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  • A New Taxonomy Of Difficulty

    [10.26.21]
    - Rhys Frampton

  • Once you've understood the basics of a task, your next obstacle is often that of the second category: executive difficulty. Executive difficulty describes the levels of physical prowess (such as strength, dexterity, or reflexes) that are required to reliably perform an action. This category has the greatest degrees of variance between different tasks. For example, most sports possess extreme levels of executive difficulty at their highest levels, whereas games like chess possess almost none at all. Within the "three questions" framework of "what," "how," and "why," executive difficulty represents "how." An example of a task whose difficulty is almost wholly executive would be powerlifting.

    Unlike comprehensive difficulty, the desired level of executive difficulty in a given game is not always so clear cut. Many action games use their high level of executive difficulty as their primary appeal, though different genres tend to hyperfocus on one aspect of execution while completely ignoring others. For example, most shooter games emphasize precise accuracy, whereas most fighting games emphasize precise timing, and neither generally requires physical strength. Alternatively, certain titles within these genres aim to provide executively easier alternatives. Examples include the fighting game Fantasy Strike, which utilizes simplified controls and a lenient input buffer, and the first person shooter Overwatch, which sports characters like Moira or Winston who rarely (if ever) need to aim. The existence of these titles and their fans proves that executive difficulty is not the sole appeal of action games, and that there are those who enjoy them despite that difficulty and not because of it.


    A chart of the simple control scheme of Fantasy Strike by Sirlin Games, showing that it can be played effectively on any controller. Image from fantasystrike.com.

    Part of why some players prefer to have less executive difficulty in their games is because it often distracts from strategic difficulty. For example, if a player perfectly predicts the opponent's actions in a fighting game, but then misinputs the move to best counter it, they might feel frustrated that the game's focus on execution "robbed" them of what was an otherwise strategically optimal choice. This is also why strategy games tend to eschew executive difficulty by default. There are once again exceptions, however, such as the real-time strategy game StarCraft: Brood War, whose executive difficulty surpasses that of most action games. Fans of Brood War feel that its strategic depth is enhanced by its executive difficulty, and so much like Fantasy StrikeBrood War is able to carve out a passionate niche for itself by defying the expectations of its genre.

    Lastly, an important aspect of executive difficulty is that it can make certain games unplayable for individuals with physical disabilities. This is an extreme that does not apply to the other categories; While it is theoretically possible for just about anyone to eventually grasp a complex game, conditions such as arthritis can make rapid button presses painful and/or impossible to perform. Some executively difficult games can even cause physical injury, such as when the professional Super Smash Bros. Melee player Aziz "Hax$" Al-Yami developed severe joint pain in his wrists due to the game's emphasis on performing fast, repetitive motions during every second of a high level match. This is not to say that executively difficult games should not exist, but game designers have a responsibility to take these negative outcomes into account.

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