Why Difficulty Settings are Bad Design

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.


“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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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40 thoughts on “Why Difficulty Settings are Bad Design

  1. Nope:/ My favorite games serie may be Metal Gear Solid, and they all have a diffuculty setting. Same thing for lots of FPS solo campaigns (CoD, Killzone, Halo…)

    I get your general point but I think it’s not so simple: this may be limited to certain genres of games but proposing several difficulty levels can be a cheap way to actually increase replay value of a game and so its length (especially if you need to beat the game in top difficulty to get all the achievements)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I forgot MGS used to have difficulty settings. They didn’t include any out of the gate in the latest entry, and I could have sworn part 4 didn’t have them, but I guess I was mistaken as it apparently does.


  2. you’re right, wrong, and neither at the same time – I don’t have a favorite game overall.
    I have favorite games within certain confined criteria.
    Favorite console game overall: Ocarina of Time ( indeed, no difficulty setting)
    Favorite Shooter game: Fallout: New Vegas ( Made by obsidian, not bethesda – but made FOR bethesda so… )
    Favorite PC Game overall: Don’t have one but Terraria is definitely top 10 material ( Not Beth but does have difficulty settings, both on a per-character and per-world basis (softcore, mediumcore, hardcore and normal/expert respectively)
    Favorite RPG: Again, too vague to pick one but Oblivion (beth), neverwinter nights (bioware, has difficulty settings), and various others fit in.

    In my case difficulty settings are pretty easy to deal with (from the perspective of picking one for my own enjoyment) – does it go harder? Set it to that.
    Too hard? Git gud skrub.
    Too easy? Modding time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In the end, I think games are capable of matching player skill without forcing players to self-regulate through menu options. A good game will give you opportunities to play it safe or take risks within the context of the game itself.


      1. naturally, but some difficulty options like whether or not you lose your progress or die permanently are better left as menu options for a reason.
        The vast majority of people do not enjoy such mechanics (or do they?) and the people who do enjoy them pretty much already know they do.

        In any case, it’s likely highly dependent on the game you’re making – some games are less feasible to make overall engaging than others (mario is a case of a game that’s relatively easy to make engaging for most players but to balance a game like fallout the same way would be weird, and it would allow any schmuck to run through the storyline and beat the final boss without too much challenge because even the most casual players must be able to beat it – this means that there’d be a very unusual challenge disparity between random world events and the final boss, for mario it works because you can hide stars behind clever trickjumps and other things that take additional skill – but for a game like fallout or TES it makes less sense (why is this faction so powerful? they could singlehandedly wipe out the daedra and the imperials for breakfast and still have time left over)

        Liked by 1 person

  3. How about strategy games where part of the challenge in games such as civ or xcom is progressing through the difficulty settings. I really don’t think your argument generalizes well at all.
    In fact I think a robust difficulty setting gives players the confidence to take on the correct level of challenge. For example, the game you site at the top, Wolfenstein The New Order. I played that on medium difficulty with the understanding it takes about 10 hours to play through the campaign. This number changes with difficulty setting!
    If I cannot change that setting then I won’t start the game. 10 hours is a lot, and 15 hours was more than I could spare.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s interesting that you bring up 15 hours being more than you could spare. Do you have a specific length of time you allot to complete each game? What happens when you go over the 15 hour mark? Do you just lose interest in playing it? Do you only have 15 hours per month/year to play games?

      I’m not trying to be facetious, but I’ve always thought that if you enjoy a game, you’ll keep playing it when you have time. Why the hard cut off?


  4. Starfox, and that wasn’t made by Bethesda and it had a difficulty setting, It goes to show how unqualified you are to write about this subject. Skyrim and fallout are well love games, no one and I mean no one has ever complained about the difficulty setting until you wrote this.


    1. Star Fox didn’t have difficulty settings. It had different paths through the game that were of varying difficulties, which is a great way to approach accessibility and one of the best examples I can think of to support my point.

      And Bethesda makes awesome games. I love Fallout and Skyrim, but I don’t think the difficulty settings add very much value to either. They skew towards accessibility, but sacrifice consistency in the process.

      Thanks for the response! Look forward to hearing more from you.


      1. They all led to the same path it still was a varying difficulty level to beat the game although somewhat obscure. It still is a difficulty setting. Just because you don’t think it is doesn’t make it so.

        You would be right about Bethesda if it was a constant idea in our minds to change the difficulty level whenever it was convenient but that is not the case at least not for hardcore gamers. They are not skewing consistency they are giving the player the options to skew the consistency of the game which is why most gamers will not change the difficulty level once they have set it. It doesn’t take away from anything it is giving the player the option of a challenge. I still fail to see why an inclusive gaming experience is a bad thing. It allows hard-core gamers to get a difficult challenge and casual players a simple experience to build off of. Complaining about difficulty levels is a nebulous concern.


      2. Well, Jeremy, the meaning of the word “setting” is pretty well defined and it does not typically extend to gameplay. You wouldn’t call a Hadoken a setting. You wouldn’t call walking in a specific direction a setting, so why would you consider Star Fox’s varying paths a setting?

        Also, I apologize, I didn’t know you were a hardcore gamer. This changes everything. but inclusive gaming experiences are not a bad thing. Having to self-regulate your experience to make it inclusive is.


      3. Go on. Play your symantics game and define “settings” for me why doesn’t it extend to gameplay? Isn’t that the entire nature of difficulty settings? To change gameplay? One of the first screens of Starfox is for you to pick what difficulty you want to play the game in that is a difficulty setting with stipulations, with varying levels depending on what you pick but it is still very much a difficulty setting. A Hadoukin is quite different than the difficulty settings in starfox so that is a false equivalency. Regulating your game experience or your challenges is not a bad thing it sounds like you’re just making stuff up so It can fit your narrative.


    2. I don’t like difficulty settings either, mainly because I don’t enjoy being curator of my own fun. Game’s feel the best when it’s balanced so perfectly that you just barely win, over and over again, you’re about to die and you find a save point and place to heal. Games in my top 10: Resident evil 4, Diablo 1/2, Shadow of the Colossus, Dark Souls. Most of these have new game+, but none of them have difficulty settings. My favorite game with a difficulty setting is most likely Mass Effect 1&2 but what I love about those games isn’t their gameplay, it’s the story, but had they been tuned better, my favorite thing could have been both.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great points. I agree that I always get frustrated when a game asks me to choose a difficulty when I have to reference as to what that will mean.

    A game that picks up on how good the player is and adjusts gameplay on the fly is usually a win, as well.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I think you are underestimating how utterly bad a completely new player can be at a game. I mean players, who might not even have played any games before. I want them to be able to enjoy my game as well, although they enjoy it for other reasons than the “pros”. You can still have a good time experiencing the story and admiring the graphics, while gimping around in easy mode.
    One of my all time favourite games are the two first Max Payne games (the third one should not have been made, at least they should not have called it “Max Payne). Those games do not only have a difficulty setting, but they even have an adjustable difficulty level, which sets the challenge of the enemy AI according to your performance. So you don’t actually “beat” the game, but it lets you win. Which is perfectly fine for a game like Max Payne (and Max Payne 2), since its main focus is Story and Style. Another favourite of mine, Neverwinter Nights, has a difficulty setting as well. I was first confused, since the difficulty setting actually changes some of the D&D 3rd Edition rules, which are the core of the game. On closer inspection, they removed some of the rules on lower difficulties, which are too complicated to understand or which could make the game feel random and unfair. Which is in itself good design. They also did changes in other parts of the D&D 3rd Edition rule set, which are borderline genius, and made this mess of an RPG system even somewhat balanced and playable. I even think, that they originally wanted to apply those “easy mode” rule changes to the game as a whole, but left it in as a “hard” difficulty setting for hardcore RPG players, who want the full original rule system at work.
    Serious Sam has a whole bunch of difficulty settings, which allow for several different play styles. You are a seasoned FPS veteran? Play on hard mode, the monsters won’t go down easily and you will have double the amount, which means more fun. Just want to scavenge for the manifold secrets hidden all over the maps? Choose tourist mode, effectively becoming invincible, and ignore the fights. Want to play with your friends and want the game to kick your ass as hard as it can, to see how far you can go? Crank the difficulty up all the way, and add some extra monsters as a special setting. It adds to the game and is anything but cheap. It was a lot of work to add those settings.
    Some games, like the Half Life series, even go as far as changing parts of the levels, like adding more traps or a different placement of enemies, like ambushes, on higher difficulty settings. This is great game design, since it also actually adds replay value. You know the game by heart on medium? Crank it up to hard, and get a nasty handful of surprises.
    I think you are wrong when you state, that difficulty settings are cheap and bad game design. As you said, games have to pass some kind of quality assurance, which costs time and money. So adding a difficulty setting almost doubles the effort needed to get the game right in every setting. Some game developer might just slap an adjustment to health and damage with higher difficulty settings, and this is indeed bad design. But those who actually know their craft won’t do that. They will try to actually make several games at once, just to give more players the opportunity to experience their game. Which is good design and kind of beautiful in my book.


  7. I agree and disagree. I hated that Diablo 3 did not have a proper difficulty setting from get go – the first playthrough for each class was always too easy, and single campaing per character was exactly what I wanted to do, not grind the levels over and over again. Quitted it for being boring. On contrast, really loved the Ori and The Blind Forest, but it did not have a diffuclty setting design that would’ve actually made the game easier. Gave up after a while – I’m after the experience, but won’t tolerate grinding same content over and over again.

    More open-ended and supportive of multiple playstyles and routes the game is, less the difficutly settings are needed. But they are justified straightforward games with one track and one solution requiring extreme dexterity and timing.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Well, it’s true that it sucks to set a difficulty at the start and not being able to change it afterwards. But for example, the new Doom allows you to change the difficulty at any time, and I think that’s great for more casual players like me.
    I played the entire game in ultra violence and there where 2 places where I just keep on dying , I don’t have that much time to play games, but I really wanted to beat it, so I lowered the difficulty in those 2 moments and I was able to cut the crap and continue with the game. That’s great, it was the first time I played a game with that option, and in my opinion it’s awesome.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m playing through doom right now add well, and it’s a blast. Some parts are really hard and I get stuck on something pretty much every time I play.

      It’s interesting to me that you see it the way you do. I think it’s a very relative and personal thing. You like it because it allowed you to bypass its own game rules in favor of progress. I find it inconsistent because it doesn’t seem like it should have to resort to that, but with a game like Doom, there’s not too many different things to try, you just hop around until you’ve killed everything.

      If I may ask, why not play on am easier setting from the start?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Truth is that I don’t have enough time to get good at the game, so I like to be able to “soft skip” some places that are giving me a hard time. I don’t play it in lower difficulties because I get bored, it’s like “ultra violence” feels right to me, but there where two places that where too small and I couldn’t beat it, I guess it has to do with my playing style, I was finding myself stuck in the area and then slaughter as an easy target.

        But I like to complete games, so this way is more fun than just picking a lower difficulty and flying through the levels to the end. Which is what I used to do in order to not get stuck at further levels with other games that made you pick the difficulty at the start


      2. Yea, that makes sense. This probably warrants a larger discussion, but I’ve always been fascinated by the inherent value of game content and gameplay. On the one hand you can look at it like a story you buy, own and feel like it is within your right of ownership to complete on your own terms. On the other hand a game is a strict set of rules and when you buy it, you’re paying primarily for said rules. In this view, the ability to break those rules constitutes a less valuable product.

        It’s an interesting topic for sure.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I have to disagree with the prime sentiment of the article and the supporting evidence, though I do ask for clarification on two points.

    First, when you are talking about difficulty, what are you actually referring to? The ability of the player to master the mechanics of the game or the amount of challenge that a player of x skill level experiences?

    Second, when bringing up examples of “good” difficulty in games, a la Nintendo games, why is there the supposition that a less forgiving player-mistake-wise design, i.e. Super Mario 64, is superior to Wolfenstein: The New Order? Is it nostalgia or is there something that I missed in the latest in the Wolfenstein series?

    As for your question as to Favorite Game, mine is Dragon Age: Origins, which is neither a Bethesda game nor lacking in difficulty settings.

    And to interject myself in your previous comment to the gamer that doesn’t have 15 hours to devote to a game, I do have to point out that there are numerous reasons that might be the case. There are work schedules, other entertainment avenues, familial and social responsibilities, et cetra. All of these things can seriously remove one from a game. And if you stay away from something for long enough, it’s difficult if not impossible to get back into it.

    To share from my personal experience with that, last year I was incredibly excited to play Dragon Age: Inquisition. Unfortunately, immediately after I got it and started playing on Nightmare, my work schedule became incredibly demanding and I began to work more earnestly on my book. After two months, I’d clocked over forty hours in the game, but every time I went back to it, I was less interested because I had forgotten some of the things that had made me excited just a few weeks prior. Eventually, I simply stopped playing it. And, while my work schedule is not as demanding anymore, I can’t easily get back into the game, having only clocked sixty hours total in a year.

    All this is to say that demanding or expecting that all player can or should give as much attention as they want to any given game is a bit overbearing to say the least.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your insightful comment.

      When speaking about difficulty, I’m being fairly general, so either of your definitions, and likely a few more, could apply. Ideally you want players to feel engaged in the tasks they undertake which means having enough but not too much challenge for their relative skill, typically.

      Comparing Mario to new order, I can certainly say both games are fantastic and well made. In regards to my argument, I favor Mario for allowing players to choose their level of risk and/or challenge organically from within the game. Using the castle as a way to make decisions about not just the difficulty, but the nature of the challenge itself is much more immersive and compelling than fiddling with menus external to the game.


  10. As a game designer, I agree with this sentiment (although my fave games do all seem to have difficulty settings). What’s worse, in my humble opinion, was the trend a while ago with ‘adaptive difficulty’. On the face of it, it seems like a good idea – “it’ll change itself to match your skill”… In reality, you end up letting a difficult boss kick your face off a few times so he lowers his skill level. I hate those games because the rules and framework are changing all the time and instead of making it more engaging, it’s patronising and robs you of any sense of achievement. Layered games, like the ones you mentioned, are great but I think that overall, regardless of how devs handle difficulty, it’s something that needs very careful consideration.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I think it’s a very valid point. The main thing is games should not be giving you options you don’t understand yet. Easy – Normal – Hardcore – Legendary – Insane… ? Until you’ve played it, you don’t know. I sit there on the selection screen… “Well, I’ve played games for 35 years… I make games for a living… Does that make me insane or just hardcore? What achievements will I get? Will I miss stuff if I choose easy? Will I get frustrated because I want to play this one for the story. Will it be paced correctly?” – because I’m sitting there, thinking this, it’s technically bad design. I’m not having fun and I’m going into it with concerns and unknowns in my mind. It’s worse with class selection. “Do you want to be a Hunter, a Mage or a Nightwatch?” – no idea.

    Now, while these aren’t the most important life decisions, the fact that you have to make them without the required information is bad game design.

    Some games, it’s fine! I’ve worked on loads of games that have difficulty selection and it works perfectly (Guitar Hero, DJ Hero and even my current project has them) but it’s about how they’re presented. I do think they’re overused.

    Interestingly, the previous game I made had ‘easy’, ‘medium’ and ‘hard’. No one ever chose ‘easy’ because it was beneath them, even if they struggled like hell with ‘medium’. Changed it to ‘normal’, ‘hard’ and ‘master’ and it was fine.🙂


    1. I do like when games start with normal rather than easy. I don’t think many people want things easy, necessarily, they just don’t want them to be too difficult.


  12. Great post, Maxx! I have to say I’ve never thought about difficulty levels. I spend so much time playing Doom and Quake that I’ve never stopped to reflect how satisfying a well-balanced, single-difficulty game experience is.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m playing through doom right now and loving it. A game like Doom absolutely benefits from those settings in terms of accessibility. My – perhaps idealistic – view is that forcing players to repeat the same part of a game over and over for lack of a specific skill is a dated design approach. For a throwback like Doom though, it’s a must have.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Hello. I can’t fully agree. Two out of three of my favorite games (Civilization and Deus Ex) have difficulty level selection in the beginning. What is more, possibility to play game one more time on “Realistic” in Deus Ex had a huge positive impact on my overall playing experience. Another example is Hitman Contracts – beating all contracts with top results would not be the same if “Professional” difficulty level was not set.

    All in all, I think that this issue cannot be generalized, as for some games (and for some players) it will work, while for some other games (and other players) it will not. I could agree that in most cases there would be no point in adding difficulty level selection in mobile games, as they are designed to be started immediately and they often target casual players. But for more complex games and more “hardcore” players who often perceive playing games with very competitive approach, taking away the opportunity to boast about beating the game on hardest level might be a bad idea.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You have a good taste in games. You’re right, if course, that it can’t be generalized, but there are some general principals about design that we can take away from analyzing this development decision.

      I actually lament that the new hitman lacks difficulty settings, but for games like fallout, where anything should be possible, having difficulty settings (imo) detracts from the open ended nature of the game. If you dislike combat, you should be able to avoid it in the game and resolve situations using other means. I don’t think that making combat stupidly easy is a good solution to circumventing it.


  14. You know, as a game player, I’m easy to please: just make the game controls tight, give me an incentive to keep playing, and don’t make it too easy. Every single time I’ve ever resorted to a cheat code or flaw to make my experience easier (or the game allows me to achieve an insane skill level-to-foe ratio) I’ve quickly lost interest in the game. I’ve learned that once a (typical) videogame loses the aspect of fear of well-being for your character, it becomes uninteresting to me. The latest Zelda games, for example, have been ridiculously easy, and I wish that there were some way of increasing that. However, there have been times when a game has levels that become frustrating in their difficulty (thankfully, that’s many times due to bad or unfair game design, so I can blame the creator) and I’ve wished the game would recognize my struggle and give me a little leeway once in a while.

    So I can see where Maxx is coming from. As a game designer, I really would prefer to have one, singular experience that allows the player to grow with the game’s difficulty… it’s the goal of the perfect game experience, isn’t it?

    I like the idea of “adaptive” skill-level, even though as madfellows has pointed out, if it’s poorly conceptualized, it can create a sense of disappointment if you believe that a victory has been handed to you because you were sucking up to that point. A properly adaptive skill-level should perhaps be enemy-specific, and maybe give you some more lee-way such as: exposing weak points just a bit longer, reducing occurrences of hp-flattening attacks, dropping a couple more health or ammo drops, and how about if it knows you’ve faced off against this guy more than x times and it sees that you’re *really* close to defeating him and your health or ammo or whatever is low, that it just gives you a tiny bit of a break. I’ve created a boss fight where there are obstacles that protect the player, but the player has the option of destroying the obstacles (the enemies cannot, it’s hardened on the other side of the obstacle) so that they: a) can get more fields of fire and b) increase the difficulty level as there’s now no place to hide.

    I don’t want to make this TL;DR so I’ll end it at: unless you’re targeting a specific market (e.g., bulleth hell shmupgods) it’s always a good idea to try to make your game fun for all skill levels, regardless of how you end up doing that.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Interesting thoughts. I’m not sure I agree in all cases, but I can appreciate the design of difficulty into the game, a la mario 64.

    My favorite game of all time is The Witcher 3, which has several difficulty levels, and interestingly they kind of change how you have to play the game… on the easiest setting running up to a group of drowners (a basic enemy) and swinging the sword around (even the wrong sword) will generally be succesful, whereas on the hardest difficulty you have to know something about witchers (silver swords are used for magical beasts) the monster type (undead – apply necrophage oil to blade) and drowners specifically (weak to fire – use igni sign) to have a chance at success, and not behaving bu the lore-established rules is often a recipe for disaster.

    In that sense the difficulty level also has a tinge of “how in-character do you want to be?” Along-side the “how difficult do you want this to be?” question. I’m not really making a judgment that is a positive or negative in this case, but I’m interested what you and other people think of this example.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Believe me, I’m all about replayability. If the game has a new game plus mode or additional difficulties or challenges to get you to experience the game in a new way, that is fantastic game design. I just don’t think offering them at the start has as much value. I suspect most hardcore players would rather unlock a harder setting at the end rather than realizing the game doesn’t get any harder.

      The combat in the Witcher has improved leaps and bounds since the first entry and it would be upsetting for someone to hate it for being so unforgiving at times. I don’t really know what the best approach is, though. My instinct is to say that a game as varied and flexible as the Witcher should be able to give any players way to succeed, but it’s also very combat heavy and that does tend to form a bottleneck.


  16. An compelling argument in favour of configurable difficulty, especially being able to adjust difficulty mid-session – disabled gamers who are physically unable to play at the default balance. Configuration allows them to take part when they would otherwise be excluded.



    ‘Difficulty’ is a blunt instrument however, what a difficultly setting does it change a wide range of parameters. If you can expose those individual parameters, players can adapt the game much more closely to their needs, allowing more and more people to have an enjoyably experience, allowing more people to have an experience that is closer to the designer’s vision, feeling the kind of things the designer intended them to feel.

    Personally I’ve worked on games intended for mass market but inclusively designed for PMLD preschool kids (often a combination of low functioning autism and cerebral palsy). I saw first hand examples of these children and their families’ lives being completely changed in an instant by gaming. But all of their needs and abilities are different, unique. The only way that those profoundly life changing effects were able to be felt was due to the difficulty being highly configurable to suit each child’s needs.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. This article is really interesting, but I think it approaches games with a limited scope. When playing a game like Dance Dance Revolution (are most any rhythm game, really), difficulty settings are key the game’s experience, allure, and focus. Additionally, I think that difficulty settings in many games allow players to see their climb up the heuristics tree and actualize their goals.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I just completely love all games from the wolfenstein series, but overall it’s fps single or multiplayer games I like.

    But I think the difficulty settings are good, because in the beginning I used to play “can I play daddy?” and now I play on “I’m death incarnate” all the time. Pretty simple…

    And I don’t know how different challenges like in super Mario can be implemented in first person shooters…

    Liked by 1 person

  19. The doom reboot was more fun for me on ultraviolence but I wouldn’t suggest making it the default difficulty.


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