Friday, February 4, 2011

Game difficulty (Part 3)

When dealing with static difficulty levels, one key problem can often arise to annoy the player. This is the issue of the designer allowing the computer opponents to "cheat" at higher difficulty levels. Typically this occurs by giving them more resources or skill than is physically possible for them to have. Doubling resources for computer opponents in RTS games, doubling damage for enemies in RPGs, making enemies in FPS games not miss or always pull off headshots, etc, etc, are all means of doing this. Now these can serve a purpose to a degree, particularly where it is not possible for a computer to replicate the complexity of tactics which players can explore and develop. However, difficulty implemented in this manner frequently results in player finding and exploiting the weaknesses that these cheats are designed to compensate for.

The Thief series of games implemented something quite unusual in its difficulty levels. Not only did it change basic things like the amount of health of the player and the number of enemies, but the game actually imposed gameplay restrictions or requirements upon the player. These restrictions varied: the player could not kill anyone, an alarm could not be raised, certain items had to be stolen, a minimum value of loot had to be stolen, a rescue had to be effected, and so on. The fantastic value of this that the difficulty is not increased by some arbitrary value that merely allows the player to continue with previous tactics but just "do them better". It forces the player to adopt an entirely different playstyle, simply by changing the parameters under which they must operate instead of the numbers involved in the game's mechanics.

Amateur footpad or master thief? You decide.

Now, it could be argued that these two aspects are remarkably similar, in both cases the player must change their tactics in order to succeed. But in one case the player is forced to find the weaknesses the game is attempt to compensate for, whereas in the other they are forced to change their playstyle to meet new restrictions imposed upon them. The key difference is that in Thief, the player is not attempting to counter the unfair advantage given to the computer, they are attempting to achieve the more "successful" playstyle the game is asking them adopt. The player is being given direct agency to achieve rather than having to identify and manipulate the flaws in the computer controlled system that they are fighting.

That said, if you're going to use this kind of difficulty setting, why not provide the player with the ability to control the "sliders" for the individual values that you are multiplying? For the advanced player that wants to customise the difficulty to match their skill setting, this would provide a good means to provide them with an appropriate challenge. Maybe on "Hard" you give the computer twice as many resources, but the player loses every time to this situation. Why not give the ability to start a game with a custom difficulty, where the computer receives 1.5 (or 1.3 or even 1.65) times as many resources. This not only allows greater transparency of the "cheat" (because it's not necessarily nice to hoodwink your players), but also gives them the power to create an experience matching the difficulty of their liking. This isn't something that's particularly easy for a modder to achieve, but for a game in development, it offers much finer (potential) control over the game's difficulty. Of course, the game should still come with its preset difficulties, but instead allow the player to take great control over it if they so desire.

DAO: dozens of sliders for facial creation, but only four choices for game difficulty.

Another thing that might seem trivial to consider, but that can make a significant difference to players is what you call your difficulty levels. Many players have a sense of personal pride and do not want to play on "easy" or "casual" difficulty level. If a game's lowest difficulty is called "normal" then players typically don't feel bad at playing on "normal" difficulty, even if it is the lowest difficult level. I have read numerous posts of players complaining about games being too challenging, yet refusing to play on anything below "normal" because they "were too good" to play a game on "easy". The same sometimes also occurs for the highest difficulty levels, but on that end of the scale you're typically dealing with players who are seeking a very high challenge (and thus should be able to cope with it) or gamers who are simply looking for achievements (in which case you as the designer shouldn't be forced to cater to them). People complaining that "insanity" is too hard... well, you can be fairly safe in telling them that if they want the accolade of winning on that setting, they need to work at it.


  1. A few things come out of this for me. Full difficulty customisation, achievements, and secondary objective rewards.

    By Full-difficulty customisation, I mean being able to control aspects of the AI, and aspects of yourself, as this leads to some very interesting scenarios. For example,, a game may be too easy,, ramp up the AI health or something. More shots to kill, may lead to a particular style of gameplay, one where you use strategies to outlast your opponent over a long term. But, if you could decrease both your own and the enemies health to make the game more tactical rather than a "Who can dodge the most bricks and make the most bricks hit" type game.

    As for achievements, love them or hate them for the e-peen waving it causes, I find them, when implemented correctly, a great way to increase gameplay for the exact reasons you list with thief. Take for example a level in something like Commandos 2 ( Its main missions would reward you with "stars" at the end of each level based on how little force you used, how many places you went to, and how long you took. The timing aspect was rated against doing the mission covertly, but it basically meant that if "stars" were your thing, you would never, ever use lethal force such as rifles, machine guns, armed vehicles and various explosive devices. These missions were generally large scale and would take an hour or longer to complete with "best effort" in mind. What I enjoyed more were the bonus missions which were small mini-levels which required you to complete an objective, say, reach a radio post, hold off an enemy force or destroy an installation, without any "rating penalty" for excessive force. They were fun, challenging, and allowed a full gamut of tactics and ideas to resolve, and some were indeed challenging. The fact that these tactics were *penalized* in the games main missions were a big let-down, considering they too were challenging scenarios which *could* be solved in a variety of ways, but the game pushed you towards the covert only.

    Finally, secondary objective rewards, and for this one I name and shame Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Double Agent. In the same vein as Thief, Double Agent offers you in the course of a level a main objective and some secondary objectives which are not mandatory, and in some cases are quite difficult. One such objective held it's main challenge in me being able to perform time-sensitive lockpicking (a very trivial minigame) in addition to completing my main objective. I didn't have to, but I wanted to, just for that extra challenge. My reward? Automatic Lockpicks.

    WTF?!? I just demonstrated my skill in being able to lockpick rapidly, and you reward me by making the game easier? Meanwhile Mr "I play games less than Abs and aren't quite as good" struggles with this task, and has the rest of the game made more difficult because he wasn't as capable as me. That makes absolutely no sense, and frustrates me immensely. When I've demonstrated my skill is above that of a typical player, I don't want to be rewarded with an easier game. I want a harder challenge!

  2. I've not played Commandos 2, but the scenario posed is interesting. It sounds like they've painted "covert" missions as the ideal, while seemingly allowing for other tactics to be utilised. If stars are merely an "achievement" that bears no significance upon the actual gameplay, then I'd argue there's no major issue. Of course, I'll happily admit I'm biased here because I like games that facilitate covert/stealth gameplay.

    However, if we're talking ideal situations, I'd contend that the best way to take this would be to have multiple and mutually exclusive rating scales. Have a rating scale that ranges from "covert" to "annihilation" and grade the player on that. Or include alternate scales for other possible tactics. I guess the main thing would be to offer "rewards" even if insignificant (or even with no gameplay effect), to players who choose to use different tactics.

    The issue of rewards is often a difficult one. I definitely see the point of view that someone who demonstrates skill in a particular area does not (and should not) be rewarded by removing that aspect or making it easier. That said, making a game more difficult is generally considered a penalty rather than a reward. And I know I was immensely thankful when research in BioShock allowed me to automatically hack devices rather than playing my hundred and thirteenth game of pipemania. I don't have the answer to that one right now.