[Questions] Difficulty settings

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I am currently doing some kind of research on game design, mostly to make my future games even better. So today I’m going to ask you all about your opinions on difficulty settings in games (specifically RPGs, games that involve combat and games that require some level grinding).


To make things simple, I have three different ways to “implement” difficulty settings to a game.


  • The first way (will be referred to as [A] from now on) is to implement several difficulty settings (easy, medium, hard, etc.) that you have to choose when you first start the game and cannot change it again later. The difficulty setting is permanently saved in the savefile. The game will still consist of easy parts and difficult parts, regardless of which difficulty setting you choose.
    Example: There are so many games that use this, I can’t be bothered to list them all.


  • The second way (will be referred to as [B] from now on) is to implement several difficulty settings (easy, medium, hard, etc.). You are asked to choose one when you first start the game, but can change the difficulty setting later at any point in the game. Again, the game will still consist of easy parts and difficult parts, regardless of difficulty setting.
    Example: Epic Battle Fantasy 4


  • The third way (will be referred to as [C] from now on) is to implement no difficulty settings at all. Instead, the required “missions” to complete the game will be reasonably easy, while the optional ones will be harder. The players can choose which parts of the game to play and which ones to avoid, based on how good they are.
    Example: MARDEK series, Cloudstone

So, here are my questions.


1. Which one of the above ([A], [B] or [C]) is the best in your opinion? Why?


2. Assuming I use [A]:

  • 2.1. Should any part of content be locked out on easy mode? Or should those content be adjusted accordingly to be suitable for easy mode?
  • 2.2. Should each difficulty setting have its own separate leaderboards?
  • 2.3. So, let’s say it’s some RPG game with level grinding. Harder difficulty settings makes it so that monsters are more powerful. Should rewards (EXP gain, item drop rate, etc.) be higher, lower or the same on harder difficulty levels?


3. Assuming I use [B], should there be any penalties for switching to an easier difficulty level?


4. Again, let’s say that the game is some kind of RPG that involves killing monsters, and when you kill monsters, you gain EXP, level up and become stronger.

  • 4.1. Should I use [A] or [B] in that kind of game at all, or should I use only [C]?
  • 4.2. Assuming I do use [A] or [B], which of the following should be done in easy mode to make it “easier”? (Pick one or multiple)
    • (1) Reduced grinding – monsters give extra EXP, more loot, etc.
    • (2) Reduced monster stats – monsters are weaker, and thus, easier to kill
    • (3) Reduced penalties – lower death penalty, etc.
    • (4) More checkpoints, more navigable maps, more hiding places, etc.
  • 4.3. Assuming I use [C], should I make it so that you unlock harder versions of the same “missions” after clearing the original easy version (similar to some games like Gemcraft, Kingdom Rush, Cloudstone)? Or should hard content be completely different and separated from easy content?


5. Is it a good idea for the game to auto–adjust difficulty (and reward) based on the player’s performance?


Well, that’s it. The answers to some questions seem to be apparent, but I would like to hear your thoughts on all of them. All answers are appreciated.

 
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Well, I’m not a programmer, but here’s how I see it:

1. I like C, I can just skip the places that are too hard, or come back if it isn’t a special one-time quest.
A is pretty mainstream, can’t say much about it.
In my opinion B isn’t a good way, if you thought you can handle the harder mode, do it, or if too hard, start over.

2.1 I can’t think of a reason to lock something on easy mode, makes more sense to me to make hardest difficulty only content.
2.2 Yes, especially if a “speedrun time” highscore is implemented (assuming the game has an end).

2.3 Depends on how it’s easier to balance, but specific very powerful items should drop rarer. Other rewards (mostly EXP and coins) should incraise to give players a (fake) sense of reward. Well at least it would make ME feel better/motivated to play on harder settings.

3. Maybe a cost? Like level, rare drops. I don’t know.

4.1 Why not? Use them if you think so.

4.2 (1) More loot, but I don’t think more EXP is good.
(2) Definitely.
(4) I like this idea.

4.3 Why not both? After a main mission you get optionals, and after completing the game a “New Game+” with stronger everything. If that would make it too big I vote for the first one.

5. Umm, the only kind of game using this mechanic I played was touhou, it wan’t bad. I’d be interested to see how would it turn out if you’d do it.

Man, this post seems awfully short to be proper. :/
Hope I helped! :D

 
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Automatically adjusting the difficulty is a bad idea. It sounds good, but it’s not. Some players will be unsatisfied when they complete a level only because they failed so many times because they want to really beat the game, and other players will just play the game badly in order to make it easier.

Also, different difficulties should definitely have different leaderboards.

Here.

 
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1. I like both A and C. I think B is an horrible way, aside that it makes harder Kongregate badge implementation (like it happened in EBF4), it ruins the challenge of harder modes because you can always give up and change difficulty.

2.1 Extra quests/alternative ending for harder difficulty.

2.2 If you are refering to Kongregate leaderboards, only make diferencies at the ending of the game (Use “GameCompletedInEasy”, but not something like “MonstersKilledInEasy”) That will make badge implementation easier. (if you are interested in badges)

2.3 I think there is no need to change the rewards, since you anyways need to defeat the monster to obtain them. Just make the monster stronger.

3.Depending of how different are the difficulty levels.

4.1 Maybe both A and C?
4.2 Reduce the monster stats. Specially the “attack” stat, making the player to recieve less damage, without making the player to instantly kill the monster (that would be boring)
4.3 Are you talking about post-story sidequests? That would be good.

5. In some games it would be a good idea (specially games that rely on time-management like the Book of Mages saga), but not on a grinding RPG.

Off-Topic: I can’t wait to see your future games :D

 
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I would say B, for the fact that someone may want to go back to an earlier area with a higher difficulty to train.

Yes, but only really tough optional battles.
Of course! But not all stats.
Higher on higher difficulties.

Lower reward.

I would say you should add some B to it.
2. That’s what most things on easy do.
The former. But you should still be able to ascess it early on, just with a warning that you’re not supposed to do it until you’ve beat the game.

Nope, but you can set it as an option.

 
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Thanks for the answers, everyone. Much appreciated.

Originally posted by GameBuilder15:

Automatically adjusting the difficulty is a bad idea. It sounds good, but it’s not. Some players will be unsatisfied when they complete a level only because they failed so many times because they want to really beat the game, and other players will just play the game badly in order to make it easier.

Also, different difficulties should definitely have different leaderboards.

Here.

That’s interesting, but sadly, I can’t buy the book. I’ll be sure to buy it on my next trip to Earth though.

 
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You could also make a case for D, I suppose.
(D.) You are allowed to change difficulty settings at set points.
Unfortunately, I’m not exactly experienced with game design, so, take my advice with a grain of salt.

 
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I’ve found that easier games tend to get higher ratings. A lot of our players aren’t the hardcore gamers like us, who play video games so hard that now we make our own just for the challenge of it. Casual players like to finish games too, and see all the content.

<cynical> Make a game play easy, appearing difficult. Then have an announcer loudly praise the player’s skill (‘M-M-M-Monsterkill!’). Instant 5 star game. </cynical hat>.

Letting the player adjust the difficulty is the best policy. But it helps to be canny about it. Setting the difficulty to easy feels like losing. Experience/upgrades are good. By letting the player level up and buy +5 boots, they are effectively setting the game difficulty to easy, but in a way that lets them feel they have beaten the game.
 
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Originally posted by Tukkun:

That’s interesting, but sadly, I can’t buy the book. I’ll be sure to buy it on my next trip to Earth though.

I was able to get it from the library, maybe you can do the same. It’s definitely worth reading.

And CuriousGaming, I noticed that too. People love grind-to-win games. Really disappointing.

 
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Grind to win is bad. Grind to let the player adjust the difficulty level? Good.

 
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Originally posted by CuriousGaming:

Grind to win is bad. Grind to let the player adjust the difficulty level? Good.

Can you give me an example of a grind-to-adjust-the-difficulty game? I only see grind-to-win.

 
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While it’s kind of sad, a RPG that relies purely on skill won’t work. After 1000 hours of playing, you’re not any stronger, and players who have played for 1 hour can do better than you. It also makes it so that you feel like you’re not progressing at all (barely anything changes after you play for 1000 hours). I think it’s the best to make it so that grinding does make you stronger, but not required to win. Though, some grinding should be required, so that not everyone can just go straight to the final boss and win without even reaching level 2. I think the reasonable amount of grinding that a game should require is about 0% ~ 20% of the time spent on the main storyline (and extra grinding makes the game easier for the more “casual” players).

Can you give me an example of a grind-to-adjust-the-difficulty game? I only see grind-to-win.

Elephant Quest. You can grind to level up more, and gain more credits and abilities, and then the game becomes easier. But you can also ignore many parts of the content and attempt the final boss fight with lower stats, it’s possible. You can also challenge yourself by restricting the number of abilities you use.

The difference between these two is kind of obvious:

  • Grind to adjust the difficulty: You can get up to 50% or so extra power for grinding. This extra power is not required to beat the game, though it makes the game easier.
  • Grind to win: You deal 1 damage at level 1, and 1 trillion damage at level 100. You have no chance to win unless you reach level 100, which takes hours of grinding.

Generally, “grind to adjust the difficulty” is a good thing for shorter and more casual games, while “grind to win” is also acceptable for long games and MMORPGs (excluding ones with PvP) to “lengthen” gameplay. A MMORPG gets boring if a level 400 player who has played for years is barely stronger than a level 1 who has just started.

Note that I’m generally referring to games that involve a storyline. For games that have no story and endless games the case might be different.

 
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Hmm … ok, I guess there was some confusion. I don’t really remember Elephant Quest so I can’t say much about it. But I generally call games like Strike Force Heroes grind-to-win. You don’t need to reach the level cap to win but it makes it easier. The game was very easy for me, I beat it with the SPAS-12. But I call games like that grind to win because if you’re having trouble, you just grind until you can win. I guess you might refer to it as a grind-to-adjust-difficulty game.

And yeah, I don’t think an RPG is possible without some grinding/leveling. But it doesn’t have to be ridiculous. Some games are just over the top.

 
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This is my opinion…

1: Either A or C, considering that there are VERY difficult parts for C, WAY more difficult than for A, so people don’t get stuck too often at A, and neither does C get too easy for hardcore players.
I mean, with a RPG game with the C system, the final boss shouldn’t be stupidly easy like it is in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

2:
2.1: No. As you can’t change, making stuff be locked like they are in Sonny 2 makes no sense, unless they can only be unlocked once, like in Sonny 2.
2.2: Definetly.
2.3: Should be the same. If you get a higher difficulty, you must be sure that you know what you are doing, otherwise exponential curves might even make the game be easier than it is in easier difficulties, like it’s done in “Agony: The Portal”.
Also, if monsters are stronger, you shouldn’t need to grind more, once the monsters are already stronger lol.

3:
There should definetly be penalties like there are in Unranked Mode in Arcade or the easy modes of Secret Dungeon.
I mean, penalties in rewards and achievements.

4.
4.1:Again, either A or C, considering that the final boss isn’t stupidly easy like in Skyrim.
4.2: 2. Only.
4.3:No, No, NO NO!!! Specially for an RPG, Hard mode should definitely be unlocked in beggining of the game, in the moment you left the loading screen (please don’t make we choose the modes IN the loading screen, you troll)

5. Unless this is a multiplayer game, no. And even TFCG, which is totally a multiplayer game, doesn’t have this system, so…

The only game I’ve ever seen the system for 5 working is Dota 2.

 
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Giving more experience in hard mode either defeats the purpose of hard mode, or is a false reward, assuming the entire game is played at a single difficulty level, no going back and forth. On the other hand, better drop rates for rare loot in hard mode make complete sense: higher risk, greater rewards is a concept pretty much everyone can understand. Make sure you advertise it in the difficulty selection screen so people can make an educated choice.

 
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Someone on Tutsplus wrote 4 articles about difficulty, and they’re well worth a read. I hope you enjoy.

 
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1. If you are going towards an RPG based game, C would probably be the best one, however the optional tasks should be about the same difficulty as their progressing main quest, (Ex. A mission a lvl. 20 person can do should also have side tasks surrounding that mission that a lvl. 20 person can do.) If making a simple linear game A would be great for replay value. B in my opinion would be the worst because people would just play the game once and call it good.

2.1 The only thing that should be locked out in easy mode is bragging rights. If a person perfected Dragon Force on Guitar Hero on easy they are just seen as an “okay” player, yet when someone perfects it on Expert they are seen as gods.
2.2 Yes definitely. It might create a lot of clutter but again, a person who completes something on easy shouldn’t get the same amount of credit of a person who plays on hard.
2.3 Exp Gain should be higher, that’s it. Drop rate should only increase based on the harder creatures you face on all difficulties.

3. I don’t know, using option B would make it easier for people to manipulate the game to still play on a lower difficulty without the penalty and not having a penalty isn’t a good thing either.

4.1 A mixture of A and C would be good. Just please don’t use B, I don’t even know why that is an option.
4.2 #2, #4 is okay to do too, #1 I wouldn’t do,

  1. If the death penalty is at a fixed percentage (ie the higher you are, the harder you fall) it would be fine.Not
    4.3 Not exactly, you can add challenges to the missions so that you are able to pass the level, but you might want to be a higher level to go for some of the challenges kind of deal.

5. A good Idea for the C option because it adds challenge to a player. If a player is flying by these missions like going up the first 100 levels in Anti-Idle it should be harder.
I wouldn’t recommend it for option A because it’s a fixed difficulty. You can make a “level decider” mission to make a recommendation of what difficulty you should be playing at (Ex. Call of Duty 4)
Option B is at the players choice, sure the game might set them to hard automatically, but they will just switch it back to easy.

In summary:
I recommend a use of either option A or C or both. Please don’t use B

You don’t need to change the game based on difficulty, just the feeling to know “I can beat this game on Hard difficulty” is good enough, and good for replay value.

If using option A grinding should be about the same in all difficulties, (but probably more grinding for the harder difficulties) Sure a person playing on hard mode might get more rewards, but they need more rewards to take on the harder to kill monsters.

I don’t recommend auto-adjust but having a recommendation of the level a person should be is ok. (A option)

I strongly don’t like option B.

Thank you for reading all of this because I know people have been writing a lot of stuff.

 
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I feel compelled to defend option B. It’s getting so much bad press for reasons which, I think, are not the correct ones.

First, the example given of a ‘type B’ game is EBF4 and indeed, that game lets you switch between four levels of difficulty at your leisure. It is also one of the most highly ranked games on this site at this time, so it appears that the difficulty mechanism has not crippled its popularity. I don’t know, it’s almost as if players are capable of choosing the difficulty level that is appropriate for them better than game designers can!

I’ve been hammering that point in other threads but never before have the data been clearer. When a good game lets players choose how difficult they want it to be, they are perfectly capable of choosing a setting that maximizes their enjoyment of the game. EBF4 is also structured in a way that makes winning without repeating a single fight much harder than simply winning at the highest difficulty level. Every fight is easy if you’ve got 5 to 10 levels on the enemies, and trivial above that. Since encounters do not give more XP on the higher difficulties, having the option to switch to easy to grind a few fights before going back to your preferred level is actually a welcome convenience that alleviates part of the grinding.

The objections to B have been, by-and-large, emotional knee-jerk reactions based on what appears to be “moral” grounds (I use the term loosely.)
“In my opinion B isn’t a good way, if you thought you can handle the harder mode, do it, or if too hard, start over.” No word on why forcing players to start over is better than just letting them drop the difficulty a notch and keep on going.
“I think B is an horrible way, […] it ruins the challenge of harder modes.” Also known as the ‘the players are lazy/sneaky and will exploit any weakness also they can smell fear’ argument. If a player has voluntarily chosen to complete the game in hard mode but are switching to easy for the boss fights they are only cheating themselves. It doesn’t pick your pocket or break your leg, let them.
“B would make it easier for people to manipulate the game to still play on a lower difficulty without the penalty” Those sneaky bastards.

These are the same arguments that have been used repeatedly against the idea of letting players choose how difficult they want the game to be. It is an adversarial worldview that pits the designer, protector of the game’s integrity, against the players, the barbarians at the gates trying to pillage all content. It assumes that when players are done with a game all that is left of it is a dry, empty husk.

Maybe it’s my tabletop RPG background speaking, but I’d rather view games as partnerships between the designer and players, with the shared goal of having a fun time playing the game. As a designer, I want my players to enjoy the game, I want my creation to bring them pleasure. Any point at which I generate frustration, boredom or annoyance is a bug, never a feature. If the game makes the players feel powerless, humiliated or insulted I have lost, not won.

Use B. Embrace B. B is good, if you do it right, and doing it right means being upfront about how difficulty is a choice you place in the player’s hands. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to tailor their experience to their own needs? It’s their time they use to play, and the game runs on their hardware. You are playing with them, not against them.

 
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Originally posted by Ace_Blue:

First, the example given of a ‘type B’ game is EBF4 and indeed, that game lets you switch between four levels of difficulty at your leisure. It is also one of the most highly ranked games on this site at this time, so it appears that the difficulty mechanism has not crippled its popularity. I don’t know, it’s almost as if players are capable of choosing the difficulty level that is appropriate for them better than game designers can!

I don’t think one can actually make any assessment (for or against) for that mechanism based on the popularity of a game that would’ve doubtless been popular anyway. None of the comments I read (that I recall) even mentioned the ability (other than one laughing about how the game “makes fun of you” for choosing the easy difficulty setting).

However, the objections to it here are not from the perspective of game developers, but of game players (at least, it seems to me; why would the developer care, as long as it made their game more popular? Though it is theoretically possible that the aversion to it is a kind of “artist’s pride”).

Originally posted by Ace_Blue:

Any point at which I generate frustration, boredom or annoyance is a bug, never a feature. If the game makes the players feel powerless, humiliated or insulted I have lost, not won.

This is true.

Does losing a game at the difficulty level that the developer has determined make the player feel powerless, humiliated, or insulted? I suppose it does for some (in some extreme cases, it may for me as well).

 
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Those are some really interesting thoughts.

And yes, I’m mostly asking for the players’ perspectives. Why would I ask what I want in my own game? Here on Kongregate, a “well–designed” (in the developer’s perspective) game that nobody plays is worth nothing compared to a lame game that people play a lot and find reasons to enjoy. If the players like the difficulty setting system terribly designed, I will do it that way. Similarly, if the majority prefers “grind to win” games, I’ll just add fake difficulty by including more grinding in the game. Games are made for the players. But then, of course, what is true on Kongregate might not apply to other places. If the game becomes more widespread, changes will have to be made.

 
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I would agree with Ace about B being superior to A. The first time you play a game, when choosing a difficulty at the start, you have no idea how hard the game is going to be for you – there’s no way to make an informed choice. Needing to restart the game to change the difficulty is really annoying.

 
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Tukkun, based on how I am reading the comments, I think that another question you should ask yourself is “Who do I want to be my audience?” I see this as an important question because based on how the people respond to your questions determine what kind of player they are. For the player that just wants to play the game for fun, option B would be the best way to go. If you are going for the competitive player (like me) you should use option A, and for those who just want to seek a challenge they can go with Option C. That’s how I see it though

 
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Originally posted by dragon_of_celts:

Does losing a game at the difficulty level that the developer has determined make the player feel powerless, humiliated, or insulted?

I don’t know, why don’t you try playing Give Up and let me know?

OK, yes, I chose a pretty extreme example, and one that illustrates another of my pet peeves: insulting the player.

As for EBF4, I started it on the ‘Epic’ (highest) difficulty. I switched to the easiest setting about 3/4 through the game (at the temple, to be precise) when I got tired of having to switch all equipment every other fight. Re-equipping four characters with the EBF4 interface is a lot of clicks and it’s not really interesting. I started finding the game tedious, but it became enjoyable again with the reduced difficulty and I happily finished it. So, in my case, the free difficulty changes made me play the game more than if the change had not been available. I know, anecdotal evidence and all that, just like any scientific experiment.

I can’t comment on the player/designer perspective dichotomy as I don’t understand it. To me, if you’re making a game, then your perspective is the designer’s, even if you’re trying to put yourself in the players’ shoes. And if you’re analyzing a game, then your perspective is again the designer’s, even if you played the game in order to dissect it.

 
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Originally posted by Ace_Blue:

I can’t comment on the player/designer perspective dichotomy as I don’t understand it. To me, if you’re making a game, then your perspective is the designer’s, even if you’re trying to put yourself in the players’ shoes. And if you’re analyzing a game, then your perspective is again the designer’s, even if you played the game in order to dissect it.

Uh… So no one is qualified to give their assessment as a player (as that would be analyzing the game and thus change their assessment to that of a designer)? OK…

As for your question-answer to my question, citing an extreme example doesn’t do much, particularly since I wrote that in extreme cases I might feel frustration/boredom/annoyance[/powerless/humiliated/insulted]. If we take a non-extreme example of a game, does my question elicit the same answer? (Not for me)

 
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Originally posted by dragon_of_celts:

Uh… So no one is qualified to give their assessment as a player (as that would be analyzing the game and thus change their assessment to that of a designer)? OK…

What part of “I don’t understand this dichotomy” don’t you understand?