Yes, sometimes a game can be difficult. When that happens, we usually change the setting to make it easier. Over at Gamasutra, Ernest Adams looks at the issue of setting difficulties in games.

He’s commenting on Andrew Glassner’s book, Interactive Storytelling, in which Glassner declares that settable difficulties should be banned in favor of some form of auto-dynamic adjustment. That is, the game would monitor the player’s perfomance, and change the difficulty accordingly, on the fly.

One of Glassner’s points is that current difficulty settings aren’t clear, that they confuse the player, who, poor befuddled soul, has no idea of what, say, “easy, normal, hard, torment” might mean.

We would expect that the game manual would give some explanation of these settings. If the player doesn’t bother to look at it, well, that’s his problem.

Experienced RPG players usually have a pretty good idea of what the difficulty levels represent. Typically, the easier the game: (a) the fewer hitpoints enemies have; (b) the less damage they do in combat; and (c) groups of monsters have fewer members (this last is only occasional, however).

Naturally, at higher difficulties, the reverse is true: enemies are harder to kill and dispense a world of pain when they hit, which is often. There may also be more of them, but that is only occasional, too.

Beyond that, really all any player needs to do is start up the game in normal mode and try it out for awhile. If it’s too hard or too easy, then make a change.

Of course, every game has its “tough moments”. Boss fights are usually in that category. We expect that taking out some important enemy will be harder than the cannon fodder we’ve been wading through.

What we’re looking at here, though, is the overall difficulty throughout the game. When properly set by the developers, the challenge keeps pace with character advancement. This makes for a steady progression through the game, with the occasional rough spot.

Auto-dynamic switching would change all that. If you were having trouble, the game would suddenly be easier. Then if you were doing well, it would become harder. At the very least, you’re sitting on a seesaw.

And suppose you were doing really well? You might find yourself playing at a difficulty that would equate to “hellish” in a settable system. At which point, you might want to “do poorly”, just to get it adjusted.

The idea behind this “auto-adjustment” is that it would let each person play the game at his or her own level. But do we always play at the same level of competency in a game?

We all have those off-days when we just don’t do well. Then we go back later, and suddenly it’s not as hard as we thought. In that case, nothing really changed but, perhaps, our mood. Or maybe we were over-tired or stressed out.

How would the game know? It wouldn’t, and suddenly the game seems easier because it is easier. Which, after awhile, becomes harder, because we’re doing better.

I much prefer choosing the difficulty level (when offered) myself. In most cases, “normal” has been just right, as far as RPGs go. Shooters, well, I’m not so good at them. So there, I look for (ahem) god mode and do it that way.

And where’s the sense of achievement? If you make it through a tough game, you can enjoy the satisfaction of beating it. How can you enjoy beating a game when you know it’s been diddling behind the scenes so you were sure of winning? Where’s the sense of progressing?

No, we need those difficulty levels, and the ability to choose what we want. There are many players who enjoy the extra challenge of the “insane” levels. Let’s not take that away, or throw it at someone who isn’t expecting it and doesn’t want it. Let’s keep the choice in the player’s hands.

Settable vs. Dynamic Difficulty on Gamasutra