Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Difficulty Needs More Curves

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

“You are dead.”

The familiar words glowed on the screen in front of me as I took a deep breath. It was the twelfth time in a row that I’d been crushed, without mercy, by an unstoppable rock wall. I wanted to go to sleep, but I didn’t want to leave this section unconquered. I was ready to hurl my controller through my television screen. Just to shove my face in it, God of War asked me whether I wanted to lower the difficulty to easy. I considered it, weighing the pros and cons of giving in and losing some of my gamer credibility, when I noticed the caveat. Changing the difficulty would only affect combat.

Well, I wasn’t dying in combat. I mean, that happened from time to time, but mostly I died in the platforming or the speed-based death traps. There was no option for me. I’d just have to try again. And again. And again.

There’s really no excuse for that. For some reason, most platforming games have no difficulty option. And yet, playing God of War, it became clear to me how difficulty changes could be implemented into platforming and puzzle sections of games. Almost every time I died in God of War, it was because of the speed of the challenge: rapidly rotating blades, swiftly approaching walls of stone, or a timer that filled a room with spikes. I just didn't have enough time to think, or run, or jump, or push that block where it needed to go.

The solution is simple: when the player turns the difficulty down to easy, all these elements can just be slowed down. The turning wheel of blades goes more slowly, making it easier to navigate. The walls of stones move in to crush less often. The timer in the spike room takes just a little bit longer before destroying everything present.

Changing the difficulty in video games rarely affects the entire game. Maybe it makes enemies harder to kill, maybe it makes them deal more damage. Occasionally it changes their artificial intelligence. But there are always challenges that go unchanged, whether that be the navigation of a maze or the traversal of a platforming section. Providing a challenge for the players that want one is an admirable goal, but as the audience for video games grows, new solutions are needed to make great games like God of War approachable to new players.

Timing-based platforming is easy to change; slowing down the moving platforms, spinning logs, and falling ceilings will give the player more time to consider their options. Precision platforming and other challenges aren’t as easily changed, but we can’t fix everything at once. With more consideration and innovation, making video games accessible to a larger audience doesn’t require that those games be over-simplified.

Going forward, difficulty changes should, like this timing-based solution, cater to players seeking a challenge as well as less experienced, casual gamers. When everyone walks away with the level of challenge that they want from a game, the result is that video games reach a wider audience without alienating the hardcore. This benefits not only game designers hoping to meet with greater sales numbers, but the medium as a whole. When the same games can provide a satisfying experience to the person who has never played a game before as well as the professional gamer, video games will become a more prominent form of entertainment. Accessibility is a problem that video games do not share with other storytelling media like movies and books. Making video games accessible to anyone will help to make newly released and classic video games just as much a topic of conversation as the worlds of film, television and literature. With simple changes and creative thinking, challenges can be changed to fit any player, opening the world of video games to a wider audience.


  1. Audiosurf comes to mind as a game that does this wonderfully. The challenge and satisfaction is entirely up to the player and makes for a really fun experience. Of course, this is a different type of game entirely...

  2. I only know a few games where either puzzles or platforming are affected by the difficulty that's selected. I know that some of the past Silent Hill games had the option to change the difficulty for both combat and riddles, thus if you were good at solving the puzzles but couldn't survive the terrors you could challenge your mind while not having to worry about the difficult creatures. This could work the other way too of course. I also know that the upcoming Mega Man 10 game will have an easy mode that makes the platforming easier by taking away certain obstacles or projectiles that would normally be found in normal mode.


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