Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

19 November, 2009

Makin’ it easy
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 10:38 PM

There’s a lot of discussion about how easy games should be. On one hand, an easy game makes people feel powerful, and allows a wider variety of people to play the game to completion. On the other hand, a harder game challenges the player and can engage them more. So, what is the correct answer?

As usual, one size does not fit all.

A sinner recants his heresy

Jeff Vogel wrote a blog post entitled “Make Your Game Easy. Then Make It Easier.” In the post, he laments is wasted youth where he thought that challenging games were more fun. “People will forgive a game for being too hard. They will never forgive it for being too easy,” he writes that his old philosophy was. But, in this age of “casual” games, he feels the need to recant this heresy and say that he now believes exactly the opposite to be true.

It’s easy to show that this is not a universal truth by an absurd example: assuming you like chess, is it more fun to play against someone who is playing well or someone who is intentionally throwing the game? It’s easier to win against someone who is trying to lose, but it’s less satisfying and therefore generally less fun. I’ll also mention that this was 3DO’s philosophy on how to design good games, and we’ve seen where that lead them.

What does the player want?

There is also a question of what the player wants out of a game. Sometimes you just want to pleasantly pass the time. A game like Solitaire is good for that because you can play it distractedly. A lot of casual games are like this; I didn’t play Plants vs. Zombies (a game Jeff mentions as being “easy”) necessarily to challenge myself, but more to pass the time and have fun. That said, I did play until I got one of the rarer Steam achievements (China Shop, streak of 15 in Vasebreaker, only 6.9% of people completed it) as a challenge because I wanted to do something hard in the game instead of just mindlessly enjoying the gameplay.

On the other hand, a person might go into a game looking for a challenge. If I fire up a game that has white outlined mazes, I’m going to be sorely disappointed if I can just steamroll through the game with sloppy play. I often play old-school games because I want to be challenged, something that seems to be rare in many current mainstream games.

Failure fails to be fun?

I think the issue of “failure” that Jeff touched upon is another, separate issue. He says:
If your game is actually fun, killing the player won’t make it more fun. But nothing sucks all of the fun out of a good game faster than repeated failure.

This misses an important design point: if failure is part of the game, then it’s important that the failure have meaning. Failure needs to be part of the feedback cycle and not just a point of frustration. In action games, like the Ninja Gaiden series Jeff referenced, failure tends to not give very good feedback since most failure is based on reactions. In RPGs, failure is based on something the player has more control over: either better preparation, better strategy, or even just a higher level party. Failure in RPGs tells the player he or she needs to be smarter or more clever. Failure in an action game tells the player they need faster reactions (which may not be possible for some older players).

The possibility of failure is also a necessary element of risk. If you realize that there is no chance for failure, then there is no risk to the game. In many games the element of risk can enhance the game.

The solution

The best solution is probably to allow people to set their own difficulty level. If a player wants a serious challenge, they can crank the difficulty up. If they want to pass the time or want to just pay attention to the story, they can bring the difficulty down.

The main problem here is that it may not be clear what the difficulty means in a game. Is Medium intended to provide a bit of challenge? Or is it the default setting allowing someone to faceroll to victory? Does setting the difficulty higher give monsters additional hit points, allow them to cheat the rules, make them better tacticians, or some combination of these?

In an online setting, especially one with competition, setting difficulty may be more difficult if not impossible. Achievers who want to race up the power curve faster will want low difficulty. Giving more rewards with higher difficulty will make players feel “forced” to increase the difficulty in order to get the better rewards. One possibility is to have certain classes be easier or harder to play, but that certainly won’t cause any complaints, right? ;)

No magic spell

Unfortunately, like many design topics, there is no single answer to this question. Some games should be easy to help pass the time; however, these games won’t be able to provide the deeper experience some game players are looking for. You need to take a look at your game, who you want the audience to be and what that audience expects. Making a game easier, especially in a genre like RPG where the audience might expect some difficulty, may not be a good idea.

What do you think? Do you only enjoy easy games? Or do you like a bit of challenge?


  1. One other developer-focused issue with difficulty levels is that doing it properly could require a lot more content. While a slider that just adds or removes hit points from enemies in an RPG may change difficulty, this increases the amount of work that goes into testing. Actually making difficulty meaningful beyond just adjusting hit points will require more work in addition to more testing. This can add a lot more work to the developer, especially an indie who lives or dies by the ability to get more games released. Will adding a difficulty slider bring in more revenue than you lose from releasing games on a slower cycle, or from the customers you lose because you didn’t test the difficulty setting they picked?

    Comment by Psychochild — 19 November, 2009 @ 10:54 PM

  2. The real problems have come in with games that are intended for solo play (or coop) I think. If you look at a game like Scrabble, no one says that it’s easy (although it’s fairly straight forwards) because you can always choose to play against a better opponent.

    And I like the board game model of a game that’s easy to learn, hard to master, and has unending possibilities (partly because of different opponents). But as a social player, I don’t want a game that’s so full-on that I don’t have time to talk to people.

    Comment by Spinks — 19 November, 2009 @ 11:54 PM

  3. From my view of things the fundamental problem revolves around the goal of the player. Different players tend to have different goals, often because the goals of play are implicit within the design. A hard challenge which rewards the player with advancement towards the “wrong goal” is something akin to a bug in the design.

    The problem becomes to identify the relevant goals of the player. Perhaps by making several ones explicit within the design. I guess this would break a whole lot of our conventional genres, which means its not a realistic option for most designers. What we see in single player games which have a difficulty setting is a plump example of allowing the player to inversely change the goals of play.

    “Tiny Grasshopper” setting in practice means the goal is about seeing what is within the game and previewing challenges. Or perhaps considering the input system and how to access game verbs to be difficult enough.


    “Nightmare” mode is for the player who has the goal of creating proof of complete mastery. This goal require the setting to be so hard that anyone who is not a complete master needs to be weeded out by the game.

    At the center is as already mentioned the feedback cycle which needs to provide relevant feedback to the player. For a typical mmorpg I guess you have a great lof of different goals that different players take on, hundreds or thousands of them and they are mostly implicit within the social fabric of the game world.

    Comment by oskar — 20 November, 2009 @ 12:35 AM

  4. I would like a reasonable challenge. Far more specific then any amount of levels that can be created to accommodate all, it should be difficult enough to challenge me, but not difficult to the point where I would punch my screen in frustration (NFS:Underground and its blasted taxis would be an example).

    It would be impossible to craft a preset difficulty to suit everyone’s tastes, and a difficulty that truly scales with the player well would be the way to go.

    Perhaps then, it is not so much the need of a specific level of challenge, but the want of something else in conjunction to a reasonable challenge, which would determine the desire to continue playing.

    What would be the ‘something else’ that I just mentioned? That would be a whole other debate. What do you expect, and what do you want to see after getting pass a challenging game?

    Comment by CalebG — 20 November, 2009 @ 3:43 AM

  5. “While a slider that just adds or removes hit points from enemies in an RPG may change difficulty, this increases the amount of work that goes into testing.”

    Can’t you just let the players test?

    Suppose you had a slider that went from 1 hit point to infinite hit points and scaled loot up too.

    Players would try various settings until they found one that suited them. When they beat it on 61% they’d try 62%.

    I think it would avoid a lot of the “it’s tuned too hard” and “it’s tuned too easy” forum drama since players know they are on a level playing field and it’s simply a matter of the effectiveness of their raid group.

    I think it would also add a lot of replayability.

    Comment by Stabs — 20 November, 2009 @ 4:01 AM

  6. A couple more thoughts:

    If your slider controls loot in an additive manner and difficulty in a multiplicative manner people would know what to expect and have control. If moving from 61% to 62% meant your weapon looted from the last boss increased from 0.61X to 0.62X where X is your upper range for damage but it also meant the boss had 50% extra life and damage people would know what to expect and how to rate other players.

    “OMG your Betrayer of Humanity has 679 max damage, what was your slider at for that dude?”

    The second thought is that item stats don’t have to be whole numbers. It’s a legacy that weapons have damage ranges like 345-678. You could give people 345.67 to 678.12 and no one would have a problem because players are used to seeing decimal points ever since calculated dps began to be displayed on items.

    Comment by Stabs — 20 November, 2009 @ 4:09 AM

  7. Enabling a wider range of people to play a game to completion is a nonsense benchmark for online competitive games. For other games, design the game for the audience. Jeff Vogel writes games primarily for Mac users. If I was making games for Mac users, I’d make them as easy as possible too.

    Making players feel powerful is a far more interesting design goal to discuss. There is no power without struggle. There is no power without constraint. You can’t make someone feel powerful without them perceiving difficulty. The player can’t perceive difficulty without understanding that what is, is not what they desire. Players can not feel powerful, without previously feeling powerless in some sense.

    You can make a player ultimately powerful, but the feeling of ultimate power is a short-lived feeling. In a casual game, trying to convey the feeling of power to the player seems like a poor design goal if you want replayability. Have you had the urge to get the China Shop achievement again? There are lots of other emotions that would produce more “fun” for a casual player.

    In an online RPG setting that aims to please a wide range of audiences, I think the best solution is simply not to try and design the same content primarily for relative player difficulty at all. WoW of course does this, and they have ended up with a game that requires them to completely change the goalposts every year.
    One solution that comes to mind is allowing people to choose their difficulty by tiering content. Tier 1 content only allows players level 1-10 to achieve any progression through completing it. Players could play on tier 1 for as long as they want and continue to gain as much power vs tier 1 content as they desire. Given sufficient depth of progression, this kind of advancement could allow players to progress at the challenge level and speed they desire.

    Whew…wall of text. For the record, the harder the game the better for me. I think Eve is too easy.

    Comment by required — 20 November, 2009 @ 5:54 AM

  8. “The best solution is probably to allow people to set their own difficulty level.” — I will say that in Dragon Age (the only game I’ve played for any length of time lately), I’m on the easy setting intentionally. To me, the fighty bits are mere interludes between the story and exploration bits, and they’re already getting pretty repetitive. I *could* make the fights harder, but then I’d have to sit through more repetitive bits in order to get back to what I’m enjoying.

    You’re right, though I’m sure player-set difficulty isn’t always (or even often) easy to achieve in something non-solo. There are many different kinds of challenges, too — players tend to think about fight difficulty, but being the crafting junkie I am I would value greater challenge for other stuff that revolves around non-fighty stuff. That said, since the fighting paradigm ends up being used for any “harder” crafting system (e.g. Vanguard’s basic ideas), I end up finding it tedious as well. I’m not interested in complex button mashing. Most people who play MMOs, however, probably are.

    And that’s not even touching on the endless “risk/reward” debate, where the people who bust a gut getting UselessLeetItem001 get all pissy when there’s even the remote chance that non-gutbusters might have a chance at the same thing. I can see where they’re coming from, but it’s still a pretty blinkered debate in that most slackers (like me) aren’t interested in uber raiding (or whatever) items to begin with. Those who want something for nothing can be discounted, since we live in Protestant Work Ethic-built games. ;)

    Comment by Ysharros — 20 November, 2009 @ 6:01 AM

  9. I am a huge fan of difficulty and failure when it comes to my MMO game play. I like having an encounter destroy my group and essentially say, “You need to think about this harder.” That is just my sort of thing. I realize that isn’t for everyone though.

    My only concern with difficulty settings is that you might get the situation WoW is in now. On “regular mode” virtually anyone can achieve the raids out there. I’m we’re talking three toed sloths can win here! Yet on the other hand as soon as you turn on hard mode you go from “anyone” to “incredibly small minority” for some raids. We’re talking old school EverQuest less than 5% minority. Which again works for a guy like me but really misses the non-hardcore but not sloppy demographic. I think there needs to be a middle ground.

    Comment by Ferrel — 20 November, 2009 @ 6:57 AM

  10. I’ve actually quit a good number of games because I found them insultingly easy, but them I accept that I’m in the minority, at least in the MMO space today. The sad part of this though, in the context of the MMO genre, is that difficulty should be player-based, not NPC based. It should be that if you want a tougher challenge, compete against better players. If things are too tough, find weaker players. Too many MMOs today however are based around pitting a single player against an AI script, and hence so many issues with difficulty.

    Comment by syncaine — 20 November, 2009 @ 8:16 AM

  11. Strictly in single player space, I’m a huge fan of multiple difficulty levels. This is because I play games for a variety of reasons (relaxation, entertainment, etc) and what I’m looking for in a given gaming session varies from One game to the next and even from one session to the next in the same game.

    For example, if I’ve had a hard, challenging day at work, I’m not looking for more challenges at home, I just want to play some games and have light hearted fun. On the other hand, on my day off I may want a tough challenge to really engage my gray matter.

    Further, every player is different. Difficulty is highly subjective, and so you can’t really test for this via small group playtesting. This applies both to intellectual challenges in games and physical reaction challenges. A FPS on Nightmare may be a reasonable challenge to one player, but that same game on Normal may be virtually impossible for another who simply does not have the physical reaction time or movement precision.

    This point is the biggest stumbling block for a lot of players discussing difficulty (particularly in MMO space), and sadly many developers too. They’re often unable to come to grips with the concept that what is easy for them can be very difficult for someone else – and that that may not be fixable by ‘learning to play’. Some people simply have better reflexes than others, some are simply smarter than others, and some just think in patterns that are more applicable to a specific game.

    In a competetive game, that’s fine. In a non competetive setting however it’s definitely something that needs to be considered.

    Comment by Derrick — 20 November, 2009 @ 12:40 PM

  12. I generally like a good challenge, but I also enjoy being able to trivialize content over time. So e.g. in LotRO I used to love doing wacky stuff like taking 3 people to clear 6-man instances, or in Champions Online (which is far easier by and large than LotRO) trying to clear content designed for a full group when solo. But there are days when I don’t want to push myself that hard and sometimes it’s nice to be able to see that your power level has risen relative to the world at large – so on those days I might go out and grind easy monsters for a bit, for cash or reputation. So I swing between liking really difficult challenges that push my limits, and liking to feel godlike for brief periods.

    In single-player games, or in instances in MMOs, I think allowing the player to set the difficulty level is definitely desirable. In the public areas of MMOs, I think it’s good to offer a range of difficulties and let players seek out their own challenge level.

    Games that are trivially easy bore me quickly. Games that are impossible (i.e. in which I cannot see a way to complete them with the resources available to me, and in which I lack a way to acquire the resources I think I need) are frustrating. Like Goldilocks I seek the game that’s “just right”. I like failing from time to time; if my characters never die then I start to lose interest because the game just isn’t challenging enough. If I die over and over and over again, I’ll usually move on to something else, unless the game is highly tactical and I have more options for success I haven’t yet explored. In those cases I can be very patient indeed, and very difficult challenges can be great fun.

    Comment by foolsage — 20 November, 2009 @ 12:58 PM

  13. Having just read this article: today, I no longer think that “easy or hard” is even the right question to ask.
    “Failure” is just a name we slap on some of the game states; there is nothing inherently bad or good about them. What a designer should do to ensure that the game is fun – regardless of “difficulty” – is make all game states give useful feedback to the player. It is not failure if you have learned something, or otherwise improved.

    Comment by Nevermind — 20 November, 2009 @ 1:58 PM

  14. To me it’s all about choices, and having them.

    I love RoM because of choices. Many players have complained the world search, and quest tracking, and other helpers make the game easy and less challenging, but never do they mention that all of that stuff can be fully customized in Runes of Magics built-in features.

    I think a large percent of MMORPG players don’t know what they want. I know I don’t know half of what I want. I’ve been playing 2+ years and I only know a tiny bit of what I really gravitate towards and know actually what I want.

    But I digress. Choice is a wonderful thing. RoM also doesn’t tie char level to craft level. I’ve seen players complain about this too, but you have a choice with it untied. You can level all you want, and besides there is a little “real” world restriction. The higher your craft level, the higher the mats, and those are in higher leveled areas. BUT, you can still take a longer route to craft level cap doing the low level stuff.

    I agree that perhaps the best option is letting the player choose the difficulty. They do that in instances in WoW, D&D online, and probably others that I can’t remember right now.

    Comment by Jeremy S. — 20 November, 2009 @ 4:58 PM

  15. If you’ve ever designed a story-based game, you’ll find out very quickly that you get two types of players. Some players just want to experience the story and aren’t interested in difficulty or failure at all. More traditional players want to overcome challenges and experience a sense of mastery. In a single-player game, difficulty settings work pretty well, but the “easy” setting needs to be really easy.

    Will adding a difficulty slider bring in more revenue than you lose from releasing games on a slower cycle, or from the customers you lose because you didn’t test the difficulty setting they picked?

    I suspect that difficulty settings pick up enough players to make up for development time. It’s really as though you’re designing two different games: One for the story lovers and one for the gamers. Without difficulty settings it’s hard to appeal to both groups.

    Take Dragon Age, for example. It’s obviously meant to appeal to tactical RPG players who want a challenge. At the same time, many people play Bioware games mostly for the stories, and an easy setting helps capture that market.

    Comment by Tolthir — 20 November, 2009 @ 11:04 PM

  16. The harder the game, the less I tend to play it, because the difficulty gives stopping points. Call it the “retry rule.” Even with the best games, there are so many retries before a player puts it down and goes to do something easier for a bit. Too many forced stopping points and a player will shelve your game for good.

    Difficult games also give players more temptation to cheat. The sad thing about chess online is that a lot of players cheat by using bots. I’ve played people who move multiple pieces in one minute blitz chess and manage to force a mate in under 30 seconds. Yet with all that brainpower they can’t spell correctly. Make a MMO hard enough and you will see the players try and make it easier.

    I don’t think difficulty is an issue if segregated by type. I know in FFXI einjerhar and Salvage were considered the hardcore raids, and people dodn’t bitch much about them. That was because there were easier raids for people to do as well, with nice, but lesser rewards.

    Comment by Dblade — 21 November, 2009 @ 10:00 PM

  17. My tastes vary wildly, and there are different types of difficulty. Some days I want brain-busting mental challenges, some days I want to work on my sense of spatial awareness or body kinesthetics. Some days I just want the blingy graphics to make me happy, even as I zone out mentally.

    Key to that to date has been a wide variety of games to play. If one game wants to cater to all of my moods and whims, as well as those of other players, it needs to give players control to tailor the experience. There is simply no other way to make everyone happy.

    Comment by Tesh — 23 November, 2009 @ 5:04 PM

  18. To be real honest with you these talks are getting a bit old but I will just throw my 2cents in by saying that it doesn’t matter.

    If you’re making another casual bubble popping game then it should be easy… if you’re recreating a hardcore mmorpg then it should be very hard.

    All depends upon the game design <3, keep it up though. Great read =]

    Comment by CodeJustin — 24 November, 2009 @ 1:05 AM

  19. CodeJustin wrote:
    All depends upon the game design

    Exactly my point. It makes me despair when someone like Jeff Vogel, a noted RPG designer, starts saying that everything has to be easy in order for it to be appealing. There is room for a wide variety of options. As Tesh says, there are lot of games out there, and trying to make one size fit all (or making the largest size possible so that everyone can wear it even though it will fit terrible) isn’t a very good option.

    Thoughtful discussion all around.

    Comment by Psychochild — 24 November, 2009 @ 1:16 AM

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