Everyone plays games differently. Players of all skill levels enjoy games, and as a developer you need to keep that in mind to make sure your lower skill players aren't frustrated while your higher skill players aren't bored.

"Simple, just add a difficulty setting select and let them figure out how much challenge they want."

No. This is bad and lazy design.

Asking the player to choose the appropriate amount of challenge for themselves before even starting the game is like asking a person going on a blind date to get married. It's a major commitment based on very little information that they're going to need to live with for the rest of game. This is a developer telling their fan base that balancing is for the birds, baby. If you find the game to be too easy or too hard, it's your own fault for not choosing the appropriate difficulty.

Why Difficulty Settings are Bad Design

"Ok, maybe just let them change the difficulty whenever they want during the game. Then it's guaranteed to fit their preference!"

Oh lord, no. Bethesda, you make fantastic games, but why do you consistently feel the need do this? I've always said that good game design is about giving players interesting choices, but allowing players to control the difficulty of the game world at all times undercuts the entire point of unlocking better weapons, items, armor, etc. It is the opposite of an interesting choice. Why bother improving your character when the best weapon in the game is right there in the main menu?

Games are intended to be challenges of sorts. The idea is to enable players to develop the skills they need to enjoy your game to the fullest, not to give them ways to circumvent that enjoyment. If your goal is to immerse the player in your game world, giving them menu options to change the rules of that entire world on a whim is going to have the opposite effect. Even if those menu options are never touched by the player, simply knowing they exist breaks a part of the immersion because the entire experience hinges on menu options and not anything consistent with the game world.

Why Difficulty Settings are Bad Design

War. War never changes. Unless you set war to Very Easy, then it changes dramatically.

"But if there's no easy mode, people new to video games won't be able to play!"

Consider that there is one huge category of games that have been consistently successful, accessible to everyone, challenging to master and have never had difficulty settings. That category of games are, of course, Nintendo games. Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong, Metroid, Star Fox (mostly), I could probably go on. All of these franchises were applauded by people who love a challenge as well as those looking for something accessible to play and each time they've done it without resorting to making their players choose arbitrary challenge settings from a menu.

The trick to Nintendo's success with this is the same one games like Dark Souls employ today. These games allow the player to choose their own levels of risks and rewards within the game. Let's take Mario 64 as an example. The game only requires you to collect 70 stars (ie beat 70 challenges) in order to complete the game. This is something most players are capable of. There are 120 challenges total, so allowing players to pick the challenges they find most appealing is both interesting for the player to do and accessible. For those that want more of a challenge, collecting all 120 stars is no easy task. In this design, Mario 64 succeeds in pleasing both types of players without fracturing their game into multiple versions.

Why Difficulty Settings are Bad Design

This isn't even medium hard.

"It's just an option, having more options is never bad. If you don't like it, just ignore it. It won't make playing the game on your difficulty any less enjoyable for you!"

The idea that adding options to a game all nilly-willy automatically makes it better is pretty laughable. Games are a very carefully balanced set of options and choices where every small change carries an impact on the entire experience. Stating that creating an alternate version of the game that is easier doesn't affect the game as a whole is pretty easy to disprove.

First, consider that testing and quality assurance takes time and resources. Testing different difficulties in a game can effectively double or triple that effort. This is time and resources potentially taken away from other areas of the finished product. Second, there is a matter of consistency and solidarity. If you're setting out to make the Mona Lisa of video games, you don't want to create five different versions of it to account for everyone's preferences. You want your work to be cohesive and presented evenly to everyone taking part in it. Finally, having difficulty settings allows players to adjust the risk, often without adjusting the reward to match. From a design perspective, this is effectively game breaking.

There is something intangibly enjoyable about a cohesive gaming experience that isn't qualified by the difficulty it's set to. This is admittedly a subject I'm still trying to wrap my brain around, but it has something to do with the value of unique experiences and uniformity of a challenge. I will almost certainly come back to write more about this specific topic in detail once I do a little soul searching on why it does matter so much.

Why Difficulty Settings are Bad Design

Oh games, why art thou maketh me ponder so very deeply?!

"Are there any games where adding a difficulty setting is appropriate?"

Absolutely. While there's no conclusive formula for this kind of thing, I would say that any game that can be played through in about an hour or where the reward matches the risk is acceptable. Fighting games, sports games, Pixel Galaxy, games where rating are given out for each level individually, games where the ending is based around the difficulty chosen are all good and well. The difference is that the fragmentation of experience in these examples serves the overall game. Each difficulty is intended as part of the whole rather than just a version of it.

Why Difficulty Settings are Bad Design

Difficulty? We don't even have an arcade mode.

"You know, some people just want to enjoy games without having to develop skills or be challenged. Are you saying catering to those people is bad design?"

In a way yes, but not exactly. There are plenty of people who enjoy Michael Bay's Transformer movies. They're hollow on plot and character development, but they have lots of action and visual effects, which people like. Should we ban Transformer movies because they're not all Citizen Kane? No, of course not. I just think as a new and developing medium, we can aspire to greater heights. We can create uniform games with difficulty curves that challenge great players while simultaneously allowing newcomers to flourish and develop.

Why Difficulty Settings are Bad Design

Here's a picture of Michael Bay wrangling a transformer with his bare hands for our entertainment. What a brave soul!!

Let's try an experiment! Name your favorite game and I'm willing to bet that it either:

  1. Doesn't have a difficulty setting.
  2. Is made by Bethesda.

Am I wrong? If so, let me know in the comments below and make sure to include the game you were thinking about. Maybe I'm completely off base with this, but I think I'm on to something.


We're Still Collecting Data!

We're still collecting data to help us understand the definition of art and how it fits in with our world of gaming from the previous article. This short set of questions will be used to formulate insights into how we see art, artists and audiences. We will be doing lots of cross analysis and making neat graphs for future articles based on the findings. We hope you can be a part of that!