The concept of “difficulty” in games is one that I find particularly fascinating because of its amorphous nature. To me, difficulty can’t just be measured on a simple scale. Measuring difficulty is much more intricate than simply assigning some arbitrary number. To say that Dark Souls is an 85 on the difficulty scale while Mario Kart is a 50 doesn’t really say much of anything. So let’s look at what difficulty really means.
There are many types of difficulty.
What originally got me thinking about this topic was my experience with Spelunky. When I wrote this piece I mentioned that Spelunky differed from another markedly difficult game, Dark Souls, in that DS offered multiple paths to victory and the possibility of improving your odds where Spelunky offered none of that. As I wrote that statement, the truth of it struck me. In Spelunky, one attempt isn’t fundamentally different than any other. You always start at level 1, you always have 4 hearts. In Dark Souls attempting a boss kill at level 30 versus level 60 could produce drastically different results. So which of those games is more difficult? I’d argue that the comparison is impossible as well as irrelevant. To me, difficulty varies not only in amount, but in type.
Most games today are hybrid of different difficulty types, but make no mistakes, the types are very different. First off there is the very obvious reflex difficulty. Platformers often fall into this category, as do a lot of shooters. These type of games require fast hand-eye coordination. Second, there is strategic difficulty which typically (and not surprisingly) falls into the realm of real-time and turn-based strategy games, as well as many types of RPG games. As far as I can tell, there is a third type of difficulty as well, but it’s a bit more difficult to define. It’s a difficulty based around how much time one spends playing a game, so you could argue that you might call it diligence difficulty. This type of difficulty often times revolves around leveling up and grinding, so it lends itself to RPGs, most often (although Call of Duty’s leveling up system is also a good example of this). Let’s look at each of these in a bit more detail.
Reflex difficulty is the easiest to understand because it appears in almost every game to some degree or another. From Mario to Metal Gear, if you can’t react fast enough, you’re going to be punished. The faster the reaction time required, the higher the difficulty. Fighting games are great examples of reflex difficulty because while they require some knowledge of your opponent, most attacks can be dodged or blocked with some good timing and quick reflexes.
Strategic difficulty requires proactive planning and problem solving, whether that’s 3 seconds in advance or 10 minutes in advance. Whether you’re building a certain type of army in a real-time strategy game or you’re waiting for a guard to patrol away so you can sneak by him, there is strategic difficulty there. Once again, most games also use this type of difficulty liberally. It’s not often that a game requires zero strategy and all reflex. Even a game like Super Hexagon, which feels mostly like a reflex challenge, presents some strategy in the direction you choose to move as you approach your next opening.
Diligence difficulty is a whole other concept. Where you can find reflex and strategic difficulty in almost all games, there are several types of games where diligence plays little or no role. RPGs often require diligence as certain monsters are simply impossible until you’ve played the game for long enough to get to the appropriate level. Using fighting games as the example of the antithesis of this, Sub-Zero is essentially the same fighter he is the first time you play him as he is the fiftieth. He doesn’t level up, gain abilities, acquire equipment, etc…
There are a few wildcards.
One thing that I struggle with is whether there is such a thing as knowledge difficulty. Even trying to articulate the concept has me somewhat stumped. When I use the term knowledge difficulty, what I really mean is a sort of meta-understanding of a game’s features and rules. Using the fighting game example yet again, is learning the fighting style and move list of the other characters part of the difficulty? In Dota 2, is it part of the difficulty that I have to understand the roles of 40+ heroes, as well as terminology like “laning”, “jungling”, etc… Things like map layout, optimal boss strategy, etc… all come to mind here. To me, knowledge difficulty represents the kind of thing you’d look up in an FAQ or watch a YouTube video to understand, so I have trouble including it as true type of difficulty inside the game. It’s almost too meta for that. That said, a lot of games these days are complicated in ways that virtually require this type of research and analysis to succeed at. It’s as though they’re designed with community interaction in mind.
The other type of difficulty that I struggle with is multiplayer difficulty. Would you consider Call of Duty multiplayer to be difficult? I mean, the game itself isn’t that hard to pick up or understand, it’s the opponents who can be challenging, and for the most part they’re just like you. To me difficulty represents a set of odds that are stacked either for or against you and in the case of any well designed multiplayer game the odds should be stacked evenly. If you do badly I’m not sure I’m comfortable saying that the game was difficult. On the other hand though, something like a raid in World of Warcraft may very well fall into the category of multiplayer difficulty. A WoW raid demands that players not only adhere to all the difficulty types present in it’s solo content, but also that the group work together as a whole. There is often an immense amount of group coordination required to defeat a boss so should this be considered multiplayer difficulty?
Why is this important?
I think it’s important to understand the different types of difficulties that games present because it can help us as designers and as players in a multitude of ways. As designers we can gauge what is resonating with players by evaluating what types of difficulty are used in different games. The Souls series rose to popularity because of it’s very specific use of reflex, strategic, and diligence difficulty. Designers should be taking note of that, not so that we can copy the game, but so that we can at least understand what it is about those games that is captivating players.
As players it’s also important for us to understand different types of difficulty so that we can refine our own gaming tastes. There are simply too many games out there to play them all so when you play one that you particularly like (or don’t like), being able to identify what it was about the game and it’s type of challenge that struck a chord with you can help inform your next purchase. I don’t particularly like Spelunky because it bugs me that none of my progress is carried over from one attempt to another. That very quickly tells me that I like games that require diligence difficulty. In the future, I’m not going to buy games like Spelunky because I can now pinpoint exactly what it is about that game that I didn’t enjoy.