So what am I talking about when I say ‘fake difficulty’? I don’t mean that the game is not difficult, but that devs make the game ‘harder’ by fiddling with numbers to make it more difficult to achieve objectives in a very superficial and unsatisfying way. An example of this is increasing enemy damage by 200% for hard mode without adjusting anything else. It’s not that these methods of increasing ‘fake difficulty’ shouldn’t be done at all or that they can’t be incorporated into making a genuinely fun and challenging experience, but if done badly, it can make playing it feel tedious. Often difficulty modes are tacked on at the end of the development process, so even while the Normal mode might feel very well-balanced, the more difficult modes can often feel very out of wack, because little thought has been put into how superficial increases like making enemies deal more damage can affect the overall experience.
To elaborate, fake difficulty as I define it is the addition of features that make the game feel like a grind or a simple trial and error/memory exercise. Overpowered enemies that take too much damage or kill you in one hit is a common design flaw in harder modes. Making enemies tougher, able see further and able to hit harder are some of the simplest ways of making the game more difficult, but is also one of the easiest ways to make a level feel too hard without being satisfying. As you have probably experienced yourself, there’s nothing worse than being literally unable to fight back, because you’re not even being given the chance. Similarly, increasing the distance that enemies can detect you by a ridiculous degree without counteracting that in some way can make an otherwise perfectly good game unplayable. This is a common fault with shooters and when combined with the loss of a mini-map or other way of detecting your enemies (also common ways of increasing difficulty), it can make the experience quickly go from fun to frustrating. There are of course many other ways of artificially increasing difficulty, such as making resources like ammo or health packs scarce.
What these methods of increasing ‘fake difficulty’ have in common is that they don’t make you, the player, feel in control. As Boutros said in this article, the key to making a game difficult is that the player should be able to understand why he failed and feel that it’s fault that he failed, so he can learn and do better next time. In other words, the difficulty shouldn’t come from a design flaw or come down to luck. Similarly, by making a level unfairly hard, it can often lead to the player having to rely on trial and error and memory. This is not always a bad thing when it’s intended, but often this is an unforeseen result of superficially increasing difficult, for instance by making enemies deal high amounts of damage,without adjusting the rest of the level. So you might end up dying over and over again and the only way to win is to remember how you died last time and avoid that spot. It’s not a particularly interesting or satisfying way to play a game and requires little skill.
Of course not all games that increase difficulty superficially necessarily do it badly. When carefully considered and used in conjunction with each other deeper methods as discussed below, a game can be made more challenging, while still remaining balanced. Games like Mass Effect or Resogun might increase the number of enemies as a simple way of increasing difficulty, but they’re also not the only ways they achieve the effect. Resogun is a great example of how difficulty modes don’t have to be a simple process of upping all the numbers. Each difficulty mode feels very different from the next, with increased enemies and higher bullet count yes, but the bosses are given all new abilities and there’s a possibility of greater rewards with higher multipliers. It all comes down to planning and not treating difficulty as something to be thrown in at the end.
Also, there is a place for games that rely on many of these more superficial methods of increasing difficulty or that rely on trial and error, but again the effects of such methods are planned for and well thought out in advance, while it’s often clear that the dev was aware that there’s a fine line to walk. Games like Antichamber, Cat Mario and QWOP are hugely successful for the very reason that they’re difficult. True, there’s probably a reason that they’re not mainstream games and are often considered quite niche – most people aren’t that masochistic. but at the same time there will always be a core group that enjoys games like this. Often they’re considered extremely difficult, but not impossible. Again, it comes down to the fact that the game was built to rely on memory and trial and error. Dark Souls is an example of a more mainstream game that relies on trial and error. In fact, the whole point is that you will die many many times. Many old 2D arcade games also often rely at least partially on memory. A lack of resources is also common to many horror games or games that contain horror elements like Amnesia: The Dark Descent or The Last of Us, but these games were designed around this. The whole point is to feel weak and vulnerable and therefore more afraid, so reducing resources is a particularly suitable way of increasing difficulty.
The most satisfying ways that I’ve found of increasing difficulty is the use of combination of more superficial methods with deeper ones like level redesigns or clever AI to make fights more challenging. The Witcher 2 is one of my favourite games, but I won’t deny that I denied many many times while playing it. That fact, however, never put me off the game, because it always felt like it was my own fault. I didn’t dodge when I should have or I didn’t use the right potions or any number of things. Most importantly, I always knew why I failed. The next time I tried that seemingly impossible boss fight, I’d remember my mistakes from the last time I tried and adjust my strategy accordingly. There was an element of remembering the enemy’s moves, but it wasn’t just a simple memory exercise and I didn’t simply get taken down with no understanding of why it killed me. Similarly, when adding a higher difficulty mode, no matter how difficult or impossible it seems at first, there should be a sense of ‘if I play this enough and if I learn from my mistakes I should be able to beat this,’ even if that’s a month from now. Otherwise, things could get tedious very quickly. Although you might feel frustrated at the time, you should feel a huge sense of accomplishment when you win, not that it was pure luck or a massive grind. That’s the sign of a really good challenge.
In short, I think difficulty modes should feel well thought out and specifically designed, unless they’re only interested in attracting the most masochistic gamers out there. It’s also not the case that superficially increasing difficulty after the fact will never work. There are plenty of games that can make this work, but it’s all about figuring out what’s best for the game. Devs need to think carefully not just about how to make a game more difficult for those players who want the challenge, but also how to keep it feeling balanced by possibly introducing new gameplay features and mechanics where needed.