Gaming: The difficulty with difficulty

A vigorous agreement with an article about difficulty in video games written by MR BIFFO called HOW HARD CAN IT BE?

Iain Collins
11 min readFeb 26, 2016

Difficulty modes in the 1980s console games allowed them to cater simultaneously for casual, less experienced, gamers while still providing appeal to a more hardcore audience — those who’d already played said game and several others like it to the point of obsession.

Parental Advisiory: Ghosts n Gouls contains some full frontal nudity

The appearance of selectable difficulty levels in games might have seem like a good solution to address stubborn complaints of excessive difficulty.

In reality, games had been punishingly difficult for years merely to extend the gameplay time and mask an underlying lack of content — for technical and/or commercial reasons.

Being able to choose from different difficulty levels, each sometimes drastically changing both the number and types of enemies, helped hedge how a game was received; too easy and a game was ‘too short’ and got panned in reviews as being poor value, too hard and it felt less like a fun way to spend your free time and more like an after school punishment.

Over time, mechanics got more sophisticated and poor balancing of various difficulty modes resulted in difficulty spikes becoming a perennial problem.

The lack of ability to change the difficulty level without restarting the entire game doomed many games to limbo, with players unable to surmount the spikes in difficulty (often exacerbated by bugs, poor controls or badly implemented AI) leaving gamers faced with the chore of replaying hours of the same content again from scratch to be able to continue from the same point they’d reached earlier.

Another Star War, another Death Star

Games like the original Star Wars: Dark Forces removed mini-bosses and fixed point turrets when played on anything below ‘Normal’ difficulty, changing the experience notably.

Laudably, Dark Forces let you select the difficulty when choosing a level and let you replay any level at any difficulty at any time. This helped enormously with the problem of getting stuck on harder levels, many of which featured tricky environmental hazards that were deadly enough on their own.

Other titles were less forgiving. For years, repeated exposure to the trauma of unresolved endings resulted in me choosing to play things on easy mode for fear of being unable to see them all the way through to completion. Many games felt like theme park experiences and I breezed through unsatisfyingly.

Occasionally I’d test my resolve by opting for Normal or Hard difficulty on titles of unknown provenance, only to be slapped down by a hideous game breaking bug preventing all further progress — an issue I most recently ran into in Batman: Arkham Origins which completely broke the game — or a grim gatekeeper at level 6 that couldn’t be defeated unless you’d read the note on page 14 of the Official Prima Games Strategy Guide reminding you to stock up on ammo and grab the doohickey before dropping down past the auto-save-point ledge into the boss zone below, otherwise you’d end up with a broken save point.

In Doom 3 and, more recently, Alien: Isolation tougher settings and ever present traps require learning areas through trial and error to succeed; relying less on your wits and more on a cabbie-esque level of recall akin to doing The Knowledge.

In the first Gears of War enemies got tough but AI remained as inept as ever, with AI companions getting stuck navigating scenery or regularly voluntarily sacrificing themselves to the enemy, with their deaths causing the level to reset.

Even without AI blunders, things could be unjustly difficult. The game threw in obtuse mechanics at boss levels only to unabashedly sell videos you could buy (for real money, via the X-Box store) that would should you the “one weird trick” to defeat the boss.

To get past the invincible spider just find and shoot at the only two destructible objects in the entire game. Which look like rocks. Don’t shoot at the spider. It’s invincible. You’ll realise that once you are all out of bullets.

For the avoidance of doubt of Epic’s premeditated mercenary intent they also made videos promoting the Prima Games strategy guide for the game.

These things were not a coincidence. This is a game where you play a quarterback in space who shoots things using a gun that is also a chainsaw, it’s not a subtle puzzle solver like Alone In The Dark. You solve everything by shooting or cutting, this was obtuse and exploitative.

Mercifully for Gears of War, this nonsense didn’t persist into any of the much less frustrating sequels.

This was an instance of double dipping by profiting from the “difficulty”; a tactic we now see much more commonly infesting ‘freemium’ mobile games.

In general, games have gotten much better at not falling into the pitfall of uncompletability, and it’s now commonplace to be able to change the difficulty level mid game or between levels if you run into a wall.

Harry trying to navigate the pitfalls of swinging.

One of the more frustrating tales of attempts at difficulty balancing gone awry has been in the otherwise fabulous Elder Scrolls series — which remains beloved despite each game being as horrendously buggy as the last.

Between Morrowind and its sequel Oblivion, Bethesda Game Studios inexplicably tinkered with something that wasn’t broken. They attempted to resolve the issue of “once you’d level up enough, nothing was challenging anymore”. Like most players, I thought becoming your character more powerful over time this was sort of the point of levelling up in RPGs and not something that was actually a problem.

The egregious change was to introduce level scaling — meaning that enemies in the game would level up along with you.

This may sound reasonable in principle but happens to a comical degree, to the point where at higher levels even roaming bandits and vagabonds are equipped like Elder Gods adorned with legendary armour and weapons of enough power to level a hamlet.

Spare a coin for an old beggar?

You can be smiting dragons in single handed combat one minute and in fear for life from a street urchin and his angry badger the next.

This was especially odd given they didn’t need to stretch it out as the Elder Scrolls series has the rare quality of an unfeasibly large amount of content in each game, meaning that your gaming platform of choice is likely to expire before you manage to complete everything — 200+ hours logged and zero main quests complete being not an entirely unusual scenario.

Not content with level scaling they’d introduced in Oblivion, in the sequel Skyrim they felt that, as they were giving us things actual dragons to fight, that to maintain the cosmic order of things they had to balance this by messing with the formula yet again.

Rather than just making important characters higher level or protected by guards (as is the case in many locations in the game), they actually flipped a bit to make them invincible.

It’s much same mysterious force that inexplicably keeps Tyrion Lannister alive, but in Skyrim it’s frustratingly protecting every Joffrey Baratheon.

You’d have no way of knowing the target of your aggression was going to protected by an invisible hand until you after the old man you’d just hit with an axe enough times to turn a mammoth into a sweetroll sized chunks still seemed to be holding up surprisingly well — ultimately because he happened to be important to a plot line you were not even aware of.

As MR BIFFO notes, sandbox games often have real problems with a lack of feeling of progression, even as you tick off main quests.

RPG’s — especially MMORPGS — typically segment areas by difficulty level, requiring you attain a certain amount of experience before you are ready to tackle the enemies within. This aids the sense of narrative progression and is something very much undermined by level scaling.

The Assassin’s Creed series deals with imbuing a sense of progression not by focusing merely on introducing ever more difficult enemies but by unlocking new moves and increasingly your own deadly abilities as you play, allowing you to venture forth into areas and brawls that would have previously led to a grisly demise.

Boston tea-baggers.

A drawback of this approach is it can make re-playing the game later a much more frustrating and less fun experience than you remember, as you wonder why buttons on the controller seem to not be working properly.

A lack of a real feeling of progression remains a problem in many FPS sandbox titles, and is the reason why I haven’t completed half of the last 3 or 4 Far Cry titles I’ve bought, despite maps that unlock more as you play and pointers from one mission to the next with occasional dialog.

App idea: Like Uber, but for Maharajas.

Typically, there is little or no ability progression and encounters rarely differ, at least until you get near bullet-soaking enemies they tend to introduce toward the end. Environments remain frustratingly resistant to change — turning your back and walking 100 yards away results in an area you just quite literally cleared and burned to the ground instantly resetting to a pristine and fully populated state the moment you head back to pick up something you left behind.

Multiplayer titles like the Battlefield series reward enduring players by unlocking new equipment, more deadly weapons and even by directly increasing their skill — such as improving their chance to hit at range, and reducing their overall firing cone on weapons. You don’t have actually get better to get better; just keep playing and equipment gets better on it’s own — until you can’t see the map or for all the grenade spam and smoke bombs.

Some games in the Battlefield series have actually revelled in imbalance; pitting middle east insurgents against the might of the modern US military hardware in Battlefield 2 and punji stick brandishing Viet Cong up against M60 wielding marines in Battlefield Vietnam.

Two gentlemen blowing each other. With torches. #balance

In more recent titles, allusions to cultural inequality have been ironed out however, not least to prevent team hopping to the side with the largest military industrial complex.

The wonderful snowflake that is the MMOFPS franchise PlanetSide is based around a never ending three way tussle on an alien world between distinct (albeit all human) factions has wrestled with the same issue.

PlanetSide 2 retained the three way tussle and most of the faction specific weapons and vehicles from the original, but — seemingly caving in to the complaints of imbalance by players on one side or another— the sequel left out some of the faction specific abilities and lessoned faction specific advantages by providing a wider array of options to all sides, to the point where differences felt all but cosmetic.

The Terran Republic (fascists) colluding with New Conglomerate (rednecks) against the Vanu Sovereignty (❤).

Despite this accommodation, the meta game of the forum wars proved as unending as the intentionally rock-paper-scissors gameplay between grunts, armor and air.

The idea of “asymmetrical balance” between factions (or types of unit) — where by one faction might have a small natural advantage in the air, another on the ground and another indoors — proved a tough sell to many players, even as the diversity was lauded.

Despite an in-game cash store and dizzying array of weapons and upgrades that can be unlocked on it, gameplay somehow remains primarily skill based — at least between soldiers on the ground; vehicle perks do complicate things somewhat, especially for air units; with store exclusive lock on weapons and anti-lock traits that you can use XP boosts to equip.

One of the few games to innovate and combine not only traditional RPG based experience based levelling with a flexible mix-and-match points system and retain a strong skill based element in multiplayer environment was Star Wars Galaxies.

Balanced combat.

The highly protested removal of that system happened in the infamous Combat Upgrade patch, which saw the much loved (if imperfect) system curiously refactored into a simple, liner XP progression system with dreary single purpose classes.

This revamp of the skills system impacted all existing characters. It threw out your progress and forcing you to put your points into a single specific class.

It was done with the hope that by simplifying the system it might attract a new influx of players. It pivoted and made a conspicuous effort to to be ‘more like World of Warcraft’, a trap which titles like Everquest 2 and Lord of the Rings Online both fell into, also without apparent success.

The ill advised meddling only led to hasten the games somewhat premature demise. One of the most unique aspects of the game was gone, and with it went all sense of agency to build your own character and tell your own story, which had been a key selling point of of the title.

Despite the well meaning intent to improve MMOs by attempting to implement what has worked so well in another title, attempts to reimagine them after launch seem to undermine what players liked the most about them (i.e. that they were not World of Warcraft clones and had unique gameplay and that was part of their attraction in the first place).

WoW was such a juggernaut and dominated the subscription game market so entirely at the time that the temptation for other MMOs to mimic it proved irresistible.

After this happened in Star Wars Galaxies, players left in droves and even an expansion featuring a poor man’s TIE Fighter/X-Wing clone (a game which everyone wants to see, and we keep almost but not quite getting) was unable to keep it on life support for much longer.

So what have we learned? Games are hard. Getting difficulty and balance right continues to prove eponymously elusive and far from trivial, especially with so many different people to try to please.

It’s not all tough news though. While not an entirely new concept, completing titles in the past has unlocked bonus modes in quite a few games, extra difficulty options have been cropping up as mainstream in recent PC and console titles. Sometimes these are for vanity items or just as an added challenge for fans looking for an excuse to replay a favorite game.

In addition to a much harder expansion, and an already impressive range of difficulty settings, Ghost Recon Wildlands added a permadeath mode post launch, which is an extremely interesting experience when combined with joining a random pick up group for co-op.

Cannily extending the single player shelf life of single player games of course gives another reason for players to keep them installed, and maybe try out the multiplayer, where perhaps they might like to check out the latest fashion accessories for sale in the store. New hats you say? They do look fetching…

NMS has free VR update now. Free updates expected to continue until the heat death of the universe.

No Mans Sky went all out and went in both directions with difficulty, adding a Creative mode — where you won’t die and can craft things to infinity and beyond, a great showcase for it’s amazing base building — and a slightly harder Survival mode, which should have arguably been the default (which remains the easier Normal mode). They topped this off in a subsequent update it by adding a fourth, more extreme Permadeath mode of their own.

Maybe it is possible to please (almost) everyone…