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Dynamic Difficulty in Video Games: Something You Never and Should Not Realized

Updated on July 18, 2017

If you are over 20 and still playing video games on regular basis, chances are you will pick Hard or above. I mean, let's be honest, playing the game on Easy or Normal is kind of embarrassing especially when the game makes fun of you for it.

Wolfenstein: The New Order (2014)
Wolfenstein: The New Order (2014)

However, not all games mock you for playing on Easy. For example, Shadow Warrior 2
understands this and respect your decision if you decided to play on Easy difficulty.

Shadow Warrior 2 (2016)
Shadow Warrior 2 (2016)

Let's be clear; there's nothing wrong with playing the game on Easy. Just like Shadow Warrior 2's description says, maybe you just want to blow off steam and forget all the tension at work or school. But, some gamers are too proud to admit this. They want to be challenged and improve their skills. But when they fail numerous times, it can be frustrating and resulting in broken controllers. In order to combat this, that's where the dynamic difficulty comes in.

DYNAMIC DIFFICULTY

Dynamic difficulty, as explained on Wikipedia, is the process of automatically changing parameters, scenarios, and behaviors in a video game in real-time, based on the player's ability, in order to avoid making the player bored if the game is too easy or frustrated if it is too hard. Simply put, the game changes it difficulty by itself to help or challenge the players according to their performance. This concept itself is nothing new.

Archon: The Light and the Dark (1983)
Archon: The Light and the Dark (1983)
Source: Compute! Gazette Issue 17
Source: Compute! Gazette Issue 17

One of the first few games to implement this system is Archon: The Light and the Dark. The gameplay is quite similar to Chess, except that landing on another player's piece results in an arcade-style fight to determine the victor. What makes the game special is computer opponent slowly adapts over time to help players defeat it. In 1984, a magazine called Compute! Gazette Issue 17 had an interview with the designers of the game. In that interview, when being asked why the games did not have varying difficulty levels like other games, the developers said there were difficulty levels, only that players did not know its existence. The whole point is to make the players feel a sense of progression as they completed each and every level in the game.

Crash Bandicoot (1996)
Crash Bandicoot (1996)

Other famous game to implement this system is Crash Bandicoot. The game was, and still is, one of the most challenging game I have ever played. However, I know I had so much fun with this game back in my childhood. What I did not know back then was that this game implements a rather basic dynamic difficulty system. The game and its sequels are keeping track of the player's number of deaths and adjust the speed of obstacles and the number of continue points accordingly. The idea was to "help weaker players without changing the game for the better players", according to Jason Rubin, the game's designer.

You might be wondering why there is a picture of Resident Evil 4 at the top of the page. But since you have made it this far, I'm pretty sure you can guess the reason right away. And you're right. That game implements a modified version of standard dynamic difficulty system called "Difficulty Scale". To explain this system, I will try to keep spoilers at bay. But seriously, this game is more than 10 years old and you should give it a go if you have never played it before.

Resident Evil 4 (2004)
Resident Evil 4 (2004)

Observe the picture above. Leon, the main character, has only a handful of ammo and there are a huge mobs of enemies. To make things worse, the one with chainsaw can one-hit kill Leon easily and basically a bullet sponge. In order for the player to survive, they have to run, search the houses for ammo and health items and block the doors to slow the enemies down. Believe it or not, this section is from the first level, around the first hour or so when the players are still new and getting the hang of the game. And there's a good reason behind it. Getting back to Difficulty Scale, the game will keep track of players' reaction during this section. If the players are able to make it through unharmed, the game will automatically up its difficulty by making the enemies tougher and faster. If the players died multiple times, the game will do the opposite in addition of making ammo and health items more plentiful. If the players still died even after the decreased difficulty, the game will reduce the number of enemies on screen. The game changed the difficulty so subtly in a way that the players will not notice. Even though the game still have varied difficulty options for players to choose, the selected difficulty levels lock players at a certain number; for example, on Normal difficulty, one starts at Grade 4, can move down to Grade 2 if doing poorly, or up to Grade 7 if doing well. The grades between difficulties can overlap.

Summer Games Done Quick 2015

This unique system usually used by speedrunners to, well, speedrun. Professional speedrunners often letting the player character got hit by enemies and failing quick-time events to decrease the difficulty, allowing for easier boss and such.

There are more games that uses this system but to cover them all in one article is quite insane. Plus, this system IS supposed to be a secret, which is why you don't see developers talking about it anywhere. Think about it, if people knew about this, it would defeat the whole purpose of this system which is to help players and make them feel good about themselves.


But still, there is no harm in learning a bit about them, don't you think?

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