Difficulty is Hard – Part Two

SELECT-DIFFICULTY2In Part-One, I discussed the three types of difficulty found in games. This post picks up where we left off and dives deeper into artificial difficulty.

One common element in the preceding three types of difficulty is the concept of player agency. In every single one, the player is free to “choose” the path they want to take (ok, the execution is a bit different, but it is still up to the player to win).

Whenever the game takes away this ability to win, it approaches artificial difficulty.

The two main hallmarks of an artificially difficult game are:

  • Grinding, and
  • Luck


Grinding, as I define it, is “The repetitive completion of a relatively simple task that increases one or more arbitrary values that the player’s power is derived from”.

This one is a bit contentious, as many people will explain that it is actually not a form of difficulty, but a form of rewarding a player for their hard work. I contend that is actually not the case, and is in fact one of the most infectious forms of artificial difficulty created.

Take this example, you are playing a Final Fantasy game, and you are up against the final boss. You try to kill him, and you die, because your party is not at a high enough level. So, you need to grind your levels and increase your power enough to almost kill the final boss. You grind for an incredibly long amount of time, raising your level up to the cap, an insane feat by itself. You stomp all over the final boss extremely easily.

What was the difference between your two attempts at the boss? Your level, and your level alone. You did not get better at the game by defeating slimes. Your sword hit harder, but not through any part in you. The best player in the world would have no chance to even damage the boss if their level wasn’t high enough.

This is a problem for any game that sports “RPG mechanics,” especially RPGs themselves.

How exactly do you make a simple RPG like the first Final Fantasies hard without raising the level of the monsters? Even so-called modern games, like the famously “hard” Pokemon BlazeBlack and VoltWhite romhacks, are just a grinding fest. Sometimes it’s not even just levels, but buying enough healing potions to drown a fish can make a game incredibly easy.

Again, this can be both encouraged and unintentional based on game design. Games like Final Fantasy are obviously intending the player to grind. But, games like Pokemon often TRY to be difficult, but the battle system renders it almost useless. If I have enough Max Revives, you literally cannot do anything to make the game difficult. Even if I had just a pair of level 1’s, with enough max revives, I could beat literally any trainer ever made.

Some games will pair grinding with payment mechanics, especially <insert any random free-to-play game ever made>, and doubly especially if they feature any sort of multi-player aspect. If your opponent has +50% damage dealt and -50% damage received, how can you win without similar bonuses?

Implementing grinding is just a cheap trick to get people to play more. It is nigh impossible to actually make a game where grinding improved the game or was made a main game mechanic. The only example I can find is Half-Minute Hero, a game about using playing a standard JRPG in 30 seconds.


Before we begin, please roll a die.

  • If you rolled an even number, restart you computer immediately
  • If you rolled 3, close all your programs
  • Only proceed if you rolled a 1 or a 5

This makes the article more interesting to read, right? It throws some unexpected challenges your way as you try to read. That must mean my writing is incredibly difficult and should be regarded as such.

Also, roll a die, if you get 1, you miss the sarcasm.

Luck is a very tricky mechanic, less so in single player games, but still up there.

Without any luck, many games can be completed by writing a string of commands for a computer to perform. With too much luck, the game becomes a glorified game of craps. Personally, I detest most kinds of randomization/luck, but I want to talk about two major ones:

  1. Set-up Luck and
  2. Execution Luck

Set-up Luck

This refers to the predetermined order and placement of things.

You never know what the board/deck/whatever is going to be until you actually start playing the game.

This is somewhat ok, as it can make for a dynamic and interesting game for multiple playthroughs, and it always keeps you on your toes.

But, it can dramatically alter the game’s difficulty, as evidenced in games like Nethack. Yes, in Nethack you are supposed to be paranoid, but no one is having fun when  you get zapped y a want of death in the first floor. Nor is anyone cheering their skill if they find a random wand of wishing.

Execution Luck

This refers to the randomization of things to come, usually moves or attacks you perform.

This is common in a lot of older Magic the Gathering cards and most of all Pokemon TCG cards.

For example, flip a coin: if heads do a thing you want, if tails do a thing you don’t want. There’s no skill in getting heads or tails, it’s just luck. Just the same as critical hits and missing in RPGs. Just because you crit each of your attacks and your opponent missed every one of his does not make you a great player. It makes you lucky.

There is one more thing I want to touch on quickly, and it mainly deals with the player’s perception of the game itself: traps.

Traps are wonderful things. They force the player to be cautious, provide easy high moments, and can be a fun mechanic to abuse if you are skilled enough.



But, some traps, especially of the Kaizo variety can aggravate many players and drive them from the game. However, that is more to do with the player themselves than the game.

There is a large subset of players that find great joy when discovering and subverting many Kaizo traps. No matter the “cheapness” of the trick you use to kill the player, as long as it is possible, it is fair.

Many games try to do this, especially flash games that kill the player as soon as they spawn, but those are by definition impossible to win. Even if you have hit a certain block three times, perform a bug using a nearly unused item, wait exactly 37 frames and use the item to manually change a bit of code in the memory, as long as its possible it’s fair.

All in all, for a game to be considered “properly difficult” it must put the player in control.

Games like Super Meat Boy and I Wanna Be The Guy do this properly:

  • A skilled player can beat them, and there are no “unfair” ways to lose
  • There are no levels to grind to make your jumping higher
  • There are no critical hits that can kill bosses in one shot
  • All the traps are logical and can be beaten with enough skill

A game’s difficulty is one of the most challenging things to get right, as being either too hard or too easy will drive many players away.  Of course, many games thrive on being exceptionally difficult or easy. However, over-reliance on many of the artificial forms of difficulty can prove to be frustrating to many players, and should be avoided at all costs.



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