Playability in Game Design

Part 2: Using dynamic difficulty to give the player agency

Josh Bycer
Dec 23, 2019 · 5 min read

Welcome to the second article in our series about playability in game design. As a brief refresher, this series all sprung from a discussion around accessibility vs playability. In that piece, I attempted to define both terms and explain why they are different concepts — accessibility is relatively easy to define, but playability is not. For this reason, I decided to kick off a series of pieces that delve into the playability question, starting with quality of life. And now, in part two, I’m going to take a closer look at difficulty and how it can be applied.

What’s difficult about difficulty

It’s very possible to break down difficulty into separate conversations as well — although I’m thinking about it here as a subset of playability, it is a broad topic all on its own. To make matters worse, difficulty is inherently subjective in nature — what one person finds difficult, another may find easy, and vice versa.

Though you can certainly play test your game to see how hard it is, it’s generally true in my experience that thinking about a game in terms of its difficulty isn’t a major focus for the developer. To put a finer point on it: developers are usually thinking about a specific kind of experience for a specific intended audience and building around that. So, for example, if you’re making a game intended for kaizo fans, then by definition, anyone who isn’t in that demographic is going to find the game too difficult — whereas the core fan base may see it as par for the course.

Drilling down a little further, there are different aspects of a game’s design that can add or subtract difficulty that may not work for everyone. What I’m referring to here is the idea of across-the-game difficulty settings and their impact on both the player experience and the game design itself. A player might, for instance, change a game’s overall difficulty setting from “normal” to “easy” (which is the equivalent of flicking a switch and adjusting a set of global numerical values). While apparently useful, this concept can act to obscure difficulty spikes that cause players to hit walls for very specific reasons in specific places — and it can be tricky for players to really understand the impact of toggling these settings.

To give you a concrete example: I couldn’t play The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks on the 3DS because it required use of the microphone at certain points. Due to my allergies, I couldn’t properly play music in the game using this method. I also have problems with drawing challenges in games — lowering global stats via a central difficulty setting isn’t going to make these kinds of difficulty any easier for me.

The ability to actually identify these specific pain points and frustrations in your game — and then solving them one by one — is one hallmark of a great designer. Given this, it may not surprise you to know that some of my favorite games actually don’t have global difficulty settings at all — rather, they establish a baseline experience and are able to ratchet up (or down) the difficulty in specific scenarios dynamically.

Making difficulty dynamic

When most people hear the term “difficulty setting”, they immediately think about the explicit options: easy, normal, hard, nightmare, hardcore, etc… In my opinion, the very best examples of game design that consider difficulty are dynamic in nature — that is, they allow the player to personally fine tune the experience in different ways.

There are examples that aren’t highly explicit; in other words, examples where difficulty dynamically shifts as a result of indirect player actions. So, choosing different weapon types or builds in RPG or action RPG style games, for example. In the Dark Souls series, some weapon/armor builds are noticeably easier/tougher than others. Some combos are so powerful that expert players will ignore them in order to make the game more challenging. And of course, in these games it’s possible to summon assistance from another player, which is a perfect example of an optional component that directly impacts difficulty.

Another great example that comes to mind is The World Ends With You, which provides additional challenges and rewards for players who make the game harder, but which also allows players to tweak the experience to make it easier in certain areas as well. There’s also Way of the Passive Fist, a beat ’em up that enables full control over a wide range of play settings that all impact difficulty.

In all of these cases, the player can fine tune the difficulty in ways that tailor the experience specifically for their play style and ability — and in ways that don’t punish them for doing so. Giving the player some control over their own experience — inclusive of difficulty — is an important consideration here. It’s actually about how the game is played rather than simply adjusting stats across an otherwise unchanging play experience.

It’s worth mentioning here that when thinking about dynamic difficulty, it’s tempting to only consider making a game easier. But remember that some players may want to add difficulty to the experience, especially if they require extra challenge. There are a myriad of ways developers can cater for these requirements: tightening up reaction times for special moves, reducing checkpoints, adding more enemies — these are all examples of elements that might increase difficulty in fun and engaging ways that don’t rely on generic global settings. And as I mentioned in The World Ends With You example earlier, it’s possible — and perhaps desirable — to actually provide incentives/rewards for players who play at higher difficulties as a way of encouraging repeat play.

Ultimately, it’s a question of understanding your design and gameplay loop to figure out how — and where — players can and should be able to adjust the experience to suit their level of experience and desired challenge.

Self service model

It’s potentially much easier to apply global difficulty settings to a game as a one size fits all approach to game balance. But this approach typically leads to unbalanced games at best — and in some cases, it may be papering over a flawed gameplay loop. It’s important for a designer to create the most balanced experience possible as a foundation, but then enable players to selectively ramp up or down the challenge (through either explicit or implicit means). This is certainly the ideal when it comes to difficulty in game design, anyway.

I hope you’ve found this piece insightful. There’s one more piece around playability coming; in it, I’ll be talking about assist modes and giving the player a helping hand when they need it.

If you enjoy my work and like talking game design, the Game-Wisdom Discord is open to everyone.

The original version of this article appeared on Game-Wisdom. It has been revised and published at SJM with permission. Original Game-Wisdom video. Cover image by Afif Kusuma. Feature image by Alexey Savchenko.

Super Jump Magazine

Celebrating video games and their creators

Josh Bycer

Written by

Josh Bycer is the owner of Game-Wisdom and specializes in examining the art and science of games. He has over seven years of experience discussing game design.

Super Jump Magazine

Celebrating video games and their creators

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