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Game Design

Difficulty settings are good!

written 2023-10-06

Difficulty settings are good because they let players choose their desired level of challenge. This seems like common sense to me, but unfortunately many people argue that games shouldn't have difficulty settings. This article will be a rebuttal to various arguments and suggested alternatives I've heard.

Players don't know which one to pick

Let's get this out of the way first. Some people argue that difficulty settings don't work because players have to choose at the start of the game, before they can know which one is best for them.

This argument is nonsense because there's no reason games can't let players change difficulty *after they start playing*. Just let them change it if they find the game is too hard or too easy! Problem solved!

Players will ruin their own fun

I've heard some people argue that players will just lower the difficulty whenever they struggle, and deprive themselves of the challenges that makes gameplay fun.

This argument is just insulting. I'm a competitive gamer, I love hard games and have beaten all my favorite games with difficulty settings on the hardest one. I think anyone who genuinely believes this argument has no understanding of the psychology of competitive gamers. Turns out, we *know* that we enjoy challenge, so we don't just lower the difficulty whenever we encounter it!

Auto-adjusting difficulty

Some games try to detect the player's performance and automatically adjust the difficulty, and some people argue that more games should do this.

This is the worst approach. If you're a casual player enjoying breezing through the game without struggling, the game gets harder, forcing you to struggle. If you're a competitive player who likes struggling until they can overcome something, the game gets easier, denying you the joy of overcoming something you struggled with.

Level grinding

We all know how boring level grinding is: killing some weak enemies or doing some disinteresting task again and again to accrue experience points or money until we can upgrade our character. Unfortunately, I've heard one otherwise reasonable blogger describe this as "self-balancing gameplay" and argue that games should encourage this.

I guess I can see how he was thinking: players can choose how hard they want the game to be by doing more or less level grinding. It's a way of choosing difficulty in-game instead of from an options menu, and he probably felt that makes it more elegant or something.

Unfortunately this solution is very unsatisfying to almost all players. Consider casual players who are not very good at a game and are mostly interested in the story: the game forces them to spend a lot of time grinding to get enough upgrades to proceed. And consider players like me who want to undertake hard challenges, but also like to explore and see everything a game has to offer: exploring the whole game world and doing optional content will leave us with overpowered characters, sucking the challenge out of the game!

Really, if you want to let players choose the level of challenge, just *let them choose the level of challenge*. They shouldn't have to grind to unlock easy mode, and then be unable to switch back to hard after switching to easy.

Conclusion

All of the supposed fundamental problems with difficulty settings are myths, and all of the supposed better alternatives are bad. Of course, difficulty settings can be badly implemented, but that doesn't make them a bad idea or mean that games shouldn't have them.

There are of course some genres that don't really support difficulty settings, like puzzle games. But most genres do, and should have them.

Difficulty settings also have the advantage of increasing a game's replayability by allowing a second playthrough to still be challenging for people who've already beaten the game.

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