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  • A New Taxonomy Of Difficulty

    [10.26.21]
    - Rhys Frampton

  • Once you understand a task's goals, as well as the physical abilities required to perform the task's actions, your final hurdle will be optimizing those actions to most effectively achieve those goals. This is strategic difficulty, the third and final category, and it is often the trickiest both to overcome and define. To demonstrate this, examine the difference between an intermediate Go player and a master. Both of them fully understand the game's rules, while also being capable of reliably moving their pieces to any desired spot on the board -- thus, they both have an equal mastery of Go's comprehensive and executive difficulty. However, the Go master will always win against the intermediate player, because they have a superior understanding of Go's strategic difficulty (i.e., the various tactics and divergent outcomes that will best lead them to victory). Go is a particularly important case subject for those interested in strategic difficulty, because despite being very simple to pick up and play, its strategic depths have still not been fully mastered even after thousands of years. Within the framework of "what," "how," and "why," strategic difficulty represents "why," and Go is one of the only examples of an activity whose difficulty is almost solely strategic.

    Comprehensive difficulty and strategic difficulty are wholly separate concepts, despite the two often being conflated with one another. Comprehensive difficulty refers to the factual information that must be understood and memorized to fully grasp an activity, whereas strategic difficulty is concerned with how that information can or should be applied. This might seem like a pointless distinction, as most games with high comprehensive difficulty have high strategic difficulty as well, and vice versa. However, there are several cases where comprehensive and strategic difficulty vary wildly from each other, in terms of both their severity and their effects on the player. For example, in the trading card game Yu-Gi-Oh!, there are over ten thousand different cards in total, which loads a massive amount of comprehensive difficulty onto a new player hoping to read and understand them all. However, in high level competitive play, only an extremely small percentage of these cards are regularly used, and the prevailing strategies in which they are employed tend to be somewhat linear. This means that mastering the comprehensive difficulty of Yu-Gi-Oh! is harder than mastering its strategic difficulty by a significant margin; the former demands memorization of thousands of different cards, whereas the latter only requires an understanding of roughly three or four common strategies. Compare this to games like chess and Go, whose everlasting popularity can, in part, be attributed to their combination of low comprehensive difficulty with high strategic difficulty, making them easy to understand for beginners and fascinatingly deep for veterans.


    An explanation of the strategically complex outcomes that can emerge from a single move in Go. Image from macworld.com.

    A high degree of strategic difficulty can often be a desirable trait for a game to have. This is because, unlike comprehensive and executive difficulty, there is rarely a point at which a game's strategic difficulty has been definitively mastered, which allows players to continuously enjoy the feeling of self-improvement for long periods of time. When a game's strategy has been inarguably perfected, it is referred to as a "solved game," and is often abandoned by serious competitors as a result (a prime example of a solved game would be checkers). Additionally, strategic difficulty often contributes more to a game's "skill ceiling," which refers to the maximum level of proficiency that a game allows its player to reach, than its "skill floor," which is the minimum level of proficiency required for a player to play the game as intended. This is because strategic difficulty is rarely recognized by those who do not yet have a solid understanding of the rest of the game. For example, a master Go player can see an almost infinite amount of different strategic sequences extending from a single action, but a beginner will only notice the piece being placed on the board. By emphasizing strategic over comprehensive difficulty, the true complexity of a game can be effectively "hidden" from new players, preventing them from feeling overwhelmed before they become invested.

    Strategic difficulty can also have some negative impacts as well, however. Many games achieve high levels of strategic difficulty by giving players a wide variety of different options, but if each of these options must be individually memorized and understood, then that tremendously inflates the game's comprehensive difficulty, which in turn inflates the game's skill floor. This is why games like Go, which are strategically difficult yet comprehensively easy, are so rare: It is incredibly challenging to design for strategic difficulty without also increasing comprehensive difficulty as well. Furthermore, strategic difficulty can also raise a game's skill floor all on its own, even without increasing the level of comprehensive difficulty. For example, in a strategically complex strategy game like StarCraft: Brood War, most new players will need a great deal of experience before they can understand when it is best to scout, expand, attack, or raise defenses, and until they have that ingrained understanding, they will fall so far beneath the skill floor that they might as well be playing a different game. Finally, due to the tendency that strategic difficulty has of raising the skill ceiling, it can be disadvantageous for multiplayer games that want their overall "skill gap" to remain low. These include party games like Mario Party, which are meant to be chaotic and exciting even when played by people of radically different skill levels, as well as games for young children such as Candy Land, whose low skill gaps ensure that parents do not defeat their children every time.

    It is important to note that virtually every activity has some degree of difficulty in all categories. While the difficulty of learning to speak a foreign language is mostly comprehensive, it also includes the executive difficulty of speech itself, which is a challenge for people with speech impediments. Likewise, even if the difficulty of powerlifting is mostly executive, it still contains the strategic difficulty of knowing which stances and exercises are best suited for improving one's performance. However, by specifying the various nuances between comprehensive, executive, and strategic difficulty, game designers can more accurately analyze how each of their benefits and drawbacks can apply to different types of players. Games require an immense amount of forethought and knowledge to make, so it is only suitable that we use equally precise forms of language to describe them.

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