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The art of difficulty: What’s the best way to make games harder?

difficulty in games - Malenia Elden Ring
Image: Bandai Namco/FromSoftware (Elden Ring)

Easy. Regular. Hurt Me Plenty. Hard. Nightmare. Realistic. No, I’m not talking about sex, I’m talking about difficulty modes in games. Arguably the first step in accessibility in gaming, scaling difficulty has enabled players of almost any ability level to partake in the medium.

Whether it was starting your first play-through of Call of Duty on ‘Easy’ when you were well below the age recommendation, or cranking things up to ‘Nightmare’ on DOOM Eternal to actually feel some semblance of a challenge as an adult, difficulty scales have helped us experience and enjoy games on our own terms.

When it comes to gauging struggle, there has been one prevailing method that seems to be the accepted way to do it — and by far least imaginative. Over the years there have been a variety of approaches to challenge, so let’s take a look at some of the most effective and unique ways of doing so.

The easiest hard way

Let’s start with the most common method: tweaking the numbers. Most games simply take the easy way out of making their games more challenging by adjusting the sliders on health and damage. The harder the difficulty, the more damage enemies do and the more health they have. Likewise, the player finds themselves with less health and a lot less ammo to play with.

This bullet sponge approach does make things harder, but does it make things more interesting? While players must now think about managing their resources better and taking much better care of themselves, enemies that take an absolute age to kill because they simply have so much health isn’t exactly the best way to keep things fun.

So how can difficulty be tweaked in ways to do that?

Halo: Master Chief Collection
Image: Bungie/Microsoft (Halo: The Master Chief Collection)

AI evolved and custom difficulties

One of the more imaginative ways to change things up on harder difficulties is through the enemies a player may encounter. By changing enemy positioning on higher difficulties, upping the amounts of harder enemies, or even adding in new ones and bosses, you can bring in a fresh challenge that not only makes things harder but freshens up the player’s experience of the campaign.

Bungie’s Halo is a great example of this. While on harder difficulties enemies do have more health, hit harder and are more accurate, their numbers increase too. Not only that, but their AI changes too, becoming more aggressive on higher difficulties to challenge players.

A lot of work went into it right from the very first game, as Bungie sought to make enemy AI challenging. Enemy characters are written to perceive their world and react to what is going on around them — essentially acting more like a player than a bot. Anyone who’s played the Halo games may even notice that Grunts will turn and run once their Elite has been killed.

Halo also hands more control of difficulty over the player, providing a variety of difficulty options through the use of ‘skulls’. Found throughout the campaign in hard-to-reach areas, these skulls unlock difficulty modifiers which players can turn on and off on future playthroughs to give themselves the kind of challenge that suits them. No HUD? Go for it. Enemies constantly throw grenades? Have a blast. Shields only recharge after a successful melee? Punch your way to victory.

It’s touches like this that have kept Halo being one of the most replayable and accessible games of the past 20 years.

Resident Evil 2
Image: Capcom (Resident Evil 2 cover art)

Removal of features

For a series renowned for its impeccable take on survival horror, giving players just enough to scrape through harrowing encounters with the undead, Resident Evil of course has some great mechanics for upping the tension for higher difficulties. Capcom’s approach put pressure on the players by altering the risk/reward factor and inventory management in the game.

In the recent remakes, Resident Evil 2 required the use of ink ribbons to save progress in the game on higher difficulties. A throwback to the save system of the originals, this method burdened players in two ways: the first was that checkpoints were removed from the game, meaning that death would remove any progress from their last saved point. It also required the player to have ink ribbons in their inventory, which further reduced available space in an already tight allocation.

This change was a great way of raising the tension, as players would have to find a way of balancing the risk-reward factor of choosing between resources and the safety net of being able to save. To make things even more dicey, there were only a limited amount available throughout the game.

The most recent entry, the Resident Evil 4 remake didn’t require ink ribbons to save on higher difficulties, but still removed checkpoints. But it did alter the game’s economy, upping the prices of items sold by the Merchant. Players could be more evasive of enemies, or try and down them for more money and more lucrative items at the shop.

Death is forever

Permadeath, the shorthand term for permanent death, can apply one of two ways in games. A staple of the arcade games and 8-bit consoles of old, this brand of difficulty has seen a bit of a resurgence in modern gaming. 

The first, generally used in RTS games and RPGS such as XCOM and State of Decay, uses the mechanic that any character in your party who dies will be permanently lost. Gone forever. No respawns. In other single-player games such as The Evil Within 2 and Wolfenstein, it simply means that if you die your progress is completely reset to the beginning of the game, regardless of where you are.

While pretty unforgiving, it does give players pause when playing and makes them reconsider their approach to the game. Suddenly, every choice becomes massively important as one wrong move can be the end of it all.

Alien Isolation
Image: Creative Assembly/Sega (Alien Isolation)

Dynamic difficulty

Dynamic or adaptive difficulty is a way that developers maintain a sense of constant challenge for the player without things becoming too hard or too easy. They do this by changing the parameters of the game depending on how well players are getting on. Dying several times in one spot? Enemies become easier to kill. Running around and mowing everything down in your path? Ammo suddenly becomes a lot more scarce.

The Resident Evil remakes are worth a second mention here as these games implement adaptive difficulty well. Players with low accuracy will find more ammo drops, while those who are more accurate will see an increase in spongier enemies — and zombies will have an increased tendency to get up as well.

Another fine example is Creative Assembly’s Alien Isolation. The game revolves around the player essentially playing hide and seek with a Xenomorph as they seek to escape a space station. Underpowered and lacking any weapons to kill it, hiding and running are the only options the player has.

The alien AI will adapt to the player depending on their actions. Those who are overly cautious will find themselves stalked less, while those that are more inclined to take risks will see a more aggressive xenomorph on the hunt.

DIY difficulty

Do-it-yourself difficulty is a notion where players find their own challenge in games. Perhaps they’ll take it upon themselves to finish games as quickly as possible, or without taking any damage (no hit runs), or using a particular weapon. Bizarrely a staple of FromSoftware games, which are notoriously for their unforgiving (and unchangeable) difficulty and learning curves steeper than K2, there are communities dedicated to this.

One notable highlight is the story of a player named Let Me Solo Her. In Elden Ring, there is a boss whom many regard as the hardest FromSoftware boss. Malenia, a relentlessly aggressive boss who recovers health with every hit she lands, has caused many broken controllers since the game’s release. But Let Me Solo Her decided that she wasn’t hard enough. He took to the game with nothing but a Katana and his underwear, then called on players to summon him into their worlds for him to take her on all by himself. And win.

Of course, this player went viral, and this culminated in the challenge of taking on a modded version of the game — where every enemy in the entire game was Malenia.

There’s no shame in taking it easy

With all this talk of making things more difficult, if you’re reading this and feeling a little self-conscious that you always put the game on easy, don’t. The whole point of playing games is to have fun, find a little escapism, get that cathartic thrill and dispel a little stress.

Which way is the best when it comes to difficulty? There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, and there shouldn’t be. What may work for one game may completely ruin another. What’s important is that developers keep looking for new ways to bring challenge to their players, because in the end, that is how they keep things fun. And that is how you keep people playing. 

Danny grew up on a diet of Resident Evil, Half-Life and Halo. Nowadays, in between life as a freelance writer, author, parent and dog owner, he’ll try anything, but has a penchant for all things FromSoftware – and won’t hesitate to tell anyone about how Sekiro is the greatest game he’s ever played.