Difficulty Levels And Why You Should Never Use Them

by mark on 06|23


We have been using difficulty levels in our games ever since they left the bars and arcades and invaded people’s living rooms. Old Atari games often had “A / B” difficulty switches that allowed for challenge adjustments on the fly, as the overall design mindset turned from “eating quarters” to allowing people to customize the play experience to their own tastes and preferences.

The problem of adjusting the challenge of games that do not have a human opponent is still very much relevant to game design today. Actually, it has gotten even worse, with an ever-increasing variety of player backgrounds and genre expectations. The purpose of this article, however, is to convince you that difficulty levels are a rubbish solution.

It’s an easy-to-recognize design pattern. Every time a game offers different game setups that are meant to make it more challenging or more forgiving – that’s a “Difficulty Level”. Most of the time these difficulty levels are labeled as “Easy”, “Hard”, “I Am A Chew Toy” or “Come Get Some” (and I’m not even making those up), but it’s not uncommon to find games that just use numbers or a slider to represent difficulty. Usually there’s a single, global setting that affects the entire experience, but some of the more complex titles choose instead to split it into categories such as “Combat Difficulty”, “Simulation Level” or “AI Douchebaggery” (ok, I made this last one up).

I’ll admit to something else at this point: my title fell a little bit to the “clickbait” side of the Force. There is no “never” and “always” in design, and nothing can really be a bad or a good idea by itself, taken out of the context of a system. So while the bulk of this article is dedicated to convincing you that difficulty levels are a bad idea for your game, I promise there are a few lines in the end about how they can be used to great effect.


What’s Wrong With Difficulty Levels?

So many things. First of all, we’re asking players to make a crucial decision that will impact their entire experience… before they even got to know how the game actually plays! We can add the best-written descriptions we can come up with (and I’ve been guilty of this in the past), but ultimately it’s a fool’s errand. Difficulty is too subjective and there are no standards in place – one player’s “Easy” is another’s “Very Hard”. You have to take into account the different types of challenge that games can offer (reflex-based, social, logical, etc) versus the player’s pre-existing knowledge and familiarity with the game’s genre. Oh, and let’s not forget about learning curve. Some players may be terrible at the game when starting out, but quickly learn the hopes, while others will transfer knowledge from other games to perform better at first – but then take longer to adapt and struggle on later challenges. Overall, it’s safe to assume that any attempt to communicate a subjective experience for the player upfront is bound to fail at some level.

Choosing a difficulty level also “raises the curtain” of the experience and takes the player out of it. As designer Jesse Schell cleverly puts it, players want you to take them to Disneyland – they want to simply relax and enjoy a ride that they trust they’ll love very much and that was created just for them, even if that feeling is ultimately an illusion. They won’t like your version of Disneyland where you get to pick how scary the yeti is in Expedition Everest before riding.

Which takes us to the next problem: difficulty levels can make players feel inadequate, either by making them believe that it’s “their fault” that they’re not having fun, or because the game challenges their preconceived identity as video game players. “I’m not very good at videogames, so I always play on Easy” is commonplace, as is “I’m going to play on Hard on my first run because it’s the way it’s supposed to be played”. When the game fails to meet those preconceptions, either by being too easy or too challenging for that player, it’s extremely frustrating. Lowering the difficulty to “Easy” can feel humiliating to a self-titled “hardcore” player, as raising the difficulty to “Hard” would be unthinkable to a “casual” one. Players will often just quit rather than mess with difficulty settings (especially if your game requires a restart to adjust to the new setup).

Multiple difficulty options also mean that you have many games instead of one. Congratulations, lone game designer of a small indie game: you now have to test and refine 4 game experiences instead of a single one! This means that we either have a huge production time or – and that’s more likely – focused efforts on a single difficulty setting, with the others being sent into the wild with a patronising tap on the shoulder followed by “everything will be alright, sweetie” whispered in their ears.

Last but not least, it takes the responsibility away from the designer, which makes it hard to understand and respond to feedback. This may seem like a minor quip, but it’s actually huge. When confronted with criticism of your game’s challenge curve, you can always blame the player. Too easy? “Oh, you should have played on hard”. Too hard? “Didn’t you see the ‘Easy’ option?”. That’s the most dangerous thing for a designer, because you end up not knowing when something is a legitimate issue or not. You have as many isolated, discrete systems as you have difficulty levels.


Case: Chroma Squad


Last year I released a game with my friends at Behold Studios. Chroma Squad is a tactical RPG that follows the adventures of five stunt actors who “go indie” to create their own TV show. It’s a super hero show inspired by series such as Power Rangers and Super Sentai. It’s a well-designed game that does what it sets out to do reasonably well. I do have one big regret in Chroma Squad’s design though, the one thing I’d do differently if I could go back in time: the difficulty levels.

Remember the potential problems with difficulty levels that I just described? Well, Chroma Squad has exactly all of them. I’m not even kidding. It also manages to come up with some problems of its own.

Chroma Squad has three difficulty settings: Casual, Interesting and Challenging, complete with the best-written descriptions we could come up with. “Challenging” is actually our “Normal”. We have balanced the game mostly for that difficulty, and as the sole designer on the project I could scarcely find the time to come back and polish the almost 20 hours of gameplay we had, let alone do it for each of the 3 difficulty settings.

The systems were designed and tuned with the main casual audience of the game in mind, prioritizing accessibility, customization and a lack of friction. We wanted a “smooth ride” where players felt like they were at risk but never actually lost or had to replay an episode.

Our AI actually avoids punishing exposed units, or focusing their attacks on a single hero. Low-health characters “cheat” death by having hidden dodge-chance bonuses. Having a character go down once in a while feels like a huge setback, but it’s actually not putting you at too great a risk of losing the entire episode. Penalties from failing in combat or mismanaging your studio are inconsequential to the long-term game economy, as each new chapter in the game (called “Season”) ramps up the number scales. Random chances were warped under the hood to meet our “intuitive” feeling of how probability works (humans suck at that) – we did stuff such as increasing the chances of success after a failed roll, not allowing opening moves of 90% chance or more to actually fail, etc.

I’m actually quite proud of these decisions. They allowed many people to be introduced to the genre, and the game really “clicked” with our target audience. The problem here was that all these things could have been removed from higher-level difficulty levels to create a more interesting experience for tactical-minded players – but we wrongly chose not to.

This lack of higher difficulty levels also affected player perception of the game negatively even when their own experience was “working as intended”. In one of the best reviews of Chroma Squad, written by Rich Stanton over at Rock Paper Shotgun, the challenge curve seemed to have worked exactly as we designed it to, but his preconceptions of how play in the “hardest difficulty” of a tactical game should go have soured the experience for him:

“In four subsequent seasons I had team members downed a few times, but didn’t fail a single mission. I’m no tactical god, and expect that a decent turn-based strategy game on its hardest difficulty should be able to offer up a few problems.It’s not that you want something punitive so much as you want to feel like learning the system is worthwhile”.

This is a very insightful quote that touches the core problem with how difficulty was handled in Chroma Squad. His last sentence, specifically, is extremely relevant, and I will return to it later in the article. But for now, suffice it to say that if only we had a fourth difficulty option in place we could have appeased to players like him.

That’s a possible loophole, though. For some players it would still be too easy, or too punishing – there are still many players on Twitter who report having trouble beating the game on the “Interesting” difficulty, and I’ve seen players losing “Casual” episodes on streams! The idea of choosing fixed, arbitrary settings for a game such as Chroma Squad is broken at its core, and “fixes” at a higher level, as any designer worth their salt knows, will only mask the issues without ever truly solving them.

So let’s talk about solving them.


How to Replace Difficulty Levels

Let’s start by agreeing that difficulty adjustment is a good thing for your game. It may not always be the case, but usually you want as many different people as possible to enjoy your game in their own way, at their own pace. Empathy is the greatest trait for a game designer, it’s what I usually say. And by getting rid of difficulty settings, we are taking this responsibility in our hands as designers, and letting players just have fun in our Disneyland that was built just for them (if everything goes well).

But I’m not advocating for “automated” difficulty adjustments. I still think that players should have a choice of how much challenge they want to tackle on, but they should be making these choices continuously throughout the game, and they should be meaningful choices. What I mean by that is choices that share 3 very important traits: they are discernible, they are integrated, and they are ambiguous.

Discernibility means that the player recognizes the choice, its major possible consequences, and can later recognize the effects it had in play. These effects are Integration – the more a choice affects the game state, the more integrated it is. Finally, Ambiguity generally means that there is no clear “right” or “wrong” choice – the end result is unpredictable even though the immediate effects of the decision are discernible.

Let’s look at a few examples of how to turn “challenge level” into meaningful decisions.


Optional Challenges

This design pattern focuses on ensuring that the “critical path” of the game is as easy and accessible as possible, while offering many optional challenges that can be undertaken whenever the player feels like it.

By “critical path” I mean the shortest route from start to finish. How you define “finish” depends on the game you are making, but taking story-based games it’s the moment the credits roll and the player understands that the loop has closed.


A game that does “optional challenges” really well is Super Meat Boy. Several levels have an optional “Bandage” item that can be picked up before you reach the exit – but the routes you have to take to achieve this are usually much harder. You can come back to levels and pick up the Bandages whenever you want, so players can do it at their own pace, whenever they feel like it. Bandages reward you with character unlocks and other goodies.

Even in linear games, this same concept can be applied in the form of “combo meters”, “grades”, “kill streaks” and so on. Single-player fighting games such as Devil May Cry have been using this for great effect for years, which gives them a lot of flexibility in their difficulty – it’s not too hard to complete the “critical path” of these games with a terrible score.

Another way to implement this design pattern is through Achievements. They are everywhere now, so this is a great opportunity to use their power for good! Well-designed achievements can help you create new ways to tackle content and improve your skills. Some Achievements in my little game Relic Hunters Zero task players with defeating a Boss under certain conditions, which are different for each of the playable characters. Firaxis’ XCOM has many great Achievements like this – one of my favorites is Lone Wolf, which you get by completing a mission with a squad that consists of a single soldier. These are often inexpensive to develop, as they are rewarding to players without having to be tied with an in-game event, item or score bonus.


Nonlinear Challenges

I have been thinking about writing this article ever since I shipped Chroma Squad, but it was reading this quote from Mr. Shigeru Miyamoto that gave me the final push:

“One of the issues with action games is how to make something that can be enjoyed by all skill levels, from beginners to more advanced players. One way is to add an ‘Easy Mode’, but I think the best method is when the player can adjust the difficulty himself while playing. The dotted-line blocks fill that role in Super Mario World”.


He knew this in 1990. It only took me 25 years after that, the internet, and a bunch of bad designs to figure it out “by myself”. This magical man and his Super Mario World are a great example of my next design pattern: allowing players to tackle challenges (even if it’s on the “critical path”) when they feel ready.

By setting up your challenges in a nonlinear way, you allow players to tackle what they feel they are up to, when they feel it. If a player can have a sense of progression in the game by doing whatever it is that they want to do, it’s a win.

I particularly enjoy Braid’s take on this one: you can simply walk by all of the puzzles – that’s right, all of them. [Spoiler alert: if you don’t want to know about how Braid’s ending is structured, please skip to the next section] There is a minimum number of challenges to complete before you can see the game’s “first” ending, but unless you are willing to dig deeper and face potentially more challenging puzzles you won’t be able to keep unravelling the story and meaning. The best part is, at any point you can stop and say “that’s it, I’ve seen the end of the game” and it will have made sense to you.


Negative Feedback Loops

This is an interesting one. My friend and Chroma Squad co-worker Bruno Briseno is a big fan of God Hand, the weird/genius Japanese fighting game on the Playstation2, and he introduced me to its dynamic difficulty system. As you play the game you fill fill a “difficulty bar” that starts on level 0 and can climb all the way up to level 6 (also called “Level Die”). If you keep hitting enemies and doing well, the meter will climb. Make mistakes, and you go back to Level 0. This dynamic Difficulty level affects the game in very sophisticated ways – enemies won’t attack you from out of the camera until Level 3, for example.


In a nutshell, a “negative feedback loop” is in place when you’re trying to directly keep the elements in balance – disadvantages creep up if a player does well, and/or advantages come to the rescue for a player doing poorly. This is most commonly used in competitive games to make matches more exciting. Take Volley, for instance (the actual physical sport). Whenever a team scores, it has to serve – which puts the team in a disadvantage relative to the receiving team.

In single-player games, negative feedback loops are usually placed in favor of the player – increasing the chance of finding health packs when your character is about to die, or dropping a power-up from the sky when you are about to lose a level. What makes the God Hand design so brilliant is that it is clearly communicated to players and that it forces them to take an active role instead of a passive one. It motivates them to get better, and that’s what challenge should be all about, right?


Progression and Customization Systems

We are currently living in the Dark Ages of extrinsic reward systems in game design. Progression systems have creeped into nearly every single game released in the past few years, regardless of genre or target audience. But the overwhelming, potentially evil forces of XP, Items and Levels can be used for good! And difficulty balancing is one of the things it excels at solving.

Combined with the “Non-linear Challenges” pattern described above, you can design your games to be as challenging as you want, provided you give players the tools to “level” the playing field (see what I did there?).


Dark Souls is a masterfully-designed “difficult” game because it is in fact just as hard as you want it to be. You can “grind” for Souls and become artificially stronger, or make use of items and abilities that were designed specifically to make the game easier. On the other hand, you can also kill NPCs and piss off a lot of people for quick access to cool items, but your life will be harder than it probably needs to be.


In Final Fantasy games, if a Challenge is proving to be too great, you can always just go do something else and have your characters become stronger in the process. I’d like to give a special mention to the traditional “No Encounter” items in these games (also known as “Safe Travel” items), which remove the risk of running into combat situations while exploring the world.

Designers should be extremely careful while using this pattern, though. It is very easy to err on the side of weighing the game too heavily on artificial progression and losing focus on what really matters: the player’s own learning curve and her ability to get better at the game and be rewarded for it.

Worst, it can “punish” skilled players that optimize every single possible progression system by offering simplistic, too-easy encounters to play with. Of course, defeating the big bad end boss of the game with a single punch can be an extremely rewarding and amusing experience on its own, but you need to also make sure that there is an incentive for players to actually tackle “hard” content, so as to avoid making the “optimization” path the only viable option. The choice of challenge should be ambiguous to be meaningful, remember?

Oh, and one last thing. You can also completely nullify your game’s progression if you try to simply “scale” the world to meet the player’s power level, as infamously seen in Oblivion.


Difficulty, Information and the Metagame

I seem to have entered the realm of caveats and red flags, so let’s talk about the “Metagame” and how it relates to difficulty design (especially when you employ the “Nonlinear Challenges” and/or “Progression System” patterns).

Metagaming is when players make decisions in the game using information from outside of the game’s supposed boundaries. Reading a Wiki page, talking to friends, watching a Youtube video or even playing online are all commonplace ways to access meta-information about a game.

My useful generalization is that “hardcore” players rely on community power, while “casuals” do not. This means that, in general, whenever a top-level player increases her skill in the game, the skill level of all players who have access to meta-information increase as well (albeit not by the same amount). It’s like a hivemind. This happens with every game in history – a Chess master from today would handily defeat an equally-talented opponent from the 19th century.

How does that affect your difficulty design? If your single-player game has, like Dark Souls, a ring that makes the game easier, you can be sure that your Metagaming hivemind will be aware of it, but you can’t make any assumptions of your casual audience that does not read about games online.


So if your in-game information about things that could make the game easier should be clearly communicated so that the average player won’t miss it. On the other hand, you can easily obscure the elements that increase the challenge level of the game – and watch your community do the rest.

Also, clearly communicate when high-difficulty situations are encountered so that casual players don’t think an unwinnable situation is unavoidable. This is why online games such as World of Warcraft make their high-level enemies with scary red names and life bars filled with spikes and skulls. It’s their heavy-metal way of saying “hey player, you are on Hard mode if you try to fight this thing, ok?”.


When To Use Difficulty Levels

Did you think I forgot about my promise? It’s time to talk about how difficulty levels can be a Good Thing.

Fixed difficulty levels are usually the best way to deal with difficulty in zero-sum single player games – those that more closely emulate a “classic” competitive game with human opponents, but with an AI.


We’re talking about every competitive game with their human players replaced by AIs – chess, Unreal Tournament, or League of Legends -, but also titles such as X-COM which have an asymmetrical opponent but are still zero-sum, competitive games at their core.

At the beginning of this article, I described the “fool’s errand” of trying to describe the subjective experience of difficulty levels. So my first advice is: don’t even try. Instead, describe exactly how the game’s rules change, and let players judge for themselves how their experience will be affected. “50% Monster damage, Player lives limited to 1” is much better than “A gruesome merciless night in the dungeon” as far as difficulty descriptions go.

We’ve grown a bit number-phobic when communicating with our players, though; we don’t want to intimidate new players with stats that don’t yet make sense to them, so be careful with front-loading information that means nothing to a new player.

Another very neat use of difficulty levels is as an objective measurement of player skill – a “challenge ladder” that players can climb. This can even be used in combination with all the dynamic methods mentioned in this article. Beat the critical path of the game? Congratulations, now try a Hard mode. Beat that? What about Hard II?

As long as you are still able to provide meaningful challenges to players, requiring them to learn new things and think about your game in different ways, you can keep offering ever-increasing difficulty levels, and the player will have an objective measurement of how far he is on the road to mastering the game.

Great action games such as Devil May Cry and God Hand do this masterfully. Their difficulty levels are less about trying to find a “right” balanced for a single playthrough of the game, and more about offering a well-designed road from novice to master.

At this point I’d argue, however, that it is much better to “hide” these systems inside the game, waiting to present them to the player after they get their footing. This should avoid the front-load issue that is the crux of difficulty levels in most games. Diablo III, for instance, does this very well with its “Greater Rifts”, which have ever-growing difficulty levels that you climb, one by one. If I’m not mistaken, Guild Wars 2 pulls a similar trick with their Fractal Dungeons.


Rewards and the Player Journey

As always, when designing we need to be constantly asking “why”. In the case of difficulty balancing, why do we do it? We want to have players learn something. To ensure they won’t give up in frustration (or think they already know everything that is to know before the game is over), we want them to learn at their own pace and starting by what they are most comfortable with.

That learning curve from never playing the game before to being able to master its ultimate challenges is what we call the “player journey”. We need to design for that, planning our challenges and rewards as a path to intrinsic, meaningful and fulfilling player advancement – not extrinsic, meaningless, empty “character levels” or “gear scores”.

Remember Rich Stanton’s quote? “It’s not that you want something punitive so much as you want to feel like learning the system is worthwhile”. Good difficulty design does just that – it ensures that the player is constantly being rewarded for learning the game system, seeing previously unbeatable challenges crumble before her.

The current trends in game design are distracting us, making us too eager to fall in line, to design games as commodities, to provide extrinsic rewards and empty feelings of accomplishment. Our most powerful tool as a medium is being able to provide the pleasure of learning and mastering real skills – logical, social and physical. Let’s design it right.