Dynamic Difficulty


Few options in a game affect the player’s experience more than the difficulty setting. From simply increasing enemies’ hit points to changing entire schemes of events, how challenging a game is can drastically influence how much someone enjoys their time with it. With so many titles now containing multiple hours of narrative and combat, players should be given the option to alter the difficulty of that content any time they’d like.

Sometimes bad sequences happen to good games.The most recent experience that sold me on dynamic difficulty was Skyrim. I had been playing the game on “Master” difficulty, which provided a challenge without being too frustrating. I then happened upon a glitch (shocking!) during one of the main storyline quests in the Thalmor Embassy. I cleared a specific room, and then manually saved. I died shortly thereafter, and upon loading my manual save, or the concurrent autosave, all the enemies I killed had inexplicably re-spawned right next to me under a staircase! Three guards, one mage, and his frost atronach. Me, with light armor and an orcish dagger. Bad odds indeed. After about fifteen failed attempts to get beyond these two botched saves, I was about to give up and load one of my prior saves from hours beforehand, and began damning myself for not saving frequently enough. Then I remembered the dynamic difficulty setting.

With Skyrim’s ability to tweak combat difficulty on the fly, a few simple menu clicks will turn even the most fearsome opponents in Tamriel into blubbering sword fodder. Setting the game on the easiest difficulty allowed me to quickly dispatch the entire room of baddies, re-adjust the difficulty back up to “Master” again, and not have to waste three hours of my life retreading from a prior save. Some people might consider this a cop-out or an ointment for poor game design, but I consider it to be a fail safe device. Sometimes bad sequences happen to good games. Sometimes you have to escort a bus in inFamous, or fight the final boss in Mass Effect. Sometimes you wanted that achievement so you started playing on Hard mode, only to come across a broken turret sequence that makes you want to fling your controller out the window. Most people aren’t going to start playing a game over on a lower difficulty after investing eleven hours after running up against a brutal boss fight that is too cheap to overcome. It’s situations like this where developers need to channel their inner Spike Lee and do the right thing.

Most players prize the experience of the game itself over the singular goal of beating it on the highest setting.The sheer fact that difficulty is a selectable option means the player is handed control over the self-imposed level of challenge they want. I believe given that option, most players would prize the experience of the game itself over the singular goal of beating it on the highest setting. Titles like Dark Souls and Super Meat Boy are an exception to this rule, when it comes to enjoyably torturous games. Their notorious level of challenge is a key part of the experience, and there is no expectation of adjusting the game to conquer it more easily. They place higher demands on being played the way that the developer intended.

We’re constantly bombarded by marketing telling us that modern gaming is all about “choice”. If it truly is, then developers should make sure that one of the most important design factors in their games grants players a choice to the fullest extent by allowing dynamically adjustable difficulty. Otherwise it can lead to players enjoyment being hamstrung by poor design choices or unforeseen in-game events.

About Ben Daniels

Ben Daniels is Community Manager for Splitkick and co-host of the Rocket Jump podcast. He frequently disseminates misinformation.
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