Last week I began this two part article about the concept of difficulty in games. In part 1 (which you can find here) I looked at whether modern games were too easy, and some of the considerations designers should keep in mind regarding adding difficulty settings to their games.
In this part I am instead going to be looking at the implementation of difficulty in a video game. While making a difficult game is actually quite easy, making a tough game that also gives players a feeling of hope and encourages them to keep playing can be quite difficult. If your game is too hard, or if the difficulty is not carefully implemented, players will put your game down and never pick it back up.
Why be Difficult at All?
If there is anything I have learned in my research for these past few articles, it’s that trying to make a challenging game is a very complicated task. This begs the question – why go through all of this effort in the first place? Why walk the fine line between tough and unreasonable, when you could just make a game that anybody can easily play?
There are actually several ways that making your game more difficult can enhance the overall experience. The first reason, which is less relevant these days but still worth mentioning, is to pad out the length of the game. Many older games, and even modern independent games, were not able to produce a huge amount of content, so making the game more difficult helped pad out the runtime.
Another reason, which is probably more relevant to games like Sekiro, is that making your game more difficult forces players to truly engage with the mechanics of the game. While the phrase “git gud” has become something of a meme among FromSoftware players, it does hold some truth. Playing these games forces players to truly understand and master the mechanics in a way that very few games do.
This comes with a number of benefits. First, after defeating a difficult boss in a game such as BloodBorne or Cuphead there is a feeling of accomplishment that is rare to find in other games. You EARNED that victory, and nobody can take it away from you.
Second, making your game more difficult can force players to view the world of the game differently. The Dark Souls series is well known for its environmental storytelling – most of the lore and backstory is told through details in the world of the game. It is also full of multiple paths and hidden areas which are easy to miss. Because these games are so tough the player is forced to move through the world slowly and carefully, which helps them appreciate these details and find these secrets which might otherwise be ignored.
Clearly challenges in games can do far more than simply frustrate the player – they can enhance the overall experience of the game. However, not all challenges are made equal. While some obstacles encourage your player with a sense of hope and are exciting to overcome, others can make fill your player with a sense of hopeless dread.
How Much is Too Much?
A big part of properly implementing difficulty in your game is knowing when to stop. But how do you know when you’ve gone too far? This can be difficult to figure out. For example, if your game has a high learning curve (such as Monster Hunter) it is likely that a lot of early feedback from playtesters will be around the difficulty. However, as players master the mechanics of the game what previously seemed impossible will now seem quite doable.
This is not to say that there is no such thing as a game that is “too hard”. Even Hidetaka Miyazaki admits that sometimes challenges in video games can go to far, as evidenced by the following quote from VG247:
“ There were of course several moments where I had to stop things and take a step back and consider the difficulty. But it’s not necessarily that I say ‘oh, this is too difficult,’ but instead the term I usually use is ‘unreasonable.’ So, that’s the term I tend to use when I have these conversations with the development team.
When you think about it, the difficulty in the Dark Souls franchise so far has been something that players have eventually been able to overcome. So when I show concern to the development team members, that’s why the term I use is unreasonable – basically, we don’t want to go too far. It’s about striking a balance.”
In short, a challenge in a game is something that your players should be able to eventually overcome with enough practice. Different games will have different ideas of where that level should be, but it all comes down to what your game can support. If your mechanics are fun and the story or world of your game is engaging players will be much more willing to put up with roadblocks. On the other hand, if your game is boring players are going to be less willing to deal with challenges.
At the end of the day the only real way to know if your game is too hard is through playtesting. If your playtesters are willing to put in the time and eventually push through the challenges, that means that they are not unreasonable. On the other hand, if they get overly frustrated or just want to quit, that’s a sign that you might need to dial it back.
Taking a Long Time is Not the Same as Being Difficult
One thing that is common to lazy designs is to make an obstacle that isn’t necessarily difficult, but simply takes a long time to overcome. A great example of this is a boss that poses very little threat to the player, but has a lot of health. Defeating this boss may take a long time, but it won’t engage the player and will most likely bore them. There will also be no sense of accomplishment when this boss is defeated – at most there will be a feeling of relief that the fight is finally over.
On the other hand, if a boss is truly challenging it does not necessarily need to take a long time to defeat for those who know how. Once you have learned to read a boss’s moves, counter their attacks and where their weak points are, you should be able to take them out in relatively short order.
Don’t Make Players Repeat Something They Know They Can Do
Another issue I see, which has also happened a few times in Sekiro, is forcing the player to repeat long sections of the game before they are allowed to confront the obstacle (usually a boss) that is in their way. Whether this means forcing them to plow through a bunch of smaller minions before reaching the boss, or playing through the first few stages of a boss only to be immediately killed by a newer stage, forcing players to constantly repeat the same section of the game is a mechanic that should have died decades ago.
Difficulty Only Works if the Mechanics Support It
I believe that the level of challenge you can reasonably present to your players is directly related to how refined and responsive the mechanics of your game are. Suppose, for example, that you are facing a boss with an attack that can instantly kill your player, and the only way to avoid death is to recognize and avoid the attack.
If your game has descriptive animations that allow you to predict when this attack will occur, and responsive controls that allow you to quickly move out of the way, the player will be able to overcome this challenge.
On the other hand, if either of these elements are missing this challenge can feel very unfair. If the player could avoid the move but isn’t given enough information to predict it they will simply die without a chance to save themselves. If they can predict the move, but the controls aren’t responsive enough to avoid it, this can be even more frustrating.
This principle can apply to a game from any genre – racing, shooter, even puzzle. A great example can be found in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. In this game the main character Link has four basic powers that he can use to interact with the world, and he uses these powers to solve the puzzle. These puzzles are generally quite responsive, and although the solution may be difficult they are all possible with the resources you are given.
Some of the puzzles, however, required the use of motion controls. Whether these involved hitting a ball like a golf club or moving it through a maze by tilting the controllers, these puzzles provided some potentially interesting challenges to the player. The problem was, the motion controllers were generally not sensitive or responsive enough to easily solve these puzzles. When I originally played through the game I spent way too long on these puzzles because the controls are not reliable getting through these challenges can often come down to luck.
Difficulty Can Become an Accessibility Issue
One thing that can get lost with the discussion around difficult games is the fact that not all players have the necessary physical or mental capabilities to “git gud” at an extremely difficult game. These games require extremely fine motor control and split second timing, which are challenging to any player but can be impossible to some.
This is tough issue to talk about, because there is no easy solution. I believe that in most cases it’s possible to design a game to be as accessible as possible, but there may be cases where trying to improve accessibility for some could result in a worse gaming experience for the audience as a whole. Handling the accessibility issue around difficulty is a much more complicated issue than simply adding subtitles or making sure your color pallets are color-blind accessible.
One major way to make your difficult game more accessible is to make sure that it supports multiple different controller types and configurations. The more controller options your player has available to them, the more likely they are to find a controller scheme that works for them.
Another option is to allow players a wide variety of adjustable options to help them get through portions of the game that might be overly difficult due to a disability. Allowing players to adjust settings by slowing down the game, or adding additional auditory cues to enemy attacks to improve reaction speed can make them more accessible without needing to provide cut and dry difficulty settings.
Until Next Time!
That is all I have for this week. If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Twitter, Youtube, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week for an article (or maybe video!) on the importance of fun movement mechanics in games.