!?!)
Again, I don’t want the achievement based design to disappear. I would like for it to start to encompass more of the first style. I’m not saying those games don’t exist, but rather I would like more games to consider this style of design. So what is the point of difficulty in video games? It’s pretty obvious right, to be the right amount of fun, for everyone.