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System Shock, the first one, also had four different difficulty settings. One for combat, one for plot, one for puzzles, and one for cyberspace.

How well did that work in practice?

How about putting dynamic difficulty into the tutorial of a game? Once the tutorial is over, the difficulty remains constant (+ the difficulty curve, of course) until the end of the game. The player won't really mind that the tutorial gets easy, since he's still just learning the ropes. It shouldn't be too hard to implement into a good tutorial- generally the different types of gameplay are introduced individually, so it can see how well/quickly the player deals with each type of gameplay and adjust the remainder of the game accordingly.

While that would solve finding the appropriate overall difficulty level, it doesn't figure out where the player should be in the flow channel. But is it necessary to have a game try to serve all types of gamers? Generally, the different archetypes of gamers are attracted to different types of games, no?

I like the idea of adaptive tutorials as a method. Backed up with the capacity to manually adjust the settings for an experienced game-literate player, it could be an interesting solution.

Is it necessary to have a game try to serve all types of gamer? In the upper market, where development costs are spirally upwards, it's necessary for games to hit a very wide cross-section in order to break even or make a profit.

Something like Grand Theft Auto, for instance, has difficult missions on the spine (for fiero-seekers) but a playground world that anyone can mess about in (for Easy Fun). I feel that these sorts of structural solutions to the problem have considerable merit.

Yes, it is nice to have different content for different types of players, but that's not at all the same as trying to push the same content into different difficulty levels for different types of players. If we're talking about difficulty, then you seem to be looking for a solution like a manual system-wide setting for the player's preferred type of play. All compatible games would adjust their difficulty levels to that setting.

But this doesn't seem like a very good idea. Take Halo, for instance. I played it on the lowest difficulty level because I'm not interested in putting a lot of effort into a FPS. But in so doing, I avoided the difficult AI which is the game's strength. My experience with the game was very mediocre. Wouldn't it be better, if the player is not suited to the style of gameplay, to force the player to adapt rather than the game?

It worked quite well in practice, allowing you to adjust the game experience to your liking, so that any given element was no harder than you cared for. Each level was clearly explained, on screen, when you selected the difficulty as well.

To date, it's the single best difficulty system I've experienced.

I would think dynamic difficulty could still be used - what I would like to see in a game is a 12-part difficulty system, using three levels of base difficulty, and an optional dynamic difficulty, which has three tunings. The base difficult level sets the overall challenge of the game (obviously), and there would be three dynamic settings. One of the DD settings would be punishing, and would ramp up the difficult very fast if the player did well, and would ratchet down much slower. The other end of the spectrum would have the difficulty ramp down very easily, and the player would have to be doing very well for it to ratchet upwards at all. Finally, there would be a third in the middle, that would adjust evenly in both directions. Also, an option to disable DD would be nice, since (as per your Burnout example) sometimes DD makes the game less about playing skillfully and more about meta-gaming the difficulty system.

Mory: I take your point; I *was* going off on a tangent about structural issues. :) Oddly, I also had a relatively poor experience of Halo playing on Easy, but I find it hard to believe I'd enjoy it more on a different setting. Forcing the player to adapt to the game (rather than the reverse) is a bold suggestion! Most people who comment here seem to be "game libertarians". It's nice to hear a more "right wing" view for once! :)

James: The difficulty system you describe would only suit very game-literate players, of course. Commercially, it would be of limited interest, I suspect, as the majority of players would be unable to use it. :) Still, if there's one thing we're sure of it's that the hardcore players will look at the options and see what they do, so such a system could be buried in the options easily enough. The real barrier might be persuading the developer to invest so much time and money in the difficulty system.

I wrote a response, realized it was quite long, and so posted it to my blog instead. In short, I think there are two ways of measuring where in the flow channel they feel comfortable.

http://projectperko.blogspot.com/2005/11/flow-channel-and-adaptive-difficulty.html

It seems that dynamic difficulty requires such a large degree of knowledge about player preferences and personality that any such algorithm would require protracted online (read 'in-play') learning. An almost incubator-style approach. It would have to be in an interconnected play environment, perhaps remotely stored (and then what data protection issues would be raised?). It would have to test its hypothesis on the player by very small (atomic) degrees, so that it could observe the results and try to evaluate the effects. In short, it would take a lot more than you get out of a quick and dirty MarioKart session after the pub/bar/karaoke club.
IMHO :D

Returning to an old post: just caught Gamespot's write-up of the new SiN game (which was apparently around at GDC). They're touting dynamic difficulty as one of their key features, but it looks like they're doing it the old-school way rather than your way of determining difficulty relative to flow. Thought you might be interested.

http://www.gamespot.com/pc/action/sinepisodes1/news.html?sid=6146567&mode=previews

Always happy to revisit old stuff, especially if it's still relevant and coherent. :) Thanks for the link - I would never have heard about this otherwise. Clearly, their goal is to maintain level of challenge - so it's fiero all the way as far as they're concerned. I'm sure for the players who like this, it will be appreciated.

I'm not sure FPS games are enjoyed by anyone other than the fiero-seekers, anyway, so anything more advanced might be unecessary. That said, Half-Life's sales figures suggested there once was potential. FPS's are a future niche market in the making - if they aren't one already! :)

Got another one as well, from David Sirlin, who always has a unique perspective on game design (that of, first and foremost, a player.)

http://www.sirlin.net/archive/difficulty-tuning-in-games/#more-53

The problem is that developers don't get the idea of making dynamic difficulty itself adjustable. You could have three modes of dynamic difficulty, and each mode will be in a different part of the "flow channel", plus an extra mode where the difficulty is locked at maximum (for players who chew up lead bars and spit out bullets).

Terminus: indeed, this does seem to be the best way forward.

I was taken with Ritual's dynamic difficulty approach, presented at GDC this year by Aaron Cole and Ken Harward, which begins by asking the player to adjust two sliders: "Challenge" (between Casual and Extreme) and "Give Assistance" (between Quickly and Never). These inputs were then used to affect the dynamic difficulty system. I think there could be considerable traction from this kind of approach.

Thanks for the comment!

Heheh, sorry to run around necro-ing all your old blog posts. I just recently discovered your site via kotaku and have been reading through it.

I wanted to comment on Devil May Cry 3, since your comment reminded me of something similar.
(incidentally let me declare my biases - I'm a huge DMC series fan and consider it the best game series since sliced bread. And I'm a fairly hardcore gamer, what you call "fiero seeking" or whatever.)

A coworker (I work in the games industry, so we're all game players here) tried DMC3, and dismissed it as too difficult.

I told him that, as an experienced DMC player, what I did was start on Easy and play through several levels to familiarise myself with the new system, and to get some red orbs to buy some important beginning moves.

His response was "Nope, I never play Easy mode".

It struck me as something incredibly perverse and cognitively dissonant, that someone would simultaneously dismiss a game for being too hard, yet be too proud to play Easy mode.

Do we really need to cater for those people? It's almost like trying to design your platform game so that someone who refuses to "Jump" can comfortably complete it.

Or someone who wants to finish the game with their eyes closed and with one hand tied behind their back.

(Although that almost enters that other minefield of game design - how to you cater for players with physical or cognitive disabilities?)

Well, at least DMC4 tried to address this issue of perception by labeling its initial difficulty choices "Human" and "Devil Hunter". Although it made the other huge mistake of having the best content in the game (the bloody palace arena mode) only unlocked when you complete DH difficulty, which means many players dont get to see it.

Like geez, at least have a cheat code or button combination to unlock everything. Although on modern consoles you can download save games off the net easily so it might not be as big an issue.

You played DMC3 on easy mode? That's not very hardcore ;)

If you ask me, easy mode shouldn't even exist in games like DMC! Why? Because anyone who wants to cruise through the game on autopilot is missing the point. They shouldn't even be playing the game in the first place, as it's not for them.

This is why I think your coworker's decision to abandon the game was a sound decision. DMC isn't a game you simply go through for the experience, no, it is a game where you're supposed to go through it on Normal, then again on Hard, and then again on Dante Must Die (and in the case of DMC4, S rank every mission on DMD, since they made it so much easier).

Your coworker saw that he didn't enjoy what DMC was all about. He saw that the game was not for him. Therefore he quit. There is nothing wrong with this. If you can't handle the difficulty, sure, you could switch to easy and derive some enjoyment from it, but this doesn't change the fact that you'd be playing it wrong, and would be better off buying a game more suited to your tastes.

Regarding the Bloody Palace comment, allow me to disagree.

Firstly, because as I said above, if you're too much of a pussy to not beat the game on the basic difficulty, you shouldn't even be playing it in the first place.

Secondly, the Bloody Palace is far from the best content in the game. In fact, it's not very good. Allow me to explain.

I enjoy challenge. However, if there is one thing I do not enjoy, it's being forced to repeat a large amount of content I've already beaten, just to get to the part I haven't.

And that's the problem with Bloody Palace. The first 80 floors or so are ridiculously easy, but they take around 2 hours or so to get through! That means you have to hack and slash your way through 2 hours worth of cannon fodder just to get to the good part. If that's your thing, great. But me, I'd rather not waste so much time just to get to the part I want a shot at.

Heh, you misunderstand me. I played the first 2 levels on easy mode a couple of times over, just to get Stinger and a few other skills, and then I switched to regular then hard, and DMD etc. And then I went back and finished easy just to be complete :P

As for bloody palace, well it depends on your point of view. The entire point of DMC is the fighting, its a Capcom game after all. Bloody Palace mode is just like the old school arcade shootemups or beatemups. You start from the start, play to get as high score as possible, and then eventually you die. Then you go back and try to do better.

It's about acquiring skill and then reveling in it.

Your point of view seems more "achievement" based - "I've already beat this part, why do I need to repeat it?" "Too much of a pussy to beat the game on regular."

To me, each demon, even the basic ones, is a new toy to play with. Just like a racing gamer can play the same track over and over, trying to get an incrementally better time, even the early levels of BP are lots of fun, since it's a place to practise advanced techniques you might not have the presence of mind to try in the harder levels.

And DMC4's BP is timed, anyway, so there's a challenge in the early stages to acquire extra time for later. (Actually, I dont like the time limit, since it means you cant play around practising stuff)

Also, you're not thinking things through - if DMC is a game about completing each difficulty level in turn, acquiring player skill as you progress, then it's fine for me to start at Normal. But for my coworker, who didnt play much DMC previously, obviously the appropriate spot for him to start was Easy, so he can get decent at the controls without things getting in the way.

The reason there are so many difficulty levels in DMC is not entirely because they want to offer a "challenge" for the masochistic.

It's more that the system of the game allows a very, very high level of skill. Thus additional difficulty levels are needed to give those people a satisfying venue to use that skill.

From listening to other players, usually they're not after something "ridiculously hard" that they feel proud to beat, instead, they want a comfortable and challenging experience. But one you start getting to ridiculous skill levels, where you're jump-canceling like crazy, you can royalguard anything in the game consistently, etc, well, at normal difficulty you start finding that the enemies dont attack often enough, that they die too quickly before you can complete the combo you wanted to do, etc.

Oh no, I did understand what you were saying. I was referring to so much as touching easy mode :P everyone knows real men stick it out on normal from the get go and fumble around with the controls getting their asses kicked until they learn how to play ;)

I never touched easy, not even for the sake of completion. If you ask me, doesn't the ranking screen actually look nicer with nothing on the easy column?

I see your take on the BP, and it makes sense to me. It really is like those old games where you would repeat the same thing just to get your score a little higher. Or perhaps the racing game comparison is even more accurate, seeing as those old games tended to go on forever until you died, while BP ends after the 100th floor.

I still say you shouldn't move over to Easy.
Your coworker dismissed DMC3 as being too difficult, and he's not wrong. It's a very hard game. If you aren't willing to put in the effort and dedication required (which he clearly isn't) to stick it out on normal, you also won't be willing to play the harder difficulties. DMD is much harder than Normal, even when you're just starting out and don't know the controls yet. I don't subscribe to your theory that by switching to easy, he'll be able to move on to the harder difficulties. For DMC, you need a certain attitude. An attitude of perseverance, among other things. If you're unwilling to play on Normal, as it should be, it means you don't have it. You are not that kind of person, and the game is not for you. To dismiss it, and instead play a game that IS suited to your tastes is entirely reasonable.

And yes, I agree that the difficulties aren't there entirely for the challenge. Indeed, a game that is hard for nothing but difficulty's sake is misguided. However, I think the harder difficulties are necessary to achieve that higher level of skill. I don't think it's a matter of you already possessing the skill and needing the harder mode as a satisfying venue to use it, rather the challenge of the harder difficulties pushes you to improve and obtain said skill.

"Different players appear to enjoy being in different parts of the flow channel"

I would like to propose a slightly different way of looking at things. "Different players have different flow channels." Rather than placing players at different areas in the flow channel, each player ought to have their own flow channel on the Challenge x Skill graph. This might sound nit-picky, but it seems true. Both common sense and personal experience dictate that some players experience perfect flow at locations where other players experience none whatsoever.

Andrew: This is a very subtle distinction to make, but I can see the point you are making and it may be apposite. The flow channel as an abstract concept seems to work in an idealised form, but in applying it in practice it may be we have to draw a different graph for every player.

Some good thoughts! But from what I've read about Flow in the past, it seems that Andrew's on the right track but it's still not quite right. Challenge-based Flow is a particular way in which you appreciate what you're doing. At any given moment, you have a certain level of skill, and if you engage in activities whose level of challenge is appropriate to your skill level, then you're experiencing Flow. I've never heard of "fiero" before but it seems to be exactly what Flow is about.
You can't have a high skill level but "choose" to play at the middle of the Flow channel -- once your skill level is high, it stays high. All you can choose is the challenge level, not your skill level. Now, obviously you can choose to play below your maximum skill level: often board games with your kids are more fun if you intentionally lose to them sometimes even though you had the skill to win. But that's not a Flow experience; it's enjoyable for completely different reasons.
So these Manager and Wanderer archetypes are people who are not looking for Flow, they're looking for something else entirely. Zoning out in front of an easy game, or playing a lighthearted match against buddies and not caring about winning as much as about socializing... these are low-challenge activities which colloquially might be described using the word "flow" but I think Czikszentmihaly's Flow is intentionally distinct from that.

Point being, if game designers want to create a game that adapts its difficulty appropriately to the player, perhaps they shouldn't ask "Easy, Medium, or Hard?" Perhaps they should ask "Do you want the Flow and Fiero that comes with constantly pushing yourself just beyond your boundaries? Then we'll start with a hard game, to guarantee avoiding the Boredom zone, and only make it easier if you're clearly getting too frustrated. Or would you prefer just to play something simple to unwind, or just to explore the storyline or game world? Then we know Flow isn't what you're looking for at the moment, so we'll keep it easy, to guarantee avoiding the Anxiety zone, and only make it harder if you're clearly getting too bored." Or at least games could be classified as Flow and non-Flow games.
And if you're playing the game in a group where it's just meant to be a social lubricant rather than an end in itself, perhaps the game can adapt itself to that instead.

Jerzy: thanks for dropping by! This piece is very, very old and it's difficult for me to respond to you comment as a result... my view on Flow has moved quite significantly from these early perspectives.

However, fiero (triumph over adversity) is not what Cziksentmihalyi's flow is about - in fact, my lastest view on this puts them as related only at a neurobiological level. See Deconstructing Flow for my latest perspective on this topic!

Thanks for commenting!

I was reading about achievements the other day and how bad they are because they ruin the fun of the game, where you almost compulsory hunt for achievements.

So I started to think about this post, and about dynamic difficulties. How about combining achievements and difficulties? It's not a new thing, but how about making it more obvious?

Lets say that you got a platform shooter and before each level, the user can see what achievements to reach and if has been collected for this level. Without trying to collect achievements, the game is pretty easy, but when having achievements like "Never used a submachinegun", "Never stood still" and "Collected all five achievements in one go", the user can force itself to strive for harder challenges.

Just a thought.

Rickard: the addition of achievements overdetermines the content of the gameplay (and also undercut the narrative content of the game). From a challenge or completist focused standpoint, the achievements are beneficial - but they channel players into these play styles, even if they aren't the player's native play styles. I view achievements as potentially valuable, but I judge the requirement that all games on a platform support achievements as a significant cost of play.

Your example of the platform shooter is actually something that used to be relatively common in the space between straightforward gameplay goals (up to 1990 or so) and the arrival of achievements proper (2005 onwards), namely the reuse of internal materials conditioned by assigned goals. The paradigm case is still probably GoldenEye 007 (1997), which has three difficulty levels, each of which assigns separate goals to the same map, and within which the player also has targets to unlock secrets.

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of the ubiquitous achievement regime we now have on many platforms is that some players interpret this in terms of positive agency i.e. they get to choose which achievements to ignore. But the framework which enforces achievements upon everyone is a framework which partially evacuates agency of its meaning since rather than giving the player a freedom to experiment with the game world, their actions are always conditioned by the achievements - whether or not they decide to complete them.

From the perspective of the artistic value of the medium, achievements in games are as crass as product placement in movies. That they add to the enjoyment of a proportion of players, possibly even a strict majority of players, should not distract us from noticing that both player agency and creator artistry are being eroded in favour of more compulsive, addictive and challenge-focused play.

To commercial game designers I would say: you have to do what you have to do. But to artgame creators I would say: please resist achievements as best you can and continue to explore the possibilities of this great medium.

Thanks for commenting, Rickard!

PS: I decided to repost your comment and my reply on ihobo.com for the benefit of those interested in games who aren't here at Only a Game. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

Yep, noticed it because I got that site in my rss feed as well. :)

After I posted my comment, I took a step back and realized that it is, like you said, something that was common in older game design. Collecting hard-to-get stars in a platform game, as an example.

One thing I liked with the first Portal was that you could try to solve each stage in a different way, either by using the least portals, the least number of steps or the least time(?). I always felt really rewarded when I got to an even lower score. It's basically three different high scores, depending on how you want to solve the puzzle, but it's also an variant of achievements. I didn't have to reach any of those "high scores", but to do that I had to attack the problem in different ways.

Rickard: yes, the triple metrics function as a loose variant on achievements since they imply goals to attain (without enforcing them). The classic arcade games often had a score and a clear time to the same effect, and with lives you also had the 'no lives lost' challenge to adopt.

We've always used metrics to condition the gameplay, it's just that we now don't leave it to the players to determine what they are trying to attain: we tell them what they have to do. In terms of clarity of play, a huge step forward. In terms of agency, somewhat disturbing...

All the best!

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