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You’ve Been Had! Your Not An Incredible Gamer!

Failing the boulder dash level — Crash Bandicoot

So by now you’ve all heard of Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment aka DDA, and it’s method of changing difficulty on the fly to suit each individual player. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a way for the game to approximate the difficulty you can handle without making it too easy or too hard.

“In the zone” gamer - Outdoor Gaming, Stuart Connor, CC BY-ND 4.0

The main goal of any developer through DDA is to keep you in a state of flow which in psychology means

“..the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity”

or simply put, “in the zone”. This is that sweet spot that causes us to lose track of time, sometimes playing hours, when it felt like minutes.

So with that said I want to bring up the idea of DDA in games. The reason being, some people don’t enjoy playing on easy because their ego won’t allow them too or they don’t want to play on hard because they want a challenge without beating their head against the table. So those are the two of three difficulty options we are generally given, the middle ground being normal. The problem with that? If a game is too hard, it’s stressful and if it’s too easy, it’s boring. So what to do? Secretly build DDA into the game.

Snake peeking around the corner — Metal Gear Solid V

Now there are a lot of games that use it, most of them are well known; Resident Evil 4 and Crash Bandicoot as an example. Also some you may not have realized had DDA; Mario Kart and Metal Gear Solid 5.

For this article I’m going to use Crash Bandicoot as the example and how Naughty Dog secretly built it into the original Crash Bandicoot for Playstation and each sequel thereafter.

Now this game is regarded as being one of the best platformer that rivaled Super Mario 64 at least in sales; people rightly admired the “just right” challenge. What no one realized, was that as they were playing, the game was assisting players whose skill level wasn’t high enough by adjusting how difficult the level depending on how often they died in a level. The players whose skill levels were high enough had no assistance. This led to the game not being too hard for lower skilled players and not too easy for higher skilled players.

Boulder Dash run with powerups — Crash Bandicoot

An example of DDA being used is during the chase scene where Crash is running away from the boulder. During your run of the mill “run away from boulder or you die scenario” you run away and if you fail, you start over, but with the knowledge of the course so you can adjust your strategy during each new run. What you didn’t know is that dying causes DDA to activate causing the boulder to slow down, but not so much that the player would notice, but enough that you now have a slight advantage. Other ways you were assisted was with additional HP and continue points dependent on the number of players deaths.

Naughty Dog did this as a way to make sure that every player regardless of individual player skill could complete the game without directly affecting players of different skill levels.

Jason Rubin, Co-Founder of Naughty Dogs and Co-Creator of Crash Bandicoot

As Jason Rubin, Co-Founder and former Co-President of Naughty Dog said

“Our mantra became help weaker players without changing the game for the better players. We called all this Dynamic Difficulty, Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment, and at the time the extent to which we did it was pretty novel. It would lead later Crash games to be the inclusive, perfectly balanced games they became. Good player, bad player, everyone loved Crash games. They never realized it is because they were all playing a slightly different game, balanced for their specific needs”. As it turned out, the game was so widely loved because [it] had just the right amount of challenge. This led the developers to implementing DDA in the following sequels all met with the same amount of praise and love because of the right amount of challenge once again. Now fast forward many many years to today where it was eventually made public that dynamic difficulty was used in the making of the Crash Bandicoot games for the reason I gave.”

Player skill can differ from one another, sometimes it’s noticeable, sometimes not. Adjusting the difficulty to fit and mold itself around individual players to keep them in the flow state is important to successful games. This is the challenge a lot of developers need to deal with.

The death of you — Dark Souls

How do we make our game immersive and fun, without making it so difficult (ignoring the Dark Souls series because it’s an anomaly) that every step is a test of courage? It comes from keeping the player in the flow state for as long as possible.

The best way to do that is to have the game adjust it’s own difficulty as carefully as possible because the typical easy, normal and hard are just arbitrary terms that can’t accurately refer to any one player.

Arbitrary difficulty modes without context - Difficulty Mode Triad

Besides, how can a player know how difficult each difficulty is without even having played the game?

As I said it’s something that I think should be in every game at this point and in my opinion players shouldn’t be told because no gamer with a shred of pride wants to think they were assisted in any way. Instead they want to believe they made it to the end through sheer skill.

If you’re looking for more articles like this check out my publication: @Gaminglinkmedia or @ryanvelasco.

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Ryan Velasco

Ryan Velasco

I love gaming especially old-school jRPGs, I love them to this day. Now I’ve come to love automating everything and placing things into databases. Super fun.