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  • A New Taxonomy Of Difficulty

    [10.26.21]
    - Rhys Frampton
  • Difficulty has often been oversimplified as a sliding scale between "easy" and "hard," which obscures the nuances that make every challenge unique. This is a significant problem for discussions on game design, where the role of difficulty is far more complex. Which challenges do players find engaging, and which turn them away? Why do some players find action games to be easy and strategy games to be hard, whereas for others, the opposite is true? Designers cannot properly answer these questions by relying on vague binaries like "easy" or "hard." Therefore, I propose a new taxonomy of difficulty, which classifies challenges into three distinct categories: comprehensive, executive, and strategic. Ideally, this taxonomy would not be limited to just games, but could also be applied to just about any activity.


    The first category, comprehensive difficulty, describes the difficulty of understanding the core rules and objectives of a given task. For example, Rock-Paper-Scissors has a relatively low degree of comprehensive difficulty, as players only need to learn the game's titular three options. To contrast, there is a much higher degree of comprehensive difficulty in Pokémon, which requires players to memorize the various weaknesses, resistances, and immunities of eighteen different types. If the three questions that must be asked of any challenge are "what," "how," and "why," then comprehensive difficulty represents "what," and is often the first hurdle to be overcome. An example of an activity whose difficulty is almost wholly comprehensive would be learning a new language.


    A chart demonstrating the complexity of Pokémon type effectiveness. Image from pokemondb.net.

    As game designers, we should usually strive to reduce comprehensive difficulty as much as possible. This is because it is both the least satisfying type of difficulty to overcome, as well as the most frustrating to be stumped by. Ask yourself which would be more engaging: trying to come back from a strategically difficult situation in a board game, or studying that same game's comprehensively difficult rulebook? The rulebook example also leads us to another issue with comprehensive difficulty: Players often face the most comprehensive difficulty when learning a game for the first time, which makes them more likely to quit before they get invested. This issue is magnified for non-automated experiences such as board games and card games, because these games' rules only exist in terms of how the players understand them. In other words, if a player misunderstands a physical game, they will not merely fail its challenges, but are incapable of playing it properly at all.

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