When older gamers talk about the good old day’s one of the key points they bring up is difficulty. Namely those games back then were harder and therefore better. In my last look at difficulty in design, I talked about looking at what made classic games challenging was more important. If a game was difficult due to poor design or a confusing UI, then that's not really a good challenge.
Lately with games like Diablo 3 and Demon's and Dark Souls, discussion about difficult areas are usually shut down by the usual retorts from expert players that the game is fine, and that people aren't good enough. However without saying this too oddly: it's easy to make a hard game. The quandary and where a good designer is needed, is being able to separate hard from challenging.
If the player feels like there is no hope of playing and the game is messing with them, then they're not going to stick around for long. Good difficulty is not about pounding the player into the ground, but presenting something that can be beaten either by player skill or character development. To help differentiate between the two concepts, here are some points I've found that tilt the balance towards a game being hard.
1. Removing Choice:
A classic example of what makes good game design, is giving players choices. Different spells, weapons, moves, armies etc. But to make a game hard, designers like to create situations that require specific solutions which mean that not every choice works.
One of the most annoying things when playing a game, is to spend hours building a character or army of your choosing, to discover that it's no longer viable and that there were only a few options that would be consider "correct". A staple of RPGs is featuring optional super bosses that are designed in such a way that unless you go into the fight with the correct skills and party members, you'll have no hope of winning.
In Diablo 3, players have a lot of choices how to define their character, thanks to the limits on active and passive skills. Along with each active skill, a rune can be assigned that modifies the skill further. Playing on normal and nightmare difficulty, the enemies are balanced enough that a variety of strategies can work. But things change once you enter the latter two difficulties: Hell and Inferno.
Enemy stats are boosted to the point that some skills and choices are no longer viable. Playing the Witch Doctor class, choices like summoning dogs don't work due to the stat difference between them and the enemies. Skills built around slowing enemies also aren't as effective both due to the faster speed and innate resistance special enemies have at the higher difficulties. Since enemies do so much damage, it's important to have a skill for escaping and one for backup healing, which once again forces the player to make pre determined choices about their builds.
While Diablo 3 is 2012's example, last year, Deus Ex: Human Revolution ran into this problem with the boss designs. The issue wasn't that the bosses were impossible to fight, but that all the choices that the game offered the player were thrown out the window except to fight.
For players who were already focused on combat, these fights weren't that bad. But if you were playing the game using stealth and the stun gun, you would be incredibly out gunned for each of the fights. The DLC episode: The Missing Link did partially fix this with a boss that could have been beaten with stealth. But that didn't fix the bumps in the road players had to alter their play style around.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
If the only way to succeed at the end game is to use pre-made builds then there is a problem with balance. Now, it shouldn't mean that every choice should make the game easy and granted some choices would be better than others. However, if you give the player 10 options, 6 of them should not instantly become useless at a certain point.
2. Using the game mechanics against the player:
A video game is about a series of rules that are followed by both the player and the game space itself. When the designer circumvents the rules it can lead to unfair challenges. This was a point in my latest article “The Anatomy of a Bad Game", if a designer breaks their own rules, it can lead to "cheap difficulty"
The first example comes from Dark Souls. I've talked previously about the Capra Demon fight in my analysis: In which the battle takes place in a constricted area with three enemies making it hard to move around and use the camera effectively. A later boss fight: The Caterpillar Demon is similar in how the camera has a tough time tracking it. During that fight, due to the size of the creature, the camera constantly gets stuck preventing the player from seeing the creature's tells for when it is about to attack.
I know that people have argued against me on this example stating that the fight was easy for them. But it doesn't matter if it was the easiest fight in the world or the hardest. When a section of a game is designed to be difficult by the inherent rules ,design or technical issues of the game, that is not good design. This motto also applies to the next example.
In Diablo 3, the designers have gone on record stating they wanted the player's skill selection and attributes to dictate success or failure. To facilitate that, if the player is about to be attacked by an enemy, even if the player moves out of the way, the attack will still connect. The reasoning was that they didn't want quick fingers to have a factor in success.
On paper this sounds reasonable and fair, but when players move on to the higher difficulty levels this become a problem. Playing on Hell and Inferno, enemies move naturally faster, and the "fast" modifier for special enemies occurs more often. What happens is that enemies are so quick that the player can't run away from them. This means that once the enemy begins to attack, it will connect regardless of the player's position, preventing the player from escaping.
This leads to plenty of cases where the player has no way to survive and their only option is to die repeatedly. The problem with this design decision is that the designer's used their rule about enemy animations to then create scenarios that are built against the player.
Star Wars Jedi Academy
Another example was the infamous "sniper town" level from Medal of Honor. The level tasked players with moving through a destroyed town while being targeted by snipers. However, the snipers themselves blended in so well with the less then detailed textures making it hard to spot. Adding frustration, the snipers could kill the player in a few shots, which due to how hard it was to see those, means they'll usually get a free shot on the player. The sniper town level design was copied in Star wars Jedi academy, but replace sniper rifles with laser rifles.
Lastly is when designers take the balance of the game and throw it out the window for the harder difficulty levels. Examples of this are mainly seen in games with RPG design but can also be seen in some action titles.
What happens is that to make each difficulty level different, the designers tweak the attribute values of enemies without any regard for balance. If the player can only take 5 points of damage, making every enemy's attack do 12 is going to make the game harder, but not balanced.
This is one of the reasons why I don't like to play Turn Based RPGs on anything other than the normal difficulty. Since player interaction is limited to choosing commands, there really isn't anything the player can do to get around the difficulty increase other than spending even more time grinding out levels.
As an example from an action title, Nier was an action adventure game similar to Zelda which came out a few years ago. The game featured two difficulty settings: Normal and Hard. The problem is that the difficulty of the game swung too far between being easy and frustrating based on the difficulty.
When playing the game on normal, basic enemies take two hits from the player to die, and the player must be hit 12 times in a row to die. On hard, those numbers are reversed, and when the player is fighting groups of five or more basic enemies at once, the player could be killed before they even knew what hit them.
I'm not sure if this is just me, but I find games that are frustrating difficult as boring to play as ones that are ridiculously easy. Walking into a room and dying within seconds doesn't interest me, neither does having to play a game optimizing everything using a guide to stand a chance.
There is a fine line between creating something that is a challenge, and something that is just masochistic for the player. The trick is to understand how to test the player with the design, without overwhelming them.
This is reprinted from my blog: Mind's Eye . I know that I promised a blog post focusing on Diablo 3's inferno mode and this one isn't it. But I'll be posting that here soon.