Fake Difficulty in Games

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.





10 responses to “Fake Difficulty in Games

  1. Great post!

    I agree.

    While a lot of people herald difficulty modes like they are the great equalizer in player agency, I hate them in the majority of cases. ‘Fake difficulty’ is a prime reason why.

    The biggest problem I have with it is that it is evident immediately how much of an after-thought it was, which I feel is a sign of disrespect to most players. If your game needs a higher difficulty mode, then either a) take the time to make it good, i.e. tune it properly, add features, etc. or b) consider just making your game a bit harder overall.

    Also, it’s an easy way out of something that shouldn’t be a problem in the first place. I understand why developers include difficulty modes, but to me, a game should be designed with a specific difficulty in mind. In other words, I want the difficulty to be a part of the design, not something they play with the numbers on later simply to make the game accessible to a wider audience.

    The whole thing reminds of me Kids Bop albums. They take popular music, clean it up, and then have children sing it. The idea being that these are great songs and kids should be able to enjoy them too!

    No, just no. It is perfectly fine to take the extra step of making difficulty modes be more interesting modes of play (different features that bend the game toward a certain difficulty curve) but I feel like adding ‘fake difficulty’ modes diminishes the integrity of the experience.

    I am not insane enough to waste my time on an imbalanced mode where everything is tuned up to levels of infuriation. I am not bad enough to waste my time on an imbalanced mode where everything is tuned down to the point it is trivial.

    I am insane enough to want the game exactly as it wasn’t intended to be played, intended difficulty and all!

    • Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it. And thanks for all the sharing of this post! It’s always feels great when you feel like your post struck a chord with someone.

      Like you said, the intention of making ‘fake difficulty’ modes might be to even the playing field or to appeal to more players, but it quickly become obvious if a difficulty mode was just tacked on, which is often disrespectful to those players. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be accessible by adding extra difficulty modes, but there seems to be the weird attitude these days of HAVING to include them and with devs just not putting too in too much thought into it. It a shame, because I agree with you – it does diminish the experience when people just fiddle with the numbers without tuning everything else. An unbalanced mode is not the best way to represent your game and rather than adding fun, it can often reduce it. That’s one of the things that’s so great about Resogun, that each harder mode has been fine-tuned and has added features. That’s why I often play Normal mode even if it’s not presenting much of a challenge, because like you I want to experience the way a game was intended to be played and sadly that’s often only mode that’s well thought out.

  2. Pingback: Fake Difficulty in Games | Cheeese Toastie and video games | Murf vs Internet

  3. I agree!! There’s nothing worse than a boss fight that just feels tedious and cruel for no reason except to give players a “challenge.” It’s lazy design. And I think you nailed it when you said that beating a tough boss battle should provide a sense of accomplishment — not frustrated relief or the feeling that it was pure luck! That’s a good way to test whether a battle is good or not.

    Also, I have quit games because of tedious boss battles, and I know other gamers who have too. Not that we mean to quit… but there comes a point when a few days pass and we move on to a new game and forget about the one with the impossible, dumb boss battle. If you lose interest like that, I think that’s another sign it’s a poorly-designed fight!

    • Absolutely! I love a challenging boss fight, but only when it requires actual skill rather than just luck or trial and error. There’s nothing that puts me off faster than a boss fight that’s just tedious or impossible for all the wrong reasons. Like you, there have been times when I’ve just moved on from a game because I couldn’t be bothered with a stupid boss fight and then just ended up forgetting about it. It’s sad, because sometimes the rest of the game might be excellent, but then in an effort to make a boss fight really really hard, they use artificial and unsatisfying ways of increasing difficulty, which basically just detracts from the experience. It shouldn’t feel like a grind, otherwise what’s the point? It’s supposed to be game after all!

  4. Although it has received a good deal of criticism, I really enjoy how Diablo 3 implements its difficulty increases. Due to the extra abilities employed by enemies, you need to learn new techniques to progress each time you ramp up the difficulty. The health and damage also increase – but so do yours – so you get to enjoy feeling powerful, whilst at the same time struggling against new threats.

    Nice article 🙂

    • Thanks! And yeah I love it when games introduce new enemy abilities at harder difficulties or throw in new challenges that require new strategies. Of course it’s important to keep those balanced as well, but it keeps things fresh and if done correctly can add a genuine and satisfying challenge. It also adds an extra incentive to try again at a higher difficulty, since it’s not just essentially the same stuff again.

  5. Really interesting read and a look at how the game industry changes. On one hand, with a action game giving 200% health on a “hardcore” mode might seem like a lazy design afterthought. Or you could think about other games like Ninja Gaiden 2 or Dark Souls that are punishingly hard from the start. With the game market as it is, a harder game is out of the question for most investors. An easier game reaches a wider audience and more fun. You did a nice job covering both sides!


    • Yeah, there’s clearly a market for really difficult games like Ninja Gaiden 2 or Dark Souls, but I think it’s all about how the difficulty is implemented and whether it was factored into the development process from the beginning. But like you said, harder games are often just not an option for most investors and so it’s understandable that games are on the whole easier now than they were, say 10 years ago. Adding difficulty modes is a good way to bridge that gap, as long proper thought has been put into the design of the extra modes.

      And thanks! Glad you liked it! 🙂

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