My name is Christoph, and when I'm not playing my brains out I'm a part-time student of communication studies at the University of Vienna. I am 24 years old and have been playing video games my whole life. They are not only favorite pastime, but also my primary object of study: I have written several papers on various issues concerning video games, video game culture, video game effects and design. Momentarily, i am writing my master thesis on the connections between the video game business and war.
Please bear in mind that english is not my primary language; I WILL make mistakes, for which I want to apologize in advance.
The question of difficulty in video games (and non-electronic games as well, for that matter) is closely related to the term challenge. I would argue that a game has to be challenging to be enjoyable. Note that challenge should be understood as a very broad term. Games can be intellectually challenging in many ways: They can be thought-provoking (like, for example, Sleep is Death), they can challenge the creativity of a player (f.e. Minecraft), or they may require certain knowledge (f.e. Quiz-games like the Buzz series). They may also be challenging in a more physical sense: You have to have great hand-eye coordination to play Bejeweled, while a game like Wii Sports requires motoric skills of another level. You may have noticed that none of the games I mentioned would pass as "challenging" were I to define the term in a more narrow fashion. But if one is to consider challenge as an essential part of all different kinds of gameplay, one has to consider so-called "casual" games as well.
If we consider challenge as an important part of the overall playing experience and as one of the main reasons to play in the first place, then one of the main challenges of game design has to be to maintain challenging over time. Practice makes perfect, as it were, so the game has to throw increasingly challenging tasks at the player to correlate with the player's increasing repertoire and skills. If the game fails to do so, or does so too slow, the game becomes boring. If the game does so too fast, anxiety and frustration arise. If the game strikes all the right chords, the player may enter a state of flow, of full immersion and involvement in the gameplay.
But once we consider that the player is an unknown variable for the game designer, it becomes apparent how seemingly impossible it is too get that right: With all the varying skill levels the player of the game may have, but also with the vastly differently-sloped learning curves, it appears to be a herculian task indeed to make a game stay challenging for everyone, but nevertheless playable for anyone. There are, however, a few ways in which game designer may address this problem.
1. Difficulty settings
This may be the oldest trick in the book of game design: Let the player choose his own difficulty. After all, if it's their own choice, it's also their own fault if the result is a game that is too hard/too easy, right? Well, I'd actually challenge (no pun intended) that statement. Different difficulty settings may work with some games, but they are most certainly not the be-all and end-all for the "challenge-issue". I'm sure everybody can share a story about how fucked up the difficulty settings in some games out there really are; too many games offer, for example, only three levels of difficulty, not nearly enough to address the very inhomogeneous mass that is the potential audience. Other games may offer more different difficulty settings, but still have huge differences between those, making it really hard for many players to climb up the difficulty-tree (the Civilization series is notorious for that).
2. Adaptive difficulty Why no, I do NOT want to be considered a coward, thank you very much.
Many newer games that do not rely on difficulty settings try to solve the problem by adapting the gameplay to the player's skill on the go. If the player dies again and again in a certain part of a level in Twisted Pixel's 'Splosion Man, he is offered the option to skip that part. In some newer games in the Mario series, you may even skip whole levels if you find them too challenging for your taste. But adaptive difficulty may also be used ways that are less obvious to the player, for example lowering the amount of enemies on screen if the game detects that the player's skill or repertoire is not sufficient to overcome these challenges. I would consider this a very efficient tool: Making the game playable without leaving the player feeling inadequate. But the algorithms controlling the adaption in difficulty would have to be considered a top-priority for both the game designers and the programmers; Programming this kind of adaptive difficulty into games is really challenging in and off itself and may not be as efficient as other means of tackling the issue of difficulty.
For more about adaptive difficulty, I recommend reading KingSisy's blogpost on this month's monthly musings which you can find here.
3. Specialization Are you fucking kidding me?
The game designers may also forgo trying to cater to all the different kinds of players out there and choose to make their games suitable only for a fraction of the potential player audience. This is often used by Indie developers; first and foremost because it is the most cost-efficient method, but also because many Indie games are developed with a certain target audience in mind. Super Meat Boy can get away with being crazily challenging and not offering any option to change the difficulty; Super Mario Galaxy 2 or Halo: Reach? Not so much.
While I would love to give an advice to all the game designers out there trying to wrap their head around how to address the difficulty conundrum, I'm at a loss there. Adaptive difficulty may work in certain games, but appears awfully hard to get right. Specialization is probably not an option for most game developers aiming for a broad audience. So it seems like we're stuck with the good (bad) old difficulty settings we've all grown to love (hate) over the years.