A Balancing Act for the Right Difficulty

Posted on July 8, 2012 - 9:00pm by BizarroZoraK


It's no secret that games are becoming a lot more streamlined and easier than they were over 20 years ago, but why has the difficulty been toned down in recent years? What can developers do to challenge the old school masochists, while still remaining user-friendly to newcomers?

Editor's Note: BizarroZoraK offers up some interesting ideas on how to improve difficulty seetings. I especially like the ideas of how to improve both the hardest and easiest settings. Oh and Bizarro, practice makes perfect, so don't sweat the trouble you're having with those retro titles, and keep at it. You'll beat them eventually!

Difficulty seems to be a hotly debated topic among generations of gamers. Some want a less frustrating, streamlined experience with more lenient checkpoints, while many others seem to be clamoring for a brutal Demon’s Souls-esque challenge. Thus, a tough balancing act of appeal is imposed upon the developer whose goal is to engross every player in their game with clever challenges and obstacles, while trying not to send said players into a controller-chucking fury.

The overall challenge presented to the player in video games has always been a thought-provoking issue for me because, as much as I hate to admit it, I suck at most video games. I’ve never come close to defeating any of the bosses in the first Metroid, I’ve never made it very far into Contra (even with the Konami code), hell I’ve never even beaten the original Super Mario Bros.! Watching me try to play a particularly hard game, especially one from the 8 or 16-bit eras, is like watching a quadriplegic try to walk a tightrope while juggling knives and chainsaws. It truly is a sad state of affairs.

I like to think that if I actually sunk some time into these games I could make some significant progress towards completing them, but I guess I’m just too easily discouraged. Don’t get me wrong, I love playing those NES classics and the like and I usually try to display some semblance of skill when playing them. Unfortunately, these challenging sessions usually end in failure.

I keep bringing up the older games as examples because, as briefly stated in the beginning, the generational gap seems to be the major source of the conflicting desires for different difficulties. The harsh days of no saves and no continues have been thrown out in favor of friendly tutorials and frequent checkpoints, a shift likely made to appeal to younger, millennial gamers, including myself.

If you’ve ever heard the term “millennials,” referring to those born within the timeframe between the 80’s and early 2000’s, you’re also probably aware of the mostly negative connotation that this term has garnered. Millennials are characterized as being generally more connected than past generations (hence the nickname “Generation We”), but we are also labeled as lazy whiners and complainers, probably brought about due to a greater dependence on technology and the help of others. It’s safe to say that us millennials have lived fairly easy lives compared to our elders, so perhaps we tend to be more irritated when things are difficult or we don’t get what we want.

Generation X, Baby Boomers, and earlier generations, on the other hand, seem to be known for greater self-reliance and a more diligent work ethic. Of course, these were the generations who pioneered the creation of video games, as well as the first to play them. Naturally, a desire for challenge was born, and that challenge remained particularly tough throughout the early days of gaming. I can’t imagine the easier games of today holding anyone’s attention back in the 70’s and 80’s.

While game developers are likely aware of this generational divide, the millennials appear to be the target audience for most modern games. In my brief time as a game design major, my classmates and I were taught about these different generations to help our games appeal to a specific demographic, but we were also told to make our games as easy as possible for ourselves, with particular emphasis on the use of tutorials. Evidently, the large majority of gamers today are probably millennials.

Perhaps a more widely accepted explanation for video games becoming easier lies within the evolution of the medium itself. Games have always been about reaching an end goal and achieving triumphant victory over the enemies or obstacles presented in the game. More recently, however, we’ve seen video games become less game-like as they’ve turned into a cinematic method of storytelling, similar to movies, television, and even books. Of course, developers don’t want players to get stuck on a painfully hard level, they want players to finish their story, which is why most story-driven games provide little in the way of challenge.

Anyway, I’ve already taken up plenty of time analyzing why different gamers want different difficulties, so I suppose I should suggest some ideas I’d like to see implemented in video games that may work towards finding a happy medium between the “casual” and the “hardcore” alike.


Yeah, this one’s obvious, and it’s already present in many games, but there are a few cases where the difficulty selection is severely limited or entirely absent. No instance of this stands out in my mind more than the Grand Theft Auto series. I managed to complete San Andreas without too much trouble, but I can see how the time consuming, trial-and-error nature of many of the missions can quickly become annoying for less experienced players.

There are also those rare cases where the easy difficulty is too easy, like the insulting Easy mode in Mega Man 10. That same game, however, is also known for being pretty brutal on Normal mode. Such a wide gap means less skilled players have to choose between boredom and torture. Perhaps another difficulty could have been added between Easy and Normal in order to fall in line with that old Goldilocks principle.

Aside from simply adding more options, I’d like to see some improvements made on both ends of the difficulty spectrum. First, those who wish to play on Easy should not be treated like babies. Sure, some help and tutorials may be necessary to an extent, but having to deal with only a miniscule number of obstacles which pose little to no threat to one’s success has to be boring for just about any gamer. Case in point: I don’t know anyone who genuinely enjoys Guitar Hero’s Beginner mode, a level of simplification that feels almost patronizing. Instead of presenting fewer enemies/obstacles to the player, I might suggest giving that player a similar experience to one found in a medium difficulty, but make those enemies/obstacles less powerful or make the consequence for failure less severe (take less damage, have more lives, etc.) I assume this would feel more rewarding and would better prepare newbies for tougher challenges later on.

Second, those who wish to play on Hard should not be treated like slightly stronger babies. Don’t continue to bombard those masochistic players with tutorial messages, and don’t force them to unlock the Hard mode by first playing the game on an easier difficulty (*cough* Doom 3 *cough* Resident Evil 4 *cough* probably a ton of other games *cough*). We can assume that these guys know what they’re doing; they don’t need that much help. But like I said, I suck at most video games, so I can’t suggest much else for the hard players.


Having to deal with the impending annoyances that go along with the Death or Failure condition in a video game serves only as a test of my patience. Such annoyances may include having to watch a lengthy death animation, being asked whether to continue (even though the answer is pretty obvious), possibly being sent back to the main menu, sitting through painfully long loading screens, and the list goes on. Granted, most games won’t reach this exaggerated magnitude of inconvenience, but it is possible, and it’s bothersome to most gamers, regardless of skill.

Thankfully, there are games that quell the threat of these annoying death tropes, most notably, in my opinion, Bit.Trip Runner. This rhythm platformer is known for its often-unforgiving difficulty, but dying really isn’t a big deal. Sure, the game sends you back to the start of the level for hitting just one obstacle, but your sent back immediately without having to wait even a second. The harsh consequence is balanced out by an instant restart that won’t irritate the impatient.

Of course, the Game Over condition has to be somewhat punishing; otherwise it wouldn’t really be a Game Over. Developers need to find a balance between a sufficient penalty for failure, while not blatantly inconveniencing the player. Hopefully more games follow Bit.Trip Runner’s example.


I anticipate this one will be met with much disagreement. Indeed, being able to save anywhere at anytime could nullify any long-term risks of the player’s actions (especially in games like Mass Effect), and could potentially remove the challenge of the game entirely. One’s mistakes could be erased with a simple load of a previous save file. However, I think saving anywhere, combined with the ability to limit how often the game autosaves, would allow gamers to set their own checkpoints and customize a challenge that suits their specific skill level. Plus, it would simply be far more convenient to stop and save at any point and later pick up the game directly from that point without having to redo any work.

I don’t think players would abuse this ability too much, but I can see how it might be hard to resist the urge to save the game every few seconds when playing on a harder difficulty. If that’s the case, then perhaps there could be a way to limit the number of times the player can save. If I recall correctly, Dead Space 2 did something like this on it’s Hardcore difficulty setting in which you could only save three times. Yikes!

I realize these suggestions are probably flawed and not entirely original, considering many games have already implemented such features, but they could still use some improvements if developers want to satisfy gamers of all skill levels. My ideas may not be great, but feel free to share some of your own in the comments. How can games appeal to more newbies without pissing off the hardcore audience?

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