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The Student Media Site of William Clarke College

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The Student Media Site of William Clarke College

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How Difficulty in Gaming has Evolved

Susannah E (Year 11)

Back when computer games were first popularised by arcade machines, developers were incentivised to make their games as hard as possible to keep people from spending too much time on a game without having to pay for another go.  However, in the modern-day the balance of difficulty in gaming has become a lot more complex, if you make a game too easy then people won’t get that sense of accomplishment that releases that dopamine that people look for when playing games. However, if you make a game too hard, then people will become frustrated, and their hobby that is meant to be relaxing will turn into a stressful chore that no one will want to play,


However, this way of thinking is completely thrown out the window by games like Dark Souls, Elden Ring, Super Meat Boy, Cuphead and Getting Over It with Bennet Foddy, all games that purposely implement extreme difficulty as a part of their core gameplay elements and yet gain massive audiences dedicated to their franchises.


The thing is though, all of these games are designed in a specific way with two key characteristics that allow them to break this core difficulty balancing ideology, those being

  1. Being designed around difficulty rather than the difficulty being designed around the game

In the modern-day gaming industry, most companies want to make games that appeal to the broadest audience possible, as that of course brings in the most potential revenue. However, the problem with this is that it means that most games are designed to purposely be relatively easy so that no one feels as if it’s inaccessible to them, this leads to game developers making games that anyone can play and then typically adding in difficulty options that artificially make the game harder, however the problem with this system is that not does it allow players to trivialise the accomplishments you make in the game even on a harder difficulty, it also leads to a less balanced and enjoyable gameplay loop. By allowing the players to artificially change the difficulty, whenever a player encounters something challenging they can just put the difficulty lower and pass it easily without even trying, and even if they do not do that they know the entire time that they are playing that there is someone who is playing the game on a way easier level than them that is getting the same achievements as they are, diminishing the value of any accomplishments they make along the way. Games like Dark Souls, Cuphead and Elden Ring on the other hand are specifically designed with one difficulty level in mind; hard. This allows games like these to embrace their difficulty and force the player to embrace it as well. They won’t give you the option to change the game to make it easier, only giving you the option to get better, what this does for these games is it makes your accomplishments feel real; in a sense, you feel that you had to have gotten better or done well to achieve them. This leads to greater dopamine releases when you achieve something in difficult games like these as your brain is forced to overcome the difficulty to reach your goal rather than just allowing it to shy away from the challenge.

  1. Fairness even in difficulty

As I said in my previous point games in the modern day are often designed with artificial difficulty changes that give enemies a flat X damage increase or Y health increase. The problem with designing games like this is that it leads to unfair interactions. Unfair interactions occur when players don’t really learn anything from their interactions, poor technical aspects of games make it difficult, information is not available to the player on how to face a situation or when the outcome is not determined by the players themselves. Games like Dark Souls, Elden Ring and Cuphead however avoid unfair interactions by never setting low expectations and never giving you a situation out of your control. For example, in Elden Ring, there are multiple difficult bosses, and while it may be irritating to die in the game, people are often able to overcome frustration as they understand that going into the boss level, that it was going to be a challenge and they can see how they could have done something differently to change the outcome in the next attempt. By allowing the player to understand the difficult nature of the game and find ways to work around it difficult games create far less frustration in their difficulty than regular games, as it leaves the player feeling more in control and accepting of their outcomes.


Effectively, by designing games with difficulty in mind developers can provide players with an experience that makes their accomplishments feel more deserved and their shortcomings less embarrassing, leading to higher dopamine releases in players and the ability to break the core difficulty balance successfully.

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Susannah E (Year 11), Chief Designer

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