The Difficulty of Difficulty

It’s a very good article, which outlines many of the different types of frustrating difficulty that people encounter in games, and it makes a good point about the difficulty of a game needing to feel fair to the player.  I would add to that the notion that the difficulty should feel fair for the level that the player selects – a player who wants an easy gaming experience shouldn’t be blindsided with a sudden spike in unfair difficulty, while a more hardcore player should be able to select the level of challenge they want, even if that level is intentionally giving the game’s AI an “unfair” advantage because they want a truly daunting challenge.

I would also add that challenge plays different roles in different types of games, and as such, can be far more frustrating in certain types of games than others.  For example, in a role-playing shooter such as Borderlands, some challenge is good to intensify the battles, and if it does get too intense, you can usually level up until it’s more manageable.  So, even with increased difficulty, the frustration that it causes is relatively low.  On the other hand, take a game like GTA4 – based significantly on exploration and sandbox gameplay, but with much of the area to explore locked down until you jump through a number of progressively difficult hoops, and if you get stuck on the difficulty, it denies you the ability to freely explore, one of the game’s major selling points.  To sum up, difficulty can have a place, and can make some games more intense and enjoyable – but only if that difficulty doesn’t lead to game-ending frustration, and only if that difficulty doesn’t penalize players by holding the enjoyable parts of the game hostage.