High Horse: Difficulty in games is broken

High Horse is a rotating opinion column in which GamesRadar editors and guest writers are invited to express their personal thoughts on games, the people who play them and the industry at large.

When I was younger, game difficulty barely factored into my consciousness: I acknowledged that certain games were harder than others, but I didn’t complain about it. I beat my head against the last level of Ninja Gaiden II on the NES repeatedly until I won, and I cursed and stomped around my room, but it never occurred to me the state of affairs could be a problem with the game. Older gamers may sound like we’re calling newer gamers coddled when we talk about the old days, but I’m glad that games have gotten easier and offered more difficulty levels. As a kid, I had all the time in the world to die over and over; as an adult, I need more fun and less frustration in my much-more-limited free time.

However. I’ve found my niche: that of an experienced gamer who’s good enough to enjoy a challenge, but not so amazing at games that I can crank difficulty up to the hardest level like it ain’t no thing. From that perspective, game difficulty is showing increasing problems.

At the core of the issue are some basic assumptions of what “Normal” and “Hard” are. In the old days, Normal was what you played until you got good enough at a game until you could tackle Hard mode (something which I almost never attempted back then). Nowadays, Normal in many games has edged closer to what Easy mode would have been 20 years ago. Hard is now the equivalent of Normal. The solution to this should be obvious: just crank it to Hard on every game.

Unfortunately, developers seem to be approaching the actual difficulty balance within Hard mode like they did in yesteryear: they don’t worry if it’s pitched just right, because if you choose Hard mode, you “kind of deserve whatever you get.” That mentality was fine in the past, but now that Hard is the only option for a decent challenge, it means that I can almost never find a reasonable sweet spot for my own skill level. Here’s an example: in Gears of War 2, the difficulty levels have descriptions to guide you. Easy mode says (I’m paraphrasing) “You’re new to shooters.” Normal mode says “You have experience with shooters” and Hard says “You know how to pull off a headshot.” I thought “Hey, I know how to do headshots!” And off I went.

The game’s challenge was perfect for much of the story, but a number of times, I hit difficulty spikes that went from challenging to ludicrous. I’d get through most areas without dying, and then suddenly a random room would kill me 20 times in a row. Sure, I “deserved what I got,” but if I’d played Normal mode, the game would have been horribly boring, considering most of Hard mode wasn’t even particularly challenging.

Similarly, when I played the original Infamous on Hard mode, I had no problem tackling the entire game… until I got to the final boss. Suddenly, the difficulty spiked to 10 times greater than anything else in the game, and I tried to kill that jerk like 30 to 40 times before giving up in disgust. When Infamous 2 came around, I wanted to play through a complete story, so I shamefully turned Infamous down to Normal – and the last boss became a joke. That’s the only time I’ve ever reduced the difficulty of a game, and it still bothers me, as though I never truly beat it.

This trend worries me, because it feels like even developers of “hardcore” games are abandoning the notion that games are even games anymore. If there’s no actual challenge, then you’re just playing a vaguely interactive movie. If games all trend toward an easy-ass Normal mode and totally unbalanced Hard modes, where are gamers like me left?

On the other end of the spectrum, we have games that err on the side of too much difficulty without bothering to balance for tight controls or fair enemies. Again, it’s like the attitude of “you deserve what you get,” except that in this case, the games offer no easier options. Recently, I knocked the score down on BloodRayne: Betrayal, War of the Worlds, and Choplifter HD, due to their sloppy approaches to difficulty – each one had clunky controls combined with level design that called for pinpoint accuracy.

I had no problems with these games as concepts. If a dev wants to make a super-difficult old-school game, more power to them. However, they need to give players the proper tools for the job – for instance, I liked Hard Corps: Uprising, because it had great controls and an RPG system that let you beat it slowly, through attrition. Super Meat Boy had some of the most precise platforming controls ever, and it also didn’t punish you too much for failure, always respawning you super-quickly, and never far from your goal.

I know I’m not alone when I stare at the start screen and wonder, “If I choose Normal, I’ll be vaguely bored, but if I choose Hard, will I be screaming later?” Now more than ever, devs need to carefully balance difficulty, precisely because the gaming sphere is so much bigger. The range of skill levels is broader than ever. Games these days don’t need a million difficulty levels, just slightly expanded ones: devs only need to carefully balance Normal and Hard modes, and then leave Easy and Insane as the “you deserve what you get” options. There are exceptions: games like Dark Souls and Kirby’s Epic Yarn can still sit in their bookends at either end of the spectrum. But for most games, devs should focus on balancing their games for both “casual” and the “semi-hardcore” – those of us currently left hanging out to dry.


  • ShadowReaper666 - January 20, 2012 5:30 p.m.

    Just play gears of war 3 insane co-op with 4 people not on arcade mode and say games aren't hard enough anymore
  • FlyinMachine - January 20, 2012 7:39 p.m.

    He never said "games aren't hard enough." He said that the difficulty levels in some games is broken. Some parts in some games will be stupidly difficult and then other parts you can breeze through, BOTH on Hard difficulty. What Matt here is suggesting is that devs focus on fine tuning their game so that the difficulty level is consistent and always offers you the enjoyment or challenge you expect. I do agree, though: Gears 3 on Insane is ridiculously hard
  • Fox_Mulder - January 20, 2012 9:43 p.m.

    4 player? I beat it solo. Honestly IMO GOW 3 on insane was the easiest of the three.
  • AuthorityFigure - January 20, 2012 5:43 p.m.

    The problem the author describes is due to the ever-increasing complexity of the AI used in games. More complex AI means more variables that need changing this or that way in order to scale difficulty evenly. It's very simple to make Pacman scale its difficulty evenly because there are only a few variables to change (the ghost speed, the abundance of invicible pellets, and so on), but when you have a modern game, with a million different classes, objects, behaviors, some of the co-dependant, it becomes a huge mathematical problem. People that want the extra detail, better AI, better 'realism' cannot have evenly scaling difficulty anymore.
  • winner2 - January 20, 2012 5:57 p.m.

    True about dark souls, it and demons souls don't even have the option to change the difficulty like most games lol
  • BladedFalcon - January 20, 2012 9:03 p.m.

    Yet he stated at the end of the article that that was EXACTLY the point for games like Dark Souls. That's a series that since it's inception was created, and marketed as a difficult gaming experience. In that particular case, the difficulty is PART of what makes the series unique and appealing. Even if not for everyone.
  • azureguy - January 20, 2012 5:58 p.m.

    I've played inFamous myself and I agree with the final boss - quite a suddeun rise in difficulty. Then again, the game only has two other real boss fight, and neither of those will "train" you to be prepared for the last boss. I think the Japanese did a great job at difficulty balancing in their past games, especially Capcom. I remember Devil May Cry 3 to be very well-balanced (note: I played the Special Edition only). And of course, who could forget the Mega Man games? No matter if we're talking about Classic, X, Zero or even Legends, each of them had boss fights and overall difficulty increase that felt fair and manageable.
  • D0CCON - January 20, 2012 6:16 p.m.

    I feel like I'm at the exact same skill level as the writer. Normal often times is too easy and hard can be a pain. Personally, I wish all games had difficulty that felt like a Halo campaign on Heroic and that would be about what normal was. It was certainly possible and rarely frustrating while never being too easy. Actually, I've found that when a game offers four difficulty options, the second hardest one usually feels the best.
  • avantguardian - January 21, 2012 4:22 p.m.

    i think if you did a poll of those that frequent this website, the vast majority would agree with you. it's actually quite perplexing that the four tiered difficulty model hasn't just become an industry standard (with, of course, room for extremes on the periphery a la dark souls and kirby).
  • ItBurnsWhenIWii - January 20, 2012 6:47 p.m.

    I felt that the inFamous final boss wasn't that bad, but then again I did my second play through on hard, so maybe the problem is that on hard you never get a chance learn a good strategy before you get killed. If anything the hardest part in the first inFamous was killing those damn armored trucks on hard, as soon as you started to get hit with the machine guns you would die.
  • blazikenrocker - January 20, 2012 6:54 p.m.

    I had the exact same problem when playing Infamous on hard. There were a few other areas that were difficult but nothing like Kessler, I must have died at least 50 times.
  • MattOfSteel - January 20, 2012 6:57 p.m.

    It is hard for the more story based games to do this. But I think Mario 3D Land was a perfect balance in difficulty. The casual could get through the game, the intermediate could make it through the special levels, and the hardcore could enjoy the challenge of collecting all the star coins in each level. The problems are less the actual difficulty and more making sure there isn't a "spike". A difficulty spike is always more the fault of not properly preparing the player for the skills they need.
  • Lurkero - January 20, 2012 7:15 p.m.

    Its often the case that "difficulty" means giving the enemies more health and the player less health. This does not equate to difficulty to me. So far, the only game that I have seen do difficulty on an acceptable level is Halo. In Halo, the enemies do get more health, but they also become strategically smarter. A skilled Halo player would be able to take advantage of the known weaknesses of enemies and get more of a challenge out of the harder difficulty rather than more frustration.
  • - January 20, 2012 7:29 p.m.

    I know I’m not alone when I stare at the start screen and wonder, “If I choose Normal, I’ll be vaguely bored, but if I choose Hard, will I be screaming later?” You are not alone, sir. Refreshing to see a topic that hits me as a a gamer these days perfectly. I share your frustration and your future worries. Think of us old people, developers! We have more money, we're worth the hassle.
  • BaraChat - January 20, 2012 8:13 p.m.

    I totally agree that most games are actually not that hard on "Hard" but those f****** sudden spikes in difficulty completely ruin the experience. I don't mind when a game gets progressively tougher as you go along, but sometimes it just makes no sense. Take the Uncharted series. Games I can all beat on hard with not much effort, but there's always that set piece or that section of the game which takes me 35 attempts. What the fuck is that? Anyway, great article. :)
  • Fox_Mulder - January 20, 2012 9:41 p.m.

    I agree. I played Uncharted 3 on normal the first time but when I got to the desert village I was getting destroyed. When enemies are headshotting you with pinpoint accuracy through a sandstorm, frustrating doesn't even begin to describe it.
  • aberkromby - January 21, 2012 8:19 a.m.

    The level in the run-down shipyard was the worst. In the first sequence (right after I blew stealth) I flanked the enemies on the right side, then died from a random grenade. When I respawned, Naughty Dog saw fit to place me on the left side, which was literally impossible to defend. I lost count of the number of times I died (it was at least 30) trying to fight my way back to the right so I could actually survive. As soon as I got there, I beat the sequence in about two minutes. Then sold the game back to Gamestop, because I was disgusted with how lazy the Naughty Dog was with this game.
  • DaveGoose - January 20, 2012 9:06 p.m.

    Great article. I whole heartedly agree with the inFAMOUS reference. I also sit at the start of a game and wonder what difficulty is for me.
  • BladedFalcon - January 20, 2012 9:11 p.m.

    Heh, I like that Keast had no trouble pointing out the games he has knocked down the score due to it's difficulty. Even though I may disagree with him in there, I respect his reasons and this is a pretty well write and thought out article. While I usually don't have THAT much trouble with difficulty spikes in the hard modes of a lot of games. There is definitely something wrong with how difficulty is handled in games nowadays. Like some people have pointed it out, I think part of it is that most developers are just lazy, and the difficulty levels are reduced to simply increasing damage output from enemies. A true difficulty would be to make the enemies smarter or more dangerous because how the act or where they are placed, not because they just do more damage. In my opinion, one game that did this rather well was megaman 10. Changes in difficulty changed the number and layout of the enemies in the stages, and with bosses, they added extra moves to their repertoire and made them faster. Way I see it, a properly balanced "normal" difficulty is one that allows you to get careless a couple of times, but WILL destroy you if you keep making the same mistakes. While the hard mode would demand more precision and less mistakes from your part. The new announced mode in bioshock: Infinte promises that, let's hope it delivers.
  • madman725 - January 20, 2012 10:40 p.m.

    I couldn't agree more

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