Right Amount of Challenge In Game Makes Jack a Bright Boy

Couple of days ago I set my alarm clock to wake me up at 5 am. I wanted to watch the Finland – Czech Republic match. It wasn’t after 3rd intermission when Finland scored 1-0 (and soon after it was 2-0). The whole game was a thriller – and and the challenge was just right. Game was a one big fight that ended in a good end result (at least from the Finnish perspective). The best gaming experiences can be like this: the player encounters challenge and barely wins in the game, with chance of losing.

It was totally different in the next Finland – USA match. The match became so that after 3 minutes or so, USA scored 0-1 due horrible error. Then couple of penalties and some minutes later it was 0-3. Then 0-6 after 15 minutes or so. It was slaughtering, and the first intermission wasn’t even over. At that point I went to bed to sleep. There was pretty much no point for me to watch the game as it was pretty certain that USA would win (1-6 was the end result).

So, when you “know” already who is going to win, there’s no point playing. One could argue that one should not stop fighting and all that… and yes, I agree on that. But I also agree with the design lesson that it’s much more fun to play when game provides just the right amount of challenge instead of playing a game that’s nearly impossible to win.

So, how can this be achieved?

Sometimes, it’s possible to provide handicap for the losing side. Some games have mechanisms that help the losing side to catch up. This can sometimes work pretty fine if done properly.

Some games might do the opposite (“rich get richer” attitude) or nothing.

In video games, it’s sometimes done so that the “AI balances/tweaks its behavior based on the game situation”. In video games, this feels like cheating. It can also lead to conclusions such as “why play as good as possible, if the computer will match my skills no matter what I do” – it’s like there’s no point of trying to get better since the computer is always mimicking my actions. It’s like playing chess with a mirror or something.

I think video games can learn from board game mechanisms in this issue. Board games don’t have similar AI that video games, thus they need to build the game mechanisms so that it works properly. Checking that side of the fence can be useful.

What you think? What kind of balancing you like in games? How you handle balancing in your game? How you like if computer difficulty is adjusted based on how well you are playing?

Juuso Hietalahti


  1. David Sirlin ( http://www.sirlin.net ) has been obsessed with this issue in a multiplayer balance for years now and writes well on the issue. He particularly loves puzzle fighter, where nearly winning means you’re nearly losing as well.

    Personally, I like games where information is very powerful, and you give up information to gain an advantage. Many rtses, for example, provide options to counter a known enemy, so when you lose a battle you still gain information you can use to try and win the war. Of course, the enemy knows that you know, which is part of what makes it interesting.

    I’ll second Rusty’s comment on unfair AI players. Discovering that the computer cheats on the higher difficulties killed my enjoyment of Civilization stone dead.

  2. I prefer to see a game that is inherently balanced before AI considerations, and the skill of your AI should not come from “cheating” as much as it should from adaptability and precision. So if you want an AI actor to be average, give them average abilities/equipment/weapons/whatever and program them with an average routine. If you want them to be above average give them the same stuff but tweak the AI itself up to an “above average” level. Never give them an unwarranted bonus or unreasonable abilities.

    I’ve never been a fan of dynamic difficulty adjustment either, and if used it should be presented as an option rather than required. If you can adjust dynamically, you certainly should be able to allow the player to set the difficulty at a discrete level, right?

  3. Adapting difficulty according to the player’s abilities does not match my perception of mastering skills. Maybe it’s because I made most of my gaming experiences through the 80s/90s were this concept was not as usual as it is today. The opening of the video game market to the casual gamers and “everybody can play it” MMO games forced game producers to cover hardcore gamers as well as newbies and casuals.

    The more difficulty adaption is used in a game the more gamers can be attracted. No adaption feels wrong because it kicks out that many potential customers which either get bored or frustrated. Explicit difficulty settings seem to be a compromise. That’s what I prefer in games: Let me adjust the challenge myself. Don’t treat me like a child and decide for me.

    Dynamic difficulty adaption is a tough discipline in (video) games. Players will detect dynamic adaption anyway so they will fool the game by playing like a rookie and switch to pro when the big scores come into play. How to bypass that?

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