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Examining Subjective Difficulty: How Plumbers Can Fight Demons

January 4, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

In my previous article on Darwinian Difficulty, there was a brief look, relating to Demon's Souls, at the concept of Subjective Difficulty. However, the concept of Subjective Difficulty is not restricted to brutally hard titles, and one of the most famous and accessible franchises of all time has been an example of this since 1996.

Before we continue, it's important to define two terms for the sake of this article:

Subjective Difficulty. Designing a challenge so that its severity is based on the player's skill level.

Safety Net. The degree to which the player can mess up and still succeed at the specific challenge.

Technically, we can argue that any challenge in a game is subjective by skill; someone who is a grand master at Street Fighter is not going to have the same problems with arcade mode as a player that has never touched a fighting game before. The key component in Subjective Difficulty, however, is that specific challenges are designed for different skill levels at the same time.

To achieve this, the player must have access to all (or most) of the available mechanics from the get-go. In order to design levels that allow different levels of skill to work, the player must have the option to use all the mechanics. If the levels are only designed around using one or two of the available mechanics, then it's not Subjective Difficulty, as both the novice and expert players are limited to the exact same thing.

With that said, there are a few considerations to understand about Subjective Difficulty. First is that unlocking mechanics as a form of progression is not considered Subjective Difficulty. If you have ever played a Metroid game, or the latest 2D Castlevania titles, there are always paths or sections along the main route that are blocked or inaccessible. As the player explores the game, they'll fight a boss or find a power-up that unlocks a new mechanic that can be used to enter the previously inaccessible area.

The point of contention is that it's not the player's fault that the area could not be reached, but the designer limiting the mechanics available. An expert player in Castlevania, no matter how good they are, will take the same path through the game as someone who is brand new.

Second is that the traditional use of difficulty levels is also not an example of Subjective Difficulty. Going back to the concept of the safety net, when the only difference between difficulty levels is stat-based (i.e., on "easy", enemies do less damage, but on "hard", enemies do more damage) then all the designer is doing is raising or lower the safety net based on the difficulty setting.

Subjective Difficulty Levels: God Hand

However, that doesn't mean that difficulty levels aren't a factor. God Hand for the PlayStation 2 has two forms of difficulty. At the start of the game, the player chooses a difficult level; this in turn affects the second layer. During play, at all times a meter in the bottom left of the screen displays the current difficulty level.

The difficulty of the game can fluctuate between Level 0 and Level Die (or 6) based on the player's performance. Taking significant damage or dying will lower the meter, which will drop the level down. The more the player avoids damage while continuing to make progress, the higher the level will rise.

God Hand

The level of difficulty affects two things. First, it affects how aggressive the AI is. The lower the number, the less likely enemies will counterattack, attack in groups, or use their stronger attacks with the opposite more frequent at higher levels. The second detail is that at the higher levels (specifically Level Die) more (and more difficult) enemies will show up in the levels, forcing the player to adapt. Going back to the initial difficulty level at the start, the only things it determines is the starting level of the meter and how high it can go.

Playing God Hand, the game attempts to match the player's skill level by raising or lowering the difficulty. Both a novice player and a skilled player are going to take the same path through the level, but what a novice player will be facing will be different compared to someone who is consistently performing well.

Challenge Variation

Another form of Subjective Difficulty is providing different variations of the same challenge. Games like Tony Hawk's Project 8 or Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts each feature challenges with basic, advanced and expert goals.

Every challenge in the games has a bare minimum to complete to get a bronze medal, which is the easiest way to finish it. There are also more difficult ways to attempt challenges, which could earn players a silver or gold medal. For example: in Project 8, completing a race while placing at least 5th would be a bronze award, placing 2nd gives silver, and placing 1st while finishing the race in under 2 minutes awards gold.

These harder considerations are always available to the player to try if they want and be awarded accordingly, but getting the bronze (or silver) award is good enough to check that challenge off as being "completed".

This system is also popular in many smartphone games. A variation on it in the popular Cut the Rope finds players striving to capture three stars in each level -- which are not essential for completion, but are necessary for completists.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Nicholas Muise
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That's a solid breakdown Josh, thanks!

I am currently playing through Mario 3DS and am impressed by the complexity of challenges available to players from the start. A novice Mario player is going to find sufficient challenge in reaching the end of each level, all the while being introduced to mechanics which are new to them. As an experienced Mario player myself, I am finding the most enjoyment in searching for the golden coins in each level (there have been a couple devious ones already in the early levels).

One interesting thing I have noticed however is I am sometimes thinking too hard about where to look for the golden coins. I find myself using advanced mechanics I have learned from other Mario games such as wall jumps in an attempt to access areas hidden off screen where I think a golden coin may be hidden (a common mechanic used to find green stars in Galaxy 2). This typically ends in me losing a life from falling in a pit, wishing that some of the coins were hidden in a few more interesting places. I am only about 25% of the way in however. Hopefully the golden coin placement will get a little bit more creative and the game will require me to use these mechanics and some more creative thinking to find them.

Josh Bycer
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I'm pretty much the same way with searching through each level. In games like Mario where you can find everything on your first play through, I'll repeat each level to get 100% before moving on.

I've lost count of the # of times I got Mario killed checking for a comet coin off camera, or long jumping into the abyss :)

David Gates
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This one feels less clearly thought-out than the previous two articles; I'd love to see a reworked and polished version. The most confusing aspect is the odd disconnect between the "Main Example" and the others. The first level of Super Mario Galaxy 2 is described as "a perfect example of level design built around Subjective Difficulty." However, the analysis is on how this level allows an expert player to bypass novice challenges, while the other examples describe ways to give an expert player access to expert challenges. Imagine a graph comparing novice and expert difficulties for the God Hand example, for instance, and it will be very different from the one for Super Mario Galaxy 2.

There are various other unpolished areas. The Main Example discusses the Mario Galaxy games, yet has the heading "The Main Example: Super Mario 64". At the front of the article, there's a prominent, bolded definition for "Safety Net"; though it's presented as a major concept, only one other sentence uses the term, and it's clear enough to just use the definition there: "When the only difference between difficulty levels is stat-based...then all the designer is doing is raising or lowering the degree to which the player can mess up and still succeed." The article also states, "in order to design levels that allow different levels of skill to work, the player MUST have the option to use all the mechanics." It then goes on to describe dynamically-adjusted difficulty and challenge variation, neither of which relies on having all the mechanics. Even a metroidvania could implement Subjective Difficulty early on, by requiring expert use of what mechanics are available.

I feel there's an excellent article in there. Perhaps it only needs some categorization of the various subtypes of Subjective Difficulty, so we know which assertions apply to which forms.

Christian Nutt
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You're right about the subhead for sure -- I tweaked it to "Super Mario in 3D". This is actually my fault as when editing I slipped in some new subheads. The idea was more that the concept originated from 64, but the games most prominently discussed are the two Galaxy titles, so...

Josh Bycer
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Metroidvania games could implement Subjective Difficulty, however I haven't seen one yet. The main point is that different players of different skill levels will be able to tackle the game differently.

With the Castlevania games, if we take the best player in the world and a complete novice and have them play. Both players are going to do the exact same things and visit the exact same areas no matter what. When you look at Mario Galaxy on the other hand, while both skill levels are visiting the same area, the player with the higher skill level has more options available to them. The beauty of Mario Galaxy is that no matter what, both players will get rewarded in their own ways.

Justin Leeper
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Godhand is one of those games "real gamers" seem to adore. I've tried it 2 or 3 times, and don't think I've ever gotten past the first level. I consider myself a moderately skilled gamer.

Kenan Alpay
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The problem with Godhand is its unique control scheme and deliberate tempo. If I haven't played for a few months and I start again, it takes an hour for me to remember how to play properly. You're also given a lot of choice when you mix and match attacks, so novice players can easily disadvantage themselves if they don't understand the system properly.

Godhand's difficulty system is interesting, but it doesn't provide for enough contrast. You don't get much breathing room because the game constantly ramps up difficulty when you're having a good run. A few easy encounters would provide better pacing, but God Hand's scaling means you're constantly taxed. A better way could be to provide access to tougher encounters as you perform well, but space these encounters out and make them goals to reach, rather than a constantly shifting scale.

A good example of good difficulty contrast is Dark Souls. The backtracking allows for plenty of moments where you're tearing through enemies that gave you headaches early on. But as you get cocky, it's easier to be overrun and killed, even by weak enemies, so the game still encourages you to stay on your toes.

The same kind of difficulty contrast is in most Mario games. Expert players feel smart when they bypass early challenges with advanced techniques, and beginner players that backtrack to earlier stages can realize how far they've come.

Josh Bycer
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God hand was one of the more interesting action games I've played as it relies on more character abstraction compared to other popular games like Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry. The upgrades to health,tension, special move and more moves differentiate it from other games.

The game also featured special dodge moves which I can't remember if they were listed in the manual. Such as if you dodge and press triangle, Gene would do a leg sweep attack.

Ujn Hunter
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You should give it another go! Like Kenan said... it takes some time to get used to. Once you figure it out and it clicks... you'll be having a blast! Godhand is my all time favorite game! As you can tell, I'm sure. :)

Steven An
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Very well-thought article. I think most gamers would just call this idea "multiple solutions" or "extra challenges." But, "subjective challenge" certainly has a nice ring to it, and it makes the most technical sense to me.

I especially like the idea of the "player leveling up" and then this resulting in more content. This is different from players getting better and then just having an easier time with content (so they experience it differently, but it's still the same content), and it is definitely different from the character leveling up and that opening up new content (RPG's, Metroid-vanias).

Steven An
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Also, I think it's worth arguing that "subjective challenge" shouldn't mean different content for different _levels_ of player skill. It should also encompass different content for different player _styles_. For example, Deus Ex and many RPGs feature multiple solutions to their quests, and what content the player sees is based on their preferences towards, not aptitude with, certain gameplay elements. RPGs have the added complication of character stats locking out certain solutions, which perhaps should also fall under the purview of "subjective."

Marc Vousden
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Interesting stuff! Subjective difficulty is something that's known to exist as a thing but I've never thought how to USE it in design. The core example of Mario demonstrates it perfectly.

Offering two solutions at differing absolute risk levels that, because of subjective difficulty, offer a solution to both experienced and new players at the same relative risk level. The "harder" challenge will still be more difficult for the experienced player but offers efficiency savings (usually time) that make it a better risk/reward prospect. David sums it up nicely with "letting experts bypass novice challenges".

The other examples seem a little further from the "subjective difficulty as design" concept. God Hand might be better fitted by adaptive difficulty and Tony Hawks' (recognition of / reward for) better play seems similar but not quite there.

Articles like this are the reason I read Gamasutra. Keep em' coming!