What is video game difficulty and how does it work?

The difficulty in video games is incredibly subjective from player to player. And, it’s not exactly one size fits all; you might find one kind of game easy and find another difficult.

However, it is important to define what the difficulty of the video game is and how the developers balance the difficulty.

What is the difficulty of a video game?

The difficulty of video games is a difficult thing to define objectively.

You can define the difficulty of a video game as a measure by which a game challenges the player enough relative to their skill level.

But maybe a more precise definition could be how a game communicates what it wants you to do and how it wants you to do it, relative to your skill level.

For the gamer, the difficulty of the video game may appear in the form of presets (we’ll talk about that later) such as the game’s difficulty settings, for example.

But it’s also how the game communicates the level of challenge it will present between you and the achievement of its goals.


Kill this boss with whatever weapons you have. Here is his set of moves, learning it might help. Oh, and he deals a ton of damage because you’re on ‘hard’ mode, have fun!

Video game difficulty is another way a game keeps the player engaged.

Related: What Is Cheese In Games?

How does video game difficulty work?

So how do video game developers adjust the difficulty level of their games to make sure you get a fair challenge?

Developers can change a number of parameters within their game to make it more or less difficult, such as enemy health, enemy damage, enemy frequency, player damage, frequency of items, adding / removing game mechanics, increasing / decreasing reaction windows, etc.

In order to give the player a constant challenge with their skills, the developers have a number of options, but the two main ones that we are going to focus on are the difficulty presets and the dynamic difficulty of the video game.

Video game difficulty presets

The most recognizable way for developers to change the difficulty of a video game is by using preset difficulty settings. These are the “easy”, “medium”, “hard” and other modes that you will see before starting a game.

Even though a game traditionally becomes more difficult as you progress, as it takes into account improving your skills and thus increases the challenge, difficulty presets provide players with relatively easier or more starting and ending points. difficult.

This may involve adjusting enemy health and aggression, amount of items / ammo, and changing the placement of enemy types, among other things with each preset.

There may also be unique additions to different difficulty presets, such as a new game mechanic. For example, choosing Hardcore difficulty in the Resident Evil 2 remake turns off auto-saves and introduces ink ribbons, which means you have a finite number of backups.

You can also play games with automatic difficulty presets. For example, you cannot select your difficulty in Dark Souls. But after finishing the game you can play New Game + (more “+” are added with each successive game) which increases the health and damage of the enemy as well as the number of souls they leave. publication date.

Related: What Is In-Game Damage Sponge?

Dynamic game balancing

A second way for developers to give players a constant challenge is to use dynamic difficulty adjustment techniques.

This means that the game will adjust its difficulty settings on the fly based on your performance. This will help keep you engaged, because playing too easy can seem unsatisfying and playing too hard can put you off.

A stellar example is Alien Isolation, which uses largely unscripted artificial intelligence (AI) for the alien that chases you for most of the game. While Alien Isolation has difficulty presets, the way it implements its AI alien is ingenious.

Essentially, the game uses certain criteria to monitor how “scared” the player is at any given time and adjusts the alien AI accordingly. On top of that, the game unlocks different behaviors for the alien both at specific points in the game and based on your behavior as a player.

That way, Alien Isolation can maintain a level of tension that keeps you both engaged and nervous, all without making the game too scary, comfortable, or predictable.

Good Video Games Deserve Fair Video Game Difficulty

The difficulty of video games can be an incredibly tricky part of video game design. It requires balance, strong playing systems and, most importantly, being fair to the player, regardless of their challenge.

Good video games that want to challenge you deserve a certain level of difficulty in their difficulty. Ultimately, video games should be hard to beat, not hard to play.

a person playing with a white PS4 controller

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