2 Unspoken Methods For Creating Difficulty Levels

There’s 2 things that many games miss when choosing difficulty levels. But before getting deeper into those, here’s a story about what made me talk about this issue.

I tested a game done by a friend of mine. It’s a cool sidescroller game which I like to describe as “horror-ish adventurish sidescroller” game.

Quite interesting phenomenon occured to me while I was testing the game. I thought that the game was too difficult to me. I didn’t get kicks in trying to time my jumps right, or fighting huge number of monsters or Big Bosses.

I was much more interested in immersing myself into the story and looking at all the beautiful artwork in the game. In fact, I even said to my friend that I disliked the fact that I almost got stuck once (due precision targeted jumping), and almost dropped the game. I then later got stuck against one Big Boss and felt that I would have wanted to continue, but it’s just my skills won’t be good enuf against that Big Boss. Therefore I have no option other than stop playing.

He said he would consider adding “easy” difficulty (besides “normal”) in the game.

And… if that happens, I’m so one happy camper since I hate to get stuck. My fingers aren’t made for platformer games, they are made to hold the NHL ’11 stick. It’s hugely important that player won’t get stuck. Difficulty levels can help with that

Anyways, this kept me thinking that there’s couple of nice tricks that you can do with difficulty levels.

  • Naming them differently: In NHL ’11 the default difficulty level is “pro” which somewhat stands for “easyish”. Then there’s allstar and superstar difficulty levels. These stand for “normalish” and “hard”. There’s also “amateur” for “easy”. Even though “pro” can be somewhat easy, I still like that they call it “pro”. It gives me a nice lie about the fact that I can think to be better player than I am. And I like that lie. When I play games that have “super easy” or “easy” (and cannot even beat those) I feel like a small worm getting under a big foot. Not good. But “pro” (even when it’s relatively easy). Now that lie touches my ego. That’s a good lie. It’s good to communicate that “even though this difficulty level is somewhat easy, we respect your player skills – and call you pro”. Consider it. It’s a blatant lie. But I like it.
  • Second thing is: *possibility to change difficulty during gameplay*. I first saw this in Minecraft and immediately thought that other games could use this as well. Why choose difficulty right in the beginning? Why not let player choose difficulty as the game progresses. Perhaps there’s some big badass boss which player cannot pass – then no problem, just switch to “very, very easy” and go pass the boss. Then switch to “harder than eva” and keep playing. I really think switching difficulty level is a good thing.

Of course you can also choose not to use difficulty levels, but rather make it easier for next attempts. For example, if the player cannot get pass an obstacle after 2-3 tries, you could give him extra boosters (health, energy, hit damage, jump distance, speed, whatever) that can help him on the 4th trying. If 4th fails, then make it even easier on the 5th. At some point he will pass.

And then if you want, you can give higher score points for people who pass on harder difficulty levels.

Some food for thought.

Do you have an example where you’ve witnessed a well executed “difficulty modifier” in a game?

Juuso Hietalahti


  1. I’ve added a difficulty option to my game and named them as:
    “easy – for a more casual play”
    “normal – everything is as it should be”
    The difficulty effects combat only.

    You need to go into settings to change it, but it can be changed during gameplay (just taking you back to the last checkpoint)

    Easy adjusts each type of enemy a little differently: Some have weaker attacks while others have weaker defence.

  2. Fallout and Baldur’s Gate had adjustable difficulty levels.
    So it’s definitely a viable option.

    Some games, like original System Shock, gave the ability to choose your own set before game start: you could make combat hard and puzzles easy, for example, or some other combination.

    But my favorite is the approach from Thief. Apart from clever level naming (iirc, Normal, Expert and Master difficulties) and classic modifiers (player health, damage dealt/received etc) it changed the mission objects and the layout of mission.
    Example: in mission 2 on Normal, you could use an elevator to get from mines to the prison. On Expert+, the elevator was broken, so you’d have to crawl through undead-infested mines.

  3. You forgot one of the most important things: CHEATS! There are times when I’m playing a game just like you (for story and graphics) and I get stuck somewhere. I’d rather use some cheats just to get past that BOSS/door/bug than switching to a lower difficulty level or waiting for the game to feel sorry for me and drop me another booster pack.
    Oh, and I don’t agree with naming the easiest level “PRO”. It’s stupid. Remember Wolfenstein 3D? When selecting the difficulty, if you chose easy, it had a baby picture.
    I did the thing with choosing the difficulty level any time and nobody used it. Most people don’t even think that there’s an option for that so they don’t look for it.

  4. In the God of War series, when you fail several times at the same point (say 10 or so), the game propose you to switch to easy mode. I *never* choose “yes” for 3 reasons:
    1) it’s an insult to my ego (just like someone looks at me playing and say: “it’s too hard for you baby”).
    2) it seems to be a one-way switch: once you’re in easy mode, I think you can’t go back to normal mode.
    3) I know some achievements and extra challenges can’t be unlocked if you don’t finish the game in normal mode.

    So I definitely hate such proposal from a game since you don’t know what you “loose” once you have switched (even temporarily) to easy mode. IMHO, the best way to handle difficulty in game-design is always to offer an alternate road for hard levels (ie: hard!=blocking) and inform the player what he will not get if he bypasses it (ie: hard==reward).

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