Experience Point 2/3: Artificial Difficulty, What We All Know and Hate

This article is a bit shorter than usual for three reasons:

  1. Rather than actually making an argument (other than the obvious one: Don’t do artificial difficulty, kids!  Artificial difficulty is not cool!), I’m mostly providing a definition.  This is informative, not persuasive.
  2. This is practically an addendum to last week’s article, Difficulty Does Not Imply Quality.
  3. Currently, I write these on the day that they’re published, and I’m tired of them always going up at 11:59:59.999 p.m. every time.  Sometime in the future, I will probably start writing these the day before, like I should be doing now.

So, what is artificial difficulty?  Sometimes, a certain mechanic will be flawed in a certain way: it might make certain situations (or worse, the whole game) too easy.  Or, it might level out the difficulty curve so much that it barely gets more difficult over time.  In a shooter game, it could be caused by enemies lacking the brains to hit their target, or the player having an over-powered “kill everything” gun that isn’t properly balanced.  In a racing game, it could be caused by imbalanced “rubber band AI” – where AI drivers far ahead will relax, and AI drivers behind will drive more aggressively, which is generally used to keep the player in the game, but can be problematic if done poorly.

When this happens, and the developer doesn’t know how to fix it (or doesn’t want to), they may just try to offset the difficulty deficit by adding something else that’s more difficult.  Sometimes this works well, but other times, it’s terrible.  Artificial difficulty is the result when this happens.  It is when a situation that is deemed too easy is patched with a solution that reduces the player’s chances of winning, but that doesn’t present the player with a compelling challenge, often resulting in the game “cheating” or cheap losses.  For instance, a well-known example is bosses who’s fights aren’t really difficult, but that have a zillion hit points, making a game of endurance rather than skill (spoiler alert: video games aren’t good as endurance games, i.e. Desert Bus from last week’s article).

Why does it happen?  Surely there are other, better ways to balance situations that are too easy.  Why not, for instance, actually make that boss’ attacks actually powerful, and cut his HP?  That’s a good question; although, that could potentially swing the other way and result in attacks being too powerful.  When a developer tests mechanics, they can sometimes be desensitized to a certain mechanic’s weirdness after so much exposure to it.

Fun-time activity: Recognize potential for AD in game trailers. For example, Ace Combat 7: in the trailer, a character (probably the player character) fires multiple all-aspect air-to-air missiles at the same time that also track and hit the plane chasing him from behind.  There also appears to be 8x multi-targeting missiles, up from 6x in AC6, and 4x in AC4.  If the player is allowed to do that, then what will the developers do to balance it?  This doesn’t mean, of course, that there will be AD problems, but that the developers will have to be clever about balancing this ability.

Come back next week for a lively discussion about difficulty curves and spikes.