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Optimizing Video Game Difficulty

It's a balancing act

A.J. Maciejewski

Written by for Dear Devs on

Providing gamers with a rewarding challenge is an incredibly difficult endeavour in itself so here are my thoughts on how to optimize video game difficulty so players can feel satisfied with a minimal level of frustration.

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Azure Reflections screenshot
Few genres provide a consistent challenge as well as a good old shoot 'em up

Balancing skill and repetition

The number one aspect that comes to mind when I think of game difficulty is whether a game purely tests skill or relies on repetition. Obviously, the majority of games lie somewhere in between and a balance is definitely ideal. For starters, the best way to purely test gamers' skills is to offer some sort of procedural generation whether it's via random level layouts, unpredictable enemy intelligence, etc. With these aspects in place, gamers can't simply memorize how to progress. On the other hand, too much randomization will make the level of challenge feel luck-based to some extent which will take some of the satisfaction out of beating challenging situations. v1d30chumz 3-235-186-94

That leads me to repetition. I sometimes see fellow gamers say things like, "That boss took me 67 attempts to beat but I finally did it and it felt awesome!" It's probably because I've been gaming for 30 years and I'm not as patient as I once was but whenever I hear things like that, I can't help but think they're crazy. When I have to try something dozens of times to beat it and finally do; I simply feel like I wasted my time and there's little sense of reward. With all of that said, the perfect level of repetition-based challenge would involve learning from your mistakes, getting familiar with patterns, and then being able to overcome the challenge shortly after that. In other words, when I'm doing the best I can and still require a handful of additional attempts; my eventual success will make me feel like I was lucky which diminishes my sense of satisfaction. In the end, skill and repetition need to be tested and handled with careful balance.

Death Stranding screenshot
Death Stranding can be as difficult as you want it to be

Compelling gamers to aim higher

One thing that I always love to see is when game developers create games that the average player could beat with a basic amount of effort yet more advanced players can aim higher in order to master the game. This can be accomplished in many ways but I'll just list a couple that come to mind. First, scoring gamers and including online leaderboards is a simple and effective way to push players of all skill levels to aim higher. If you were to get a B rank on a mission or level, wouldn't you be compelled to try again to achieve an A or S rank? I know I always am. Next, incorporating optional challenges will allow hardcore gamers to flex their gaming muscles while casual gamers can simply opt out of such challenges. After all, casual gamers are often satisfied with simply beating a game.

Alleviating frustration

Just like with compelling gamers to aim higher, alleviating frustration can be achieved in many different ways. One method that I don't see as often as I'd like is offering relevant tips. For example, if a player dies 3 times in a row while fighting a particular boss, why not have a character butt in and tell them that the boss is weak against ice or to use the dodge button? This would especially be effective if you can detect that the player hasn't tried an ice weapon yet or pressed the dodge button as often as they should have.

Another way you can alleviate frustration is by implementing RPG elements. Getting stuck then being able to level up, equip better gear, or simply try different loadouts makes progressing past tough scenarios more accessible yet still challenging. The degree to which these elements help players should be parallel to the overall vision for the game as you don't want gamers to effortlessly become overpowered if you're trying to make a grueling Souls-like and you also don't want players to get easily annoyed if you're trying to appeal to the masses. Finally, merely including a difficulty select is a great way to alleviate frustration. Some gamers may snarl at the notion of catering to casual gamers but this sort of gatekeeping mentality is generally looked down upon. Plus, you could always lock out achievements at lower settings or have difficulty options unlock after multiple failed attempts like in the original Devil May Cry.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night screenshot
Metroidvanias usually provide plenty of opportunities to overcome challenges

Thank you for reading my thoughts on how to implement various elements of video game difficulty. If you'd like to share your thoughts on the topic or have a question for me, feel free to leave a comment below.

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Gameplay video playlist for Optimizing Video Game Difficulty
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