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Auto-Adjusting Frustration

By Shamus
on Thursday Jan 15, 2009
Filed under:
Game Design


The Birdmen post the other day kicked off an interesting discussion on auto-leveling or auto-adjusting difficulty in games. Now, I’m very much against auto-adjusting difficulty, because it solves one problem – the need for a game to provide the “right” level of challenge to all players – by creating a worse one: Taking away the ability of the player to adjust for frustration tolerance.

Ask people if a game is easy or hard, and you’ll see responses like:

Player1: Pfft. That game was a cakewalk. I only died maybe once a level.

Player2: That game was a pain in the ass. I died on almost every level.

So even among players of the same skill, the same experience can lead to very different perceptions. Some people want to play on a level they know they can handle and hoover up the content. Some players want the threat of failure to enhance their excitement. And some players want constant failure to test them and force them to develop their skills.

The latter type of player always asks the other types of players, “How can you find a game exciting if you know you’re going to win?”

The answer for me is, “The same way I find it exciting to see Bruce Willis shoot bad guys, even when everybody knows Bruce is going to win.” There is the excitement carried by the story and spectacle, and the other layer of excitement carried by the gameplay. But if a game poses too great a challenge, then both layers of excitement are replaced with simple frustration. Personally, I tend to play the game the first time on normal difficulty (and lately, easy difficulty) and enjoy the story. Then – if the game pleases me – I’ll ramp up the difficulty and focus on the gameplay. Lately, a lot of games have simply not been worth the effort to learn to play them well.

But if I do enjoy a game, I sometimes find myself seeking greater challenges than the ones provided by the designers. During a gaming dry spell a couple of years ago, I went through Half-Life 2 on all the difficulty settings, and then I tried to beat it “Nethack”-style by not saving / restoring. If I died, I started over at the beginning of Route Kanal. I tried several times. My most notable game was the one where I made it all the way to the Citadel, and then died stupidly by blundering under one of those vertical stompers right inside the entrance. Close, but I moved on to other games without ever truly beating it sans-save. Ah well.

Auto-adjusting difficulty usually works by lowering the difficulty slightly when you fail, and raising it slightly when you have success. (Note that this is different from auto-leveling enemies in RPGs like Oblivion, which I also think is a bad idea. But that’s another discussion.) The designer decides for himself what rate of failure is “appropriate”, and enforces that on everyone. Players will either win or lose until they reach an equilibrium at the point where they meet the designer’s intended failure rate. If you need to fail twice in each section of the game to keep the difficulty at the same level, then you are going to fail twice in every section, no matter what. If you get better, so does the game. Your skills may improve over time, but your overall rate of success won’t.

Managing frustration is the most crucial part of enjoying a game. When people complain about difficulty, they’re usually complaining that the game was too frustrating. Auto-adjusting difficulty actually establishes and perpetuates the problem you were trying to solve. People with a low frustration threshold won’t just be annoyed until they can get better. They will be annoyed forever, no matter how good they get. People who want a Serious Challenge can never really get it.

Worse, even for the hardcore players who want to put themselves up against a brutal challenge for the sake of overcoming it, it deprives them of any good metric for progress. They don’t get the satisfaction of acing something that used to be too hard for them, because the game has ramped up the difficulty to match. Their true score – the internal number that governs how much the game is cheating or taking a dive – is usually not shown to the user.

(Think of it like a weight set that doesn’t allow you to set or even see how much you’re lifting. It auto-adjusts until you can do exactly ten reps. I do ten reps. Grandma does ten reps. Dwayne Johnson does ten reps. If you want to set the weight low and lift something light while you watch TV, you can’t. If you want to see the maximum you can lift, you can’t.)

Fighting games usually work this way. In the DOA series the steps up and down in difficulty are so drastic you can usually feel them a few seconds into the fight. (You’ll use the same strategy as the previous fight where you were defeated, but suddenly the CPU foe will stop countering all your moves, stop evading throws, and will use less damaging combos when you make a blunder.) A few shooters have this auto-difficulty built in. I never saw it documented, but I very strongly suspect Max Payne used it as well. Unreal Tournament has an option to have the bots auto-adjust, and I always turn it off.

The delta between the most skilled players and the newbies is massive, even for games which don’t look terribly complex. Providing a fun experience for everyone is a serious challenge for a game designer. You can offer two user-selectable difficulty levels and exclude a lot of people. Or you can offer a ton of difficulty levels and let the user grope around until they discover one that feels right. I can see the allure of auto-adjustment, but it’s solution that will displease nearly everyone.

Topic for discussion: Have you ever ramped up the difficulty by some unconventional means? Limiting yourself to certain weapons, modding the game, not saving, or other handicaps not directly provided or understood by the standard game?

Comments (120)

1 2

  1. I’ve tried playing “Thief: The Dark Project” with the so-called “Lytha Style” – to quote lytha.com:

    “The basic rules are really simple:
    1.) Play in Expert Difficulty
    2.) Get all the loot
    3.) Don’t deal any damages.”

    Needless to say, it’s extremely difficult, but rewarding.

  2. ShadowDragon8685 says:

    Maybe I’ll get flamed for sayin so, but…


    I never play on a difficulty above Easy. I rail, rant, and rave against games which make on a difficulty where Y is any positive number, and E is Easy, a requirement to unlock something. (I hate unlocks in and of themselves, but that’s another rant for another time.)

    Wait, I suppose there is one thing I do.

    When I play Thief games, I do it the opposite of Lytha Style. I do my level best to leave NOTHING but a trail of corpses or bludgened/gassed people in Garret’s wake. I think of Garret as a sneaky, aquisitive, bow-weilding ninja; a one man warpath of silent death. I see it as a personal affront for there to be armed guards weilding swords against me. I see it as a service for Thieves everywhere; if I make it known through experiance that city guards, house guards, or ANYONE who bears arms against thieves will meet with a gruesome death, maybe fewer people will choose those professions.

    I consider the daily body count lists in Thief 3 to be a source of pride. I’ve gotten them up over 300 total, combining civilians rendered unconcious and city guards murdered, not counting whatever mission I was on. I completely cleaned out the Hammerite cathedral, 100% wipe.

    Does that count as ramping up the difficulty, though, or just playing Garret as a sociopath?

    That said, I modded the game to make it easier to do just that – I tuned down Guard HP and senses and their swing times. The way I see it, “grit” in a game should be setting flavor, like the ‘grit’ in a good bread pudding, it should not be in the mechanics, like someone dumping a load of sandpaper shavings and glass shards down your shorts and force-marching you five miles.

    I tend to avoid online competitive play. I can usually hack it at the level of Casual, but the problem is that being second man on a six-man totem pole isen’t very much fun. Very, very rarely, I’ll ‘zone in’ to Expert and turn into an unstoppable killing machine for like, five, ten, or twenty kills, but that’s usually followed or preceeded by a crash back to complete noob, so my K:D ratio still always sucks.

    Quite frankly, losing all the time sucks. This is where auto-adjustment should come into play: Online competitive play. Players who do really crap should get breaks; they start to move faster, jump higher, have more HPs; conversely, players who are godlike should be fucked with. Their aiming reticule should become ‘more of a guideline than an actual rule’, if not vanish altogether, they should start to move slower, freeze for a second when struck by the very weakest shot, lose the ability to hear terrain events (like doors opening and footsteps falling), and so forth and so on.

    It would never be very popular. Everyone Expert and up would loathe it because it hamstrings their abilities to pwn newbs. Against their own, they wouldn’t have to worry; if the K:D ratios stay stable, they’d never notice it.

    But, it has been my experiance that the vast majority of those who play on an Expert difficulty and up are assholes who want to frag newbies and casuals. And honestly…

    Who’s to say that having a great deal of skill ISEN’T cheating? If you listen to Las Vegas, it is; they kick out card-counters, after all. Just because it’s not an aimbot doesn’t mean it’s not fair.

    You wouldn’t let Donovan McNabb play quarterback in a college leauge game, let alone in a peewee game, after all.

  3. scragar says:

    I used to play a number of my games that I really enjoyed like that, most notably Legend of Zelda: a Link to the Past, where I would limit myself to not upgrading the sword, not spending any rupees(other than the 610 needed to advance the story) or not collecting any health containers(other than those from bosses, which you need to collect). At one point I think I made it through the whole game without using any health potions or fairies, no sword upgrades, neither protective magic and ignoring several very useful bonuses(I still had the first shield, a non-magical boomerang, the original limits on bomb and arrow capacity and the rather pathetic green tunic). safe to say I had to make a few continues to complete the game, but it was well worth it for the challenge.

  4. Dannerman says:

    In the Icewind Dale series I only ever rested when it was explicitly offered to me as a dialogue choice;

    “We’ll rest for x hours.”

    Rather than just clicking the rest button.

    In most of the D&D CRPGs actually, I tend only to rest when it makes sense. Usually after an area. (In Neverwinter Nights 2 I only ever rest after I’ve finished an area completely. I also play on D&D Hardcore. I’m somewhat of a masochist, I suppose. But it’s about immersion, to me.

    I tried a Half Life 1 ‘No Save’ run. I think I only got up to ‘Blast Pit’ on Medium difficulty. Which isn’t that great.

  5. Kevin says:

    If there is an easy setting, I’ll always hit that. But once in the game… I have been known to play Resident Evil with just a bowie knife, or Silent Hill trying never to fight anything that wasn’t story-mandated. I do it all the time in WoW to get skillups with weapons I suck at… though there’s an ulterior motive in that case.

  6. mark says:

    You know bruce willis never actually shot anyone onscreen during die hard 4, right?

  7. unitled says:

    Not what you wanted us to answer, but Left4Dead has a sort-of auto adjusting difficulty mode (in the form of the AI director) and it seems to work VERY well. It combines random enemy/pick-up placement with some sort of voice recognition to know when a player says something like “Well, at least we haven’t had to fight a tank”.

    Okay, I may have made that last bit up.

    Back on your topic, I played through the Hitman games (specifically 2 and 3) doing an all-zero target; no shots fired, no hostiles/innocents kileld, no alarms raised, and managed to complete it on the hardest difficulty… I felt very pleased with myself.

  8. Dave says:

    Oftentimes I find myself changing the difficulty of a game through perfectionism or a desire for elegance. It’s not enough to simply finish the game, I have to finish it in the right way. In games like Starcraft, I always found it preferable to finish a map with a well-estimated, pin-point attack that knocked out an opponent’s major capacity for resistance and then move on to the mop-up in order to finish the stage. The level might have continued for five or ten minutes, but I knew that the battle was over. The only exception to that was during the Zerg levels, since destroying things by brute force is what the Zerg DO. Just keep spawning units and roll over them until they die.

    It’s interesting to me how challenges sometimes balance themselves out, as in the case of early RPGs. Case in point is trying to finish something like the original Final Fantasy with only one party member…yes, it’s easier to get wiped out, but that party member advances four times as fast. In most games I’ve looked at on GameFAQS I’ve seen at least one or two guides written to help people finishing a particular challenge. The most complicated by far was for Final Fantasy X, and had an abbreviation that by itself was something like 12 letters long.

  9. Confanity says:

    Used to do that in FreeCell, of all things, back when I had a lot of time to kill, by releasing the aces so that they lined up in a certain order.

  10. Kizer says:

    @Scragar You do know that you don’t actually NEED to get the boss heart containers, right? I’ve been meaning to try to beat Ocarina with just 3 hearts for the entire game, but I’m not sure my skill are up to such a challenge.

    As for challenges I’ve actually tried, the one that pops into my head is trying to beat Pokemon Red/Blue without using your starter once you get passed the area where you can’t catch new pokemon. Say what you will, trying to beat that game with the almighty team of Pidgey, Rattata, Spearow, Caterpie, and Weedle is rather difficult . . .

  11. In Privateer’s add-on, Righteous Fire, when they did the updated release, the designers fought back against the modders so that all the green guns (all three of them) had less power than a laser. They had to screw-up the ending (which was better with the bad guys using green guns rather than fusion cannon), but to each their own.

    However, I would sometimes use the tools to give myself a green gun in an inside gun slot and play through the game with that handicap. Which was kind of fun.

    I knew people who played through in ships other than the Centurion, and I did it once in the starting scout ship.

    I like being able to adjust the difficulty, it gives the game an entirely different feel.

    I got tired of being ganked in Strangle … so I used an alternative leveling path through Desolace. With my alt, who is much less resilient, I followed the standard path through gankland, and did Desolace latter — it has been a markedly different experience.

    I like being able to do that. I’d rather adjust the difficulty level by my own choices than have the game do it for me.

    And I dislike “reverse adjustment” methods. In Wing Commander, after the initial levels, if you were playing poorly the game got harder, rather than easier. Realistic, sure, but counterproductive. Down to missions that had autofailures regardless of what you did. That was annoying, to beat all the hostiles and then have the escorted ship destruct anyway.

    Actually enabled some cheats to confirm that was happening.

    Nothing more satisfying than getting my success rates on Mission 13 to 75% or better. It would have sucked it there was an autodifficulty adjustment.

  12. alfredogarcia says:

    Attempted to reach a moral high ground on Deus Ex, Thief and Kotor. This would usually result in a ramped-up difficulty of sorts. You know, be the bigger person,etc. This approach leads to righteous indignation when the game fails to acknowledge your angelic behaviour.

    Oh, remember the civilization spin-off, Colonization? (the older one from the mid 90’s) Tried to tackle that whilst refusing to exploit the native americans, and avoiding a guns-n-steel economic policy. This failed, obviously.

  13. AceCalhoon says:

    “I never saw it documented, but I very strongly suspect Max Payne used it as well.”

    Apparently you weren’t paying attention… It was one of the selling points of the game :)

    “Auto-adjusting gameplay, another first in gaming. You want the action will be challenging and intense, but not unfair and frustrating — the game’s self-adjusting difficulty keeps you in the sweet spot of gameplay bliss.”

    From http://www.rockstargames.com/maxpayne/main.html, click the features button, then click next a few times. Gotta love unlinkable flash interfaces.

  14. Joshua says:

    I do the opposite. In a CRPG I’ll over-level the character by fighting more random encounters or bypassing the boss room to clear out more of the dungeon just to make fighting the boss easier. Since Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance doesn’t actually have random encounters, I’ll use the import character feature to bring a future version of the character back in time. I’ll kill Karne or that stupid Beholder over and over again just to watch them bleed and get me some extra xp.

    Once I’ve done that, I might deliberately forgo armor or using any of the upper-level magic items, but that’s not really for the challenge of it as much as not wanting to look like a walking tin can waving a sword that’s longer than I am.

  15. Annon says:

    In Super Metroid, I actually cheated to give myself the Hyper Gun from the beginning. It made stuff die easily, but it made the platforming much harder, because I couldn’t use the ice beam. I still insisted on getting 100% of the items…

    Also, does hacking the game count? I fiddled (hacked) with the auto-reward/auto-level features in NWN so it would actually assign correct CRs and rewards for them instead of giving next to nothing to a level 17 character for a CR 20 encounter.

  16. Robyrt says:

    Max Payne, Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space all make heavy use of auto-adjusting difficulty. (The RE4 speedrun abuses this by having an empty inventory all the time, so that bad guys will drop health and grenades more often.) God of War will stealthily increase your health by 1 each time you die at the same checkpoint, which is the PERFECT kind of auto-adjust: it gets me out of a stupid save but it won’t make the game too easy 20 minutes down the road. Guitar Hero 4 gives you extra health for the final song – but I died anyway and had to bump it back down to Hard. :(

    In some games, “increasing” your difficulty backfires. For example, it’s actually much easier to complete Prince of Persia: Sands of Time without grabbing the optional sand tanks, because it allows you to use your “max sand” super move in every battle.

    The old RPG Silver lends itself very well to self-limiting difficulty. I’ve completed it using no other party members and no magic whatsoever; Youtube has a guy who uses no other party members and no healing except for level ups.

  17. K says:

    Difficulty Autoadjustment:
    I could not finish Farcry due to that. The enemies keep on seeing and shooting farther and farther and their health keeps increasing. Which leads to me doing more reconnaiscance and then sniping everyone down from fifty miles away. Which again increases difficulty, since I did not take damage. Then at the end, there is a fight in a closed corridor against about four mutants. And each of them takes about 30% of my total ammunition (yes, that is a dozen clips) to take down. And then I am supposed to melee the last one down or what?

    Level up:
    Wizardry 8 had that too. Walking through the starter regions just got immensly tedious, since there were level 20 Goblins of Doom crawling around everywhere.

    Oblivion is also famous for that. Luckily, I used a mod for a better leveling up system and then tricked the system by leveling to exactly 20 and not sleeping anymore, but still increasing my skills. Which means I can now utterly destroy ANYTHING. The broken magic system does not help. I also did not finish it, because I got bored by being able to beat everything easily, it was only a matter of time.

    In conclusion: Yes, auto-leveling-difficulty SUCKS.

  18. Factoid says:

    Ah….nethack. Someday, Amulet of Yendor, you will be mine!

  19. David V.S. says:

    To answer your concluding question, my favorite such story is not about my own actions but those of a friend from high school.

    He had played Wizardry so much that before starting school he would start a new game of Wizardry and type like crazy. When he came back from school the game would usually be won.

    Remember the days when a game was “huge!” but still smaller than the computer’s keyboard buffer?

    (For those unfamiliar with the original Wizardry, the game kept your characters saved distinct from the trips into the dungeon; he used his established and powerful characters, and knew where in the maps the encounters would happen.)

    Identify nine!

  20. Nathon says:

    I used to play Diablo (the first one) ironman. It was essentially the nethack approach where you take a party and walk into the monastery and don’t come back to town until Diablo is dead. Now that I think about it, it’s a lot like instanced dungeon crawling in WoW. That stopped in D2 where you could have hardcore characters though. That was great until Blizzard stopped caring and people found ways to kill other people that are still unpatched for all I know.

  21. Anaphyis says:

    After I bought my PS2 plus a copy of Final Fantasy X shortly before shops closed for a prolonged weekend holiday, I realized in shock I forgot the memory card. So it was either waiting a few tantalizing days or play without the ability to save – guess which one I choose. And because I liked the adrenaline rushes and the way, how even a standard JRPG can become a more paranoid experience then anything survival horror has to offer, this is usually the way I do my second playthrough: Nethack style.

    However, these are Self Imposed Challenges. Emphasis on self imposed. When a game isn’t challenging you can always crank it up this way, so I never understood the people whining about a game being too easy. And I understand the developers listening to these morons even less, cause the only way to crank the difficulty down to a sufferable level is cheating, which again is obviously only an inch short of baby raping in the minds of many.

    Auto-Adjusting is even worse. As I begun DM’ing, I silently cranked up encounter stats and manipulated dice rolls, when the encounter proved too easy for the party. To my benefit I have to add, I always managed to found a level that is challenging, not Rocks Fall Everyone Dies frustrating. I was surprised when I found out some players didn’t liked that, at least not in the long run. If you spend months playing, leveling, developing your character and building up a nice teamplay and you still struggle the same way with throwaway encounters (sometimes even the same type) as you did on Level 1, every feeling of progress, accomplishment and becoming more powerful are gone.

    Or more practically: If you are working in a 9-to-5 office job and you work faster/more then you are supposed to, you won’t get the rest of the day of or a pay raise but simply more work. So sooner or later, you’ll adjust and do the bare minimum required, because it is the rational and economical way to do. That’s why new employment models are developed, that’s why auto-adjustment/auto-leveling is a bad idea and ends with players finishing Oblivion on Level 1 or whatever- not because such a low level run is a challenge but because it is the most prudent way to do it.

  22. Primogenitor says:

    “Unreal Tournament has an option to have the bots auto-adjust, and I always turn it off.” As usual, the answer is let players choose. And really, this isn’t that difficult to implement in most games, it could even make development easier (therefore cheaper) because you don’t have to care about balance quite so much (players can choose).

    But for the question: yes. In FPSs Ill often play against a 5 easy bot team rather than 1 hard bot (or 5 hard free-for-all).

  23. Henry says:

    I played Icewind Dale II in “Ironman” mode: no save/reload. Yes, I used resting and healing, but you need to in a game where the enemies form such swarms!

    Also MS Hearts, winning by shooting the moon 4 times (bonus points for doing so on consecutive hands).

    Possibly the hardest challenge was Serious Sam, using nothing other than the knife/chainsaw (except on those enemies where these do no damage, or against Ugh-Zan).

  24. Craig says:

    With WoW and a few other games I tend to accidentally ramp up the difficulty by simply not using techniques, power-ups, etc. that the game takes for granted I should be using. Also, while I almost always play between normal and very easy, in Fallout 3, I’ve taken to purposefully killing wasteland mobs with baseball bats alone simply to not waste sometimes expensive ammo. I’ve also recently begun wearing only a suit and the powdered wig while wielding the shishkebab and facing enemies. This is mainly for comedic effect and chances to yell pro-democratic slogans.

  25. SomeGuyInABikini says:

    My mates and I always run games on the hardest difficulty possible then, if required, tailor it back to make it actually playable/fun. We do this to both pit our own abilities against each other’s (by seeing who has/gains the greatest skills and knowledge of the game’s inner workings) and to ensure that all unlockable content is available *Cringe*

    We’ve all just finished The Witcher (yes Shamus, I’m afraid I enjoyed that game)(you complained that Geralt was oversexed, but it’s the women who are oversexed. On my second completion I had sex less than Larry in Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards which is easy, as long as you don’t talk to non-quest women :p) and decided on the next play through that we will NOT upgrade Igni (fire), to instead rely on other methods of killing (spamming Igni was just TOO easy), and to only rest when forced (i.e. only level up when it’s thrust upon us).

    I actually enjoyed Oblivion’s auto-leveling system, for about the first 5 levels before I came to the realisation that fights were just taking longer. Same enemies that I’d downed 20 times before now just took longer to kill… yeah, not exactly the direction I was going for.

    What are your views on limiting/penalising PC XP based on the number of party members? Memory dictates that Arcanum and Neverwinter Nights both did this, forcing a tradeoff.

    Wayno, pumped it’s finally Friday :D

  26. Jeff says:

    “How can you find a game exciting if you know you're going to win?”

    This question irks me. You ALWAYS know you’re going to win. You’re not buying software called Slam Head On Brick Wall. If you don’t expect to win, you wouldn’t get it. (“Why, YES I will buy Quantum Mechanics Puzzles for 60 bucks, and never get past the first one.”) Even the “I only died once a level” guy still only died once a level, not unable to finish the game. These people expect to eventually overcome the current challenge in their way, that’s the unspoken expectation. You play thinking (knowing!) you will win. Look at the lottery.

  27. NeilD says:

    I played Thief (and, I think, Thief II) “Lytha style” as described above and also with the directive “Let nobody see you or even suspect your presence.”

    Looking back on it now though, it really just amounted to a ridiculous amount of saving and restoring as I crept through areas a few steps at a time trying to avoid detection. Sort of a self-inflicted DIAS. In any other game, I think it would have just made me frustrated and bored, but something about the Thief games really lent itself to that kind of experimentation, for me anyway.

  28. LintMan says:

    In at least one of the Wing Commander games, the game increased difficulty as you did better, but didn’t get any easier no matter how much you failed. So, like the Peter Principle, I got to the point where I sucked and failed frequenly, and had to drag through the rest of the game at that level. (I read an interview with the developers talking about how they auto-raise the difficulty – and there was not one peep about ever lowering it.)

    Shamus, your posts are gradually making me realize how mentally scarred I am from playing the Wing Commander series. Your blog is like therapy or something :-).

    Since I’m not a challenge hound and play mostly for the story, etc, I’d probably be happier playing on easy rather than normal difficulty, but I rarely play on easy. I’m leary that easy mode will translate into “brain dead” or “almost nothing to do”, as I’ve seen in some games. Or, I’ve seen where the easier modes lack certain perks or cut scenes you get as a “reward” for playing on the harder modes. I think Painkiller does that.

    And on the other hand, sometimes easy mode makes certain parts of the gameplay easier, but does nothing to help with other parts, like quicktime sequences where you still die if you fail or those dogs that auto-kill you if they touch you in COD4, even on easy.

    Something I’ve noticed lately that’s pretty annoying is that the third group of gamers Shamus mentions (the ones who want constant failure to force them to develop their skills) seem to be incapable or unwilling to understand that not everyone wants to play games that same way. They’re the ones who respond with “u suk learn to play the game looser”, “thank god theres no cheats – dont ask for them”, or “it’s the developer’s game – you have to play it the way they made it” when someone asks for cheat codes on a game forum.

    One last comment:
    Shamus wrote: “Lately, a lot of games have simply not been worth the effort to learn to play them well.”

  29. Picador says:

    I spend a lot of time these days making Oblivion mods that place constraints on the player and sometimes make the game more difficult. They’re aimed more at adding flavor to the game than moderating frustration, but a lot of the fun in Oblivion is in exploring the world, rather than getting a good “flow” going in gamer terms (i.e. being in your optimal diifculty zone).

  30. Dustin says:

    I used to play Super Mario Kart on the SNES with my friends and family and had to handicap myself with a ‘no red shells’ rule. Made it more fun as I focused more on driving rather than running over as many question mark blocks and dropping items to find the über red shells. Led to some unique game play strategies especially on battle mode, like Level 2 with the enclosed water pits that you could only get into by using a feather. Used to hang out in one of those after getting something good like a star or 3 green shells then pop out after they drove by to surprise ambush them. Good times.

    Re: the Hitman games mentioned earlier, I think Hitman 2 and 3 actually gave you rewards for playing the Silent Assassin method of only killing your target. Those missions are very rewarding, finding the method of killing your target without firing a shot. Used to forgo the loadout screen and just use the defaults, because I figured I wouldn’t be shooting anything anyways.

  31. J Greely says:

    I have an elliptical cross-trainer with a linked heart-rate monitor. Based on the values of two variables, Age and Mode, it calculates the Target Heart Rate, and continuously adjusts the resistance as you run, to keep you there. However, if you’re in really great shape (so I’m told; heh), it can’t raise the resistance enough to raise your heart rate, so it flashes a message “speed up!”.

    At the other end, if you really suck (and this part I’m quite sure of), the resistance eventually bottoms out, and the machine orders you to slow down. Unfortunately, below a certain speed, it’s extremely difficult to maintain something that looks like “continuous running”, and the machine will decide that you’ve just stopped.

    In between the extremes, it does an excellent job, and there’s a feeling of real accomplishment the first time the out-of-shape beginner manages to make it through a 30-minute cardio workout without being ordered to slow down because the computer can’t make the task any easier.

    To keep you from giving up in frustration before you reach that point, the machine lets you skip the auto-adjust and manually select the resistance level, raising or lowering it in mid-workout if you like. And you can always choose a shorter workout, or just walk away for a few minutes and come back; it will remember where you left off.

    The system would be better if it monitored your breathing as well as your heart rate, but at least it’s measuring something that’s relevant to both your progress and your frustration level.

    Of course, I found the game a bit boring, so I modded it with a portable DVD player.


  32. elias says:

    Isn’t it possible you’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater? I think auto-adjusted difficulty could be done in a way that addresses your concerns.

    For example, what if it auto-adjusted up to a high-end cap, so that the good players still have the opportunity to reap the rewards of mastering the game?

    In addition, what if there were still “difficulty settings” for the game, but rather than actually directly setting the difficulty, they set the “failure tolerance” of the player–the mentioned equilibrium point the game strives for when adjusting difficulty? With three settings, the lowest could be for the game to strive not to let the player fail, the middle could be some average, and the hardest would strive to make the player fail fairly often (up to a high-end difficulty cap like I said before).

    What if the game gave you some on-screen indicator at all times of what difficulty it was throwing at you?

    @j, When I’ve worked out at the local rec center, I’ve tried treadmills and ellipticals and have been pretty disappointed with the minimum speed you mention on ellipticals (I think it’s something like 3mph on the machines I was using, which is a speed I usually like to set for the treadmills). You can’t attempt to go that speed because inevitably your speed will waver, meaning it will fall below often and cut you off. I liked the treadmills more because of that.

    But anyway I think that auto-adjust model would probably work fairly well for games, too. For that model, there would still be difficulty levels set by the player, and the auto-adjustment would be capped at the high and low ends by the player’s choice. If the player is doing very well or badly the game can suggest the player move it up or down a notch, without being too insistent.

    Also, perhaps slightly off-topic, I think when putting these sorts of features in games it would be helpful to choose different names for the difficulty settings than “Easy,” “Medium,” “Hard,” etc. because for some players the name carries psychological hang-ups, meaning they don’t feel that playing at specific difficulty levels (even if those may be more appropriate to their skill level or more conducive to their enjoyment of the game) is acceptable simply because of the setting’s name.

  33. Sempiternity says:

    Ramping up the difficulty by unusual means?


    Adjusting the gameplay experience by changing my play style, my roleplaying, and through soft mods?

    Every single game that lets me!

    I’ve never been happy with standard “make the computers cheat, make the enemies tougher” difficulty levels, so I’ve always played games this way. I’ve been playing XCOM for 15 years on beginner mode, and never moved MOO2’s dial away from average. Instead of changing the AIs, i change the way i approach the game.

    The most common way i do this is by playing “ironman” style, whether it is XCOM, or MOO, or Alpha Centauri, or Total War. Strategy games are immeasurably improved by suffering defeats and soldiering on, rather than “quick-loading until you win”.

    I’d love to see more games designed with this ability to “come back from a loss” in mind…

    The second most common way i’ve found to play is by roleplaying my faction – this is especially true of 4X games, like MOO or Sword of the Stars. When i play these games i pick a philosophy to play by, and make sure every decision i make follows those guidelines, more or less. (I think this play style not only gives more colour to the self-created narrative of the game, but helps keep the player from exploiting weaknesses in the game’s design or the AI opponents. Or less skilled human ones for that matter!)

    And then there are soft mods – i love games that let you dig into their settings via XML tables, like JA2 or Civ4, or simply lots of “realism” setting switches (usually sim games), or let you through together your own scenarios (also sim games). With a little patience and a solid theme in mind, editing the game’s variables, items, etc really lets you change the play experience to suit your play style or explore a different take on the game. I’ve been doing that with JA2 for the past few months, and have basically turned Alruco into Iraq… with interesting results.

    I’ve always wanted more games to come out of the box as focused toolkits, rather than delimited, linear story-based experiences.

  34. Nick says:

    I never even knew there was a “Lytha style” when I played thief. I just decided one day to play the game on expert, but also not let ANYONE know I was there (aside from missing valuables). No stunned guards, no raised alarms, no guard even seeing me. It wasn’t entirely doable, with some situations that expect you to knock out a guard or use gas arrows.

    Always had difficulty getting the required 70ish percent loot. I can’t imagine getting 100 without a guide.

  35. Tom says:

    Surely the obvious solution is simply to have a separate option for auto-adjustment as well as the normal list of fixed difficulties. Max Payne almost did this, but chose to replace “easy” with “auto-adjust” instead, the rationale being they didn’t want to risk some players setting it on easy and finishing it without feeling any challenge – seems a bit “nanny-state” to me; anyone with a gram of sense who sets the game too easy will just turn it up a bit after the first couple of levels. Also, it didn’t always work (worst thing was that it seemed to have no effect on the amount of bullet time you got, which could make or break any engagement), and there were instances when you really needed a proper “easy” mode, especially when you got stuck on a particular level and died a million times (I’m specifically thinking of the nigh-impossible bossfight at the end of the Ragnarock level – never be so arrogant as to think you can’t accidentally have a sucky level in your game, that the player will want to drop the difficulty to zero just to get past and then set it back to normal)

    Personally, I have an alternative approach which, back in the days when I was still crazy enough to think I could do so, I proposed to use in my own game – rather than constantly attempting to adjust difficulty throughout, there would be a specifically designed “calibration” mission at the start, possibly part of the tutorial, where the game would gauge your performance once and recommend a particular, fixed difficulty level, then allow you to choose that or some other one; if one were to have vector rather than scalar difficulty, once again like good old System Shock 1, it could also be designed to specifically gauge your particular playstyle and adjust the game to focus on supporting and challenging it.

    Variable difficulty is far less important, though, than just being really careful to balance gameplay in the first place, and especially ensuring that it’s not too easy to get the game stuck in an unwinnable state and have to reload from ages back – barely limping away after an epic battle with minimal health and no ammo but then having another whole room stuffed with big bads between you and the next stash is the all-time classic, and the slightest possibility of it is to be avoided by level builders at all costs. Regenerating health, I think, is a passable solution, so long as it’s sufficiently slow that it’ll give you a fighting chance in the next battle but won’t make any single fight noticably easier – basically, it needs to be a lot slower than the rate at which your opponents can deal damage, but fast enough to have a noticable effect during the journeys between fights. There have been a handful of games that did this, and I thought they were generally quite good. The original Unreal also did it for the default energy weapon. The golden rule is, I feel, that the player should always be given a chance, however slim, unless the ability to paint yourself into a corner is specifically demanded by the nature of the plot or gameplay – far too many games make it very possible to get yourself stuck like this without really gaining anything from it.

    As the most radical example, the merry band of lunatics at Shiny Entertainment, makers of MDK, simply realised that wandering around looking for ammo, even the possibility of running out of it at all, would only detract from their core gameplay dynamic of constant, outrageous carnage and wanton destruction, and wisely gave the default chaingun an infinite ammo supply – and the game doesn’t suffer from this at all. You can still pick up higher powered weapons when you find them, and you should now and then because they’re hilarious, but you don’t have to go out of your way or backtrack looking for them if you don’t want to.

  36. Viktor says:

    I played an archer in Morrowind. That game doesn’t handle archers well.

    I should play through again, actually. Maybe I could be a pacifist…

  37. Annon says:

    I know people have ragged on the auto-leveling system in Oblivion ad-infinitum (with good reason–there is NO justification for auto-leveling merchants. If I have gold at level 1, I should be able to spend it, damnit!) but you have to give them one thing–they have that difficulty slider as well. If they spent more time developing it correctly, I think it would be ideal–enemies can auto level all the want, so long as you have that analog slider to give you an edge or a handicap against them.

    Of course, this will probably never happen, because they did such an abysmal job on the Oblivion system that they will call the entire concept a failure and never try again…

  38. Shamus says:

    elias: I think a better system – although I haven’t tried it, yet – is the one in Left 4 Dead. It’s not keyed to success / failure, but to the current game state. It can ratchet down the difficulty without needing to kill you first.

    Conversely, it turns up the difficulty based on your health being “high”, instead of knocking down enemies. The former keeps the tension high and the game flowing, the latter is a punishment for playing well. (For example, a couple of well-placed grenades take out a huge group, then game then concludes you’re awesome and gives you a hundred more zombies, even though your health is low. Thus turning a “Wow! That grenade saved us!”, to, “Crap, we played awesome and died anyway.”)

  39. ej2 says:

    For most games, I play through on normal and then move on to something else.

    Although, I once played all the way through the original Zelda without a sword. Only thing is you cannot beat Gannon. It was quite challenging.

  40. Annon says:

    I think auto-leveling in shooters is a…daunting problem to say the least. The problem is that there are so many strategic ways to handle an encounter–some of which get forced occasionally.

    I, for one, will always skulk around in sneak mode ans snipe anything/everything in the head before it ever sees me. However, there are times when games will force me into a big firefight, usually because enemies nearly always have the uncanny ability to run complex ballistics analyses and know I was in a vent three hundred yards away instantly, and can instantly convey that knowledge to everyone in a half-mile radius, through walls.

    With the system you suggest, I would be screwed, because my health is almost always full, I always have nearly full ammo for just that sort of eventuality, and I suck at running and gunning.

  41. Matthew Allen says:

    In XCOM, me and my friends would limit ourselves to ways to play the game.

    “Ok, this game is an all human tech game. If I don’t research it from human ideas we don’t use it.” It made the game MUCH harder but very challenging.

    Another one was “Rush to the blaster launcher, and then use nothing but the blaster launcher.” Tends to lead to lots of death for your people. If everyone has the massive overkill area affect weapon… turning around a corner and finding el wimpo with a laser pistol turns into a “CRAP! He’s WAY inside the blast radius of this weapon. I’m screwed!!!”

    Another way to play was Alien bowling. Mind control any of the aliens, line them up in a bowling pin fashion. Use one blaster launcher shell into any outside point of the triangle and see how many aliens die. Try to go for strikes as often as possible.

  42. Shamus says:

    Annon: oh, I wasn’t saying that the system was awesome or should be used everywhere, all the time.

    It (reportedly) works very well in L4D, where you’re always in these chaotic fights.

    Yes, it would RUIN a slower-paced, more strategic game.

  43. Greg F says:

    What if a game did a compromise between auto-adjusting difficulty levels and selecting a difficulty? The point of the main post is that auto-adjusting difficulty forces the ratio of how often you succeed or fail to what the developer says… but what if you get to choose the ratio? You tell the game “I want it to be a cakewalk”, and it adjusts so you succeed 99% of the time. You tell the game “I want it to be challenging but doable” and it adjusts so you succeed 40% of the time.

    And I’ll throw in Final Fantasy Tactics A2 as a good example of a self-balancing game, since I’m playing it right now- you have a bunch of missions available to you at any time, and it’s clearly divided up between “the one that’ll advance the plot and unlock harder missions”, “the ones that are optional but give you a Really Cool Power so they’re worth doing anyway”, and “the ones that are just good for leveling up.”

  44. Joel D says:

    I’ve been known to play levels of some FPS games using only melee kills (mainly the Call of Duty series and the Halo series, as melee attacks are actually worthwhile in those games). I don’t do anything absurd, like trying to beat tanks to death, and I’ll shoot enemies that can’t be physically reached without some creative tactics, but it’s fun to turn an FPS into a First Person Fighter.

  45. unitled says:

    Shamus, you’re right, it works VERY well in Left4Dead; I’ve never had a game where it’s been difficult to the point of frustrating, it is ALWAYS tense (especially the finales!).

    I just remembered another game which had a nice built in self-imposed challenge; Severance: Blade of Darkness (though it may have had a different name in the US; Blade springs to mind). This rated your performance on the number of times you saved (giving you a ‘free’ save at the end of every level).

    That said, the game was still bar steward hard, so maybe it didn’t work too well.

  46. Kyle says:

    Some people try to solo or no-save the Baldur’s Gate series, but that just sounds crazy to me.

  47. Sydney says:

    I am all about self-imposed challenges.

    I play almost every Fire Emblem game a dozen times, using different challenges each time. No Magic, No Mounted Units, No Healing, No Restoring Saves, even Main Character Solos. Fire Emblem is a turn-based strategy game.

    I play Pokemon games with “low-level restrictions” which vary depending on the specific game.

    I play Final Fantasy Tactics games without ever changing the Jobs on my starting six units, and never hiring more.

    I tried (and failed) to play Tales of Symphonia without ever upgrading anyone’s equipment or using healing items in-battle.

    I’m currently in the midst of playing Fable: The Lost Chapters using only the bow and arrow. I’ve already done it using only melee.

    Now that I think about it, Fablehack would be interesting. Never do anything that raises HP or innate defence (armour is okay), don’t use restorative items, and if you die, start over. The game is short enough that I might go for it…yeah, I’ll go for it.

  48. Drew says:

    I know in WoW, I played for years with a good friend of mine and we did everything we could to 2-man every last bit of content possible. Sure, that meant a dungeon crawl could take 4 hours instead of 45 minutes, but there was a huge sense of accomplishment.

    And then, there’s always Gutrot. Glorious Gutrot. Of the Naked Noobs. If you don’t know his story, he’s the guy who leveled to 70 (and now 74 and counting) without ever equipping a weapon or a piece of armor. Jewelry was acceptable. And he’s a warrior, so he’s just been punching things in the face with his bare fists all this time. That’s a guy who knows how to give himself a challenge.

  49. Sungazer says:

    Mega Man 2: I would play the stages in orders that were not the ones to make it easier with the sub weapons. I would stage select off of different patterns, alphabetical order, reverse alphabetical…

    Super Metroid: My friends and I would do speed runs with penalties for not getting 100% collection.

    Symphony of the Night: This is the game I’ve played the most, hands down. I played this game to completion at least once a day for a couple of years (Yes, I was very unhappy with most of my life at that time). I would play with only certain weapons, no armor, no shilds…that sort of thing. I can beat this game, with 100% relic collection, within a couple of hours.

  50. rlor says:

    When I first got into online games I was waiting for netmech (for Mechwarrior 2) to come out. There were already groups formed off of the horribly buggy netdemo game and we were simulating houses and clans in the game. Part of this meant including scout lances etc. I was assigned to a scout lance in my group and knew I was going to be piloting a small Jenner mech.

    I ran instant action mode at the hardest computer difficulty with the strongest mechs I could. I would only pilot a Jenner. Once I could beat one grouping I kept adding mechs. I would design loadouts for them that were especially hard for me to counter. All this to prep for actually getting to play online.

    When netmech finally came out I was able to breeze thru other real opponents, killing them over and over again without dieing or even taking damage many times. It gave me a large lead over 95% of the 2000 player base in our league play and helped allow me to win the 1 on 1 championship we had as well as our team doing very well in larger scale battles.

    One thing I’ve seen change alot over time is the way online games have been made before as to now. Compare Quake and games like it to Battlefield 2142. In early games you had 0 bullet spread and faster than human movement (AVP is a good example). In later games you have bullet spread and speed of movement equal or less than human movement. This tends to remove some of the vast skill gap between a newbie and an excellent player.

    Put 5 newbies against an ace in AVP, Quake, netmech etc and you’d have 5 dead newbies 99% of the time with the ace maybe not even getting hit. Put 5 newbies against an ace in BF2142 and while you might get the same outcome, the chance of it would be drastically reduced. Which may be for the best or not, just an observation.

  51. I tend to use godmode and sometimes unlimited ammo in most games.

    Why? Because per the stories in the games the hero (you) prevail against the odds, survive and save the day.
    Dying and restarting a level or mission all over does not fit into the story at all. And many times, running out of ammo also clashes with this.

    I still get a adrenaline kick in fights though, but maybe it’s because I’m quite good at immersing myself into the story?

    What I miss in games is a difficulty modifier slider, that the automatic difficulty could use.

    Example: (floating point math)
    Easy = 0.0 (aka godmode)
    Normal = 0.5
    Hard = 1.0 (aka realistic?)
    The slider should be stepless and allow you to adjust it anywhere so you could set it in between Easy and Normal to get 0.25 for example.

    The automatic difficulty calculations in the game would use your modifer as a base and then hover around that when making things easier/harder for example.

    There has been very few games where you could choose a godmode in the normal settings (alternatively disabling health checks) but they do exist.

    Then again I’m a story buff, so I might be in a minority on this.

    I’m also one of the folks that cringe each time someone state they “beat the game”…
    I prefer to say I experienced the story or reached the conclusion or the end.

  52. Mari says:

    I’ve soloed Baldur’s Gate 1 as each class available.

    I’ve also played through Fable 1 with various handicaps and restrictions like “using only a bow” or “no weapons upgrades” and even once using “no level-ups”.

    I tend to only do that on RPGs that I enjoy a tremendous amount, though. Well, those and Solitaire and Zoo Tycoon. I do the same thing in Solitaire that somebody mentioned above for Free Cell. I have a specific order for aces to come up in and I’ll skip over aces to get that order. Adds a level of challenge. As for Zoo Tycoon I frequently set bizarre conditions on that game. Granted, the tutorial/scenario mode sets odd conditions to begin with but then I make it weirder. “I bet this one that requires a guest happiness of 93 using only dirt path and chain link fence and only savannah animals” (all of which have lower guest happiness ratings).

    And back in the days of The Sims (I hate myself for admitting that I ever played it but there you go) I would set conditions like “Never miss work.” Do you have any idea how hard it is to keep a Sim’s needs all met without ever missing a day of work (because Sims work 7 days a week)? One of my favorites was to never get promoted beyond the second job level tier but make enough money for one Sim to support a family of four.

  53. Heh, in Left 4 Dead, “We played awesome and died anyway” is when the game’s at its best. Left 4 Dead makes losing more fun than winning, sometimes.

    While the AI Director in that game has its issues – like not knowing what to do when players fly through the level at top speed – it has made for some of the most fun gameplay I’ve had in years. Easiness or difficulty is rather random in the end, but even after dozens of hours of playtime, it’s fresh enough for me to play for multiple sessions in a row.



  54. unitled says:

    If you want a game where ‘losing is fun’, try Dwarf Fortress; it’s actually the motto of the game. It’s actually a game built around setting yourself goals (the Magma Cannon being a good example). For me, though, just surviving is hard enough…

  55. Annon says:

    I always try to make shooters slower paced, even if they weren’t designed to be tactical shooters. I don’t care if I have to use a pistol, I will find a way to take somebody out before he shoots me. I’ll just suck when all his friends join in.

    And I thought speed runs didn’t count. If you want to talk about setting speed goals, I managed 100% in Super Metroid in less than an hour. I think that beats the current best online, but I didn’t record and I’ll never be able to do it again.

  56. Cthulhu says:

    I beat the original Metroid Prime without picking up any hit point increases. You’re supposed to have 1500 hp at the end of the game, and I did the whole game with 100. That game really could have used a third difficulty setting for the experienced players.

    I feel like in your example on different viewpoints, I can be either player one or player two, depending on the game, and I think the important difference is the amount of punishment for failure. A (good) game that expects you to fail frequently won’t have a major punishment for failure, and so it seems less important when you do.
    I think the perceived difficulty of a quest in, say, world of warcraft is mostly dependent on how far it is from the graveyard. I’ve had quests right next to a graveyard that killed me five times, that felt easy, and then quests ten minutes run away that felt incredibly hard even though I only died once.

  57. John Lopez says:

    What baffles me is where people find the time to play at such hardcore a level when there are so many games to play. Maybe I’m attention deficit here, but I tend to play a game and be *done* with it, moving on to the next game.

  58. I don’t intentionally go out to ramp up the difficulty on games, but I often do it accidentally simply because I find the “armor of awesome” esthetically unappealing or I really hate using the best weapons because of the way they look/sound/act.

    About the only time I make any effort to limit myself in the game is when I play games like Drakan where you can severely run out of health potions later in the game if you use a lot of them early on–so I always tried to use as few health potions as possible.

  59. Osvaldo Mandias says:

    Why not combine auto-adjustment with difficulty levels?

  60. Annon says:

    John: Most people, like myself, will only do crazy stuff like this for games they really enjoy, in order to eke as much entertainment from them as humanly possible. That’s why you see people doing this a lot with Thief (and I’m sure Shamus did this with System Shock)–it gives that much more bang for your buck with great games.

    I loved Super Metroid, so to keep playing it I went through every square inch of the game until I came up with a perfect, optimized path to beat the game in record tame. Then, after that, I hit it with the Game Genie to get even more playtime.

    I probably extended the entertainment life of the game twenty-fold by the time I was done, and I have only rarely even considered doing it with any title since. Most games are more “play and forget” or “learn the story and forget”. More often than going crazy with self-induced challenges (but still rarely), I will play a game through once, then restart at a higher difficulty and play with a strategy guide because I don’t want to miss anything.

  61. doosteen says:

    This post instantly reminded me of Max Payne. I distinctly remember having a hard time beating a few spots in the game, so I would just reload from an earlier point and play with my eyes closed for a little while. Suddenly the hard spot was a breeze…

  62. krellen says:

    The only way in which I do this is by playing a character. A sniper isn’t going to use an assault rifle, no matter how much more awesome it is, for instance.

    I do tend, if I like a game (or even if I don’t; I like variety and don’t have the budget to constantly buy new games) to replay it several times, ramping up the difficulty each time. This doesn’t always work out for me (or my neighbours.)

  63. Jos says:

    I don’t exactly ‘ramp up the difficulty’ through unconvential means, but I do try to make later playthroughs a little different than usual sometimes.

    For example, when I did my ‘Magic Only’ playthrough of Jade Empire, I did it on the lowest difficult setting. And when I did my ‘Pre-promotes Only’ playthrough of Fire Emblem, I didn’t exactly do it on Hector Hard Mode.

    I guess for me, self-imposed challenges are more about being forced to see the game in a (relatively) new light, rather than making them more difficult.

  64. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Auto adjusting can be done good,but it needs a lot of research and numerous playtesting,which is tedious.

    First of all,difficulty shouldnt be treated like one setting for everything.If you suck at combat,combat needs to be made easier.If you are great at timed runs,these need to have more obstacles.Etc.

    Second,each of these parts needs lots of gradation.5-10 different levels for each would be a nice optimum.

    So,for example,lets take fear:It could scale itself in number of enemies,their behavior,and number of refills for health and armor.If your encounters are short,add more enemies,if they are long,remove them.If you loose much health in each encounter,add more medikits,if you loose few,remove them.If you blast enemies with ease and no use of time stopping,improve their ai(more ambushes,flankings,grenade trowing),if not,make it dumber.

    Of course,the most important thing is the option to turn this thing off.

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