The Difficulty of Game Difficulties

Video games are the only medium that require a skill check to reach the end of a work. You can always skip to the end of a book, or skip scenes in a movie, or the annoying guitar solo of a song. In games, there is rarely a way to actually skip the bad parts or the parts you are just not able to finish. This is the gist of a comparison comedian Dara O’Briain made a long time ago and that people in games have not stopped referencing ever since.

The decision to let players skip content or enjoy an easier difficulty is not as clear-cut or as easy to implement as people might hope. It’s a mix of design, marketing, target audience, time and general purchasing attitudes. I had the weird fortune of working on games that let players pay money to effectively skip content, that let players who bought full games skip content for free and am now working in the AAA space where neither is that common.

The games I worked on that let players skip any challenge they didn’t like were Hidden Object games. For those unfamiliar, it’s a genre of point-and-click adventure games where you find items across pretty 2D scenes and try to figure out their use like you would in the old LucasArts adventure games. Occasionally, you would find a “hidden object scene”, where you would rummage through a very cluttered screen trying to find several very specific objects. Finally, there were “minigames”, or puzzles as we called them internally. These could be anything, but are generally most comparable to old survial horror game puzzles in terms of complexity and input.

The Skip/Hint feature in these games had two roles: tell you where the next item was, or if there was no item, which of your current ones you needed to use or combine. If you were in a hidden object scene, it would show you something from the list you hadn’t found yet. If you were in a puzzle, it would skip it entirely. You’re probably thinking the main reason for this is the casual target audience of the games, which were all but officially referred to as middle-aged women (alhtough all sorts of people play HO games). This is only partially true. If someone bought your HO game, you wanted to be sure they could finish it. The culture surrounding these games is its own and shares very little with the mainstream gaming audience (even though there are thousands upon thousands of HO games on the Big Fish store). One of the attitudes is genuinely “if I bought this, I should be able to see this to the end”.

Now, the Skip/Hint function is really only a band-aid solution. In an ideal world, your item interactions would slowly build up a way of thinking for the player. Then the puzzles would capitalize on that way of thinking into a seamless experience that blends with the narrative. Sadly, HO games have a development cycle of 5-8 months and I have worked on 10 of them in the span of 6 months. It is impossible to design that many games at such a high quality. That means that there will be item interactions that might not be obvious. There will be puzzles that just block the player’s progress and force them to use the hint system. Especially with something as hard to gauge the difficulty of as logic puzzles.

However, even with the Skip/Hint ability, you did not get a freebie in how you designed the game. It was there in case of an oversight or edge cases where a particular player had a bad day or just missed something. Whenever you clicked on a possible in-game interaction, there was flavor text with a hint of what you should do. For example, if you tried to open a door, instead of saying “This door is stuck” you could say “This door is rusted shut” and the immediate response from the player would be “It’s rusty, I need to oil it up”. Little subtle sparkles would indicate items you could pick up in a busy screen, while puzzles were not allowed to require fast reflexes or arcade-like elements. You also weren’t allowed to clutter the inventory with too many items at any time in the game. On top of all of this, we also made an effort to make our game color-blind friendly, avoiding to rely on colors alone in puzzles. Another thing HO games did were custom difficulties, which always impressed me. You could turn off the skip functions, the object sparkles, add penalties to just randomly clicking everywhere on a hidden object scene, all sorts of individual settings were there outside of the standard “Easy/Medium/Hard” modes.

Did the Skip function harm our games? Not really. Looking at YouTube and stream playthroughs of our games showed that people avoided using them unless they really had no other choice. People bought the game and tried to play them as we intended. When they couldn’t, they bypassed the content blocking them.

Now, how can this be applied to our standard-issue mainstream AAA/Indie Dark Souls game? It’s actually very difficult and nowhere near a universal solution. First off, you have to keep in mind that HO games are very linear and there is a very specific order of things. As soon as you were to try this in an open world game, it would get more complicated. Let’s say you are playing a GTA-styled sandbox game with RPG progression. If the player were to click the “Hint” button to see where to go, good design would dictate you considered this:

  • Does the player have a main quest?
  • What stage of the main quest are they on?
  • Are they high enough level for the next stage?
  • Do they have particular items?
  • How far is the next stage of the quest?
  • Are there any side-quests nearby?
  • Same qualification questions for the side-quest
  • Are there any points of interest nearby?
  • Same qualification questions for the points of interest
  • Tell the player where to go

This is why most open world games rely on proximity markers, but if you’re not equipped to deal with whatever you encounter, you’ll only learn by failing that you have to go back and level/gear up.

Difficulty settings also get really janky with many games for the simple reason that not every game scales well with difficulty. If a game has a timer, at some point, scaling that timer down and up will break. Scaling it up past a certain point will stop having any impact, because the difference between 20 and 30 minutes in a 10 minute level doesn’t mean anything. We like to associate difficulty with numbers: more or less enemies, more or less damage, more or less health, more or less time. If you’ve ever played a Souls game, just ask yourself what you’d rather have: one big boss or two medium bosses at the same time? There is a reason the two big breaking points for many people in the first Dark Souls game are both boss fights with two simultaneous bosses. And let’s not get into resource management, like ammo scarcity, how many heals the player has access to and so on.

You are already focusing on shipping a game that is fine-tuned for that one difficulty that you label as “Recommended” when a player selects New Game. That is the difficulty the most work went into, because every additional difficulty setting requires a design pass and thorough testing to make it feel right. And then you also have to make sure that if a player changes this difficulty at any point in the game, it scales well with whatever their current unlocks/stats are.

Of course, balancing difficulty and having many different and well-made options for it aren’t a universal requirement. Some games simply don’t focus on difficulty or don’t use it as a selling point. This isn’t really the difference between whether it’s a narrative-focused or action-focused game. Action games can be easy and narrative games can have mind-bending puzzles. Really, the only person who gets to decide how important difficulty is in the game is the person who made it. Then it’s their job to decide whether their high difficulty is scalable or locked into a single setting. This doesn’t make a game immune to criticism, everyone should be able to review, comment on or criticize a title based on whatever standards they choose. That is the consumer-driven world we live in.

But video games are like many things: they are like books, like movies, like music, like sports, like activities, like therapy, like food, like cars. They are also like none of those things either. A book will never physically stop you from reading its words, but it will be technical and archaic enough for you to not be able to parse together the meaning of those words (like, not interpretation, but actual meaning). Movies won’t stop you from skipping certain scenes, but you might not understand later scenes because of it. Music won’t stop you from skipping the chorus, but you won’t always be able to turn off the vocals or drums or any other instrument you don’t like. Sports won’t stop you from participating, but you won’t get a medal for losing (usually). Signing up for mountain-climbing won’t stop you from getting tired mid-way, but they don’t guarantee an elevator to the top either. I hope my dislike for these analogies is coming across.

If we accept that a focus of a game can be the narrative, the characters and all these other aspects that don’t require physical skill, we need to accept that there are games that have a different focus and a barrier to entry. Interpreting the motivations of characters and motifs of a story are important parts of enjoying certain games, and make no mistake, doing this effectively is a skill in its own right. So is being able to beat Hotline Miami or being good at Quake. Yes, if you can’t interpret a game, you can read up on it after finishing the game, but the same way if you can’t finish a game, you can watch someone finish it for you.

At the end of the day, skipping content or being able to make it easier is not necessary. Yes, it makes your game available to more players, but if it’s not an experience you want your players to have, then letting them finish the game like that and disliking it might be harmful to your game as well. What parts of a game you bought you own or are entitled to is a massive question with no clear answer, especially in the age of the Internet. One thing that isn’t as nebulous though is that not every game is made for you, and if the new hotness isn’t something you can enjoy, eventually something will come up that you will be able to enjoy. Or heck, there probably already is.