On the subject of Difficulty

Keep in mind, this is my opinion and my perception. I’m not going to Sarkeesian my way through this and claim this is the one great truth. People have been talking about Easy vs. Hard. I’m glad this discussion has started, because I have a bit of a problem with hard games. I tend not to like them. I get frustrated, lose confidence, and ultimately dump the game without experiencing the full content.

Well, hard games are just not for you then!
You’re absolutely right. Hard games are just not my cup of tea. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with others liking it. I’ve got multiple angles at where the issue lies but this is one of them: It starts to become a problem when people feel it IS wrong to prefer easy or hard.

In the wake of the amazing success of Dark Souls, there have been a lot of people who seem hell bent on sanctifying difficulty. It’s not uncommon to see people tell others to just ‘get better’ at the game. That’s not exactly a good thing.


I guess what’s at the core of this issue is how difficulty relates to other facets of game design. Your experience is everything. The story, gameplay, mechanisms and yes, the difficulty too, they all contribute to an overall experience.

This is what Dark Souls got right: Difficulty is not the end goal, but a piece of the puzzle. Dark Souls is hard because it attempt to immerse you into a decidedly unforgiving world. Darker colour scheme, grittier visuals, but also the ramped up difficulty and the punishing nature of its gameplay help illustrate this world and force you to immerse into it. You really do feel the despair clenching around your heart.

This is what I’ve seen other games get wrong: They think that difficulty is a goal. “Games have to be challenging!” Eh… Not necessarily. There’s certainly no need for them to revolve around it. Think of it as a different genre. You’ve got fantasy, sci-fi, RPG, turn-based, and hard games.


However, just like you can’t do accurate historical portrayals and mix it with fantasy, the ‘hard genre’ can sometimes strangle another genre within the same game.

Hypothetical situation: Etrian Odyssey. It’s an RPG, dungeon crawler, heavy focus on player creativity. You get to name your characters, choose portrait, choose class, arrange the team into a formation, and off you go. You decide what your characters learn, what they are capable of, what they specialise in, etcetera.

Now imagine if this game’s difficulty was ramped up. You play the game, you come across a couple of fights, things aren’t going your way… What do you do? Well… Perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to have this particular combination, and so, although you’re fond of it, you try something else. You drop a party that appeals to you and instead play one that the game demands of you. Min-maxing, I believe it’s called.


Here’s another example: Pokémon. The game itself allows you to pick just about any pokémon, raise it any way you like, and you can go a long way, pretty much waltz through the games without sacrificing personal input too much.

Try online battling. Smogon everywhere. Pick from a pre-set list of ‘ubers’ or GTFO. That’s what happens if the difficulty is ramped up. Instead of having 500+ pokémon to choose from and great variety to compose your own team exactly the way you want (RPG), you have to adhere to strict rules to make the best team possible (Puzzle). In other words, the difficulty kills the RPG element.

This is where the problem lies, in my opinion. If, as a game developer, you make a game where you want your player to feel free to experiment, to play, to savour the environment, to put their own creativity into it, then you need to be really, really careful that your difficulty does not overrule all those things.


And if you want to still cater to the hardcore min-maxers out there, you can use the difficulty settings. Essentially, I guess what I’m trying to say is that ‘hard games’ are a genre on their own. A game built for the challenge is a game that isn’t built for some other factors.

When I have a problem with it, it’s because in my eyes, something of the original design goals got strangled by difficulty. I want to see zone 5’s visuals, but I can’t even beat zone 2. I want to use water spells, but they’re simply not as effective as lightning. I want to be a mage, but spells suck and I’m forced to use physical weaponry. (Looking at you, Bethesda!) Remember, there’s nothing inherently wrong about a game being challenging. But likewise, there’s nothing inherently wrong about a game being easy.

It’s all about how the difficulty fits in with the rest of the game’s design. If it slots in well (Dark Souls) you’ve got a good game. If it slots in poorly (Trying to play a mage in vanilla Skyrim) it’s decidedly horrible.