Difficulty Curves

Over at The Escapist, Yahtzee Croshaw had this to say about game difficulty (emphasis mine):

I was repeating a statement I’d made before concerning RPG elements, stating that I’d played a lot of games with RPG elements where the game gets easier and easier towards the end as you gain more and stronger powers, which is failed design because games are supposed to have escalating difficulty curves.

It is rare that Yahtzee says something that I disagree with as strongly as I do with this. The idea that games MUST get harder over the course of the game is so absolute, it is hard to take seriously. The vast range of reasons people come to video games is so diverse, there is no room for universal statements like this.

Difficulty is just one component of what makes a game enjoyment. Each gamer has a different level that they look for. Look no further than social games, where the challenge is more of time and dedication rather than gameplay difficulty.

To use Yahtzee’s example, I LIKE when my character’s power level increases over the course of the game. It is a great feeling to overwhelm enemies who were once challenging. A great example of this is at the end of Half-Life 2. The gravity gun, your constant companion throughout the game, is supercharged, allowing you to throw people all over the map. This enables you to fight wave after wave of entire squads of shock troopers. It is empowering and awesome.

Story pacing also is impacted by difficulty. Nothing kills the flow of a game than being stuck on a section for a long period of time. Final Fantasy 13 has a giant jump in difficulty at the end, including a ridiculous final boss. At that point, I was ready to finish up the story. But in order to do so, I had to bang my head against the end over and over again. The impact of the story’s conclusion was definitely hurt by several hours of exhaustion and frustration when it finally came.

As someone who holds story as a top priority, I hate this kind of narrative-crushing difficulty. I never finish a game and think “if only I spend more time replaying that hard section a few more times.” Instead, if the difficulty decreases as the game goes on, it allows me to rush through to the end once I get close. This it to become a more unified experience, rather than the seams showing, making the game feel like “just a game.”

Difficulty is very much a case of personal taste. As such, there can be no universal rules about difficulty. As always, there is no one size fits all solution. For me? I’ll take the easier difficulty, no questions asked.

-That is all.

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One thought on “Difficulty Curves

  1. I agree. I love being able to have a character that can go toe to toe with Master Li and stomp him into the dirt after a frustrating day at work.

    “You can’t match me.”

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