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Why Difficulty Settings Are Bad Design: The Fallout


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A few weeks ago I wrote an article about difficulty settings in video games being bad design, and oh boy, were people upset! Were my views overgeneralized? Sure. Are my opinions relentlessly idealistic? Absolutely! Was the title clickbait? Click here to find out! However, despite the pitchfork-wielding masses, I am legitimately invested in this discussion and intend to keep it moving forward.

With that in mind, and in the interest of this being a discussion rather than a sermon, I want to turn the stage over to the various comments I've received. Some of these come from exceptionally intelligent readers whose insights have allowed me to rethink some of my own views on the topic, while others don't.

Note: I'll be using excerpts from some of these comments and paraphrasing, when necessary. If I'm misrepresenting something you've said or overgeneralizing, please let me know. Now let's get to it!

 

"You're overgeneralizing."

"Pointless article, trying to make a general rule for each and every game out there."

"Absolute statements like 'x is bad' or 'x is good' are rarely true in game design. Game design is so complex that every design needs its own individual design philosophy that is separate from what articles on the internet say is good or bad design."

"I'd like to write a 'Why seeing in black and white is bad' article, but that would be a bit too ironic. I think it simply depends."

"Personally, I disagree. I think it matters ENTIRELY on what the game is trying to do."

"I think, the author is overthinking this. Difficulty settings are a good way of giving a wider audience access to your game."

"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."

"It really depends on the game, some benefit from difficulty settings and some don't."

"While I can understand that difficulty settings can be rather poorly implemented, suggesting that Nintendo is a good counter argument and that all difficulty settings are bad design is a stupid idea."

"Apples and oranges are not the same and an entire article will not make them the same. Comparing platformers with strat or FPS for how they handle difficulty ratings is fucking retarded."

 

"Totally agree with you! JK."

"Throw this one in the pile of forgettable 'hipsters try to introduce post-modernism into video game mechanics and it falls upon critical analysis' articles."

"That's a load of poppycock! Of course you need difficulty settings."

"I'm not sure if he's trying to make one consistent argument, or many at once. Each of his points are like sloppy patch jobs on the previous one's holes."

"First games are too easy and then too hard and then when game devs give them a choice they bitch and moan. The writer is acting as if there is some magic difficulty level that will please everyone. Which is bullshit. I feel like we are dealing with whiny children who are gonna throw a tantrum no matter what. They don't want anything specific except attention."

"In what capacity is the author a developer exactly?"

"Reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeetaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaard."

 

"What about people with disabilities?"

"What about the player with motoric problems who just cannot move his hands as quick as a healthy person? What about the player with visual impairments (i.e. near blindness). Then you play with a handicap, and easier difficulty settings allow you to at least be even capable of playing the game - instead of missing out."

"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."

"My brother is special needs, but he loves his video games. He tries to play the games on a hard difficulty, but sometimes the difficulty proves to be too much for him. So having the option to choose to play on an easier setting allows him to play and finish the video game."

 

"What about automated difficulty?"

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

"In the real world it's pretty near impossible to build in self-leveling systems (which are nearly always subject to 'gaming' anyway)."

"I'd have to disagree with this guy on most things, difficulty levels SHOULD be in games. But, the example to look at would be the original far cry game which had the adjustable tick-box next to it, where depending upon your performance difficulty was scaled."

"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 patronizing and robs you of any sense of achievement."

"I like the idea of 'adaptive' skill-level, even though 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."

 

 


Response


"You're overgeneralizing."

You're right, but my editor told me, "Why difficulty settings are sometimes a bad design decision for some games" wasn't a good title. The truth is, I would love to talk about how difficulty settings affect every genre of game and how different of an effect they have on each, but it wasn't a broad enough way to start the topic. There's never going to be a universally bad design that is also widely popular, right?

"What about people with disabilities?"

I am not disabled, nor do I know any gamers that are, so take my thoughts with a grain of salt. It would absolutely suck to not be able to play because of a disability, but I don't think the issue here is with the video games. Instead, I think the issue lies with the input devices used. For gamers with disabilities right now is basically the dark age of interactive entertainment, but things are slowly moving in a better direction. If you're missing your right hand, standard controllers probably won't work for you, but finding something that will is more of a reality now than ever before.

Did you know we have controllers that will literally read your mind? Seriously! Mind helmets exist and are real! The technology isn't perfect, but it's evolved enough to where consumers can get it at a reasonable price (reasonable for something that literally reads your mind). 3D printing, universal serial bus APIs, computers small enough to wear and other modern advances are culminating in a DIY tech and engineering culture where creating new devices to meet specific needs isn't all that prohibitive. In my opinion, finding a controller that works for you will be far more rewarding than playing a dumbed down version of the game with a controller that doesn't.

"What about automated difficulty?"

This is an intriguing idea I've been mulling over for a while now. On the one hand it seems like there should be some way of doing automated difficulty right, but I can never really come up with a way that doesn't involve the use of the aforementioned mind helmet constantly sensing what the player is feeling and altering the game on the fly based on that data.

For non mind reading approaches, I think it comes down to whether the player knows that the difficulty has changed because of his or her actions. The moment you break that illusion, you have a player who is aware that he or she has control over the entire game. This can feel defeating to them because the player loses incentive to do well in the game, plus hiding critical information like this can make players feel cheated or lied to on some level.

That said, there was an alternative way to manage difficulty levels without automation or settings, but only a few games ever utilized it... the difficulty test. I think Modern Warfare did this at one point, but Matrix: Path of Neo (PS2) is the best example I can point to.

The game begins in the infamous elevator lobby scene from the first movie. Starting at the most memorable part of the movie is engaging and exactly the kind of Matrixy thing you already wanted to do when you got the game. You begin by walking up to the elevator, where a lone security guard steps out and tries to take you down. From there, the difficulty of the game ratchets up in accordance with the number of  (increasingly difficult) enemies you wire-kung fu to death. You potentially end up fighting security guards, police, SWAT and even agents, all before the second loading screen. 

While the game still asks if you want to lower the difficulty setting after that, it never lets you set it higher without passing this test first. By performing a vertical slice of the game's combat right at the start, both the player and game know where the other stands from the beginning. Of course that won't work for all games and there are some issues with this approach in general, but I greatly prefer the difficulty test to standard difficulty setting.



End Response



I certainly received quite a lot more feedback that  I couldn't fit into this article. I'll be addressing your other responses in a second part of this post where we'll look at feedback about "why" you play, people telling me about Dark Souls being exceptional, and others. Plus, someone calls me an idiot and my feelings are subsequently hurt, so stay tuned!

In the meantime, we're still collecting data to help us understand art and how it fits in with our world of gaming from the previous article. 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!

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Until next time!

 

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Maxx Golbraykh

Video game fan and indie developer. I love discussing game theory, design, mechanics and anything tangentially game related. Currently working on #HappyChess.

8 Comments

  1. I agree.

    I think the most common objection to removing difficulty settings is that it makes the game inaccessible. We seem to be stuck in the mindset that failure must mean repetition and repeated failure must mean getting stuck. As it currently stands, this does apply to over 95% of games, but I don’t think it has to be a hard rule.

    To me, the best games are ones where failure is meaningful (or even fun/funny). Games like XCom where failure in a mission doesn’t mean you have to start over, but rather accommodate for the situation. Games like Heavy Rain where failure flows neatly into the evolving narrative. Games like Skate where failure means hilarious slapstick bails.

    These are a few examples, but I think the idea is largely unexplored. I’d like to see developers try and move away from the fail/repeat paradigm and embrace a more flowing nature to game development. One which would no longer require difficulty settings as an afterthought solution to accessibility.

  2. there are some types of games for which difficulty settings offer more punishment than reward, and simply slap an HOURS PLAYED tax on the player.

    but there are also MANY for which it works like a charm. a game like Bayonetta or Diablo 3 would be almost worthless without a difficulty setting. many games gradually coax the player into mastery with solid gameplay, then offer a repeat playthrough at higher level for more rewards and that is great.

    so yes, long story short the article was 90% clickbait. but this is 2016. EVERYTHING is clickbait, our “news” is smeared across the world from PC Gamer to Vox to NYT and often they’re all talking about the same things. It’s absurd.

    bottom line, not every game will work for every gamer. thank God there are literally 100s of thousands to choose from. Game on!

    1. I’m actually all for the New Game+ approach. I think that does a good job of offering up additional challenge without presenting players with uninformed choices.

      As for the article being clickbait, it wasn’t intended that way (unlike some other articles I’ve written on here). I honestly feel that difficulty settings in many many games are overused and unnecessary.

      Like I said in the article, I think Nintendo has already demonstrated time and again that lack of difficulty settings doesn’t have to mean the game is boringly simple or unplayably difficult. There’s far more interesting ways to implement challenge and accessibility.

      1. Sadly competition for attention has resulted in even global news quickly becoming clickbait, and i don’t see that trend reversing any time soon. when it comes to gaming i’d define clickbait as something most gamers will perceive as inflammatory or an attack on gaming (the title by itself communicates something along the lines of “games are too difficult and i feel bad when i can’t do the harder levels”). the most idiotic clickbait article i’ve ever read on gaming was that 2015 piece about the word “gamer” being sexist. i’d say yours is Nobel scholarship by comparison.

        Anyway I agree there are many types of games where a difficulty setting is totally superfluous. but there are also many that are not. games which require twitch skills such as dodging or memorizing fight combos MUST have difficulty settings, but a puzzle hunting platformer may be wise to avoid them.

  3. Was the title clickbait? Click here to find out!
    I totally lolled all over myself.

    It’s amazing how willingly people will say the most awful things via message boards. I’ve gotten it too, but I think you got it worse. But hey — if nothing else, you got a hell of a conversation started.

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