Auto-Adjusting Frustration

By Shamus Posted Thursday Jan 15, 2009

Filed under: Game Design 120 comments

The Birdmen post the other day kicked off an interesting discussion on auto-leveling or auto-adjusting difficulty in games. Now, I’m very much against auto-adjusting difficulty, because it solves one problem – the need for a game to provide the “right” level of challenge to all players – by creating a worse one: Taking away the ability of the player to adjust for frustration tolerance.

Ask people if a game is easy or hard, and you’ll see responses like:

Player1: Pfft. That game was a cakewalk. I only died maybe once a level.

Player2: That game was a pain in the ass. I died on almost every level.

So even among players of the same skill, the same experience can lead to very different perceptions. Some people want to play on a level they know they can handle and hoover up the content. Some players want the threat of failure to enhance their excitement. And some players want constant failure to test them and force them to develop their skills.

The latter type of player always asks the other types of players, “How can you find a game exciting if you know you’re going to win?”

The answer for me is, “The same way I find it exciting to see Bruce Willis shoot bad guys, even when everybody knows Bruce is going to win.” There is the excitement carried by the story and spectacle, and the other layer of excitement carried by the gameplay. But if a game poses too great a challenge, then both layers of excitement are replaced with simple frustration. Personally, I tend to play the game the first time on normal difficulty (and lately, easy difficulty) and enjoy the story. Then – if the game pleases me – I’ll ramp up the difficulty and focus on the gameplay. Lately, a lot of games have simply not been worth the effort to learn to play them well.

But if I do enjoy a game, I sometimes find myself seeking greater challenges than the ones provided by the designers. During a gaming dry spell a couple of years ago, I went through Half-Life 2 on all the difficulty settings, and then I tried to beat it “Nethack”-style by not saving / restoring. If I died, I started over at the beginning of Route Kanal. I tried several times. My most notable game was the one where I made it all the way to the Citadel, and then died stupidly by blundering under one of those vertical stompers right inside the entrance. Close, but I moved on to other games without ever truly beating it sans-save. Ah well.

Auto-adjusting difficulty usually works by lowering the difficulty slightly when you fail, and raising it slightly when you have success. (Note that this is different from auto-leveling enemies in RPGs like Oblivion, which I also think is a bad idea. But that’s another discussion.) The designer decides for himself what rate of failure is “appropriate”, and enforces that on everyone. Players will either win or lose until they reach an equilibrium at the point where they meet the designer’s intended failure rate. If you need to fail twice in each section of the game to keep the difficulty at the same level, then you are going to fail twice in every section, no matter what. If you get better, so does the game. Your skills may improve over time, but your overall rate of success won’t.

Managing frustration is the most crucial part of enjoying a game. When people complain about difficulty, they’re usually complaining that the game was too frustrating. Auto-adjusting difficulty actually establishes and perpetuates the problem you were trying to solve. People with a low frustration threshold won’t just be annoyed until they can get better. They will be annoyed forever, no matter how good they get. People who want a Serious Challenge can never really get it.

Worse, even for the hardcore players who want to put themselves up against a brutal challenge for the sake of overcoming it, it deprives them of any good metric for progress. They don’t get the satisfaction of acing something that used to be too hard for them, because the game has ramped up the difficulty to match. Their true score – the internal number that governs how much the game is cheating or taking a dive – is usually not shown to the user.

(Think of it like a weight set that doesn’t allow you to set or even see how much you’re lifting. It auto-adjusts until you can do exactly ten reps. I do ten reps. Grandma does ten reps. Dwayne Johnson does ten reps. If you want to set the weight low and lift something light while you watch TV, you can’t. If you want to see the maximum you can lift, you can’t.)

Fighting games usually work this way. In the DOA series the steps up and down in difficulty are so drastic you can usually feel them a few seconds into the fight. (You’ll use the same strategy as the previous fight where you were defeated, but suddenly the CPU foe will stop countering all your moves, stop evading throws, and will use less damaging combos when you make a blunder.) A few shooters have this auto-difficulty built in. I never saw it documented, but I very strongly suspect Max Payne used it as well. Unreal Tournament has an option to have the bots auto-adjust, and I always turn it off.

The delta between the most skilled players and the newbies is massive, even for games which don’t look terribly complex. Providing a fun experience for everyone is a serious challenge for a game designer. You can offer two user-selectable difficulty levels and exclude a lot of people. Or you can offer a ton of difficulty levels and let the user grope around until they discover one that feels right. I can see the allure of auto-adjustment, but it’s solution that will displease nearly everyone.

Topic for discussion: Have you ever ramped up the difficulty by some unconventional means? Limiting yourself to certain weapons, modding the game, not saving, or other handicaps not directly provided or understood by the standard game?


From The Archives:

120 thoughts on “Auto-Adjusting Frustration

  1. I’ve tried playing “Thief: The Dark Project” with the so-called “Lytha Style” – to quote

    “The basic rules are really simple:
    1.) Play in Expert Difficulty
    2.) Get all the loot
    3.) Don’t deal any damages.”

    Needless to say, it’s extremely difficult, but rewarding.

  2. ShadowDragon8685 says:

    Maybe I’ll get flamed for sayin so, but…


    I never play on a difficulty above Easy. I rail, rant, and rave against games which make on a difficulty where Y is any positive number, and E is Easy, a requirement to unlock something. (I hate unlocks in and of themselves, but that’s another rant for another time.)

    Wait, I suppose there is one thing I do.

    When I play Thief games, I do it the opposite of Lytha Style. I do my level best to leave NOTHING but a trail of corpses or bludgened/gassed people in Garret’s wake. I think of Garret as a sneaky, aquisitive, bow-weilding ninja; a one man warpath of silent death. I see it as a personal affront for there to be armed guards weilding swords against me. I see it as a service for Thieves everywhere; if I make it known through experiance that city guards, house guards, or ANYONE who bears arms against thieves will meet with a gruesome death, maybe fewer people will choose those professions.

    I consider the daily body count lists in Thief 3 to be a source of pride. I’ve gotten them up over 300 total, combining civilians rendered unconcious and city guards murdered, not counting whatever mission I was on. I completely cleaned out the Hammerite cathedral, 100% wipe.

    Does that count as ramping up the difficulty, though, or just playing Garret as a sociopath?

    That said, I modded the game to make it easier to do just that – I tuned down Guard HP and senses and their swing times. The way I see it, “grit” in a game should be setting flavor, like the ‘grit’ in a good bread pudding, it should not be in the mechanics, like someone dumping a load of sandpaper shavings and glass shards down your shorts and force-marching you five miles.

    I tend to avoid online competitive play. I can usually hack it at the level of Casual, but the problem is that being second man on a six-man totem pole isen’t very much fun. Very, very rarely, I’ll ‘zone in’ to Expert and turn into an unstoppable killing machine for like, five, ten, or twenty kills, but that’s usually followed or preceeded by a crash back to complete noob, so my K:D ratio still always sucks.

    Quite frankly, losing all the time sucks. This is where auto-adjustment should come into play: Online competitive play. Players who do really crap should get breaks; they start to move faster, jump higher, have more HPs; conversely, players who are godlike should be fucked with. Their aiming reticule should become ‘more of a guideline than an actual rule’, if not vanish altogether, they should start to move slower, freeze for a second when struck by the very weakest shot, lose the ability to hear terrain events (like doors opening and footsteps falling), and so forth and so on.

    It would never be very popular. Everyone Expert and up would loathe it because it hamstrings their abilities to pwn newbs. Against their own, they wouldn’t have to worry; if the K:D ratios stay stable, they’d never notice it.

    But, it has been my experiance that the vast majority of those who play on an Expert difficulty and up are assholes who want to frag newbies and casuals. And honestly…

    Who’s to say that having a great deal of skill ISEN’T cheating? If you listen to Las Vegas, it is; they kick out card-counters, after all. Just because it’s not an aimbot doesn’t mean it’s not fair.

    You wouldn’t let Donovan McNabb play quarterback in a college leauge game, let alone in a peewee game, after all.

  3. scragar says:

    I used to play a number of my games that I really enjoyed like that, most notably Legend of Zelda: a Link to the Past, where I would limit myself to not upgrading the sword, not spending any rupees(other than the 610 needed to advance the story) or not collecting any health containers(other than those from bosses, which you need to collect). At one point I think I made it through the whole game without using any health potions or fairies, no sword upgrades, neither protective magic and ignoring several very useful bonuses(I still had the first shield, a non-magical boomerang, the original limits on bomb and arrow capacity and the rather pathetic green tunic). safe to say I had to make a few continues to complete the game, but it was well worth it for the challenge.

  4. Dannerman says:

    In the Icewind Dale series I only ever rested when it was explicitly offered to me as a dialogue choice;

    “We’ll rest for x hours.”

    Rather than just clicking the rest button.

    In most of the D&D CRPGs actually, I tend only to rest when it makes sense. Usually after an area. (In Neverwinter Nights 2 I only ever rest after I’ve finished an area completely. I also play on D&D Hardcore. I’m somewhat of a masochist, I suppose. But it’s about immersion, to me.

    I tried a Half Life 1 ‘No Save’ run. I think I only got up to ‘Blast Pit’ on Medium difficulty. Which isn’t that great.

  5. Kevin says:

    If there is an easy setting, I’ll always hit that. But once in the game… I have been known to play Resident Evil with just a bowie knife, or Silent Hill trying never to fight anything that wasn’t story-mandated. I do it all the time in WoW to get skillups with weapons I suck at… though there’s an ulterior motive in that case.

  6. mark says:

    You know bruce willis never actually shot anyone onscreen during die hard 4, right?

  7. unitled says:

    Not what you wanted us to answer, but Left4Dead has a sort-of auto adjusting difficulty mode (in the form of the AI director) and it seems to work VERY well. It combines random enemy/pick-up placement with some sort of voice recognition to know when a player says something like “Well, at least we haven’t had to fight a tank”.

    Okay, I may have made that last bit up.

    Back on your topic, I played through the Hitman games (specifically 2 and 3) doing an all-zero target; no shots fired, no hostiles/innocents kileld, no alarms raised, and managed to complete it on the hardest difficulty… I felt very pleased with myself.

  8. Dave says:

    Oftentimes I find myself changing the difficulty of a game through perfectionism or a desire for elegance. It’s not enough to simply finish the game, I have to finish it in the right way. In games like Starcraft, I always found it preferable to finish a map with a well-estimated, pin-point attack that knocked out an opponent’s major capacity for resistance and then move on to the mop-up in order to finish the stage. The level might have continued for five or ten minutes, but I knew that the battle was over. The only exception to that was during the Zerg levels, since destroying things by brute force is what the Zerg DO. Just keep spawning units and roll over them until they die.

    It’s interesting to me how challenges sometimes balance themselves out, as in the case of early RPGs. Case in point is trying to finish something like the original Final Fantasy with only one party member…yes, it’s easier to get wiped out, but that party member advances four times as fast. In most games I’ve looked at on GameFAQS I’ve seen at least one or two guides written to help people finishing a particular challenge. The most complicated by far was for Final Fantasy X, and had an abbreviation that by itself was something like 12 letters long.

  9. Confanity says:

    Used to do that in FreeCell, of all things, back when I had a lot of time to kill, by releasing the aces so that they lined up in a certain order.

  10. Kizer says:

    @Scragar You do know that you don’t actually NEED to get the boss heart containers, right? I’ve been meaning to try to beat Ocarina with just 3 hearts for the entire game, but I’m not sure my skill are up to such a challenge.

    As for challenges I’ve actually tried, the one that pops into my head is trying to beat Pokemon Red/Blue without using your starter once you get passed the area where you can’t catch new pokemon. Say what you will, trying to beat that game with the almighty team of Pidgey, Rattata, Spearow, Caterpie, and Weedle is rather difficult . . .

  11. In Privateer’s add-on, Righteous Fire, when they did the updated release, the designers fought back against the modders so that all the green guns (all three of them) had less power than a laser. They had to screw-up the ending (which was better with the bad guys using green guns rather than fusion cannon), but to each their own.

    However, I would sometimes use the tools to give myself a green gun in an inside gun slot and play through the game with that handicap. Which was kind of fun.

    I knew people who played through in ships other than the Centurion, and I did it once in the starting scout ship.

    I like being able to adjust the difficulty, it gives the game an entirely different feel.

    I got tired of being ganked in Strangle … so I used an alternative leveling path through Desolace. With my alt, who is much less resilient, I followed the standard path through gankland, and did Desolace latter — it has been a markedly different experience.

    I like being able to do that. I’d rather adjust the difficulty level by my own choices than have the game do it for me.

    And I dislike “reverse adjustment” methods. In Wing Commander, after the initial levels, if you were playing poorly the game got harder, rather than easier. Realistic, sure, but counterproductive. Down to missions that had autofailures regardless of what you did. That was annoying, to beat all the hostiles and then have the escorted ship destruct anyway.

    Actually enabled some cheats to confirm that was happening.

    Nothing more satisfying than getting my success rates on Mission 13 to 75% or better. It would have sucked it there was an autodifficulty adjustment.

  12. alfredogarcia says:

    Attempted to reach a moral high ground on Deus Ex, Thief and Kotor. This would usually result in a ramped-up difficulty of sorts. You know, be the bigger person,etc. This approach leads to righteous indignation when the game fails to acknowledge your angelic behaviour.

    Oh, remember the civilization spin-off, Colonization? (the older one from the mid 90’s) Tried to tackle that whilst refusing to exploit the native americans, and avoiding a guns-n-steel economic policy. This failed, obviously.

  13. AceCalhoon says:

    “I never saw it documented, but I very strongly suspect Max Payne used it as well.”

    Apparently you weren’t paying attention… It was one of the selling points of the game :)

    “Auto-adjusting gameplay, another first in gaming. You want the action will be challenging and intense, but not unfair and frustrating — the game’s self-adjusting difficulty keeps you in the sweet spot of gameplay bliss.”

    From, click the features button, then click next a few times. Gotta love unlinkable flash interfaces.

  14. Joshua says:

    I do the opposite. In a CRPG I’ll over-level the character by fighting more random encounters or bypassing the boss room to clear out more of the dungeon just to make fighting the boss easier. Since Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance doesn’t actually have random encounters, I’ll use the import character feature to bring a future version of the character back in time. I’ll kill Karne or that stupid Beholder over and over again just to watch them bleed and get me some extra xp.

    Once I’ve done that, I might deliberately forgo armor or using any of the upper-level magic items, but that’s not really for the challenge of it as much as not wanting to look like a walking tin can waving a sword that’s longer than I am.

  15. Annon says:

    In Super Metroid, I actually cheated to give myself the Hyper Gun from the beginning. It made stuff die easily, but it made the platforming much harder, because I couldn’t use the ice beam. I still insisted on getting 100% of the items…

    Also, does hacking the game count? I fiddled (hacked) with the auto-reward/auto-level features in NWN so it would actually assign correct CRs and rewards for them instead of giving next to nothing to a level 17 character for a CR 20 encounter.

  16. Robyrt says:

    Max Payne, Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space all make heavy use of auto-adjusting difficulty. (The RE4 speedrun abuses this by having an empty inventory all the time, so that bad guys will drop health and grenades more often.) God of War will stealthily increase your health by 1 each time you die at the same checkpoint, which is the PERFECT kind of auto-adjust: it gets me out of a stupid save but it won’t make the game too easy 20 minutes down the road. Guitar Hero 4 gives you extra health for the final song – but I died anyway and had to bump it back down to Hard. :(

    In some games, “increasing” your difficulty backfires. For example, it’s actually much easier to complete Prince of Persia: Sands of Time without grabbing the optional sand tanks, because it allows you to use your “max sand” super move in every battle.

    The old RPG Silver lends itself very well to self-limiting difficulty. I’ve completed it using no other party members and no magic whatsoever; Youtube has a guy who uses no other party members and no healing except for level ups.

  17. K says:

    Difficulty Autoadjustment:
    I could not finish Farcry due to that. The enemies keep on seeing and shooting farther and farther and their health keeps increasing. Which leads to me doing more reconnaiscance and then sniping everyone down from fifty miles away. Which again increases difficulty, since I did not take damage. Then at the end, there is a fight in a closed corridor against about four mutants. And each of them takes about 30% of my total ammunition (yes, that is a dozen clips) to take down. And then I am supposed to melee the last one down or what?

    Level up:
    Wizardry 8 had that too. Walking through the starter regions just got immensly tedious, since there were level 20 Goblins of Doom crawling around everywhere.

    Oblivion is also famous for that. Luckily, I used a mod for a better leveling up system and then tricked the system by leveling to exactly 20 and not sleeping anymore, but still increasing my skills. Which means I can now utterly destroy ANYTHING. The broken magic system does not help. I also did not finish it, because I got bored by being able to beat everything easily, it was only a matter of time.

    In conclusion: Yes, auto-leveling-difficulty SUCKS.

  18. Factoid says:

    Ah….nethack. Someday, Amulet of Yendor, you will be mine!

  19. David V.S. says:

    To answer your concluding question, my favorite such story is not about my own actions but those of a friend from high school.

    He had played Wizardry so much that before starting school he would start a new game of Wizardry and type like crazy. When he came back from school the game would usually be won.

    Remember the days when a game was “huge!” but still smaller than the computer’s keyboard buffer?

    (For those unfamiliar with the original Wizardry, the game kept your characters saved distinct from the trips into the dungeon; he used his established and powerful characters, and knew where in the maps the encounters would happen.)

    Identify nine!

  20. Nathon says:

    I used to play Diablo (the first one) ironman. It was essentially the nethack approach where you take a party and walk into the monastery and don’t come back to town until Diablo is dead. Now that I think about it, it’s a lot like instanced dungeon crawling in WoW. That stopped in D2 where you could have hardcore characters though. That was great until Blizzard stopped caring and people found ways to kill other people that are still unpatched for all I know.

  21. Anaphyis says:

    After I bought my PS2 plus a copy of Final Fantasy X shortly before shops closed for a prolonged weekend holiday, I realized in shock I forgot the memory card. So it was either waiting a few tantalizing days or play without the ability to save – guess which one I choose. And because I liked the adrenaline rushes and the way, how even a standard JRPG can become a more paranoid experience then anything survival horror has to offer, this is usually the way I do my second playthrough: Nethack style.

    However, these are Self Imposed Challenges. Emphasis on self imposed. When a game isn’t challenging you can always crank it up this way, so I never understood the people whining about a game being too easy. And I understand the developers listening to these morons even less, cause the only way to crank the difficulty down to a sufferable level is cheating, which again is obviously only an inch short of baby raping in the minds of many.

    Auto-Adjusting is even worse. As I begun DM’ing, I silently cranked up encounter stats and manipulated dice rolls, when the encounter proved too easy for the party. To my benefit I have to add, I always managed to found a level that is challenging, not Rocks Fall Everyone Dies frustrating. I was surprised when I found out some players didn’t liked that, at least not in the long run. If you spend months playing, leveling, developing your character and building up a nice teamplay and you still struggle the same way with throwaway encounters (sometimes even the same type) as you did on Level 1, every feeling of progress, accomplishment and becoming more powerful are gone.

    Or more practically: If you are working in a 9-to-5 office job and you work faster/more then you are supposed to, you won’t get the rest of the day of or a pay raise but simply more work. So sooner or later, you’ll adjust and do the bare minimum required, because it is the rational and economical way to do. That’s why new employment models are developed, that’s why auto-adjustment/auto-leveling is a bad idea and ends with players finishing Oblivion on Level 1 or whatever- not because such a low level run is a challenge but because it is the most prudent way to do it.

  22. Primogenitor says:

    “Unreal Tournament has an option to have the bots auto-adjust, and I always turn it off.” As usual, the answer is let players choose. And really, this isn’t that difficult to implement in most games, it could even make development easier (therefore cheaper) because you don’t have to care about balance quite so much (players can choose).

    But for the question: yes. In FPSs Ill often play against a 5 easy bot team rather than 1 hard bot (or 5 hard free-for-all).

  23. Henry says:

    I played Icewind Dale II in “Ironman” mode: no save/reload. Yes, I used resting and healing, but you need to in a game where the enemies form such swarms!

    Also MS Hearts, winning by shooting the moon 4 times (bonus points for doing so on consecutive hands).

    Possibly the hardest challenge was Serious Sam, using nothing other than the knife/chainsaw (except on those enemies where these do no damage, or against Ugh-Zan).

  24. Craig says:

    With WoW and a few other games I tend to accidentally ramp up the difficulty by simply not using techniques, power-ups, etc. that the game takes for granted I should be using. Also, while I almost always play between normal and very easy, in Fallout 3, I’ve taken to purposefully killing wasteland mobs with baseball bats alone simply to not waste sometimes expensive ammo. I’ve also recently begun wearing only a suit and the powdered wig while wielding the shishkebab and facing enemies. This is mainly for comedic effect and chances to yell pro-democratic slogans.

  25. SomeGuyInABikini says:

    My mates and I always run games on the hardest difficulty possible then, if required, tailor it back to make it actually playable/fun. We do this to both pit our own abilities against each other’s (by seeing who has/gains the greatest skills and knowledge of the game’s inner workings) and to ensure that all unlockable content is available *Cringe*

    We’ve all just finished The Witcher (yes Shamus, I’m afraid I enjoyed that game)(you complained that Geralt was oversexed, but it’s the women who are oversexed. On my second completion I had sex less than Larry in Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards which is easy, as long as you don’t talk to non-quest women :p) and decided on the next play through that we will NOT upgrade Igni (fire), to instead rely on other methods of killing (spamming Igni was just TOO easy), and to only rest when forced (i.e. only level up when it’s thrust upon us).

    I actually enjoyed Oblivion’s auto-leveling system, for about the first 5 levels before I came to the realisation that fights were just taking longer. Same enemies that I’d downed 20 times before now just took longer to kill… yeah, not exactly the direction I was going for.

    What are your views on limiting/penalising PC XP based on the number of party members? Memory dictates that Arcanum and Neverwinter Nights both did this, forcing a tradeoff.

    Wayno, pumped it’s finally Friday :D

  26. Jeff says:

    “How can you find a game exciting if you know you're going to win?”

    This question irks me. You ALWAYS know you’re going to win. You’re not buying software called Slam Head On Brick Wall. If you don’t expect to win, you wouldn’t get it. (“Why, YES I will buy Quantum Mechanics Puzzles for 60 bucks, and never get past the first one.”) Even the “I only died once a level” guy still only died once a level, not unable to finish the game. These people expect to eventually overcome the current challenge in their way, that’s the unspoken expectation. You play thinking (knowing!) you will win. Look at the lottery.

  27. NeilD says:

    I played Thief (and, I think, Thief II) “Lytha style” as described above and also with the directive “Let nobody see you or even suspect your presence.”

    Looking back on it now though, it really just amounted to a ridiculous amount of saving and restoring as I crept through areas a few steps at a time trying to avoid detection. Sort of a self-inflicted DIAS. In any other game, I think it would have just made me frustrated and bored, but something about the Thief games really lent itself to that kind of experimentation, for me anyway.

  28. LintMan says:

    In at least one of the Wing Commander games, the game increased difficulty as you did better, but didn’t get any easier no matter how much you failed. So, like the Peter Principle, I got to the point where I sucked and failed frequenly, and had to drag through the rest of the game at that level. (I read an interview with the developers talking about how they auto-raise the difficulty – and there was not one peep about ever lowering it.)

    Shamus, your posts are gradually making me realize how mentally scarred I am from playing the Wing Commander series. Your blog is like therapy or something :-).

    Since I’m not a challenge hound and play mostly for the story, etc, I’d probably be happier playing on easy rather than normal difficulty, but I rarely play on easy. I’m leary that easy mode will translate into “brain dead” or “almost nothing to do”, as I’ve seen in some games. Or, I’ve seen where the easier modes lack certain perks or cut scenes you get as a “reward” for playing on the harder modes. I think Painkiller does that.

    And on the other hand, sometimes easy mode makes certain parts of the gameplay easier, but does nothing to help with other parts, like quicktime sequences where you still die if you fail or those dogs that auto-kill you if they touch you in COD4, even on easy.

    Something I’ve noticed lately that’s pretty annoying is that the third group of gamers Shamus mentions (the ones who want constant failure to force them to develop their skills) seem to be incapable or unwilling to understand that not everyone wants to play games that same way. They’re the ones who respond with “u suk learn to play the game looser”, “thank god theres no cheats – dont ask for them”, or “it’s the developer’s game – you have to play it the way they made it” when someone asks for cheat codes on a game forum.

    One last comment:
    Shamus wrote: “Lately, a lot of games have simply not been worth the effort to learn to play them well.”

  29. Picador says:

    I spend a lot of time these days making Oblivion mods that place constraints on the player and sometimes make the game more difficult. They’re aimed more at adding flavor to the game than moderating frustration, but a lot of the fun in Oblivion is in exploring the world, rather than getting a good “flow” going in gamer terms (i.e. being in your optimal diifculty zone).

  30. Dustin says:

    I used to play Super Mario Kart on the SNES with my friends and family and had to handicap myself with a ‘no red shells’ rule. Made it more fun as I focused more on driving rather than running over as many question mark blocks and dropping items to find the à¼ber red shells. Led to some unique game play strategies especially on battle mode, like Level 2 with the enclosed water pits that you could only get into by using a feather. Used to hang out in one of those after getting something good like a star or 3 green shells then pop out after they drove by to surprise ambush them. Good times.

    Re: the Hitman games mentioned earlier, I think Hitman 2 and 3 actually gave you rewards for playing the Silent Assassin method of only killing your target. Those missions are very rewarding, finding the method of killing your target without firing a shot. Used to forgo the loadout screen and just use the defaults, because I figured I wouldn’t be shooting anything anyways.

  31. J Greely says:

    I have an elliptical cross-trainer with a linked heart-rate monitor. Based on the values of two variables, Age and Mode, it calculates the Target Heart Rate, and continuously adjusts the resistance as you run, to keep you there. However, if you’re in really great shape (so I’m told; heh), it can’t raise the resistance enough to raise your heart rate, so it flashes a message “speed up!”.

    At the other end, if you really suck (and this part I’m quite sure of), the resistance eventually bottoms out, and the machine orders you to slow down. Unfortunately, below a certain speed, it’s extremely difficult to maintain something that looks like “continuous running”, and the machine will decide that you’ve just stopped.

    In between the extremes, it does an excellent job, and there’s a feeling of real accomplishment the first time the out-of-shape beginner manages to make it through a 30-minute cardio workout without being ordered to slow down because the computer can’t make the task any easier.

    To keep you from giving up in frustration before you reach that point, the machine lets you skip the auto-adjust and manually select the resistance level, raising or lowering it in mid-workout if you like. And you can always choose a shorter workout, or just walk away for a few minutes and come back; it will remember where you left off.

    The system would be better if it monitored your breathing as well as your heart rate, but at least it’s measuring something that’s relevant to both your progress and your frustration level.

    Of course, I found the game a bit boring, so I modded it with a portable DVD player.


  32. elias says:

    Isn’t it possible you’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater? I think auto-adjusted difficulty could be done in a way that addresses your concerns.

    For example, what if it auto-adjusted up to a high-end cap, so that the good players still have the opportunity to reap the rewards of mastering the game?

    In addition, what if there were still “difficulty settings” for the game, but rather than actually directly setting the difficulty, they set the “failure tolerance” of the player–the mentioned equilibrium point the game strives for when adjusting difficulty? With three settings, the lowest could be for the game to strive not to let the player fail, the middle could be some average, and the hardest would strive to make the player fail fairly often (up to a high-end difficulty cap like I said before).

    What if the game gave you some on-screen indicator at all times of what difficulty it was throwing at you?

    @j, When I’ve worked out at the local rec center, I’ve tried treadmills and ellipticals and have been pretty disappointed with the minimum speed you mention on ellipticals (I think it’s something like 3mph on the machines I was using, which is a speed I usually like to set for the treadmills). You can’t attempt to go that speed because inevitably your speed will waver, meaning it will fall below often and cut you off. I liked the treadmills more because of that.

    But anyway I think that auto-adjust model would probably work fairly well for games, too. For that model, there would still be difficulty levels set by the player, and the auto-adjustment would be capped at the high and low ends by the player’s choice. If the player is doing very well or badly the game can suggest the player move it up or down a notch, without being too insistent.

    Also, perhaps slightly off-topic, I think when putting these sorts of features in games it would be helpful to choose different names for the difficulty settings than “Easy,” “Medium,” “Hard,” etc. because for some players the name carries psychological hang-ups, meaning they don’t feel that playing at specific difficulty levels (even if those may be more appropriate to their skill level or more conducive to their enjoyment of the game) is acceptable simply because of the setting’s name.

  33. Sempiternity says:

    Ramping up the difficulty by unusual means?


    Adjusting the gameplay experience by changing my play style, my roleplaying, and through soft mods?

    Every single game that lets me!

    I’ve never been happy with standard “make the computers cheat, make the enemies tougher” difficulty levels, so I’ve always played games this way. I’ve been playing XCOM for 15 years on beginner mode, and never moved MOO2’s dial away from average. Instead of changing the AIs, i change the way i approach the game.

    The most common way i do this is by playing “ironman” style, whether it is XCOM, or MOO, or Alpha Centauri, or Total War. Strategy games are immeasurably improved by suffering defeats and soldiering on, rather than “quick-loading until you win”.

    I’d love to see more games designed with this ability to “come back from a loss” in mind…

    The second most common way i’ve found to play is by roleplaying my faction – this is especially true of 4X games, like MOO or Sword of the Stars. When i play these games i pick a philosophy to play by, and make sure every decision i make follows those guidelines, more or less. (I think this play style not only gives more colour to the self-created narrative of the game, but helps keep the player from exploiting weaknesses in the game’s design or the AI opponents. Or less skilled human ones for that matter!)

    And then there are soft mods – i love games that let you dig into their settings via XML tables, like JA2 or Civ4, or simply lots of “realism” setting switches (usually sim games), or let you through together your own scenarios (also sim games). With a little patience and a solid theme in mind, editing the game’s variables, items, etc really lets you change the play experience to suit your play style or explore a different take on the game. I’ve been doing that with JA2 for the past few months, and have basically turned Alruco into Iraq… with interesting results.

    I’ve always wanted more games to come out of the box as focused toolkits, rather than delimited, linear story-based experiences.

  34. Nick says:

    I never even knew there was a “Lytha style” when I played thief. I just decided one day to play the game on expert, but also not let ANYONE know I was there (aside from missing valuables). No stunned guards, no raised alarms, no guard even seeing me. It wasn’t entirely doable, with some situations that expect you to knock out a guard or use gas arrows.

    Always had difficulty getting the required 70ish percent loot. I can’t imagine getting 100 without a guide.

  35. Tom says:

    Surely the obvious solution is simply to have a separate option for auto-adjustment as well as the normal list of fixed difficulties. Max Payne almost did this, but chose to replace “easy” with “auto-adjust” instead, the rationale being they didn’t want to risk some players setting it on easy and finishing it without feeling any challenge – seems a bit “nanny-state” to me; anyone with a gram of sense who sets the game too easy will just turn it up a bit after the first couple of levels. Also, it didn’t always work (worst thing was that it seemed to have no effect on the amount of bullet time you got, which could make or break any engagement), and there were instances when you really needed a proper “easy” mode, especially when you got stuck on a particular level and died a million times (I’m specifically thinking of the nigh-impossible bossfight at the end of the Ragnarock level – never be so arrogant as to think you can’t accidentally have a sucky level in your game, that the player will want to drop the difficulty to zero just to get past and then set it back to normal)

    Personally, I have an alternative approach which, back in the days when I was still crazy enough to think I could do so, I proposed to use in my own game – rather than constantly attempting to adjust difficulty throughout, there would be a specifically designed “calibration” mission at the start, possibly part of the tutorial, where the game would gauge your performance once and recommend a particular, fixed difficulty level, then allow you to choose that or some other one; if one were to have vector rather than scalar difficulty, once again like good old System Shock 1, it could also be designed to specifically gauge your particular playstyle and adjust the game to focus on supporting and challenging it.

    Variable difficulty is far less important, though, than just being really careful to balance gameplay in the first place, and especially ensuring that it’s not too easy to get the game stuck in an unwinnable state and have to reload from ages back – barely limping away after an epic battle with minimal health and no ammo but then having another whole room stuffed with big bads between you and the next stash is the all-time classic, and the slightest possibility of it is to be avoided by level builders at all costs. Regenerating health, I think, is a passable solution, so long as it’s sufficiently slow that it’ll give you a fighting chance in the next battle but won’t make any single fight noticably easier – basically, it needs to be a lot slower than the rate at which your opponents can deal damage, but fast enough to have a noticable effect during the journeys between fights. There have been a handful of games that did this, and I thought they were generally quite good. The original Unreal also did it for the default energy weapon. The golden rule is, I feel, that the player should always be given a chance, however slim, unless the ability to paint yourself into a corner is specifically demanded by the nature of the plot or gameplay – far too many games make it very possible to get yourself stuck like this without really gaining anything from it.

    As the most radical example, the merry band of lunatics at Shiny Entertainment, makers of MDK, simply realised that wandering around looking for ammo, even the possibility of running out of it at all, would only detract from their core gameplay dynamic of constant, outrageous carnage and wanton destruction, and wisely gave the default chaingun an infinite ammo supply – and the game doesn’t suffer from this at all. You can still pick up higher powered weapons when you find them, and you should now and then because they’re hilarious, but you don’t have to go out of your way or backtrack looking for them if you don’t want to.

  36. Viktor says:

    I played an archer in Morrowind. That game doesn’t handle archers well.

    I should play through again, actually. Maybe I could be a pacifist…

  37. Annon says:

    I know people have ragged on the auto-leveling system in Oblivion ad-infinitum (with good reason–there is NO justification for auto-leveling merchants. If I have gold at level 1, I should be able to spend it, damnit!) but you have to give them one thing–they have that difficulty slider as well. If they spent more time developing it correctly, I think it would be ideal–enemies can auto level all the want, so long as you have that analog slider to give you an edge or a handicap against them.

    Of course, this will probably never happen, because they did such an abysmal job on the Oblivion system that they will call the entire concept a failure and never try again…

  38. Shamus says:

    elias: I think a better system – although I haven’t tried it, yet – is the one in Left 4 Dead. It’s not keyed to success / failure, but to the current game state. It can ratchet down the difficulty without needing to kill you first.

    Conversely, it turns up the difficulty based on your health being “high”, instead of knocking down enemies. The former keeps the tension high and the game flowing, the latter is a punishment for playing well. (For example, a couple of well-placed grenades take out a huge group, then game then concludes you’re awesome and gives you a hundred more zombies, even though your health is low. Thus turning a “Wow! That grenade saved us!”, to, “Crap, we played awesome and died anyway.”)

  39. ej2 says:

    For most games, I play through on normal and then move on to something else.

    Although, I once played all the way through the original Zelda without a sword. Only thing is you cannot beat Gannon. It was quite challenging.

  40. Annon says:

    I think auto-leveling in shooters is a…daunting problem to say the least. The problem is that there are so many strategic ways to handle an encounter–some of which get forced occasionally.

    I, for one, will always skulk around in sneak mode ans snipe anything/everything in the head before it ever sees me. However, there are times when games will force me into a big firefight, usually because enemies nearly always have the uncanny ability to run complex ballistics analyses and know I was in a vent three hundred yards away instantly, and can instantly convey that knowledge to everyone in a half-mile radius, through walls.

    With the system you suggest, I would be screwed, because my health is almost always full, I always have nearly full ammo for just that sort of eventuality, and I suck at running and gunning.

  41. Matthew Allen says:

    In XCOM, me and my friends would limit ourselves to ways to play the game.

    “Ok, this game is an all human tech game. If I don’t research it from human ideas we don’t use it.” It made the game MUCH harder but very challenging.

    Another one was “Rush to the blaster launcher, and then use nothing but the blaster launcher.” Tends to lead to lots of death for your people. If everyone has the massive overkill area affect weapon… turning around a corner and finding el wimpo with a laser pistol turns into a “CRAP! He’s WAY inside the blast radius of this weapon. I’m screwed!!!”

    Another way to play was Alien bowling. Mind control any of the aliens, line them up in a bowling pin fashion. Use one blaster launcher shell into any outside point of the triangle and see how many aliens die. Try to go for strikes as often as possible.

  42. Shamus says:

    Annon: oh, I wasn’t saying that the system was awesome or should be used everywhere, all the time.

    It (reportedly) works very well in L4D, where you’re always in these chaotic fights.

    Yes, it would RUIN a slower-paced, more strategic game.

  43. Greg F says:

    What if a game did a compromise between auto-adjusting difficulty levels and selecting a difficulty? The point of the main post is that auto-adjusting difficulty forces the ratio of how often you succeed or fail to what the developer says… but what if you get to choose the ratio? You tell the game “I want it to be a cakewalk”, and it adjusts so you succeed 99% of the time. You tell the game “I want it to be challenging but doable” and it adjusts so you succeed 40% of the time.

    And I’ll throw in Final Fantasy Tactics A2 as a good example of a self-balancing game, since I’m playing it right now- you have a bunch of missions available to you at any time, and it’s clearly divided up between “the one that’ll advance the plot and unlock harder missions”, “the ones that are optional but give you a Really Cool Power so they’re worth doing anyway”, and “the ones that are just good for leveling up.”

  44. Joel D says:

    I’ve been known to play levels of some FPS games using only melee kills (mainly the Call of Duty series and the Halo series, as melee attacks are actually worthwhile in those games). I don’t do anything absurd, like trying to beat tanks to death, and I’ll shoot enemies that can’t be physically reached without some creative tactics, but it’s fun to turn an FPS into a First Person Fighter.

  45. unitled says:

    Shamus, you’re right, it works VERY well in Left4Dead; I’ve never had a game where it’s been difficult to the point of frustrating, it is ALWAYS tense (especially the finales!).

    I just remembered another game which had a nice built in self-imposed challenge; Severance: Blade of Darkness (though it may have had a different name in the US; Blade springs to mind). This rated your performance on the number of times you saved (giving you a ‘free’ save at the end of every level).

    That said, the game was still bar steward hard, so maybe it didn’t work too well.

  46. Kyle says:

    Some people try to solo or no-save the Baldur’s Gate series, but that just sounds crazy to me.

  47. Sydney says:

    I am all about self-imposed challenges.

    I play almost every Fire Emblem game a dozen times, using different challenges each time. No Magic, No Mounted Units, No Healing, No Restoring Saves, even Main Character Solos. Fire Emblem is a turn-based strategy game.

    I play Pokemon games with “low-level restrictions” which vary depending on the specific game.

    I play Final Fantasy Tactics games without ever changing the Jobs on my starting six units, and never hiring more.

    I tried (and failed) to play Tales of Symphonia without ever upgrading anyone’s equipment or using healing items in-battle.

    I’m currently in the midst of playing Fable: The Lost Chapters using only the bow and arrow. I’ve already done it using only melee.

    Now that I think about it, Fablehack would be interesting. Never do anything that raises HP or innate defence (armour is okay), don’t use restorative items, and if you die, start over. The game is short enough that I might go for it…yeah, I’ll go for it.

  48. Drew says:

    I know in WoW, I played for years with a good friend of mine and we did everything we could to 2-man every last bit of content possible. Sure, that meant a dungeon crawl could take 4 hours instead of 45 minutes, but there was a huge sense of accomplishment.

    And then, there’s always Gutrot. Glorious Gutrot. Of the Naked Noobs. If you don’t know his story, he’s the guy who leveled to 70 (and now 74 and counting) without ever equipping a weapon or a piece of armor. Jewelry was acceptable. And he’s a warrior, so he’s just been punching things in the face with his bare fists all this time. That’s a guy who knows how to give himself a challenge.

  49. Sungazer says:

    Mega Man 2: I would play the stages in orders that were not the ones to make it easier with the sub weapons. I would stage select off of different patterns, alphabetical order, reverse alphabetical…

    Super Metroid: My friends and I would do speed runs with penalties for not getting 100% collection.

    Symphony of the Night: This is the game I’ve played the most, hands down. I played this game to completion at least once a day for a couple of years (Yes, I was very unhappy with most of my life at that time). I would play with only certain weapons, no armor, no shilds…that sort of thing. I can beat this game, with 100% relic collection, within a couple of hours.

  50. rlor says:

    When I first got into online games I was waiting for netmech (for Mechwarrior 2) to come out. There were already groups formed off of the horribly buggy netdemo game and we were simulating houses and clans in the game. Part of this meant including scout lances etc. I was assigned to a scout lance in my group and knew I was going to be piloting a small Jenner mech.

    I ran instant action mode at the hardest computer difficulty with the strongest mechs I could. I would only pilot a Jenner. Once I could beat one grouping I kept adding mechs. I would design loadouts for them that were especially hard for me to counter. All this to prep for actually getting to play online.

    When netmech finally came out I was able to breeze thru other real opponents, killing them over and over again without dieing or even taking damage many times. It gave me a large lead over 95% of the 2000 player base in our league play and helped allow me to win the 1 on 1 championship we had as well as our team doing very well in larger scale battles.

    One thing I’ve seen change alot over time is the way online games have been made before as to now. Compare Quake and games like it to Battlefield 2142. In early games you had 0 bullet spread and faster than human movement (AVP is a good example). In later games you have bullet spread and speed of movement equal or less than human movement. This tends to remove some of the vast skill gap between a newbie and an excellent player.

    Put 5 newbies against an ace in AVP, Quake, netmech etc and you’d have 5 dead newbies 99% of the time with the ace maybe not even getting hit. Put 5 newbies against an ace in BF2142 and while you might get the same outcome, the chance of it would be drastically reduced. Which may be for the best or not, just an observation.

  51. I tend to use godmode and sometimes unlimited ammo in most games.

    Why? Because per the stories in the games the hero (you) prevail against the odds, survive and save the day.
    Dying and restarting a level or mission all over does not fit into the story at all. And many times, running out of ammo also clashes with this.

    I still get a adrenaline kick in fights though, but maybe it’s because I’m quite good at immersing myself into the story?

    What I miss in games is a difficulty modifier slider, that the automatic difficulty could use.

    Example: (floating point math)
    Easy = 0.0 (aka godmode)
    Normal = 0.5
    Hard = 1.0 (aka realistic?)
    The slider should be stepless and allow you to adjust it anywhere so you could set it in between Easy and Normal to get 0.25 for example.

    The automatic difficulty calculations in the game would use your modifer as a base and then hover around that when making things easier/harder for example.

    There has been very few games where you could choose a godmode in the normal settings (alternatively disabling health checks) but they do exist.

    Then again I’m a story buff, so I might be in a minority on this.

    I’m also one of the folks that cringe each time someone state they “beat the game”…
    I prefer to say I experienced the story or reached the conclusion or the end.

  52. Mari says:

    I’ve soloed Baldur’s Gate 1 as each class available.

    I’ve also played through Fable 1 with various handicaps and restrictions like “using only a bow” or “no weapons upgrades” and even once using “no level-ups”.

    I tend to only do that on RPGs that I enjoy a tremendous amount, though. Well, those and Solitaire and Zoo Tycoon. I do the same thing in Solitaire that somebody mentioned above for Free Cell. I have a specific order for aces to come up in and I’ll skip over aces to get that order. Adds a level of challenge. As for Zoo Tycoon I frequently set bizarre conditions on that game. Granted, the tutorial/scenario mode sets odd conditions to begin with but then I make it weirder. “I bet this one that requires a guest happiness of 93 using only dirt path and chain link fence and only savannah animals” (all of which have lower guest happiness ratings).

    And back in the days of The Sims (I hate myself for admitting that I ever played it but there you go) I would set conditions like “Never miss work.” Do you have any idea how hard it is to keep a Sim’s needs all met without ever missing a day of work (because Sims work 7 days a week)? One of my favorites was to never get promoted beyond the second job level tier but make enough money for one Sim to support a family of four.

  53. Heh, in Left 4 Dead, “We played awesome and died anyway” is when the game’s at its best. Left 4 Dead makes losing more fun than winning, sometimes.

    While the AI Director in that game has its issues – like not knowing what to do when players fly through the level at top speed – it has made for some of the most fun gameplay I’ve had in years. Easiness or difficulty is rather random in the end, but even after dozens of hours of playtime, it’s fresh enough for me to play for multiple sessions in a row.



  54. unitled says:

    If you want a game where ‘losing is fun’, try Dwarf Fortress; it’s actually the motto of the game. It’s actually a game built around setting yourself goals (the Magma Cannon being a good example). For me, though, just surviving is hard enough…

  55. Annon says:

    I always try to make shooters slower paced, even if they weren’t designed to be tactical shooters. I don’t care if I have to use a pistol, I will find a way to take somebody out before he shoots me. I’ll just suck when all his friends join in.

    And I thought speed runs didn’t count. If you want to talk about setting speed goals, I managed 100% in Super Metroid in less than an hour. I think that beats the current best online, but I didn’t record and I’ll never be able to do it again.

  56. Cthulhu says:

    I beat the original Metroid Prime without picking up any hit point increases. You’re supposed to have 1500 hp at the end of the game, and I did the whole game with 100. That game really could have used a third difficulty setting for the experienced players.

    I feel like in your example on different viewpoints, I can be either player one or player two, depending on the game, and I think the important difference is the amount of punishment for failure. A (good) game that expects you to fail frequently won’t have a major punishment for failure, and so it seems less important when you do.
    I think the perceived difficulty of a quest in, say, world of warcraft is mostly dependent on how far it is from the graveyard. I’ve had quests right next to a graveyard that killed me five times, that felt easy, and then quests ten minutes run away that felt incredibly hard even though I only died once.

  57. John Lopez says:

    What baffles me is where people find the time to play at such hardcore a level when there are so many games to play. Maybe I’m attention deficit here, but I tend to play a game and be *done* with it, moving on to the next game.

  58. I don’t intentionally go out to ramp up the difficulty on games, but I often do it accidentally simply because I find the “armor of awesome” esthetically unappealing or I really hate using the best weapons because of the way they look/sound/act.

    About the only time I make any effort to limit myself in the game is when I play games like Drakan where you can severely run out of health potions later in the game if you use a lot of them early on–so I always tried to use as few health potions as possible.

  59. Osvaldo Mandias says:

    Why not combine auto-adjustment with difficulty levels?

  60. Annon says:

    John: Most people, like myself, will only do crazy stuff like this for games they really enjoy, in order to eke as much entertainment from them as humanly possible. That’s why you see people doing this a lot with Thief (and I’m sure Shamus did this with System Shock)–it gives that much more bang for your buck with great games.

    I loved Super Metroid, so to keep playing it I went through every square inch of the game until I came up with a perfect, optimized path to beat the game in record tame. Then, after that, I hit it with the Game Genie to get even more playtime.

    I probably extended the entertainment life of the game twenty-fold by the time I was done, and I have only rarely even considered doing it with any title since. Most games are more “play and forget” or “learn the story and forget”. More often than going crazy with self-induced challenges (but still rarely), I will play a game through once, then restart at a higher difficulty and play with a strategy guide because I don’t want to miss anything.

  61. doosteen says:

    This post instantly reminded me of Max Payne. I distinctly remember having a hard time beating a few spots in the game, so I would just reload from an earlier point and play with my eyes closed for a little while. Suddenly the hard spot was a breeze…

  62. krellen says:

    The only way in which I do this is by playing a character. A sniper isn’t going to use an assault rifle, no matter how much more awesome it is, for instance.

    I do tend, if I like a game (or even if I don’t; I like variety and don’t have the budget to constantly buy new games) to replay it several times, ramping up the difficulty each time. This doesn’t always work out for me (or my neighbours.)

  63. Jos says:

    I don’t exactly ‘ramp up the difficulty’ through unconvential means, but I do try to make later playthroughs a little different than usual sometimes.

    For example, when I did my ‘Magic Only’ playthrough of Jade Empire, I did it on the lowest difficult setting. And when I did my ‘Pre-promotes Only’ playthrough of Fire Emblem, I didn’t exactly do it on Hector Hard Mode.

    I guess for me, self-imposed challenges are more about being forced to see the game in a (relatively) new light, rather than making them more difficult.

  64. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Auto adjusting can be done good,but it needs a lot of research and numerous playtesting,which is tedious.

    First of all,difficulty shouldnt be treated like one setting for everything.If you suck at combat,combat needs to be made easier.If you are great at timed runs,these need to have more obstacles.Etc.

    Second,each of these parts needs lots of gradation.5-10 different levels for each would be a nice optimum.

    So,for example,lets take fear:It could scale itself in number of enemies,their behavior,and number of refills for health and armor.If your encounters are short,add more enemies,if they are long,remove them.If you loose much health in each encounter,add more medikits,if you loose few,remove them.If you blast enemies with ease and no use of time stopping,improve their ai(more ambushes,flankings,grenade trowing),if not,make it dumber.

    Of course,the most important thing is the option to turn this thing off.

  65. Rhykker says:

    Regarding the Unreal Tournament skill auto-adjust option, I believe this was the best implementation of skill auto-adjust.

    For one thing, with bots whose skill automatically adjust, you can increase the difficulty beyond Godlike. This helps the people that have en-l337-ened their skills to such a degree that the highest difficulty setting is no longer a challenge.

    Secondly, with the auto-adjust option, you can figure out what is your approximate skill level. How? Set the bots to Novice, then select “Auto-adjust skill.” Play a match. Once the match is over, you will note that when you return to the bot difficulty screen, it will no longer be set to “novice” (unless you’re really, really bad), but to the difficulty the bots were adjusted to when the game ended.

    This way, the next time you play, you can set the difficulty appropriately (either higher, lower, or equal to the revealed bot difficulty), without having to trial-and-error your way through the difficulties to find out which possesses the amount of challenge you were looking for.

  66. elias says:

    We agree, then: difficulty-adjustment systems may not always be bad.

    Left 4 Dead (which I haven’t tried, either) was actually something I was thinking about when I wrote my above comment. I was assuming that in your original post when you said the difficulty adjustment was based on failure rate you didn’t mean only death frequency (current health is a measure of failure rate, too).

  67. captain kail says:

    my zombiefied copy of Oblivion is modded to the point it’s almost unrecognizable. There are parts of the game world I dare not visit early on. Oblivion gates are actually challenging and difficult to survive, unlike the pleasant walks they were before modding. And even as I level up, there are still monsters I run into in the wild that I choose to flee from. And I STILL haven’t fought Umbra, definitely not until level 15.

    And I play Hearts of Iron 2 with a friend of mine. Although we aren’t playing beyond the game’s scope, I doubt the developers actually expected people to try to win as Communist China or Afganistan.

  68. Bryan says:

    Sometimes when I play World of Goo I try to get through all levels with no restarts. When I use the restart button a lot I can usually get over 900 balls. Without restart at all, I’m lucky to get 400.

  69. Paladin says:

    With most Zelda games after I’ve beaten them a few times I try to go through with minimum upgrades. Ocarina of Time was a fun one for this because for awhile the milk (with two uses instead of one but far less health refill than the potion) remained useful, but at the same time later in the game most monsters (especially bosses) could knock out all three hearts in one swing.

  70. David W says:

    There’s a group that calls themselves ‘Realms Beyond’ that’s all about self-imposed challenges. I never had the time to join them, but they write up some pretty awesome stories. Here’s one of their examples:

    If you’re familiar at all with Diablo, you might know that a Sorcerer is fairly easy to play, in fact at high levels he can be grossly easy. Well try playing one who uses no items. That’s a naked mage, and a nice variant. But why stop there?? Go Beyond!!! Wear no magic items EXCEPT cursed items!! See the player killers expression on his face when he sees your elite gear fall to the ground, like that Tin Ring of the Fool! You can’t help but gain in skill as you learn how to master the “Beyond Naked Mage” (BNM).

    They started with Diablo, but have expanded to a wide variety of games. If you’re interested in that style of play, they’re located here.

  71. Nathanael Phillip Cole says:

    I challenge you:

    Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance!
    Advanced mode!
    Get as far in the game as you can whilst naked and using only a rusty dagger!

    I made it to the Beholder. What about you?

  72. Nathanael Phillip Cole says:


    Play Wizardry 8 with just a single Ninja. OH YEAH

  73. Sam says:

    Bioshock. Wrenchrun. (Except where I literally was forced to use something ranged.)

    ‘s was kind of easy really. Though to be fair I think I used plasmids… those lil’ buggers are just to fun not to. Oh, and don’t do the melee tango with a big daddy. It hurts. They step on your toes!

  74. Jay says:

    I enjoyed FFTA a lot, so I took the challenge I found somewhere online of playing through with only one race. I chose human. I missed red mages, but only having a tiny portion of classes to choose from was a challenge. Also, in the beginning you have less than a full crew, till you recruit enough humans. You have to wait until the deadly missions unlock to kill off your one and only moogle, and then its racial purity all the way.


  75. Smileyfax says:

    “Personally, I have an alternative approach which, back in the days when I was still crazy enough to think I could do so, I proposed to use in my own game – rather than constantly attempting to adjust difficulty throughout, there would be a specifically designed “calibration” mission at the start, possibly part of the tutorial, where the game would gauge your performance once and recommend a particular, fixed difficulty level, then allow you to choose that or some other one”

    That is in The Matrix: Path of Neo — you fight security guards, cops, SWAT, Agents, and if you beat Agent Smith you unlock the toughest difficulty (but you can still pick the easiest if you want).

    My self-imposed challenge actually involves hoarding the heck out of everything: ammunition, grenades, elixirs, whatever. I rationalize this as saving it for when I really need it, and then I get to the end boss with an arsenal powerful enough to obliterate God. (Most of the game is still made difficult by my stinginess, though).

  76. Anonymouse says:

    Jeff at post 26:

    “”How can you find a game exciting if you know you're going to win?”

    This question irks me. You ALWAYS know you're going to win. You're not buying software called Slam Head On Brick Wall. If you don't expect to win, you wouldn't get it.

    Most people do expect to win the game. The sentiment I, and I think many people, use when they express ideas like that is “why bother playing if it won’t require any effort?” Many games are simply boring to me if they don’t present a significant challenge. Having played them for so many years, I almost always have to turn first person shooters to the hardest setting, just to have fun. I have to be able to fail. That doesn’t mean I want to be frustrated but I can’t coast through the game on auto-pilot. The possibilty of failing has to be real.

    On the flip side, not every game needs to be extremely challenging for me to enjoy it. I play mostly PC games but I also own a Wii. Not the console of choice for “hardcore” gamers. Sometimes, it’s fun to play sufficiently engaging games that have little or moderate challenge. A PC example is Planescape Torment. The combat is boring. It’s arse. Challenge, not so great. The story, quests, and characters make up for that.

    Oh, people do play games they can’t win… depending on how you define win. For some games, there’s simply no end. It can’t be “beat.” Dwarf Fortress comes to mind. It’s already been mentioned that the motto is “Losing is Fun.” Much of the enjoyment comes from trying to build something up and then watching it go horribly, painfully wrong. You can still accomplish self-set goals. Multiplayer games also don’t end. Even if you are quite good, you can’t win every game.

    Yet, no one would play a game they lost everytime, without hope of getting better. Games and sports as diverse as basketball, shooting competitions, and Team Fortress Classic remain popular because you can accomplish things, “win,” without the game being over, “winning the game,” or being unable to improve yourself.

  77. Felblood says:


    Is the lone ninja that ineffective in W8?

    I remember in 7 my ninja got a disease that caused insanity, which caused him to start attacking his teammates, if a battle lasted too long. Eventually, I found he was deadlier if I left them dead, and he leveled up so fast that nothing could stop him.

    Hide. Kill. Kill again. Kill. Kill. Maim. Hide. Kill.

    Eventually, I cured his madness, and resurrected the party, but keeping them alive became my self imposed challenge.

  78. Roy says:

    ej2 from post 39: I actually tried that, but I thought you can’t beat the 4th dungeon boss (3 headed dragon) without a sword?

    I also tried finishing original Legend of Zelda with only one heart container left (there are ways to lose 2 of the first 3) :p

  79. IncredibleGeek says:

    I played FEAR on expert without using slow-mo. Quite a few times now. I found it made the gun fights a lot more quick-and-dirty, which is how I like it.

  80. Mrs. Peel says:

    I have been playing a challenge game in Eschalon: Book I (btw, Shamus, thanks for the rec on that), in which my character can put skill points only in elemental magic. He’s allowed to use trainers or books to gain one skill level in other skills (I made that concession because you have to take a level in cartography to see the map). It’s not that hard, because elemental magic is pretty powerful, but this is the first Eschalon character I’ve made who hasn’t had Hide In Shadows. Vela took more planning without that skill.

  81. matt says:

    I’m surprised that Dwarf Fortress has’t been mentioned more. For those of you who don’t know, DF is a game where you start off with 7 dwarves, and some supplies. Most people opt to build a fortress up to the 200 dwarves that’re required for immigrants to arrive, but others build elaborate traps, mine everything, make arenas, weave 1,000 *Giant cave spider silk right sock*’s etc. there’s a page on the wiki that is devoted to challenges typically undertaken. for some of the more common types.

  82. Eldiran says:

    I played through Neverwinter Nights as a Bard.

    *ba-dum tsh!*

  83. Zel says:

    To answer the question, no, I never make up additional rules in the games I play. Then again, I rarely find a game so easy that I have to do it to still enjoy it.

    It’s been said before, but auto-adjusting difficulty and difficulty sliders are not incompatible at all. Instead of setting arbitrary difficulty level (easy for player1 can be almost-impossible for player2, see S.T.A.L.K.E.R.), ask the player how much he wants to be challenged, and adjust the failing rate accordingly.

    The good part is, instead of having the player guess how good he is (or will be) before he even started playing the game, and provide too much or too little challenge for his taste, you can give him the assurance that Easy will be a walk in the park, and Nightmare will be hard as hell.

    Of course, a system such as this one must be aware of your skill through other means than simple death counts. Taking only this variable into account is like having game designers adjust difficulty level by only affecting enemies’ health, and leave AI, weapons damage, equipment and everything else unaffected.

    There are a lot of ways to tell how good a player is. Take First Person Shooters, you can use : aiming speed, hit rate, headshot rate, movement pattern, number of times hit, time taken to complete a level, current health, current ammo, health kits in possession, and so on… it’s not like it’s hard to implement, it’s just collecting data ! Even worse, some game already do this, but only to give you statistics at the end … why not use all this data for something actually useful ?

    The hard part is of course to compile all of this into an actual player skill level, and adjust the difficulty variables accordingly. Left4Dead is a step in the right direction but the idea can be pushed so much further, because we have information about why a player is winning or failing, and thus know what could be adjusted to make the experience easier/harder instead of some arbitrary parameters like the usual sliders do :

    A player is a headshot machine and slaughters everything on Hard ? Make your monsters wear combat helmets ! Another one is always moving around and breezing through Impossible ? Have your monsters run faster and surround him ! Yet another is currently low on health and having difficulty on Easy ? Be nice and spawn a medkit in the next room.

  84. Nathan says:

    I really can’t help but disagree with Shamus here, simply because he has such a terribly limited idea of what “auto-adjusting” difficulty can mean. If you loosen up your definition a bit, then there are a lot of systems that can really work.

    My favorite scaling difficulty system is the Battle Mastery system from the Super Robot Wars games. In many ways, it is totally brilliant. In those games, you always start the game on the easiest difficulty setting. In every stage of the game, there is an optional objective called the Battle Mastery condition that is always harder to achieve than the mission objective, and if you fulfill that condition the game increases the game difficulty, slowly decreasing the rewards you get for defeating enemies. If you have a certain significant fraction of these Battle Mastery conditions met, then the game shifts from Easy Difficulty to Normal, or even to Hard, notably increasing the difficulty of the game. If you stop fulfilling the optional conditions, then the difficulty will hold the same or even drop. Amazingly, the games tend to have dedicated hard and easy modes in addition to this sliding scale difficulty, though these need to be unlocked (and the easy mode really is more of a bonus mode in which everything is unlocked and fully upgraded).

    With that system, you can either just play the game straight through to see the story or go for the optional objectives in order to increase the difficulty in a number of ways. The exact implementation is a bit imperfect at times, but the concept works perfectly without falling into any of the problems that Shamus describes. Most brilliantly of all, it works simply by appealing to different game mentalities. People who want the challenge are naturally drawn to the added condition, and people who just want to beat the game will likely ignore the optional condition and stay on Easy mode.

  85. Annon says:


    Talking about unlockable action modes–I decided to run through the numbered silent hills, straight from one to four. I’ve never played them, but I’m out of games at the moment since I still haven’t ponied for a next-gen console.

    Well, I’m in SH3 now, and I just died from an inexplicably deadly door (seriously, this game went WAY overboard with the DIAS…) and I come to find I just unblocked and easier action setting than easy.

    What the hell? If there’s an easier setting, why make it an unlockable?


  86. Maiven7 says:

    Relative difficulty levels are always something of a pain to adjust. It’s a subjective value: What you find difficult, someone else may find depressingly easy.

    Honestly, given a few days? My own perception of difficulty may undergo radical shifts, either as I become able to a solve a dilemma I couldn’t pass before…or as external factors downshift me into a mental state where performing an otherwise routine, simple task becomes an exercise in seething hatred and bafflement at my own sudden ineptitude.

    Auto-adjusting difficulty systems add a new variable to an already fluid equation, and can strip control of the game experience out of the players hands if mishandled. If a new gamer sets the difficulty to easy, but performs well, he is ‘rewarded’ by the game ramping things up until it is satisfied he is being challenged.

    Which is fine if that’s the experience our hypothetical newbie is looking for, but if it’s not, then they need to have some measure of control over the scaler. Preferably the ability to outright shut it off and manually maintain their own difficulty curve if they so choose.

    User control over the flow of the game experience is important to maintaining the perception that the game is fun for that user.

  87. Annon says:

    Inspiration just struck and I think there’s another aspect of auto-leveling we are missing–the interface.

    See, this boils down to a lot of what Shamus was getting at in his Reset Button series–simplicity. We sit and we talk about all the different ways of adjusting difficulty–increasing AI response effectiveness, making the computer have better aim, giving enemies more health, adjusting damage, adjusting the number of supplies on the map, adjusting the number of waypoints, giving more or less hints for puzzles…

    The list goes on and on and on. The gamer, the consumer, and the programmers all want to make this available as some adjustable feature, but if all these options were offered it would completely overwhelm a newcomer. How is someone just starting out supposed to know what healthpack density they want, or what damage multiplier they can tolerate? You’re handing the player a menu more complicated than the graphics options and expecting them to deal with it? While you’re at it, here’s a dual-shock controller–go play counterstrike online until you’ve mastered it.

    For user selected difficulty, you need a simple Easy/Normal/Hard selector, or maybe a simple difficulty slider. Auto-leveling is different, however. Auto-leveling puts the feature controls in the hands of the programmer–who should have a decent grasp of their workings, I would hope–instead of the user. Now all of these variables can ideally be streamlined to fit the user needs, but this is extremely, extremely hard to do right. It depends heavily on the context, and takes a ton of playtesting and research to make sure it fits well, and even then, there is no OSFA for the “right” amount of difficulty any individual player will tolerate, so it still needs a plethora of player input.

    Um…not really going anywhere with this. Just random thoughts…

  88. Chumpy says:

    The game God Hand on PS2 took an interesting approach to this.

    It implemented auto-adjusting difficulty, but also included Easy and Hard modes. On Easy mode, the difficulty could never go above level 2, and on Hard mode the difficulty could never go below level Die.

  89. MrValdez says:

    >Fighting games usually work this way.

    Fighting games are primarily designed for human-to-human gameplay. It’s unfair to include fighting games to a discussion about single players similar to how unfair it is to include RTS games in this discussion.

    Think of single player fighting games like fighting a cheating AI in an RTS. The AI will cheat and knows what you are planning to do. There are only a few Fighting and RTS games where the AI doesn’t cheat. But if they don’t cheat, you wouldn’t notice it unless you’re playing too much. ;)

  90. Alan De Smet says:

    By coincidence I’m replaying the original Max Payne right now. I remembered when I got it hearing about the auto-adjusting game-play. And how is it?

    Freaking brutal.

    I’m bouncing on quicksave/quickload every minute or so. Even with that, I’m dying many, many times per level. I like to think that I’m a pretty skilled shooter player. I play most shooters on medium and find that to be a reasonable balance. But Max Payne is kill brutal.

    On the other hand, I recently played the original Brothers in Arms. A fun, if flawed game. But one of the highlights is that if you die more than a few times, before popping you back to the last checkpoint is says something to the extent, “War isn’t fun, but games should be. Do you want to have your entire squad healed before retrying?” I normally hate games that only let me checkpoint, no real saves, but that little feature drained most of the annoyance out. A sort of auto-adjusting, but it’s optional, it only kicks in when it’s clear things are going very badly, and it only impacts one level of the gameplay (since you get a full reset every level anyway).

  91. brashieel says:

    I’ve always hated auto adjusting difficulty. My lack of skill in one area of the game (usually timed jumps) suddenly means that the fights get nerfed, and I can sleepwalk through combat.

    Or, failing that, I can really get on a roll and play incredibly… and get almost no benefit, because the game just bumped the difficulty modifier up two notches.

    I’ve had a few games where I impose addition difficulty on myself. In a number of the Ace Combat games I avoided using the special missiles/bombs, and I strategy games I’ll start skipping “cheap” strategies if I’m looking to increase the challenge. Or possibly add random “roleplaying” objectives, based on how I’ve defined what my side believes in.

  92. edcalaban says:

    Space Rangers two – I never save unless I’m getting off. Ever. Autosaves are IT. Make a mistake in docking somewhere? Deal with it. I’ve been arrested in game a few times, but it was worth it.

  93. Meatloaf says:

    I suppose this is as good a time as any to put my theories out there.

    However, it’s a bit too long to be plastering all over Mr. Young’s poor servers, so here’s a Google doc.

  94. Sydney says:

    Iji! Iji Iji Iji.

    It’s a 2D platformer/shooter…thing. You can shoot enemies with your weapons, kick them to death, or try to sneak up on them and Crack them, disabling them. Or, you can try to bypass them entirely. There’s a skill-growth, experience-collection dimension as well, which makes for great self-imposed challenges. Try beating the game without leveling up your Attack, for instance. Or your Health.

    But the real reason I mention Iji is that in the manual that comes with the game, it tells you, quite explicitly, what each difficulty level does. Everything that changes is stated baldly. It’s great.

  95. I do this a lot. Especially with Deus Ex, which I played pacifist (no kills whatsoever), murderer (killing everybody in the game), heavy weapons only, and artifact weapons only (the shifter mod adds a few unique weapons, which I called “artifact weapons” because deus ex reminds me so much of nethack).
    I tried to do a completely inventory-less run, but got tired of dragging explosive crates around at around Hell’s Kitchen. Apparently it’s been done though.

    But I even do this in multiplayer games. Often if I’m playing against a beginner in Urban Terror I will go pistols only, for example.

  96. Decius says:

    >It's unfair to include fighting games to a discussion about single players similar to how unfair it is to include RTS games in this discussion.

    There is no good reason that an AI player should cheat on a strategy game. They don’t need unlimited resources, free units, free scouting, stronger units, or anything of the sort. They need good AI.

    Computer opponents in a fighting game? Provided that they start with the same health, do the same damage, do not have access to moves that player characters do not, and do not react to moves that haven’t been input yet (how?), they can’t cheat. The first two criteria can be obviated by a ‘handicap’ slider, similar to one might offer to human players. It could even include a ‘auto-handicap’ feature for both single and multiplayer use.

    Come to think of it, even RTS AI players might be permitted a handicap feature. In addition to, and controlled separately from, their intelligence level.

    But for most games, I don’t expect the computer ‘player’ to be able to cheat. They follow different _types_ of rules, right? Make things harder by changing the rules, but make it clear which rules you are changing.

    That said, I think a difficulty menu can learn a lot from a video options menu.

    Starting level:
    Auto Adjust:

    Health pack frequency: 0-65535
    Health pack value: 1-255
    Reticule drift: 0-31
    Enemy numbers: 0-255
    Enemy accuracy: 0-255
    Enemy perception: 0-255
    Enemy weapons: |Light only|Heavy only|Combined|

    As to the OP: I played Half-Life 2, on the ‘hard’ setting, using no held firearms or grenades. Only the crowbar, gravity gun, spore pod, and rocket launcher (required) were allowed out of inventory. The vehicle-mounted weapons were allowed.

    I also did Thief and Thief 2 as the prankster; Leave everyone unconscious, in a pile, outside the locked front door. Break/destroy/eat/deface/steal everything possible. Don’t be seen by anybody, nor allow anyone to be discovered knocked out. I tried the “Kill everyone” route, but it just didn’t feel as fun. And going for “No trace”, I made it all the way into Cragscleft prison, and even managed to open the cells, before giving up; I basically had to bind quicksave and quickload to mouse buttons, and deal with every room as a new challenge every time I entered it.

  97. Zaxares says:

    I often try to play the Hitman games in my “Angel of Vengeance” mode, in which I try to kill my targets and every single enemy on a level (represented on the game map as yellow circles), while sparing any civilians (green circles) and ordinary law enforcement just trying to do their job (blue circles). It’s quite a challenge, especially if you’re still trying to go for a high-stealth approach.

  98. freykin says:

    I’ve done this in a few different games.

    In Half-life, I’d force myself to only use the crowbar every now and then multiplayer, just to see what I could do with it.

    In Super Mario Bros (NES), me and my friends would sometimes play where we weren’t allowed to ever stop moving forward.

    In DotA, which is a custom Warcraft 3 map, I’ll purposely decide to get a Dagon and upgrade it all the way, which is usually a terrible idea for most of the heroes available, just to see how well I can do with it.

    In Diablo II, I’ve participated in tournaments where you have a restricted ruleset to play by, such as earning score for not spending skill/stat points, or only being allowed to use crafted gear. The most restrictive one I played was for the mod Eastern Sun, where in the tournament you only earned points for unspent stat/skill points. I played a Sorceress and made it all the way to Diablo in Act IV Normal without spending a single one, only using skills gotten through equipment. I died due to a stupid mistake, but making it that far felt great.

    Probably the hardest one I’ve done is playing DoomRL with being only able to use melee attacks. I rarely make it past level 3, but if I manage to find a chainsaw in that time, it’s so satisfying to pop a berserk pack and go to town with it.

  99. mephane says:

    Left4Dead is actually a good example of how it can be done right. It is not adjusting difficulty, but tension. It has a limited tolerance for dying (you can be “resurrected” twice until it’s game over for you), but very often everyone makes it to the rescue in the end, if someone finally dies it’s usually in the final fight when they get overrun in a bad place or the tank decides to beat down the same person twice.

    More importantly, through the achievement system, it even encourages these self-imposed limits. There’s an achievement for playing a full campaign with nothing but pistols (which you can dualwield), not even grenades and molotovs, there’s an achievement for playing through a campaign without ever being healed and for those that seek real uber challenge: Finish a campaign without anyone receiving any damage at all!

    Shamus, I strongly propose you try it out. It’s one of those games where you can feel that the developers really care about what they are doing. :)

  100. Daimbert says:

    The last two Persona games on the PS2 did it well:

    On Easy, the difficulty is lowered a bit and the AIs (from what I’ve heard; I’ve never played above that) don’t exploit weaknesses as much. But they still do, so you need to know how to create your Personas and use them to ensure that you don’t die. However, you also get 10 continues on Easy where, if you die, it restores you and your entire party to full HP and SP to carry on. Just recently, I died in the middle of a fight with a boss, but with the HP/SP recharge I was able to finish it off without dying.

    (I always play on the lowest difficulty allowed in RPGs; I usually care more about enjoying the story than about challenging combats, and don’t want to get frustrated by a fight that stops me from moving on).

  101. MattF says:

    I’m in the middle of replaying American McGee’s Alice using no weapon but the vorpal blade and no power-ups. Yeah, sure, you can restart the level whenever you die, but it’s still kind of challenging. Just last night I must have tried to defeat the Centipede a dozen times (but then, I’m also old and slow).

  102. Anaphyis says:


    Fighting games are primarily designed for human-to-human gameplay. It's unfair to include fighting games to a discussion about single players similar to how unfair it is to include RTS games in this discussion.

    Eh, what? If a game is mainly developed for multiplayer and it’s single player mode sucks (and this is what the topic boils down to) then it still sucks. It isn’t unfair to say so and the multiplayer doesn’t excuse it, because we are essentially talking about completely different games. And while you have a point with fighting games – well, sort off, because their single player always were an pathetic excuse for a tutorial and little more – why are RTS games inherently multiplayer? I love strategy and don’t give a rats ass about multiplayer and neither do a lot of people.

    As for cheating AI’s in strategy games: That goes with the territory. If your game is not decided within the first few moves (i.e. Chess) and the complexity increases as time passes, this becomes a mathematical problem. That is why there are no Go AI’s which can handle increasing board sizes. So cheating is often the only answer or at least the cheapest and it isn’t that bad, as long the cheating is consistent. If you are however smacked head first into a brick wall because the computer suddenly cheats more after you effortlessly smacked his first base up, that’s where frustration starts.

  103. Usually Insane says:

    I once played Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive as a pacifist. Killing no one just like you have to do in one of the first missions, which was dead hard…
    Eventually had I to give up in the Cavalry/Bandits mission right after you get the litle girl into your party :(

  104. Yar Kramer says:

    Nope, I never do “self-imposed challenges.” I always shamelessly play on easy. When a game (such as the Touhou Project series) “penalizes” you for playing on Easy, I play on Normal and cheat. I go out of my way to make things easier. In fact, the only game where I’ve ever gone out of my way to go from Easy to Normal to Hard was Enter the Matrix; I made a start of doing that in Devil May Cry 3, but in general, I do my damnedest to play easy. I’m in it for the story, and my own interesting idiosyncratic fun.

    Doom 3, apart from having a villain who completely ruins the “scary” mood by being Evil Generic Mad Scientist Who Made Deal With Devil #63, deserves special mention. I installed and slowly added onto a mod which progressively made the game easier and easier. I don’t need to reload weapons (unless I completely deplete the automatic guns’ clips), the chaingun has no spin up/down time, every weapon has a flashlight except the chainsaw and the soul cube (which instead have a red glow) and the fists, and the flashlight now casts a light which is over-bright to the point of comedy. I also adjusted the BFG’s ammo-capacity and made it faster, and raised a couple of other ammo-limits as well. With Resurrection of Evil I also tried to lower the Gravity Gun Grabber’s recharge-time, but it didn’t work. In any event, Now it’s just about comfortable for me. Oh, at one point I also made the Cyberdemon vulnerable to weapons besides the Soul Cube, but I found that this made it too easy when I could just BFG him to bits, so I turned that off.

    My ultimate opinion is that difficulty belongs on the options menu, and that “Easy” really should be easy, not just “easy for the Hardcore Crowd.” I think that the game which does this worst is the Devil May Cry series, which does: only one difficulty is unlocked to begin with. To unlock Easy, you must die a few times. You get no reward for beating Easy. Your reward for beating Normal is to unlock Hard Mode. Your reward for beating Hard Mode is Whatever The “Very Hard” Is In That Particular game, and so on, until you beat The Really Definitely Hardest Difficulty. Your reward forbeating The Really Definitely Hardest Difficulty is … an item which makes the game a lot easier at any difficulty. Excuse me? If I could beat The Really Definitely Hardest Difficulty, I wouldn’t need that item, thanks. This system more or less screws over everyone. I’m glad Viewtiful Joe and Devil May Cry 3 have a “code” you can use to Unlock Everything …

    Almost as bad is only having one difficulty, with no means of adjusting — not even any kind of levelling up. I’m looking at you, Aquaria (which also does the “save points five minutes away from a tough boss, with an item you need to get along the way that’s somewhat easy to miss, and from which you can’t backtrack to the save point” thing).

  105. Decius says:

    As for cheating AI's in strategy games: That goes with the territory. If your game is not decided within the first few moves (i.e. Chess) and the complexity increases as time passes, this becomes a mathematical problem. That is why there are no Go AI's which can handle increasing board sizes.

    Go is difficult because it is hard to decide if one position is better than another, similar position. Human players intuit, and computers have a difficult time with that. Now suppose that to ‘even things up’, a computer Go player was allowed to place two pieces, and/or his pieces could not be captured. IMO, that ruins the game, even more than having a stupid opponent. That said, I’ve been beaten at full-size Go by a computer, regularly. It didn’t need to cheat. I also regularly get beat at chess by my own computer, so YMMV. However, after tearing apart the campaigns in the Starcraft Map Editior, and discovering the triggers:
    When Minerals less than 1000
    Give 1000 Minerals

    When Gas less than 1000
    Give 1000 Gas

    Applied to the computer players (giving them infinite resources for all intents and purposes), I stopped playing SP. The only way I could conceivably compete would be asymmetrical, in that I had radically different rules than my oppponent.

  106. Justin says:

    I’ve challenged myself on Zelda: OOT by purposefully getting my shield eaten by a Like-Like. It’s pretty fun to go through the game using the Biggoron Sword and relying on dodging. The one flaw is that eventually you have to pick up the Mirror Shield.

    I’ve also played through Deadspace using only the Plasma Cutter (the starting weapon) but there is an achievement for doing it. I find that some of the better thought out achievements are difficult to earn but encourage one to play the game the way the creators imagined it. At the very least, I find myself honing skills I might have gotten by without having.

  107. B.J. says:

    The worst auto-adjusting difficulty game I’ve ever played was Homeworld. It was an RTS where all your units carried over in between missions, so you were encouraged to harvest every resource and keep as many ships alive as possible. Your reward for brilliant tactics and expert logistics? The next level would have double the enemies to take on your expanded fleet. I guess they thought it would be better than letting you steamroll through the later levels with a huge armada, but it’s dumb when having fewer ships actually makes the next level easier.

  108. Anaphyis says:

    That said, I've been beaten at full-size Go by a computer, regularly. It didn't need to cheat. I also regularly get beat at chess by my own computer, so YMMV.

    It’s some time since I played computer Go and it seems like they found some nice new algorithms to counter the branching problem of large boards. Actually, those two are very interesting reads, if you are more on the nerdy side.

    As for cheating AI’s, as I said, as long as there is consistency within the cheating itself and it’s anti-proportional to the skill of the AI, I’m actually fine with that as I can adjust to this handicap with enough time. But YMMV, especially since some games go out of their way to hide their cheating: The Civ IV (or 3, not sure) AI creates advanced units, bypassing their special resource restriction. However, these units actually get downgraded to hide this behavior if you can call the computer on its cheating by lifting the FOW around the cities, thus proving he doesn’t have access to the necessary materials. Pretty sneaky.

    The really bad thing of this is however game designers thinking they can get away with less tactics and more cheating, leading to the typical AI rushes (build up forces, send them to the player camp in a straight line, then build more and repeat) – so even if you beat the computer fairly regulary on the highest difficulty, chances are high other players will mop the floor with you in multiplayer because you only learned to counter one more or less well executed tactic.

  109. Jonathan says:

    Yes, I’ve upped the difficulty level for myself.

    I’ve finished Baldur’s Gate II (not TOB) as a single character (no party) with every character class (not all kits, but all classes), and Fallout 2 with every major concept (including bare-hand grenade-throwing doctor).


  110. Dave says:

    The bit about how Civ 3 will fix its own cheating if caught reminds me of a trick a friend’s dad showed me on the original Warcraft. If you used a cheat to remove the entire fog of war from a map and clicked on the opponent’s goldmine, you would see that with each of their peasants the amount of gold in the mine decreased by 100. If you then removed the cheat without clicking off the goldmine, the gold in the mine would start going down in increments of 10 instead.

  111. Ian Price says:

    When my brother and I play Halo games together co-op (the original is still our favorite), we sometimes are so in the groove that we do need to limit ourselves to make it fun, even on Legendary.

    Like that time we played the whole game using nothing but pistols. For hitting things with the melee attack, although shooting Flood was allowed. Even on the last level, we didn’t use rockets; we had to do it with grenades.

    That was a lot of fun.

  112. MrValdez says:


    Computer opponents in a fighting game? Provided that they start with the same health, do the same damage, do not have access to moves that player characters do not, and do not react to moves that haven't been input yet (how?), they can't cheat.

    For simplicity, let’s turn the classic game Rock/Paper/Scissors moves into a fighting game mechanic. As soon as you push the button for Rock, the AI opponent would then use the move for Paper. This is possible because fighting games engines are frame-based.

    The game runs at a steady 60 frames per second. The game perform all game-realted tasks in a single frame. It’s possible for the game to read your input and then afterward, have the AI think on what it should do and then show you the result.

    In short, there’s no way for you to win if the game is cheating.


    why are RTS games inherently multiplayer?

    Good point. I was looking at it on a point of view of as competitor. I forgot that RTS can also be played as a single player.

  113. Azunai says:

    I started turning off the crosshairs in first-person, including Games like Oblivion and Fallout 3.

    EDIT: Thinking about it, it isn’t limited to first-person anymore. I turn off Crosshairs wherever i can.

  114. NBSRDan says:

    Auto-adjusting difficulty could actually be a great idea, just as long as it is implemented on top of the normal system of player selection. If every player got to choose the target average failures-per-level of an auto-adjuster, then both issues of discrepancy in skill and frustration tolerance would be solved.

  115. CurtisJ says: Beat the game on normal with turrets, specials and one super soldier. One. No other units.

  116. Thelas says:

    I haven’t done this challenge, but have you ever heard of the OoT Uber Challenge? It’s on gamefaqs.
    Here’s the restriction list:
    -3 hearts, no Heart Pieces whatsoever
    -Buy Giant’s Knife and break it ASAP, and use that at all times (except in the
    Graveyard and while fighting Ganon)
    -All Medallions
    -1 Bottle
    -No deaths (death counter at file select must say 000)
    -No Iron Boots
    -No capacity upgrades
    -No Great Fairy gifts except Magic Meter and Din’s Fire
    -No Gold Skulltula family gifts from 20 or more Gold Skulltulas
    -No Goron Bracelet
    -No Fire Arrows
    -No Lens of Truth
    -No Longshot
    -No Silver Scale
    -No Zora Tunic
    -No Gerudo’s Card
    -No Maps or Compasses
    -No Biggoron’s Sword
    -Cannot use Action Replay, Gameshark, etc.
    -Cannot use Crooked Cartridge (touching your game cartridge while playing)
    -Cannot use Din’s Fire outside the central room of the Water Temple
    -Cannot use Megaton Hammer to attack enemies (exception of stunning Volvagia)
    -Cannot use Megaton Hammer outside the Fire Temple
    -Cannot use Deku Sticks to attack enemies
    -Cannot use power crouch stab
    -Cannot use bottle except to show Ruto’s Letter to King Zora
    -Cannot learn any songs except Song of Time, Zelda’s Lullaby, and Minuet of
    -Must have Shadow Medallion before entering Forest Temple
    -Must fight Dark Link
    -Use shield as little as possible, destroy it asap.
    (A power crouch stab is a glitch that lets you make a second attack do the same damage as the first one EVEN if the first one used a consumable and a longer attack time than the second one. No deaths really means no continues: you’re allowed to reset and restore your save if you die.)
    That’s just insane, but it shows the kind of Self-Imposed Challenges games with no difficulty select create. (Not saying OoT sucks, I really like it).

  117. Dave says:

    Gradius has a simple, but good, auto-adjusting dificulty system.

    The more firepower you have, the more the enemies will fire.

    This works beautifully. The game becomes more challenging if you get good with many weapons, yet avoids the frustration of not being able to pass through some level because you lost all your firepower.

  118. Jamie Thomas Durbin says:

    Actually, the “auto adjust” feature of the UT series just wasn’t that challenging. It didn’t appear to drastically change the AI or its reaction times, I found. The changes I found were as follows:

    Easy: They run around, head straight for pickups, they shoot at you if they see you, and sometimes run away.

    Medium: They sometimes camp, run around a bit more randomly, and can sometimes predict you.

    Godlike: They bunny hop a lot, and actually *use* their translocators. Their aim is good. End of story.

    None of which was amazingly challenging.

  119. TMTVL says:

    This is an old topic, but as Shamus loves System Shock, and it hasn’t been mentioned yet…

    System Shock 2, Impossible difficulty using only the wrench.

    I’ve also played some of the Touhou games (which are quite challenging even without self-imposed challenges) using no bombs.

    In response to some of the comments about cheat codes, in Oni I loved using them to mess about. That’s pretty much the only reason I use cheats at all.

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