On game difficulty and the concept of ‘challenge’

I’ve wanted to write something on this for some time now, and reading MtBerry Yoshi’s post on the same was my push to do so. He talks about his own changing attitudes, over time, from challenging himself in a game’s higher difficulty settings to ezmoding through just for the story. I’ll bet it’s something a lot of us do.

Anyone who, like me, came from a gaming background where the only peers were stereotypical rabid competitive types should sympathize. Normal mode was these guys’ Easy. ‘Real men’ played Hard. Or Brutal. Or Legendary. Whatever.

Here’s the thing. Difficulty settings are handicaps – things only doled out when one contestant is superior to the other. In gaming, there’s scant argument on that superiority. We are capable of a spontaneity and cunning no computer can match, even when we’re playing by their rules.

By that token, cutting our AI adversaries some slack would be the sporting thing to do, and perhaps it is. But what slack is that? Easy mode means different things in different games.

Let’s take RTS games. Higher difficulties in many of those involve the AI incorporating advanced units, like a sparring partner taking the kid gloves off – which is sensible, since there’s nothing stopping us from doing that regardless of difficulty. But it doesn’t end there, does it? Any AI’s counter to our human intelligence and strategy would be a product of cranking up variables within its reach – basically, cheating.

Accelerated production cycles. Reduced unit costs. Waived penalties. An RPG or FPS equivalent would be AI enemies dealing more damage and suffering less – and, in the latter case, enjoying ridiculous accuracy. I like to quote the example of a test match I ran with a friend in Unreal Tournament years ago, against bots on the Godlike setting: it was (and I am keeping a very straight face here – this is not exaggeration) nothing but five minutes of getting headshotted across the map within a second of each respawn.

Call that a handicap, or anything you like, but none of this makes for a fulfilling experience, even in the pseudo-competitive context. It’s the gaming version of an employee tasked with clearing next month’s worth of work by the end of the day. There’s only so far such shenanigans can go without challenging the notion of challenge.

There are, of course, games that attempt to introduce different variations of the difficulty setting. MtBerry Yoshi mentioned The Last of Us, which I never played, but I did play Fallout: New Vegas, and its Hardcore Mode comes to mind. It was designed to encourage keener (or more risk-averse) play by adding elements of realism (hunger and thirst, ammo weight, greatly slowed healing, etc), which sounded cool, but personally, I found it more a mere inconvenience than anything. Abjuring VATS targeting and aiming with the then-newly introduced iron sights was more my idea of a challenge.

This is just my take, naturally. Everybody wants different things – different challenges, even – from games. But there it is. Challenge is not bringing a knife to a gunfight. If you want challenge, play against a human. Don’t measure your skill (or others’) as a gamer against arbitrary advantages imposed in lieu of an actual, meaningful honor system.

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10 Responses to “On game difficulty and the concept of ‘challenge’”

  1. tyrannodorkus Says:

    Ah! I remember playing Unreal with such cranked up difficulties. Was fun for me to see how far I’d get before they’d splatter me with instagib.

    I agree though, in my interpretation of what you said, that difficulty doesn’t mean challenge. Especially when the AI is set to cheat in order to make the game ‘hard’. There are better ways to introduce challenge and I think devs are starting to find that out.

    • As you so plainly and effectively put it, getting killed repeatedly isn’t fun. I’m okay with more skilled human players doing it – I’m mature enough now to not throw a hissy fit over it at LAN parties – but when the AI does it, I just laugh and stop. Don’t like the rules? Don’t play the game.

      Not sure if you recall, but UT had one single-player instance where the devs tried to introduce challenge in a more meaningful way. The championship duel in UT2003 was programmed to start at the difficulty you chose, but self-adjust based on how well you performed. Didn’t really work though; I read accounts of players who deliberately threw the first half of the match to let the AI get arrogant and downgrade its own skill, and then steamroll it before it could recover enough to be a threat. An exploit, but a clever and legal one.

      • tyrannodorkus Says:

        Oh yeah, dying repeatedly wasn’t fun at all, but it was nice when you’d go back to super easy and wipe the floor with them. Made it satisfying.
        If UT2003 had it, I’m sure I tried it out, but I don’t remember at the moment. If players did that, in my opinion, that sort of defeats the purpose of playing that mode.

  2. I still play games on Hard, particularly FPS games where normal is too easy. You’re right though when it comes to Strategy games… harder difficulties = a cheating AI.

    For me it’s basically no where near as fun to play against AI when I could be playing against another person. If that hasn’t changed in my over 30 years of existence, I don’t think it will.

    • I salute your skill then. It takes a somewhat different attitude and skillset to compete with an AI, versus competing with humans.

      • Yeah, this is the sort of thing that has made its rounds on the blogosphere before, and I’ve always been firmly on the pvp side, human confrontation, blah blah blah. The vast majority are more on the other side though, so I’m a minority in these circles.

  3. I’m a PvPer like Izlain, and have played team (rugby) and individual sports (judo) all my life. Competition against people is second nature to me, in both real and virtual settings

    I disagree with the statement that “If you want challenge, play against a human” however, because it seems to imply that PvE poses no real challenges. Playing against the AI – turning up the difficulty – can be rewarding for a number of reasons. Permadeath plus increased difficulty and Ironman makes my X-Com games more tense, more punishing but ultimately more rewarding. In role-playing terms the jeopardy becomes real for my squad of soldiers, because every mission could be their last.

    Also when you are playing a game keep in mind that a human designed and built it. So in a sense you are still playing against a human, even if they are using a program as a proxy. It is entirely possible to create “unwinnable” games, so next time you win a PvE game you should realise it’s because the makers made it possible for you to win. This is also why challenge in PvE is tuneable – it is impossible for developers to pitch a game at the right level of challenge for every person. hence the variable difficulty settings.

    • Excellent perspective. But if higher difficulty settings means inconveniencing yourself, like in FO:NV or XCOM, it’s not the same as giving the AI unfair advantages. Humans can work around constraints, which is where the challenge comes from. That’s just me though. I’d rather fight a pistol duel inebriated than have my opponent handed an SMG.

      Not sure about unwinnable games, but playing by someone else’s rules doesn’t sound the same to me as a test of skill between competitors. But I take your point.

    • I’m a big fan of permadeath and rogue-likes, so I do agree that is more of a challenge. The typical difficulty slider in single player games isn’t too much challenge though, and when it comes to games with PVP, bots are almost always dumb.

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