One way for a game to accomodate a wide range of player preference is to feature difficulty levels. The problem is that difficulty levels tend to be bland and predictable.

Typically, “raising the bar” means (a) enemies have more hitpoints; (b) they make more accurate attacks; and (c) those attacks are more powerful. On occasion, the designers may throw in (d) more opponents per combat and (e) enemies are harder to hit.

Why should it be this way? Why should that wimpy kobold who keeled over from a mean look now require five minutes of hacking away to put down? The real answer is that it’s so much easier to program. Just raise all the numbers by a certain percentage, and voila! challenge.

Surely, there has to be a better way. How about upping the ante with different opponents? Instead of kobolds, make them orcs. Replace low-level spellcasters with more powerful mages.

The result – tougher fights – is the same, but would have a different feel. And a few special, really strong enemies could be reserved for the higher difficulty levels as a little surprise.

Some parts of the main line could have a roadblock or two thrown in, as well. Difficulty doesn’t have to relate only to the fighting. The story can be altered in subtle ways to provide a new experience, a new challenge.

Naturally, that requires a fair amount of hard thinking and careful design, but I think the results would be worth the effort. “Higher difficulty” should mean more than simply “kobold with 10 hitpoints, kobold with 100 hitpoints”. It’s time for developers to move on from a model that was already old five years ago.

Variety is the spice of life. Let’s see some more spice in our games.