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Game difficulty level – how to choose it properly

Making the game too difficult can be discouraging for the players. They may find that the game is so difficult that it’s hard to enjoy it, and see no reason to spend more time playing. On the other hand, if the game is too easy, players will quickly lose interest in it, thinking that it offers nothing interesting. Setting the right level of difficulty is arguably one of the biggest challenges game developers face. Is there a proper way to approach it? 

Game difficulty level and player psychology 

The difficulty level of a game has a multi-dimensional effect on how the gameplay affects the player’s psyche.  

With the right difficulty, the game is more motivating, while an inadequate difficulty level can make it discouraging and frustrating. Successes and failures in the game affect the player’s sense of worth. If the game is too difficult and the players keep losing, their self-esteem will decrease temporarily. At that point, they will most likely abandon the game in an attempt to protect their self-esteem. 

On the other hand, a well-balanced difficulty level – such that allows the player to develop skills and achieve success – will provide players with positive reinforcement in the form of a temporary boost to self-esteem and self-efficacy, and thus encourage them to continue playing. Figuratively speaking, the game then becomes a drug-like addiction – you want it more and more to feel the “high”. 

Research conducted by psychologists at the University of Wolverhampton suggests that the impact of success and failure on self-esteem may be particularly significant in multiplayer modes. It turns out that players of MMORPGs who tend to attribute their real-life successes and failures to chance, fate, luck or forces beyond their control, are more likely to believe that what happens in games is their actual fault or merit. Thus, the impact of excessively high difficulty level on their self-esteem is more powerful. 

The risk associated with lowering players’ self-esteem is cleverly addressed in soulslike games. In such games, you don’t lose when your character dies – you lose when you give up. Dying frequently is an experience inherent in the convention of the genre, rather than something indicative of the player’s lack of skill. 

Our research has shown that people who are extraverted – and therefore sociable and energetic – tend to choose higher difficulty levels in games. And so do people open to experience, creative, curious about the world and who seek new sensations. The same is true for emotionally stable players – those who are not prone to stress and negative emotions also tend to enjoy games with higher difficulty levels. 

All these results make sense from a general psychology perspective: for open-minded and emotionally stable people the experience of “failure” is not as severe as it is for other players, so they can afford to play at higher difficulty. And even if they choose a level that is too high, or the game is not well designed in terms of difficulty (is unfairly hard), the players will suffer relatively little. In other words, failure is a relatively safe experience for them. For other players, the (un)optimal difficulty level of the game is comparatively more important. 

General rules for setting the level of difficulty 

When designing a game’s difficulty level, it’s generally worth following a few universal rules. 

 The difficulty level of the game should not decrease 

This rule may seem obvious, but even some AAA games (e.g. Resident Evil Village) tend to forget about it and shock the players with an extremely difficult beginning, only to lower the bar later. This may cause some people to give up at the very start, while those who like a challenge will quickly become disappointed when they experience a drop in the difficulty level. 

The difficulty should gradually increase 

Players learn the game and its different mechanics as they play, making it increasingly easy for them. If the difficulty isn’t increased over time and the game doesn’t introduce new mechanics, the players will quickly get bored with it. Offering new, more difficult challenges offers a sense of progression and achievement, which are the key motivators for many players. 

New mechanics should be introduced with short-term spikes in difficulty

It’s a good idea to introduce new mechanics when the player cannot die. We described the best practices of introducing the player to new game mechanics in the article “How to design a perfect game tutorial?” 

The player must not feel stuck 

At any point in the game, the player should feel in control of the situation. You must not allow a situation where the player does not know what to do next or is unable to complete a task required to progress. The player should always see a way out of the situation. Ideally, there should always be several ways to proceed. For example, in the Dark Souls series, whenever the player is struggling, they can, for example, change the equipment, develop the character, or call for help. 

Increasing the difficulty level should be varied 

It’s all about keeping the player’s interest high, all the time. It’s not enough to gradually increase the strength and life points of the bosses. Increasing the level of difficulty can (and should) also involve introducing completely new mechanics or prompting the player to discover new, unconventional solutions on their own. 

Determining the target group (difficulty) for the game 

When setting the level of difficulty, it is also important to tailor the experience to the target audience of the game. If you’re working on a soulslike game with a very high difficulty level, you should properly communicate this in the advertising. In this way, the players who choose to purchase the game will know what to expect. Likewise, when making a low-difficulty “walking simulator”, you should also communicate it clearly to the players. 

From a difficulty level perspective, walking simulators are an interesting genre in itself. The number of mechanics is reduced to a minimum, and the game focuses primarily on storytelling and exploration. The playable character mostly can’t die, and there are no logical puzzles. Above all, “walking simulators” offer the opportunity to follow an interesting story that defies clear-cut interpretation. What they don’t offer is a challenge or an opportunity to develop skills around the implemented mechanics. It should be clearly communicated in the advertising that the game is a story-driven “walking simulator”. (Examples of such games include Dear Esther and Marie’s Room, among others). This increases the chances of reaching the right target audience. Otherwise, such a game may end up in the hands of players who will be disappointed by the lack of challenge. 

Somewhere in the middle are the so-called “casual games”, which include mobile games such as Subway Surfers or Piano Tiles. Most audiences for such games aren’t looking for too much of a challenge (compared to avid console and PC gamers), but to keep their attention it’s also necessary to successively increase the difficulty level. What is important, the tasks set in these games require skills that the player develops when playing the game. Increasing the level of difficulty in this type of games usually consists in the need to perform certain actions faster and faster, with more elements and higher complexity of the system. Because these types of games are designed so that gaining skill goes hand in hand with higher reaction speed, the increasing difficulty keeps the player engaged without discouraging them. 

Usefulness of precise playtests 

Playtests on a group of players representative for our target group are also a very good idea. Feedback from appropriately selected playtesters is an invaluable aid in determining the level of difficulty, both of the entire game and its individual elements.  

So if your product is targeted at casual gamers, it makes sense to recruit only such players for the study. However, when creating a soulslike game, it would make sense to test it on fans of hard, challenging games. 

However, if your goal is to make a game that appeals to all kinds of players, it’s worth implementing in the game the possibility to choose difficulty. Then it is a good idea to conduct playtests with people belonging to each of the potential target groups: both with players who will potentially play on a low difficulty level, and with those who mostly play on a medium and high level. 

Feedback from playtesters provides a detailed understanding of the learning curved line of the target audience. Thanks to them, it is possible to find out not only what the players find difficult, but also what difficulty level the players consider desired and satisfying.  

In short, well-designed playtests help to distinguish which elements of the game (due to their level of difficulty) are interesting and motivating for the audience, and which the players find frustrating and discouraging. 

Summary 

Determining the optimal level of difficulty is not an easy task. To do this properly, you must first take into account the specificity of the genre of the game you’re making and how the game affects the psyche of the recipient. Make sure it’s all properly reflected in your promotional activities and advertising of the game. It is also important to follow universal rules of game design and thoroughly test the game with a carefully-selected group of playtesters. Meticulous playtests can make the whole process of setting the difficulty level much easier, and protect the developers and publishers of the game from negative comments. 

Want to cite this article? Do it in an elegant way: 

Cieślak, K., Zalewski, D. (2021, 10 09). Game difficulty level – how to choose it properly?  https://tryevidence.com/blog/game-difficulty-level-how-to-choose-it-properly/