Game Development Reference
Difficulty modification means shifting a game's challenge level as a whole.
On the skill range graph, this has the effect of shifting the entire range
left or right.
There are a number of ways to do difficulty modification.
EXPLICIT DIFFICULTY SELECTION asks players how much challenge they
Easy, medium, or hard? Games have been asking this question for
decades, and for good reason. It's straightforward to design, reasonably
effective, and reasonably elegant.
The trouble is that the choice of difficulty can itself be confusing.
There are no standard easy, medium, and hard difficulties, so players
worry they'll make the wrong choice. To alleviate this, some games test
players in the first level and recommend a difficulty level. Others describe
the difficulty levels with examples, or allow the difficulty to be changed
during play in case the player makes the wrong choice.
ADAPTIVE DIFFICULTY silently adjusts the game's difficulty depending
on how well the player is doing.
If the player is starving, we can quietly place some food in the next
room. If he's alone for too long, we can “randomly” introduce an ally to
come to his aid. Every time he fails, we can silently decrease a secret dif-
ficulty counter, making enemies weaker and slower. Every time he suc-
ceeds, we increase it, making enemies harder to kill and more aggressive.
Adaptive difficulty works best when players aren't aware of it. Players
who know about it will sometimes try to game the system. Or they'll start
attributing every random event to it and become convinced that their play
experience is artificial. Adaptive difficulty appears in more games than
people realize because designers never advertise it.
Adaptive difficulty is only appropriate for games in which players
aren't expected to reach very high skill levels. Expert players will figure out
how an adaptive difficulty system works, and manipulate it to their advan-
tage. Games for these players must be more honest because experts can
tell when a game is using sleight of hand to help or hinder them. They'll
quickly decode the system and manipulate it to their own advantage.
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