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Tough but Fair: Can Difficulty Be Described in Terms of Limited Decision Making?

Discussions about game difficulty often circulate around specific genres, styles, and contexts. Whether its JRPGs which demand hours of grinding to beat a tough boss or life systems designed to squeeze quarters out of an arcade audience, it’s difficult to compare disparate games when analyzing a component which is so fundamentally contextual. How do you approach the difficulty of Fire Emblem vs Skyrim without sinking into complete subjectivity? Although a truly impartial approach is likely impossible, I propose an analytical framework which might help us make more useful comparisons between difficult games: limited decision making.

1. Input & Output

All games require player input – it is more or less the definition of interactive media. This creates a potential for disparity between player expectation and gameplay result which can be frustrating or satisfying depending on the context. When it’s always clear to a player what the best input is, and that input always achieves the desired result, the result is a game which might be considered “easy.” Examples might include walking simulators and other linear, slow-paced games where directions are clear and time is not an issue.

To create difficulty then, there are two possible avenues: complicate the player input, or convolute the game’s output. This is done in a variety of ways which are largely genre dependent. In a platformer, controls should be clear, concise, and responsive. To complicate the player’s input, levels should present unusual configurations which will require time-sensitive re-evaluation of what inputs will produce the desired outcome (i.e. getting to the next platform). In fighting games, platformers, and shooters, timing is one of the main ways of challenging a player. Not only must a player make the correct inputs, they must perform them quickly and accurately to surmount challenges.

The second principle (convoluting output) can also be applied to these genres. In a shooter, an AK47 might spread its bullets randomly across a predefined radius around the player’s crosshairs. This convolution of the game’s output challenges the player to make decisions which compensate for it. For example, the player might use the AK47 at a closer range than a more accurate weapon, like a sniper rifle. These decisions are less time-oriented and more tactical, but have the same capacity to introduce difficulty.

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When discussing RPGs and tactics games, there is often a tendency to bemoan “randomness” as a source of difficulty; however, this convolution of game output can be used to create very satisfying difficulty curves. The attack damage range in Pokemon or Final Fantasy, or the chance to hit in XCOM or Fire Emblem, are all examples of well-executed output convolution which create situations which are challenging, but fair. Active battle systems in RPGs like Chrono Trigger or Secret of Mana test a player’s ability to choose the correct inputs in ever more urgent scenarios.

2. Limiting Decision Making

If you’ve ever played XCOM you have probably had the unfortunate experience of missing a 98% chance-to-hit shot. Why is this such a frustrating moment? I contend that it’s because often you make your tactical decisions operating on the assumption that your attack will land. Missing a “guaranteed” shot might leave one of your units exposed to lethal fire, or require you to use up another unit’s action which as a result puts you over the turn limit into a failure state. For this reason, XCOM gives you dozens of ways to mitigate risk. You can choose to stay behind high cover, use a smoke canister to hide exposed units, or set up overwatch to act as covering fire. These decisions are incredibly meaningful to the player because they can be the difference between success and failure. This means that, despite the randomness, a successful player will feel that they beat the odds and an unsuccessful player will enjoy experimenting with different risk mitigation strategies.

However, this principle alone cannot create the perception of difficulty. Instead, I propose that perceived difficulty increases as the number of possible successful strategies decreases. Even a game which is “perfectly fair,” which is to say that success is always possible, can be excruciatingly difficult if there is only one viable strategy for success. In JRPGs there may be a specific party configuration which is necessary to proceed. In an action oriented game it may be that the player’s reflexes simply must be fast enough to press the right buttons at the right time. These limitations on player decision making will create a barrier which is only permeable by highly skilled players.

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On the other hand, an easy game is balanced to allow even unskilled players to proceed. Sometimes the game is designed to train unskilled players through the use of unlimited platforming checkpoints or NPC dialogue which hints at a boss’s weakness. Other times, challenges are just built to be overcome with any strategy. A walking simulator’s test of reflexes is impossible to fail, so there is no perceived difficulty. Even in otherwise difficult games, there may be scripted scenes with predetermined outcomes which render player choice irrelevant.

3. Player Fun

How do these principles tie into player enjoyment? I contend that each of us has a threshold for meaningful decision making which determines our enjoyment of varying levels of challenge. The best game design takes into account these preferences and builds in optional limitations. Let’s take Pokemon as an example:

At the beginning of the game you make your very first meaningful decision by choosing your starting Pokemon. Depending on which you choose, you are locked into certain strategic choices which can make the early game seem harder or easier. Some players go a step further to increase difficulty by choosing certain Pokemon which are sub-optimal. While there are hundreds of Pokemon available to the player, only certain combinations are truly viable to overcome certain challenges. However, in most Pokemon games there are so many viable combinations that decisions about what Pokemon to keep and what moves to use may seem less meaningful than other RPGs, and so Pokemon is often perceived as fairly easy.

In Dark Souls, difficulty is approached differently due to the genre but is fundamentally built the same way. In combat, the attack inputs must be timed correctly in accordance with enemy movements and attack patterns. There can be a little variability – a slower weapon has a narrower time frame for success, but deals significant damage. A faster weapon may not obliterate the enemy right away, but allows for more opportunities to punish overextended enemies. Either way, timing is crucial. Players can also choose to engage the enemy at range with magic attacks. Because attack timing is less critical, the limitations on player input are less strict and therefore the perceived difficulty is reduced. For this reason, mage characters are commonly regarded as “easy mode” for Dark Souls combat.

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4. Conclusion

Meaningful choices are imperative to player satisfaction. Without them, the interactive quality, and therefore the fundamental appeal of videogames, is greatly reduced. By limiting viable inputs, perceived difficulty increases. As viable inputs become more athletic or esoteric, gamers may feel that the game is “too hard” and give up. For this reason, great games offer optional limitations which can increase satisfaction for skilled players. The innovative Russian composer Igor Stravinsky describes this principle this way:

“My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit.”

Thanks for reading, I look forward to hearing what you all think!


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