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  • A Different Approach To Difficulty

    - Alex Vu
  • [Alex Vu is a game designer, pixel artist and junior developer currently working for Hanoi-based Fine Monkeys studio.]

    The problem of difficulty in games has been debated to great depths for a long time. Various alternatives to the traditional approach with different difficulty modes at the beginning of a particular game have been proposed, analyzed and implemented. And yet, as much as they patch up the errors of the traditional approach, within them arise numerous inherent problems and difficulties. As such, I would like to propose another alternative-not so much a mechanical solution that requires implementation, but rather a different approach to difficulty design.

    One thing I'd like to stress is that, this has been applied in various games quite successfully before, and I'll mention them later on, but not to the extent to which it can deservedly become a central design philosophy, in my opinion. This I presume is due to a lack of a rather clear and deliberate approach to difficulty design.

    But first, let me attempt to briefly summarize a few popular criticisms of the traditional difficulty modes approach and its alternative.

    Problems with Difficulty Modes

    Picture yourself coming into a brand new game, only to be asked to choose a difficulty mode that's suitable for yourself, and presented with a number of different menu options. And frankly, they don't do that good of a job at giving you sufficient information to make such an important decision. This is how many games in our history have done difficulty, and it continues to be fairly prevalent among modern games.

    Here are its common criticisms:

    1. Asking the player to make such a decision right at the beginning is not exactly a good idea. To select a difficulty mode before the game even starts is to make a major commitment based on very little information available (e.g. a short description). Once the player has selected a difficulty, they are probably going to live with it for the entire playthrough.

    2. Even if the game allows the player to change the difficulty mode later on, it is, in itself, still not a very good idea. For one, explicitly selecting a difficulty mode in a menu-based manner is certainly not an interesting choice that games strive to offer their players. They do not have to weigh anything against anything. They do not have to analyze the risks and rewards coming as a result of each option. And generally speaking, players are not going to be good at weighting short-term convenience against long-term enjoyment. They just do not know the game enough.

    3. Such approach would defeat the entire point of progression through unlocking higher and better tools to enhance and assist with gameplay. It would go against the intended gameplay experience from the game designer. And most importantly, it would make the player feel judged for not choosing a higher difficulty.

    There have been several solutions to negate these issues, of which Mark Brown has gone into depths in one of his videos. However, not one of them was able to solve them all and still maintain immersion.

    Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment

    The idea of Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment (or DDA) hinges on the theory of the player's Flow State, in which the player is completely immersed, and the game's difficulty feels just right. Any more difficulty will cause frustration and break immersion. Any less difficulty and the player will quickly find boredom, and you guessed it, lose immersion. Therefore, as designer Andrew Glassner put it in his book Interactive Storytelling, games "should not ask players to select a difficulty level. Games should adapt themselves during gameplay to offer the player a consistent degree of challenge based on his changing abilities at different tasks." Or in other words, games should be implemented with a performance evaluation system as well as a dynamic difficulty adjustment system in order to adjust itself to accommodate the infinitely different and ever-changing characteristics of players. More on the technical details of DDA can be found in Robin Hunicke's 2005 paper The Case for Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment in Games.

    However, while the Flow State theory admittedly has its merits, the DDA approach doesn't go without its numerous downsides: 

    1. Some players, when they find out about DDA, hate it. Especially when DDA cannot be turned off, the player ends up feeling patronized, and not respected by the game as an adult, capable of taking on challenges and improving him/herself.

    2. Players can, and will, learn to exploit DDA by pretending to be worse at playing than they actually are. And oftentimes, a DDA system will require some sort of break time in order to avoid revealing itself to the player, thus not able to quickly adapt itself to the player's ostensible skill level.

    3. DDA inhibits the player's ability to learn and improve. As soon as the player improves, the difficulty ramps up to match their skill level, thus eliminating the possibility of positive results. If the player cannot see some sort of feedback from the game regarding their performance, they cannot know whether any changes in their approach to gameplay were effective.

    4. DDA may create absurdities. One of the popular example of DDA going awry is the rubber-band effect in racing games, where opponents speed up and slow down seemingly for no reason in order to adapt to the player's performance.

    5. DDA is incompatible with some forms of challenge. If the challenge in question is numerically-based, then DDA can work easily. However, when the challenge is symbolical, with pre-designed elements that are nakedly visible to the player, often having only one or a few intended solutions, then DDA cannot work.

    There are many interesting and nuanced approaches to DDA that I won't mention since that's beyond the scope of this segment. While I imagine there are going to be a lot of way to make DDA functional and sufficiently inscrutable through clever algorithms and implementation, I am rather discussing the fundamentals.


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