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When we talk about players setting their own difficulty, we’re not talking about choosing from ‘easy’, ‘medium’ or ‘hard’ in the main menu, but a vast range of techniques that allows the player to dynamically set their own level of challenge as they progress through the game.
Why allow the player to do this?
These designs mean players can fine tune the challenges that you’ve set out for them, in some cases even skipping them altogether. This reduces the emphasis that must be placed on a dynamically scaling system - though not something it should replace, but stand beside.
Unlike dynamic difficulty, these designs embody the ranges of challenge in missions, scenarios and systems - and so are visible to the player. This often this means greater replayability as beginners can see ways of interacting with your game they can aspire to. There are in-fact many more benefits to these systems which we’ll explore with some examples.
More difficult, optional game components
This is commonplace in many games - harder challenges of all kinds that can be attempted or bypassed depending on whether the player feels they have the skill required.
- Green stars in Mario 3D World - These more challenging divergences in the level design offer greater risk, but completing them will award the player with a green star, which are used to unlock later levels.
- Optional routes in Burnout Paradise - this game has many branching sub-routes that are more difficult, but offer rewards, even if they are as subtle as having lots of trick-jumps you can use to rack up a bigger score.
- Very difficult but optional bosses in From Software’s games (Dark Souls, Bloodborne) - in their latest game, the Abhorrent Beast and the Bloodstarved Beast are rated among the hardest, but are entirely optional.
Different ways to play
These are games that cater for multiple playstyles, give the player the chance to master an alternate way of completing the game, or mix and match the two. It’s a nice design element that supports player choice, but it also allows us alternatives when a section may become too challenging.
- The multiple specialisations of Deus Ex - The player is able to choose between combat, which pushes on reflexes and tactical evaluation. Stealth, which relies on observation and timing, and hacking, which provides a puzzle-solving approach to each scenario.
- The ‘Heavy Weapons’ of Disney Infinity - We had big carriable weapons that were much more powerful than your character. We decided to let the players take them wherever they wanted - they make you much slower and were usually left behind, but if you were struggling with the combat, you could use them to make the game easier at the cost of movement speed.
Setting your own goals
Unlike games which offer you many ways to complete them, these games embody the idea that the goal is set by the player - many goals varying in the level of challenge that they provide.
- The world structure of Minecraft - The player can choose to simply build and explore, mine into the more dangerous parts of the game or try and break into the final, hard to reach ‘boss stage’.
This is my personal favourite, mostly because clever systems design can deliver this player-set difficulty on a micro or macro level. These are systems that range from allowing you to elegantly but purposefully raise and lower the difficulty, to systems that when pushed, push back harder.
- The dynamic AI of Halo - As you become more bold, more enemies are allowed to engage you at once - proximity is the heuristic here. This means if you’re timid and keep your distance, the challenge is less than if you go in guns blazing. The AI also eases off if you retreat, again allowing you to back out of your decision to ramp up your own difficulty. This allows the player to vary the challenge on the micro level - every encounter can be approached differently.
- The ‘Insight’ resource in Bloodborne - Insight is a currency earned by defeating bosses, and the more you have, the harder the game gets - enemies are visibly upgraded and more of them appear. The game allows you to spend this currency on helpful items and cooperative help from other players, and in doing so you get the added benefit that the game becomes a little easier. This system allows the player to vary their challenge on a macro level - their decision to make the game easier affects the whole game world.
- The colour-based scoring mechanic of Ikaruga - In Ikaruga you are immune to projectiles of the same colour, however to get the really high scores you must defeat them with the opposite colour, making the game more difficult. The gameplay gets more complex and more difficult as you try and become better at the game. This is micro-level system as it affects individual enemies.
- The common component of all these systems is that they keep the game challenging for more skilled players. Often, they reward those players but they rarely punish the weaker ones.
- The hardest part of your game should be an optional part. This does not mean reducing the difficulty of your game’s final moment, but about adding in additional challenges that most hardcore players.
- Often we create a drawback to taking the easy option so as to incentivise the player become better. This is often necessary so that players don’t simply choose the path of least resistance. It’s always worth considering however if it’s really necessary to punish players for not being good enough. Ask yourselves, why shouldn’t we let the player cheat? Why can’t the player sneak past our bosses if they’re too hard? Deus Ex certainly takes this ideology to heart. Sometimes it’s about choice, sometime’s it’s about rewarding better players, but in my opinion it should never be about punishing bad ones.
- There is another fantastic side-effect to many of these systems - it allows players to control pacing and pressure. Regardless of difficulty, many of these systems allows the player to ramp down intense gameplay and just breeze through a section when they feel like taking a break.
- Drawing attention to all of these mechanics might very well be something you want to do. In Bloodborne you can decide to counter enemies attacks rather than dodging them. This puts you in the way of danger, but allows you to take them out faster. Compare this to Ikaruga’s system where putting yourself in danger by switching to the opposite colour can result in greater rewards - The real difference here is only that Ikaruga’s system draws attention to itself with a score, while Bloodborne’s doesn’t. You’re not particularly incentivised to always use the counter mechanic, if you were (for example, perhaps enemies could only drop items if killed this way) it would become obvious to the player that there was a ‘best’ way of playing the game - thus incentivising people to become more skilled.
The gameplay hasn’t changed, but we’ve motivated the player by enhancing their perception of the system. Of course players sometimes do this of their own volition anyway - this is one of those fuzzy design decision that will depend on your game.
- The importance of readability in these systems cannot be understated - Increasing the number of enemies shooting at you in Halo, is far better than upping their damage, because the player can’t see that happening. In all of these examples, the workings of the systems are exposed - without this, the player may never notice them, and won’t then be able to make a conscious decision about their play-style.
Finally, let’s call this by its true name - this is actually dynamic difficulty ramping of the current situation. Something I warned away from in this article. The thing that makes it work is that the player can back away from it. Vary it consciously. These systems are presented as a natural aspect of the game’s world, and not a developer lurking behind the scenes, reducing the difficulty. It is the difference between choosing a worthy opponent, and being faced against a skilled one who is very obviously going easy on you.