Monday, March 15, 2010

Easing Up

At this year's Game Developer's Conference, Sid Meier gave a keynote titled "Psychology of Game Design: Everything you Know is Wrong." While I disagree with the vast majority of what Sid had to say, one of his statements did pique my interest. "I once gave a talk on how games should be split into four different difficulty levels." Meier said. "I was wrong. Now, Civilization V has nine difficulty levels."

Nine might sound a little preposterous. What could possibly be different to justify nine separate ranks of difficulty? Most often, changes in difficultly affect a few specific and easily predicted game elements. This is unsatisfactory. Meier might be on to something. While there is no game mode magic number, tiers of difficulty should still be far more varied and much more transparent than they are.

Different modes of difficulty exist, understandably, to account for the numerous levels of player experience. An easy task for a gamer veteran could be extremely arduous for someone new to the medium. Accordingly, we adjust how forgiving the game is for these inexperienced players.

When we talk about difficulty, we are really talking about one aspect of pacing. Players should progress at just the right speed. Depending on the feelings designers are trying to evoke, players should feel challenged but also empowered to overcome these challenges fairly. They should also be learning, and applying their knowledge to the obstacles ahead. Good narratives, be they story or mechanically based, should feel rhythmic and natural.
Difficulty is subservient to pacing. Take a look at Super Meat Boy or its Meat Boy predecessor. These games are brutally difficult. Surpassing a level is a personal feat of epic proportions. Regardless, the pacing is superb. When Meat Boy dies, he starts at the beginning of the level. But all the levels are incredibly short, never longer than thirty seconds. He also respawns incredibly quickly, letting the player kill off her Meat Boy hundreds of times in just minutes.

For the Meat Boy games, one difficulty is fine. But for longer titles, particularly story driven affairs, more is better. As it stands, there are usually three to four ranks - easy, medium, and hard, and occasionally hardest. Medium is the norm, what players familiar with games usually select. Hard is an extra challenge for the most experienced player. Hardest is mostly for those so enamored with the game, they will play through it twice. Which means of the four levels of difficulty, only one is meant for anyone with a skill level below the gamer average. That does not seem exactly fair, does it?

Rock Band offers an interesting ideal, despite having only four levels of difficulty. Easy and medium use three fret buttons - green, red and yellow. When compared to the same song, the latter is significantly harder, with a higher note count and increased complexity. Moving to hard is an even greater leap with the addition of the blue fret button. Again, moving to Extreme does it again with an extra orange button.
Rock Band is a useful example because, although the basic idea is the same, the play experience is so drastically different between difficulties. It is absolutely reasonable for someone who has never played a videogame in their life to play Rock Band on easy. At the same time, higher levels on extreme are nearly impossible for even the most experienced player. Also, progression through the campaign on each difficulty is well paced enough to encourage players to move between ranks.

What would such variance look like in a traditional game? It would have to fundamentally change how the game is played. So in New Super Mario Bros. Wii for example, the easiest mode might remove player collisions, allowing players to stack up on each other. Or, perhaps a first-person shooter of your choosing would give the newest players infinite ammo, or provide more cover objects during difficult scenes. As it stands, most FPS games just make enemies easier to kill and slightly increase player health.
But that would change gameplay completely you might say. So what? Understandably, vast changes require careful implementation and playtesting. That aside, what should we be so concerned about? Both console versions of Dragon Age: Origins and Red Faction Guerrilla create distinctive play experiences on easy, and are better for it. Their stories are better paced, opening the adventure to more players.

If the pacing ever becomes too fast, a player can easily upgrade to a higher difficulty. It should also be feasible for any game to naturally usher a new player into its harder levels. This upgrade should be completely transparent. Players should know exactly what "slightly harder" actually means. "Only for the most hardcore l33t players" is just not descriptive enough. I commend Heavy Rain for so explicitly tying the game's difficulty to familiarity with the PS3 controller..

For the most part, game difficulty rankings are not representative of many potential players. They are primarily designed for those already playing the game, offering minor adjustments to keep frustrated players appeased. They actually offer an opportunity to teach and provide a variety of play styles, becoming more inclusive of the non-gamer community in the process. Seizing that opportunity is worthwhile, no matter the difficulty.


  1. I like the link you make to difficulty and pacing. It can be a valuable thing to let players change certain variables of the gameplay. Allowing a player to tweak pacing until it feels suitable and consistent with how they feel the narrative should be progressing is an admirable aim.

    However, whilst this might provide a greater feeling of control and thus comfort to the player it also runs the risk of creating doubt in a players mind as to the 'best' way to solve a given problem and whether their experience is necessarily valid.

    To contrast this I would like to evoke a good friend of mine: Splosion Man. Twisted Pixel does what has become synonymous with Valve games in that they introduce a puzzle solving mechanic in a benign situation before presenting it to the player in more novel ways in the game proper. Difficulty in this game is provided by increasing complexity of mechanics themselves and additional layering of different mechanics on top of each other.

    What is great about this game is that it feels really well paced because no challenge ever feels insurmountable. The player is always in a position to complete the puzzle because it has elements that are all recognizable because of what they had performed earlier. In this way it shows how games can be designed to provide difficulty and good pacing without giving any of that in the players hands and it is a better game for it.

    Splosion Man also provides a counterpoint to show how games might fail at this with the boss battles. They stand out as novel puzzles that surprise and frustrate the player as they use puzzle mechanics with no prior equivalent in the game and thus no means by which the player can solve them barring repeated failures that exposed them.

    Cool post as always, keep up the good work and thanks being part of blogs who make me feel just a tiny bit closer to GDC

  2. You have to be careful about putting too much variance in difficulty levels, however. Castlevania 64 had three or four difficulty levels, and turns out that if you play on the easiest, you don't get to play the last third of the game.

    Granted, that's a Nintendo 64 era game, but it was a horrifyingly frustrating design decision that I never want to see replicated anywhere ever again.

  3. @ Gerard

    I absolutely adore 'Splosion Man. Pacing wise, it is one of the best. By the end of the coop campaign, my pal and I were pulling off some amazing feats of timing effortlessly. New players entering at that late stage were utterly useless.

    I don't want to say one-difficulty games should not exist. Splosion Man is a good example of why that is not the case. I would, however, put Splosion Man in the same camp as Meat Boy. It is designed with such short segments, fast respawns, and gradual escalation of difficulty, that it does not need it. Any larger aspirations, however, and broader difficulty levels should be seriously considered. Thanks, as always, for your excellent comments.

    @ Jim

    Oh Castlevania 64, why did you have to be so bad? I think the decision to drop the last third of the game is just a terrible design choice. I wouldn't take its lesson too close to heart.

  4. An interesting article. I think that having variable difficulty levels in games is a great idea and I love how that enables me to customize my game experience. I especially appreciate the inclusion of the variable difficulty levels in games such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age. Both of these series I have been playing through on the casual difficulty level. I find that fits my comfort level in terms of skill, but an unexpected development of these easier settings that I did not anticipate is how I feel that they contributed to my immersion into the game world that I was role playing. Playing Mass Effect (and the sequel) on this easy difficulty level helped make me feel that my character was more a part of an elite commando unit, as it felt like my two companion characters were also competent members of my squad and not things that I needed to babysit and micromanage in order to succeed.

    Great article.

  5. I thought of this article recently when I was playing through God of War III.

    At a certain point, I had died several times in the same section and the game asked me if I wanted to knock it down to easy mode. Instead of tempting me, this simply made me more motivated to persevere and show the game who's boss!

    Perhaps having a variety of difficulty settings is useful as a motivator, even if a player never uses them?

  6. @scott
    You know, that reminds me of when I was playing through Warcraft 3: I always played on the easiest setting, because I was more interested in seeing what the game had to offer than really challenging myself, and On the last level, I kept losing. Warcraft offers the same 'do you want to lower the difficuly?' option that God of War 3 apparently does.

    I told the game to please go ahead and do so, but since the game was already on the easiest difficulty, I'm not actually sure if it changed anything.

    Except that I was able to beat the level. I always wondered if I was able to beat it because I thought it would be easier, and thinking that somehow made me able to win.

    So yeah, I agree: even the difficulties that you aren't playing on can impact your experience in different ways.