Thoughts on Design: Approaching Difficulty

by Dr Taliesin Coward

Having multiple difficulty levels is a common feature of video games, and has been for decades. These allow the player to tailor to their individual preference just how hard the game is. Too easy, and the game may become dull. Too hard, and frustration abounds. Neither a desirable outcome for something which lives or dies on how entertaining and enjoyable players perceive it to be.

A quick search on the internet will reveal many different discussions on game difficulty, revolving around concepts of player experiences vs developer intent, what the ‘correct’ or ‘legitimate’ way to play the game is, why multiple difficulty levels are a feature of sloppy design and aren’t really fun, why dynamic difficulty is undesirable, and so on. This article does not propose to address any of this. Rather, it aims to provide a brief, thought-provoking look at two extremely different approaches to game difficulty: increasing the challenge of any given encounter, versus increasing complexity. These different approaches are highlighted by The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and a large swathe of id Software’s early games such as Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, and DOOM.

Difficulty in Skyrim is governed by two interlocking systems. The first of these is a dynamic difficulty system that is tied to the player’s character’s level, and for the most part outside their direct control (except by the player choosing when or how quickly to ‘level up’). This is the ‘scaled’ enemy system: certain classes of enemies, such as Elder Dragons, will only appear in the game once the player has increased the level of their character to a point where they should be able to defeat them. This system tries to ensure that the game presents a more-or-less consistent challenge to players.

Just how hard this challenge actually is, however, is controlled by the second system: a ‘difficulty-slider’ that players have access to at any point in the game, including mid-combat, to choose between six difficulty levels. The main – and nearly only – effect of these settings is to modify the amount of damage dealt by the player to foes, and the amount they receive. For example, on ‘Adept’, the damage players deal and receive is unmodified from their base statistics. On ‘Novice’ difficulty, damage players deal is doubled, while incoming damage is halved. At the other end of the scale, ‘Legendary’ difficulty, players deal only a quarter of their usual damage, whilst enemies inflict three times as much. This approach to difficulty levels essentially changes the margins allowed for player error, and the likelihood of errors being committed by controlling how long any one fight takes.

In short, this allows one to tinker with the game’s balance. In the case of Skyrim, it also helps negate a potentially fatal flaw with the game’s design: it is possible for players to level-up by focussing on non-combat skills such as speech-craft, stealth, healing spells, potion making and smithing. Players who do this will inevitably find themselves outclassed by the increasingly powerful foes that the game spawns – ultimately ‘breaking’ the game. Allowing the player to tinker with the amount of base damage dealt and received – so that they can give themselves a fighting chance – circumvents this problem.

This approach to difficulty – tinkering with the base number of damage dealt and received – is widespread and can allow players find the ‘sweet spot’, as far as an enjoyable challenge goes. X-Com 2 tinkers with the statistics which determine how likely you are to hit or be hit, Warhammer 40,000: Inquisition - Martyr modifies how much damage you deal and receive, and so on. However, there are some drawbacks it pays to be aware of. Firstly, and especially in more visually driven games, it can break immersion. Ramping up the difficulty in Skyrim can cause an uncomfortable feeling of dissonance: no matter what the underlying statistics say, your eyes and imagination tell you no wolf should still be standing with several arrows sticking out of its head. The other problem is to do with balance, especially if it’s linked to a scaled enemy system as it is in Skyrim. As Skyrim’s scaled enemies keep all enemy encounters roughly at the same challenge level, outside of the ‘high-level-but-low-combat-skill-character’, modifying damage will often result in players feeling always too powerful, or too weak.

A more considered take on this approach can be seen in Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. Firstly, while increasing the difficulty level does increase the amount of damage the player will receive, it does not decrease the amount of damage they do. Also, at higher difficulty levels, opponents are more aggressive and will attack more quickly and more often, and the timing-window for players to execute a perfect parry is made smaller. In this instance, the developers have figured out what the main challenge in combat is (precise timing under pressure) and used the difficutly to make this even more challenging.

An alternate approach is to wildly change the nature of the challenge facing players. This approach was a favourite of id Software. In Commander Keen, for example, the three difficultly levels affected movement, available ammunition, and quantity and type of enemies. On easy difficulty, Keen can jump higher and further with more player control than on normal or hard; ammunition pick-ups also grant twice as much ammo as on other settings, and there are only a handful of easy foes. For example, on easy difficulty foes for first level of Commander Keen Episode V: The Armageddon Machine consist of three Sparkies and two little Amptons. On hard (as well as a trap being activated), foes consisted of seven Sparkies, six Little Amptons, and an invincible Sphereful (a big, floating orb which gradually moves towards Keen and kills him if it makes contact).

A similar approach, though taken to an extreme, can be seen in id’s later games Wolfenstein 3D and especially 1993’s DOOM. In the first level of DOOM (‘Hanger’, or E1M1), foes on the easiest settings consist of two Former Humans (low level, pistol-wielding foes) and two imps (equally low level fireball-slinging demons). Foes only inflict half-damage. Change the difficulty to the second hardest setting, however, and foes now consist of nine Former Humans, sixteen shotgun-wielding (and dangerous) Former Human Sergeants, and four imps. Foes now inflict full damage, are more aggressive, move faster and fire faster projectiles. On the highest difficulty setting (‘Nightmare’ mode), one other trick is thrown into the mix: after a short delay, enemies that have been killed respawn.

While both DOOM and Wolfenstein 3D do tinker with damage levels to a limited degree, the overwhelming emphasis in these games and the Commander Keen series is on complexity. The higher the difficulty level, the more complex the scenarios players encounter, and the more skill they will need in order to overcome them (whether it’s accurate aiming, fast tactical thinking, or a precise handling of the controls). It also encourages gamers to reply, as the experience on harder difficulties can be totally diffferent. The downside of this is, of course, that it takes longer to implement and creates extra work which players will never encounter if they don’t try the harder levels (for example, in each DOOM map there are enemy spawn points which only become activated on higher difficulty levels).

Ultimately, the differences in approach boil down to whether the designers are aiming to vary the level of challenge by changing the difficulty of an encounter through changing damage dealt and received, or changing the encounter itself by replacing it with scenarios of differing complexity. For designers, an awareness of these approaches, how they can be blended and their pros and cons can only help in their craft. For gamers, it can help explain our own preferences and why we will happily tinker with the difficulty settings in some games, and in others simply leave the settings alone. ■ 

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