Experimental new Mario game generates levels based on how good or crap you are. Great difficulty solution, or bad idea?

Difficulty in games is a tricky matter to deal with. Make them too hard, and you'll exclude a significant proportion of your audience. But then as soon as you start using the dread word "accessible", hardcore gamers will run for the hills. They'll proclaim you as a patronising nanny developer, and claim that you want videogames to consist of nothing more than one-button credit-rolling simulators playable with the human tongue, containing no graphics, completable by babies aged 0-6 hours, and using only single syllable words in those credits so as to not offend the barely-literate demographic.

Thus there are various solutions to keep everyone happy. Selectable difficulty settings are the most traditional and widely used, but then there are games which dynamically shift the hardness based on how well you're doing. And this new unofficial Mario game does that to an insane level.

Above: If you're crap, the game will look like this

Rather than simply shift perameters such as enemy health and damage dealt out by the player, Inifinite Adaptive Mario by Ben Weber, a PhD candidate at UC Santa Cruz, builds whole new level designs based on the player's successes and failures. Levels are redesigned to various degrees upon each death, based upon factors like how far the player got progresses and how many times they die without finishing a stage. Check out his full explanation for all the details.

It's playable right now via a quick Java download, and having just tried it out I can vouch that it absolutely does work. A few early deaths, and suddenly there were a lot more coins and a lot less enemies. Gaps o' death became smaller and less frequent too. But after acing a few levels, exactly the inverse became true. So, should this sort of technology start cropping up in commercial games in the future? As great as this demo is, I'm not so sure.

Above: If you're good, this will be your reward

Personally, I do think we do need a more sophisticated difficulty system than the basic three-setting format, but I think adaptive difficulty is the way to go. It's surely the best of all worlds, failing to patronise less skilled or beginner players by forcing them to choose the "I am crap" option at the start, and more importantly shifting dynamically as the pace of the game changes. Every player has different strengths and weaknesses, and will find different elements of games easier and harder than others, so the blanket changes of locked-down difficulty settings just seem too much of a blunt object solution to me. Better to let the player tell the game which bits are too hard for them rather than the other way around. And with adaptive difficulty, you don't end up getting bored stuck on easy mode as you inevitably get better at the game.

Procedural level design though, I'm less sure about. While this is certainly some impressive technology, I'm not convinced by the philosophy of removing challenges outright if a player seems to be having trouble with them. Doing so also removes any hope of the player actually improving his or her skills through practice, because simply, there's nothing to practice.

Above: Xbox Live Indie Games shooter Leave Home is a fantastic example of adaptable difficulty done right. Check out my feature on it to find why it's such a brilliantly clever piece of work  

It's no problem to make enemies die after fewer shots, because the player still has to aim accurately and learn to and fire and defend at the right times. It would be okay to give Mario scalable damage resistance in Super Mario Galaxy 3, because the player would still have to master the core components of the game's physics and move-set in order to navigate the levels. The scaled parameters would just give the weaker or less experienced player a little more breathing room in which to work all that out.

But what do you think? How should games try to cater their difficulty to their audience's abilities? Are adaptive games the way to go? Are selectable settings fine? Or should we all just man up and accept games being as hard as their developers want them to be?


Nintendo WTF


  • Spybreak8 - September 10, 2010 8:40 a.m.

    I think it should be an option, not built into the game design. Even though nobody really cared about Halo Wars I'll use that example since I thought Ensemble did a great job with that game. In Halo Wars you have the option to have a dynamic difficulty setting which changed depending on how you played against the AI. Brilliant!
  • elpurplemonkey - September 10, 2010 6:41 a.m.

    I tried the Mario demo and rather enjoyed it. It's a fun idea- a game that literally adapts the world to your skill. But I don't think I'd like to see it in a real game. I'm perfectly content with choosing normal if I want the experience the developers intended to give me- it's sometimes difficult, sometimes easy, but always fun. I guess the director in Left 4 Dead is the sweet spot though. Your characters take and dish out a predetermined amount of damage depending on the difficulty, and the game alters the enemies based on how well you do.
  • HaitianSensation - September 10, 2010 1:55 a.m.

    It's an intriguing idea but honestly I'd rather stick with the usual difficulties. When I play games, I play on normal to experience the story and then bump it up to hard for the challenge. If the game automatically adjusts the difficulty, you really don't know if you are playing to the developer's standard. Wasn't there another game that did this sort of thing besides L4D?
  • Metroidhunter32 - September 10, 2010 1:54 a.m.

    So long as they give you a choice before it drops.
  • QWERTYCommander - September 9, 2010 9:22 p.m.

    I'll play it wen it has an .exe file.
  • purple_omlet - September 9, 2010 8:55 p.m.

    the demo blows old men.
  • R_U_Guys_From_British - September 9, 2010 8:40 p.m.

    How do you even jump on that mario game?
  • n00b - September 9, 2010 7:46 p.m.

    didn't valve did this with l4d? in the cometary it says the ai director spawns enemies based on how your playing. it also has a difficulty setting to tell it how you want to play. or something like that
  • BonafideMyth - September 9, 2010 7:24 p.m.

    I like the idea of sliders found in Sports games, being used in other genres. Example "Enemy Health 1-10" "Damage Ratio 1-10" etc you could do it for most concievable parameters found in a game.
  • Axcle - September 9, 2010 6:52 p.m.

    I just tried that Mario game. I found World 0 to be funny. I has no enemies or pits, meaning it's impossible to die.
  • Lionzest7 - September 9, 2010 4:44 p.m.

    really depends on the person, variable difficulty levels would be good to someone who just wants to "get through". A person who really is determined to do it based on skills would not want the game "softened up" for them. If I played Ninja Gaiden with less difficulty I would feel like it was an action game with less buttons, flash, and it wouldn't be nearly as enticing.
  • InFeRnOg - September 9, 2010 3:56 p.m.

    I completely disagree with adaptive difficulty. If a game adapts to your failures, then finally overcoming those failures isn't nearly as rewarding, since the game decided to take it easier on you. Games are rewarding because of overcoming challenges. You get better at things that previously gave you trouble and you feel good about it. Keep difficulty levels. If you die too often or don't want a challenge, play at an easier difficulty. If you want a challenge and to be rewarded, play harder ones.
  • Moroz - September 9, 2010 3:06 p.m.

    This concept is not really new. God Hand did something similiar. Of course, the diffrence being that God Hand didn't redesign its levels.
  • xenon - September 9, 2010 2:32 p.m.

    In general, I don't want an automated, transparent adaptive difficulty system. Difficulty levels are fine by me, they just need to make sense (in certain games it makes sense to make the enemies harder to kill, in others scarcity of ammo and health packs, and so on). The level of "adaptiveness" I can appreciate is a suggestion to lower the difficulty level when I fail a lot (think God Of War or Guitar Hero). The poster above mentioned the AI in L4D - I think it works in its context, but I wouldn't want it to extend to games in general.
  • pin316 - September 9, 2010 2:31 p.m.

    I really like that last sentence; "Or should we all just man up and accept games being as hard as their developers want them to be?" Surely the people making the game have the best idea of how challenging the game should be in all it's glory - they know what pace the game should be played at, where difficulty should spike/fall in a level, how good you should have to be in certain modes... I agree that it could make a game more acessible by havng adaptive/progresive technologies built into the game for difficulty management, but i don't believe that this is necessarily a good thing. not every game should be suitable for everyone...that's the beauty of a diverse market, there should be something to cater for everyone, but that something shouldn't be everything. More and more devs are trying to make games universal in order to make a few extra sales, but what they can often tend to do is alienate large sections of the community
  • oufour - September 9, 2010 2:18 p.m.

    that's the fucking AI director from left 4 dead! no matter how you size it that's what it is.
  • grappler51 - September 9, 2010 2:17 p.m.

    Level design is one of the most important part of games. I think that compromising it for difficulty is a bad idea. I do like the idea of adaptive difficulty though, maybe just with reducing the health of enemies, and removing some.
  • 8bitBaby - September 9, 2010 2:02 p.m.

    hrm... sounds pretty awesome. i'm going to go try it right now.
  • EliaKimTheGigas - September 9, 2010 1:38 p.m.

    Seems like things are good the way they are. I played Mass Effect 2 on Hardcore in order to beat it on Insanity (which I did) but there were frustrating times where I would have liked to have scaled the difficulty down. It should be player choice, no one needs to be treated like a baby.
  • musashi1596 - September 9, 2010 1:16 p.m.

    db1331- It's extremely easy to get steamrollered by a few enemies in Oblivion if you move the difficulty slider to its maximum setting.

Showing 1-20 of 25 comments

Join the Discussion
Add a comment (HTML tags are not allowed.)
Characters remaining: 5000