A Discussion on Difficulty


Well-known member
Nov 27, 2019
Difficulty and balancing it in a is critical for any video game. There loads of difference philosophies and inspirations behind a developer's creative choice on how to do this and why do it that certain way, so getting it wrong or right will have a huge impact. It's an unenviable choice that games dev's have to make because you'll never please everyone.

That's whare we get into difficulty options. The simple, it somewhat common, solution to this problem. In this thread I'm going to make a case as to why all games should have this. Yes, even soulsborne games, that I'll be talking about throughout the post. I admit this is coming from a bias and will be a little self indulgent, but I want to hear from you if you disagree. I want to know why because even after over 30 years of playing video games I still don't understand why some people hate difficulty options so much. So please, let's discuss it, all I ask is that you read the full post first. I will respect your point of view even if I disagree with it, all I ask from you is the same.

Now, every rule has exceptions and I fully understand that there are some types of game whare have no difficulty options dose make sense. Interactive narratives (Life Is Strange and Telltale Games), platformers (difficulty options can be hard to implement is these types of games as the way game controls work and shape of the environment directly affects the gameplay), games for very young children (Although that's debatable, more on that later) and multiplayer focused titles like MMO's. There may be others that slip my mind right now, but other than that, there is no excuse.

For single player experiences, there is no reason for a game to have one difficulty setting, especially if that one setting is really hard or really easy. I recently reviewed a Gamepass game called Ravenlok (Here is that review if you want to check it out) and was frustrated by how problems in the combat made the game too easy. It wouldn't have been an issue or at least less on an issue, if the game had difficulty options. This is kind of why I said earlier that games for young children not having difficulty options was debatable, because while this game I feel is intended for a younger audience, I don't feel that's a valid exuse. Besides, it's rated PEGI7, so it's intended for that young an audience. It's also worth pointed my generation with Atar1, NES, SNES, Sega Megadrive/Genesis didn't exactly have it easy as kids playing games, so why does that make sense now?

Back to the point. Having multiple options doesn't take away more relaxing and stress free experience. That has not been lost, just set the difficulty just so. What it does is offer other players in games like Ravenlok a chance to have a more tense and engaging experience.

Same story for games that are too difficult. Having an option for somebody to turn the difficulty of a game down doesn't take away the challenge, you just keep it turned up. It's not even an inconvenience, doing nothing solves the problem. Even turning the difficulty up even higher isn't exactly a burden, it's just a menu. Would It be unfair if I suggested that if you want a really hard game, but can't work a menu in said game, that maybe you're biting off more than you can chew?

Joking aside, here are other benefits. Difficulty options and accessibility options can combine to open up games to people who may be impaired in some way. This recent video from James Stephanie Sterling makes a better point of that then I could and is well worth a watch:

There may be players more interseted in art style, storytelling and exploration than challenge, and there is nothing wrong with that. And even better, it forces developers to focus on and put effort into those other elements making a game more interesting, immersive and just generally better. I'll talk more about my problems with soulsborne games in a bit, but compare something like a soulsborne game to Horizon Zero Dawn with it's Ultra Hard mode, HZD is better. Better story, better graphics, better controls, , more options in combat, better world building and exploration and better, more rewarding combat, all in a game that is at least a challenging as soulsborne game tends to be. HZD got to be that way because it needed to be that way to cater to players less interested in a challenging combat experience. It has those advantages because the game had to work at lower difficulty settings as well harder ones. Having multiple difficulty options makes a game better, simple as that.

Besides, when was the last time you saw somebody gush about the story, graphics or anything besides the difficulty in a Souls game? Nobody cares about it because it's not possible to have a conversation without talking about just one thing, the difficulty. It's a shame as I'm sure there are souls games that have a lot going for them other than just the difficulty. If you tell me that soulsborne game do tell you gripping stories in fascinating worlds, you would probably be right and I won't argue with that, but the point is nobody cares. Love or hate the games, we're all too focused one thing, the challenge. And if all the fans focus on is the challenge, you will have a time convincing me the developers focus on anything else either.

I have heard people say that when a game is punishingly hard with no difficulty options, it builds tension, and I understand that, I truly do, but that doesn't justify having one difficulty setting. Tension and that daunting feeling can also be created (And I would argue is better being created) by the ambience and atmosphere the game itself. Once you've faced and been killed by the same, cheap boss 15 times, that feeling tension disappears replaced only by frustration, so it's a less effect way of creating that tension. That kind of tension doesn't last, it's the wrong way to do it. I'm tempted to even call it lazy. It's just as bad if the boss end up being too easy, then the tension isn't built at all. If the game douse build up the tension through the ambiance and atmosphere like I said and the boss is too easy, then the player is doomed to be disappointed. That's why being able to adjust it is a good thing.

There is something else about this, the worst thing of all actually. Now let me make this clear, I understand that this isn't a problem unique to soulsborne games, I know it's strictly not the actual game's fault and I'm not painting every Souls fan or people who do believe that games should only have one, brutally hard setting with the same brush, but the toxicity and generally bad attitude that comes from this sector of the gaming community can't be denied. They have have earned this unfortunate reputation for a reason and that reason ties very closely with these games difficulty and lack of difficulty options. It does breed arrogance and a condescending, superior attitude that I absolutely cannot stand. This kind of gatekeeping, like only those "worthy" should play a game is good for absolutely nothing. Compare that to accessibility options and difficulty options meant to make games better for everybody, including those who play for the challenge.

I've touched on the soulsborne games a lot already, but now I'm going to go into them in more detail. More specifically, my personal experiences with a couple of soulsborne games I have tried. I's inevitable these types of games come up in conversations like this, so I'm giving my honest, personal account of my own experience's in the hope you'll understand why I do dislike these games and how it relates to my distain for games that lack difficulty options in general.

But before I do, let me make something perfectly clear. If you're a fan of these games, I've got nothing against you. This is a re-telling of my own experience combined with what is only my own opinion, nothing more, nothing less. These games have appeal, just not to me. If you like them, good for you. I'm glad that you managed to find fun and satisfaction in them where I could not.

So if you simply can't take negative critique of these games, I'm not responsible for how you feel if you choose to read on. If want to debate with civilly on this, please do so, but of all you have to offer is a bitch and moan or telling me I suck and need to "Git Gut", I'll request your reply be removed.

Sorry, but I felt compelled to say this little disclaimer because some fans of these games are so sensitive and unable to take criticism they rally round to kick me off message boards and gaming communities just for expressing my opinion. I'm not kidding, it's happened before.

I gave up on Demon Souls, not because it was hard, but because it was crap.

Basically, the game's "challenge" is a lie. Enemy behaviours and patterns are cryptic, nonsensical and unfairly prey on one's natural instincts as a gamer, so you can't use strategy, not to mention the blind traps in the environments. The controls are cripplingly and deliberately sluggish and slow to respond, so you can't rely on skill. All you can do is tediously go through a frustrating gauntlet of trial and error to figure out those cryptic patterns and trap placements, so all you really need to beat it is time. Time that the game just flat out doesn't deserve. I'll need to take a brave pill before I say this, but because of that the game isn't even challenging, at least not genuinely so anyway. You're even discouraged you from taking on enemies at a higher level for, well, you know, a challenge because you earn almost no XP from them. What other RPG has you earn no experience for taking on tougher enemies? I discovered this because the game deliberately misleads you into entering the wrong level at the start, that's how much an ass hole this game is. I get the mechanic of when you die, you have to try to fight back to where you were to get some of your XP back, I don't have a problem with that, but that's still very harsh in a game where you pretty much have to die then employ trial and error to progress.

All that might have been fine if the rest of the game had something to offer, in fact no, nothing can absolve the bullshit this game throws at you, but the point is I think that game hides behind it so-called difficulty to distract players from its other issues. The graphics are horrible even by the standards of the day, cliché in its design and art style, has no story worth telling and the online component is pointless and only means the game can't be paused (In a single player RPG, that is just ludicrous). That "trial and "error" approach also makes the game more repetitive than it needed to be. I've never played a game that managed to be both this frustrating AND boring all at that the same time. I want an RPG to test my skill, reflexes and strategy. This game and it's inexplicably popular brethren are only good for testing your patience.

I know in the minority with my view on this, but I don't care. Soul's fanboys always say I hate the game because I need to "Git Gut" and I'm just don't like a challenging game, but that's not true. That "trial and error" style of difficulty that these kinds of games employ is cheep, lazy and I'm even tempted to call it padding. So it's not that the game is hard, it's why it's hard that makes me hate it.

I have played a couple of Souls type games since then. I played a bit of Bloodborne, which was more of the same to me and I played Nioh, and that may have been even worse than Demon Souls, because it didn't even work.

I played it on PC when if became a free game with EGS. That's important to remember because it means what I'm about to describe to you are not the kind of launch issues that plague a lot of games, the game had been out for a quite a long at this point. Tried to launch the game at 1080p, and it crashed immediately. I had to run the game at a higher resolution to then have the GeForce app override the in game setting to bring it back to 1080p just to play it. That's already ridiculous.

Next, when I got into the game, one starts off in a cell as a prisoner. I quickly noticed the UI was displaying the console controls instead of M/K as I knocked down a wall into another cell (something you apparently have to do). So I opened the menu, into the setting to see if this could be changed, when I was attacked by a guard whilst doing so. My heart then sank as then I knew what kind of game this was. A "From Software" clone trying to be Dark Souls in every aspect including this ridiculous idea that game doesn't pause. I immediately uninstalled Nioh and never play it again.

I'm not gonna turn this into a massively long rant about how god damb stupid it is to programme a game this way because;

  1. it's obvious why this stupid. Pausing is a basic, quality of life feature that games need, end of story. Omitting the pause feature doesn't make a game more challenging, only more fussy and arrogant, like "How dare you go into the menu and expect me to stop for your convivence!"
  2. This is a thread about difficulty, and no game is made more challenging by removing the pause feature, it's just annoying.

I bring it up because there must be somebody out there who believes that games are more challenging for not including a pause, otherwise these games would do this. If that's you, please explain why you think that because it makes no sense to me, but even you must agree that not being "allowed" to pause a game to fix technical issues and change settings is too far, especially on a PC port.

Now, as I said at the beginning, my bias on this subject is obvious and I have not tried to hide it nor will I apologise for it, but I'm still going to try and look at the flip side of the coin here.

I will say that difficulty option can be done in a lazy and counterproductive way. Take Skyrim, for example. I feel that game is game, at least un-modded, is horribly balanced. Focus on smithing, enchanting and one or two weapon skills and you'll be way more powerful in combat than a player roleplaying as a mage. Magic is horribly balanced in of itself anyway. At later levels, enemy magic feels insanely overpowered and mages are way more dangerous than any other kind of enemy. I find myself often shifting the difficulty up and down a lot when I play the game depending on the upcoming situation because the difficulty feels like it's all over the place. Bethesda having that expansive and effective difficulty slider I still have to call a good thing, but I can't help but feel like it was a lazy way to fix some of the game's balance issues. If Bethesda, for example, had been forced to have the players play at a single difficulty level, they may have worked to better balance the game because they would have had to.

And of course, yes, it does make a level playing field when comparing what you accomplish in a single player game compare to other players. It does encourage a greater since of community around single player games, and that's a good thing. Whilst it can lead to that bad sense of gatekeeping, superiority and tribalism that I spoke of earlier, that's obviously not the intention of the game itself nor the people who created it. They did it it for the right reason, it's just shame people always find a way to mess it up.

Speaking of a level playing field, I can also see the benefits of one difficulty option has in the speed running community. Easier to compare what players and doing and less opportunities to cheat.

Whilst I did debunk this earlier, the idea that having one difficulty can build tension in a game is still valid. If somebody can tell me a game that they feel did that particularly well, let me know and I'll consider trying it, but until I do I haven't got much more to add. It works in theory, but I'd like to done in practice.

To summarise, I can understand why having no difficulty options can be appealing, but to me it causes way more problems than it was ever meant to solve. Having difficulty options gives game's broader appeal, forces dev's to get the best out of all aspects of the game and makes them more fun to play. If you want a more challenging experience, good for you, more power to you, but this isn't all about you. Likewise, you can't excuse a game that's too easy either. Like me with Ravenlok, I loved it's looks and enjoyed it's simplistic, but satisfying story, but would have has so much more fun if I felt engaged in the combat. Have an easier difficulty for young kids, that's fine, but a harder mode for other players would have made the game so much more. Either way, there are other people who seek different things in video games to satisfy them. No game is meant to appeal to everyone, but all games should be accessible to anyone, there is no excuse.

Thank you for making it all the way here, I understand it was a bit of a daunting read for a forum post, so let me tell you I really appreciate it. Once again, thank you and goodnight.
I've always wondered if I'm bad at souls games because they're hard or because the controls just suck. Either way I just don't play them though.

I don't think difficulty levels will change it for me (i.e. the controls aren't going to get better, I'll just lose a bit less health while I wait for long ass wind up animations to finish).

I like the lore though. Ive found YouTube gives me all that for free.
I've always wondered if I'm bad at souls games because they're hard or because the controls just suck. Either way I just don't play them though.

What some people can't seem to understand is that there is a difference between a game that's hard and a game that's hard to play. Feeling limited in your action because of how a game controls is a 100% legitimate complaint to make.
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We're all here for the challenge - and I agree that there are advantages to being able to set different difficulties. Where the settings effect how much control is manual (vs automatic) these settings can really help make games more accessible to all, including people who struggle with fast response dexterity.
Feeling limited in your action because of how a game controls is a 100% legitimate complaint to make.
Feeling limited in your action because of how a game controls is a 100% legitimate complaint to make.

Wow! having somebody vibe with me so much they literally post the exact same thing I did! Yeah...

Anyway, I actually did have a thought about this topic that didn't occur to me before. Game's journalists.

There has been a lot of stories over recent years about game's journalist's gameplay skills (Or mostly lack off) and how that matters in a review. Whilst I am am completely behind the notion that a professional game reviewer should know what they're talking about, that to me does no translate as they need to be MLG. On the contrary, I would say somebody who plays games at that level can't really convey an opinion that's that useful to a regular player. That doesn't mean that the opinion of a professional, competitive gamer is invalid, in some circumstances it can be very helpful, but to the regular player,a review from that level of perspective might not translate to well to help that person understand whether that game is for them or not.

I would actually trust the opinion of somebody who plays games at a regular level rather than somebody who is a "pro" at it because they can talk to me about a game's pro's and con's whare it matters to me. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't trust the opinion of somebody who was truly shit at a game either, but I want reviews from human beings with thier faults included.

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