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Difficulty Setting in Multiplayer Games: Can it be done?
by Enrique Dryere on 01/01/10 06:11:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


"Gameplay experience may change during online play." We're all familiar with this disclaimer. It's come to be accepted as an inevitable byproduct of the human element in social and competitive games. In truth, this unpredictability may be one of the facets that make multiplayer games so appealing, but then why is there no "random" difficulty setting in most single-player games?

Difficulty settings are there for a reason: they offer the right gameplay experience and challenge. How many times have you switched back and forth between "beginner" and "extremely difficult" settings in a single player game?

Let's take Nintendo's hit franchise, Super Smash Bros., for instance. Setting a computer opponent to level 9 can make them somewhat challenging, however, a level 1 opponent will do little more than walk back and forth, waiting for you to punt them off screen. An expert may even have to handicap themselves to get a proper game out of a level 9, and no amount of handicapping could make a level 1 threatening.

Yet this is the sort of experience you can expect in multiplayer. You can run into players who are still learning how to grip a controller in one game, and grand masters in the next. In fact, you can encounter both in the same game, and therein lies the problem.



The closest thing to difficulty settings in a competitive multiplayer environment is player rating. Ratings can help pair equally-skilled opponents against each other. However, they can be unreliable and assume that all players constantly desire highly challenging opposition.

The "easy" difficulty setting is not just there for beginners. Intermediates and experts seeking a more relaxed gameplay experience may choose to set the game to easy and just have some fun. Conversely, "nightmare mode" is not just for masters. Players looking for greater challenges may choose to play on the highest setting even though their skill level may be better suited for a lower level. Whenever possible, this choice should be left to the player to make.


Where to Start

It's very common to see difficulty settings in modern games accompanied by a short description. They will normally warn that a particular setting is for players new to the game type while another may be for players who've played the prequel or are familiar with the genre. Did everyone start out on equal footing when Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was released? Not by a long shot. Those who'd played Modern Warfare 1 were at a huge advantage, yet there wasn't any way for a novice to find a game filled with other beginners.

Dividing players by levels is insufficient when you consider that their initial abilities can be drastically mismatched. But it may not be fair to pit promising beginners against intermediates and experts in many games. It's become quite popular to introduce the vertical advancement of RPGs into most genres. Players' abilities will not only improve with play, their characters' potencies will also increase as they gain levels.

Even in games whose vertical improvement is relatively minor, like in League of Legends, pitting a level 1 against a level 20 or 30 is entirely unfair. There are many situations in which the beginner, despite their talent, will be mathematically incapable of defeating the higher level. This is far more pronounced in MMORPGs, such as World of Warcraft.


Introducing Difficulty Settings into Multiplayer

The potential for handicaps that arise from levels presents us with a very easy way to initially establish difficulty settings in multiplayer. Selecting a "hard" setting will pit players against higher levels, while "normal" will bring them opposition of their level, and "easy" will place them against lower levels.

And if you've played your fair share of multiplayer games, you're probably thinking this won't work. It is entirely likely that highly skilled players, looking to dominate, would select the easy setting and go to town on some newbies. However, since there are two opposing settings, hard and easy, players who select easy should only be pitted against lower level opponents who selected hard. Therefore, although the higher level players will be at a clear advantage, they will not be facing newbies, but rather experienced players of a lower level who are looking for a bigger challenge.

Once the levels are exhausted and the endgame is reached, ratings and handicaps can take the place of levels in the adjustment of difficulty. Players who select hard will either go against opponents with higher ratings or incur a handicap. And, of course, the opposite would be true for those who select easy. If the handicap is significant enough, players who chose easy and were pitted against those who selected hard should have the same advantage that levels granted during the earlier game.


Why Choose Hard?

Encouraging the use of these settings may be the easiest part. Whatever rewards a game presents for winning or participating in a multiplayer match can be adjusted by the difficulty setting. Winning an easy match may present more points or experience than losing in a normal match, but less than winning one. And since winning on hard would be the most challenging, it should present the greatest reward.

I would, however, warn against making participation in "hard" games a greater reward than participating in normal or easy games. "AFKers," or players who enter a match but do not participate, are a sad reality of many multiplayer games that necessitate multiplayer competition for character advancement. These players simply log in to sponge up experience or points in games that allow for this behavior. There are other ways to force participation, such as yielding experience for actual actions rather than the match as a whole, but gamers are crafty and will always find a way to "cheat" the system. Unless your game accounts for this, you can guarantee that many AFKers will join hard games simply to lose as part of their scheme to advance their character with as little effort as possible.

Designers may also wish to emplace safeguards to protect novices from the "hard" setting and vice-versa. This can come in the form of requirements and bold warnings. A player may not be able to access the hard difficulty setting unless they first achieve a certain level or win-loss ratio. Players who select hard should be ready for the challenge. Since most games rely on teamwork to win, and the team who chose the hard setting are already at a big disadvantage, letting a true novice into the match would simply ruin their chances altogether.


Still No Guarantees

So long as the human element exists, there is no way to completely prevent the resulting unpredictability, but that doesn't mean we have to resign ourselves to it entirely. While introducing difficulty settings into multiplayer matches in this way would certainly not guarantee players a uniformed gameplay experience every time they play, it would go a long way in letting them tailor challenges to better fit their likings.

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Luis Guimaraes
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Haha, nice, I had (and overlooked) the same thoughts just like this last week or the other...

By reading your post came other kinds of handicap conceptions, such as team size, class, bonuses of various kinds, etc...

Another, kind of weird, thing I though once was a way in which one player could be simultaneously logged in more than one server at once, and therefore fighting more enemies, which other players wouldn't even see. An specific game setting would be needed to make sense of it, but could be possible.

Jake Romigh
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While this is interesting, I'm not sure if it's a viable option.

There would have to be games for each of the following circumstances for Novices, Experienced and Experts:

Novices selecting Easy vs. ???

Novices selecting Normal

Novices selecting Hard vs. Experienced selecting Easy

Experienced selecting Normal

Experienced selecting Hard vs. Experts selecting Easy

Experts selecting Normal

Experts selecting Hard vs. ???

That's what I got the gist of after digesting the issue. If we cut out the questionable ones at the top and bottom, you're left with 5 types of games.

I'm thinking about the Matchmaking system involved with 5 difficulty levels. You'd need to either have a lobby system, where lobbies are set up in relation to difficulty rankings, or dedicated servers selecting between 5 levels of difficulty, which sounds unfeasible but can happen. (Take a look at Killing Floor's server-side set difficulty, for instance.)

I think the problem with either comes in a couple ways. Suppose you have various game modes. You'd have to multiply the number of game modes by the difficulty levels, and you'd see where finding a server or lobby becomes a pain. If you juse had Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and CTF, there would be 15 different types of game styles! If you had a low amount of players, I think it might be tough to fill servers/lobbies.

I also would be very interested in how players adapt at different styles of play. Competitive play is very different from casually playing the game. Do the casual players adapt to the competitive play and figure out the strategies? Or do the "elite" just get aggravated at "suffering" the handicap of someone from a different style of play? Very interesting experiment there... though I have my bets on the outcome.

Enrique Dryere
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That's a very legitimate concern. I agree that this system would only work for certain games and game types. It could work for most major games, since they have the player-base to support it, but it could also work for smaller games with a single game type, like League of Legends. You don't have to be MW2 or WoW to pull this off, you just need to take it into account in your design. For instance, I think that Guild Wars could also pull it off thanks to the way their game is designed.

Of course, you can allow players to double queue, for instance Easy/Normal, that way they can check to see if anyone is waiting for a hard game, but go into a normal game rather than waiting for 5-10 minutes for a match.

Jake Romigh
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Double queue? That's a thought and a half. I tell you, I'd love that feature in a lot of matchmaking games.

Another thought that the designer needs to take into account is the balancing of handicaps. While it is hard enough to balance guns, classes and maps, you'd need to balance all of these AGAIN when you start to handicap users playing "Easy" or "Hard" modes.

For instance, a health decrease wouldn't matter if the player went for the sniper's class, while a damage cap wouldn't bother a flag runner or healer. If you inhibit the amount of help you can be to a team, you're not just inhibiting the player, but the team overall.

The amount of balancing required to accurately ensure a difficulty change specifically for the player without negatively affecting other players' enjoyment of the game, especially in a team-based multiplayer environment, is a difficult task indeed. It would be a superb thought experiment.

Jonathon Walsh
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"Even in games whose vertical improvement is relatively minor, like in League of Legends, pitting a level 1 against a level 20 or 30 is entirely unfair. "

Not to nitpick but that's overstating the advantage of levels in Lol. I recently made a new account and queued with friends so I was matched as a level 1 vs a level 20. It really doesn't have that big of an impact on your performance.

Anyways more on topic...

Setting Hard vs Easy can be problematic. Age of Mythology implemented a system similar to this on top of their ELO rating system. The problem became that players would get matched against a player rating themselves as expert. In these games they would have little rating to gain for winning but a lot to lose for losing. If they were playing an actual expert they'd lose a ton of points. If they were playing a newbie they'd waste a bunch of time for no points. If they actually had an even match then it was a lot of stress because one player is risking a lot while the other is risking little on the win. Overall what it did was shift the frustration of being stomped from the newbies to the intermediate players. Other games could do this better but it's a concern.

Also League of Legends has a good idea for any game implementing an ELO or matchmaking system. Players starting out are only eligible to match against other players who have a small number of games played (this is accomplished both by levels and by the concept of a newbie island). It helps a lot to keep new players separated from being matched against experienced players. Queuing with friends immediately removes you from this newbie island so anyone who has a mentor or may be a new account of a vetern player gets booted out of the newbie island.

Another helpful mechanism is what Lol is planning on doing. They're going to divide up the matchmaking into a ranked and unranked sections. Both use ELO to find an appropriate match but only ranked will display the ELO to the playerbase. This way more competitive or serious players will gravitate towards the ranked matching and the unranked matchmaking should hopefully become more forgiving to players.

As for games with dedicated servers or lobbies, what if players were tracked better and reported statistics? Stats like K:D, objectives accomplished per round, win / loss ratio, accuracy, friendly fire rate, damage taken / round could be combined to form a rough 'player score' (could be stored client side if need be). When joining a server this score is reported to the server. Each server could then tally up the score of all the players on the server and report a 'difficulty' rating of the server. This way a new player can judge, in real time, the servers and choose one of an appropriate difficulty. The score could be gamed or otherwise misrepresented but really if there's little motivation to do so it'd still be a step in the right direction.