Editorial: The Difficulty with Difficulty

Greetings, fellow Lusi-bots! This week, I would like to discuss difficulty in gaming, specifically as it pertains to two areas: older and newer game design. One thing many gamers have noticed is that, by and large, modern games are easier than older games. This, I feel, is due to a few reasons. The first of these is the fact that older, NES-era games had to cram a full gaming experience into a small amount of storage and memory space. The primary way to accomplish this goal was through difficulty. After all, a game that is harder will take longer for gamers to finish. The relatively high difficulty of most older games also created a sense of reward; finally taking down the final boss felt rewarding because the player had to struggle every step of the way before eventually emerging triumphant. There are, of course, negative sides to high difficulty; a game that is too difficult can prove frustrating and annoying to the point where players are no longer interested in seeing the end. The trick, then, seems to be a balanced difficulty, one that keeps players feeling rewarded without proving too difficult. And while, to many, older games may have erred on the side of too difficult, one could very easily argue that, with some exceptions, modern games are instead far too easy.

I do know that Battletoads has great music.
Battletoads is a game remembered for its difficulty above all else. I personally have never played it.

As gaming became a mainstream hobby, the average game’s difficulty lowered in order to appeal to the masses. Additionally, the increasing complexity of games would mean that video games needed to teach players more about their mechanics. While one could easily figure out how Super Mario Bros. is played, something complex like Final Fantasy X would prove more difficult to simply learn on one’s own. The end result is games that are more complex but not nearly as hard; with gaming trying to appeal to a mainstream audience, difficulties had to be toned down in favor of mass appeal. With video games now capable of using much larger media, more memory, and better graphics and sound, game developers also now are capable of making a game much longer and bigger than before, removing the need for difficulty as a game elongator. And while this all means that gaming has broader appeal than before, some aspects have been lost in this transition to an easier medium. The primary one among these is the sense of reward; it is difficult to feel triumphant about accomplishing something difficult. Defeating a boss in the original Castlevania was extremely rewarding to one’s sense of accomplishment, since the bosses took quite a bit of skill to defeat. Contrast this with Symphony of the Night, where combat simply feels tedious due to the lack of any major threat from any of the game’s foes. Of course, not every modern game is easy; games like Dark Souls or the frustrating and poorly programmed I Wanna Be the Guy are still around to remind games of the simpler yet much harder times.

FFVIII, like FF Tactics, has a lot of ways to become crazily overpowered.
Final Fantasy VIII’s game over screen is not something most gamers are likely to see.

What, then, is the solution to this issue? Balancing a game’s difficulty is not an easy task, after all. Too difficult and the game becomes frustrating and loses mainstream appeal; too easy and a game becomes boring and uninteresting. For action-driven games, the solution seems to be well-designed difficulty levels. God of War, for example, ranges from not-at-all challenging on its lowest difficulty to extremely tough on its highest difficulty. For RPGs, however, it seems there is no real solution to balancing difficulty. Final Fantasy XIII made a valiant attempt, but in the process railroaded players and lost a great deal of gamer interest. I am afraid I have no good solution to the issue of balancing difficulty as it pertains to RPGs; unfortunately most RPGs I can think of are either very difficult or quite easy. After all, the nature of the genre is such that most tricky sections can be overcome by level grinding or better equipment. What do you have to say on this matter, Lusi-fans? Am I perhaps too cynical, and the dumbing-down of modern games is actually a good thing? Were games better when they were harder, or are difficult games simply frustrating without being fun? And what are your thoughts on games like Super Meat Boy and Demon’s Souls? And is there really a solution to the challenge of balancing difficulty? Comment and let me know readers, and maybe we can come up with ideas.


  1. Difficulty is a very interesting subject right now, and has been for a while. I think one of the major factors weighing on devs when it comes to considering the difficulty is, frankly, DLC. Most DLC is purchased for a game only relatively soon after launch, compared to DLC that gets released much later on after the game has already left the majority of people’s disc trays (or got traded in/uninstalled). This would also explain all the day one DLC, but I’m sure it factors into the difficulty of a game. Make it too hard and people won’t want to continue and likely won’t buy your DLC. Whereas too easy usually isn’t an issue. If they’re done quickly with the game, they’ll be looking for more and that’s when early DLC stands to rake in the most GALD (lol).

    Now, as was mentioned in the article, games like Demon/Dark Souls are getting acclaim for being the exact opposite, which tells me people are starved for a fair yet challenging adventure and not an interactive movie that requires little beyond a pulse to see the ending.

    How one makes a game more difficult, though, is equally important. Some ways only make a game feel cheap, while others give you that feeling of nearly succeeding in the face of a tough obstacle. Getting it right takes a lot of talent, I feel, and it’s not beneath even a high profile developer to mess it up.

  2. Sometimes, in modern game design, what lacks for difficulty makes up with ingenuity. Look at the original Super Mario Bros. versus Super Mario Galaxy for an example, or an original FPS like Doom versus Portal 2. You don’t have to think really hard to get through Doom, though you may die a lot, but you can’t get through Portal 2 without using your brain.

    I think that much of the difficulty in old-school video games is solved less through skill than through intense practice; that is knowing exactly what to do when (as in rote memorization), rather than having to figure creative solutions for novel situations. However, I do believe that the brain is served by both of those design styles: maybe give the rote-difficulty games to kids, and the creative-difficulty games to adults, so at least there’s a mental evolution going on.

  3. “I think that much of the difficulty in old-school video games is solved less through skill than through intense practice; that is knowing exactly what to do when (as in rote memorization), rather than having to figure creative solutions for novel situations.”

    This is generally true, and is a limitation of old software/hardware, in addition to it being fairly early days in terms of the philosophy of game design. Most old games were made in a time when either the software could not allow the sophisticated and complex AI needed for thoughtful and inventive battles (and we got Deadly Towers when they tried), or there was simply an expectation from gamers to continue to produce what was the norm: battles where the patterns were learned with victory as the result: consider all of the old-school platformers, the Mega Man and Sonic games, for example: they were very successful with this principle.

  4. “I think that much of the difficulty in XXXXXXXX is solved less through skill than through intense practice; that is knowing exactly what to do when (as in rote memorization), rather than having to figure creative solutions for novel situations.”

    That’s what the teachers said right before they took education and threw it into the sea. ;)

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