Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Difficulty Levels and RPGs

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 5, 2011

Should RPGs have difficulty levels?

My knee-jerk response is to say, “Of course!” I generally prefer games with difficulty levels. Especially action-RPGs. Especially for an action-RPG like The Witcher 2, which apparently really wants you to play with a gamepad, when I really want to play with a keyboard and mouse. I have a gamepad. When I get back to playing The Witcher 2, I may use it – much to my annoyance – because “Easy” difficulty was far too easy.

So I’m definitely not opposed to difficulty levels. If done well. But for me, traditional RPGs (and this includes action-RPGs) have inherent difficulty levels built-in. I’ve enjoyed them for years. It’s called “leveling up,” among other things.

Is this encounter too hard? If you are hardcore, you can power your way through it, trying different tactics, and keep going. Or you can wuss out (I often do), get an extra level or two under your belt, get a better suit of armor, buy or quest for that Helmet of Brain Protection to protect you from the encounter’s Brain Burn attack, plus an extra few potions of extra healing, and now the encounter (and everything beyond it) is quite a bit easier. So long as this doesn’t involve hours and hours of senseless grinding, we’re good.

So I don’t necessarily ding an RPG for lack of difficulty levels. In fact, sometime I don’t quite understand them. I mean, in an action game, there is something about bragging rights for winning at highest difficulty. Or at least there used to be. Nowadays it’s all multiplayer action and the single-player game isn’t much more than a demo and training for online play. And I do appreciate being able to “downshift” a game that’s repeatedly kicking my butt to the point of frustration. But most of the time, I don’t see the point. The monsters get more hit points? Maybe you fight more monsters? Big whoop.

In Din’s Curse, it’s more appropriate. You can customize a lot of factors to make the game suitable for your level of challenge. But since the game is never-ending, it’s really about how quickly you want to progress in levels and equipment versus difficulty. There’s even a permadeath option for an extra challenge. It works well.

I also like the options available in Eschalon: Book 2. Choosing the more challenging options – like pre-determined loot (so you can’t just quit and reload until you get loot that you like when you open a chest), or choosing to make food and drink a requirement – comes with benefits. But because of the benefits, it’s unclear that these are really “difficulty levels” so much as different play style options. You can choose a more “advanced” game or a simpler game, but the former is only really more difficult than the latter in that the player must deal with a more complex rules set (or can’t depend on save-scumming).

So am I just weird in wanting more out of a difficulty level in an RPG than just a harder game?

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 16 Comments to Read

  • Eldiran said,

    Doesn’t seem weird to me! I really like Eschalon’s options… I chose to have all of them on. And yet, I wish it also had a traditional difficulty setting because the game is way too dang hard! Turning those options off wouldn’t help me avoid getting my min-maxed character’s butt kicked by every Dragonel. So the settings are more about playstyle than difficulty.

  • EHamilton said,

    I’ve gotten away from thinking about “difficulty” settings as a linear scale, toward thinking of different types of difficulty. Ultimately the difficulty of a game is measured in terms of the *threat* it presents for failure (the consequence of death or some other punishment state), and the *frequency* with which failure occurs for an average player. Some games focus entirely on upping the threat (roguelikes with permadeath) and other games focus on upping the frequency (mmo’s where death happens a dozen times while clearing a new raid area).

    The absolute difficulty is something that players have control over. You can just move to an easier area, whether its going up five floors higher in Angband, or switching to a raid instance from three patches ago in WoW. So that’s less important to build into a game.

    Designers should focus on giving players to ability to select the *type* of difficulty (which you classify as play style), rather than the absolute difficulty. For example, in a game like Din’s Curse, I’ll usually turn up the “threat” difficulty options (like permadeath) but dial down the “frequency” difficulty options (like monster hp/damage). I prefer a game where death is rare and requires a major blunder – but genuinely deadly when it does happen. But given the much greater popularity of the mmo model, it’s clear that’s an unconventional stance!

    I don’t see why small developers should ever shy away from providing more playstyle options. The market is small enough without imposing rigid opinions about the right balance of a punishment state’s threat vs its frequency.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    They shouldn’t, however there’s always the issue of breaking convention. While I don’t know that it has an effect on sales, but reviewers are funny: If you break convention, they’ll rip on you for breaking well-established conventions that “everybody knows” you should follow. If you don’t break convention, they’ll attack you for lack of originality. Lose-lose.

    The only other option is to go the route of the mainstream companies and make sure you not only adhere to ALL expectations for a genre (if another game did it, you have to do it too), but then to add your own on top of that, causing a feature race that leads to games costing tens of millions to produce.

    I hope that with the rise in indie development, this isn’t as true as it was five years ago.

  • Menigal said,

    I kind of like the sound of Eschalon’s options. It would be more incentive for me to try them. I suppose New Vega’s hardcore mode is in the same vein, and I actually found myself preferring to play that way, but only because it gave me more of an experience, not because my companions died easier.

    Usually I don’t care much about difficulty levels, as long as the game doesn’t get ridiculous about various forms of fake difficulty. Enemies are “hard” because they’ve just given them 50 billion hitpoints? I’ve worked out the pattern of the attack or the little puzzle to win, but need to repeat the process a dozen times? In those sorts of situations, or when they just got sadistic for some reason, I might look for an option to make things easier.

    I don’t know how many times I’ve changed difficulty levels in an RPG. My first run through Oblivion I, foolishly, played a character in a fun way, so naturally got screwed by the level spawns and had to turn it down. Usually it’s only action games that I’ll set to easy, and then its generally because I just want to see the game finished and can’t bear through the gameplay, as I did with Bioshock.

  • skavenhorde said,

    Not weird at all. It’s why I love mods so much. I get to customize my experience.

    There is one mainstream game that added in a few “options”….well mostly just one :), but Fallout New Vegas has the “Hardcore” option and while that isn’t as diverse as say Din’s Curse or Eschalon, it does give me hope that other companies might follow suit. Especially since Fallout is HUGE now.

    I still would like difficulty settings though. I really enjoyed Diablo’s Nightmare and Hell difficulty. It added a lot to my second/third/fourth/etc….playthrough of the game. It still remains one of the few games where I passed and immediately played again. Diablo wasn’t short either.

    Sacred also followed Diablo’s example, but added in a nice twist where you didn’t have to pass the original game to go to a harder setting. Can’t remember if there were any options other than “hardcore” and not “hardcore”.

    So difficulty setting and options is a perfect mix imo.

  • Cheetah said,

    It’s kind of funny you mention Eschalon, I had a bit of a mini-rant about it here :


    Its a good game that I really really want to like, but the combat is too brutal. It could use with some configuration, or maybe fewer stats or something. Maybe I’m just watering down my character’s stats too much because there’s just too many possibilities 🙂

  • McTeddy said,

    Yes… you are weird to want customization of your own games. We are gamers… it is our duty to demand that everyone plays the exact same game over and over… and over… and the sequel will be released!

    The one thing I HATE in difficulty raising stats is that most games raise enemy health. Instead of making this challenging… they just make me waste more time. I remember in both oblivion and fallout spending over an hour shooting the same moron in the head…

    My own rule for stat modifying difficulty is never to touch an enemies health. Instead, I focus on raising their offensive skills. The game doesn’t take any longer… but things are much more of a threat than an easier game.

    But I’ve always loved customizing my game. Let’s put it this way… I convinced my hardcore FPS gamer friend to play Din’s Curse. He played on the basic settings… I played in Egotistical, Need to Eat, Hardcore mode. In the end… we both had unique experiences and we both were satisfied.

    Can you imagine… an FPS players and an old school RPGer both enjoying the same game in their own way… truly a thing of beauty.

  • skavenhorde said,

    @Mc Teddy How about resistances. That’s what I liked about Diablo 2’s harder difficulties were that the enemies that I played before now had unique resistances that I had to compensate for. My poor ice mage did not know what to do the first time I went to the next level. Most of them were ok, but then I’d get COLD immune and that through me for a loop……What do I do now that I put all these points into ice? I figured out a way around that quickly (by choosing two patchs instead of just one) That also had it’s own brand of nasty as well.

    That game kept throwing monkey wrenches into my builds and I had to compensate for them or die.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    Difficulty is a difficult thing. (heh) The main problem seems to be that few people want a harder game for the sake of a harder game. So, the game provides incentives like what Eschalon does. But, notice that if you play the harder levels it generates better loot? Well, now the explorer types feel like the might be missing out on something that might not be generated normally. Or, perhaps that extra bonus to stuff generated would make the game actually easier. Or, maybe I just don’t want to be bothered with some detail (like food and drink), but I feel compelled to play with it anyway for the bonus.

    Personally, I like difficulty levels that are just that: only for difficulty. Of course, 90% of the time I play only on easy or normal, so I have my biases. 🙂

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    Actually, I just read Cheetah’s blog posting linked above, and I agree with that 100%. I just bought Eschalon: Book II on cheap steam sale, so we’ll see how it treats me. 🙂

  • Eldiran said,

    So very agreed about Eschalon. As much as I’ve already griped, though, I think I’m finding my main complaint is that the day-night cycle is hyperactive. It must take my character at least a minute to swing his sword, and it must take about 12 hours just to walk around a village 4 houses big, the day goes so fast. It’s really discouraging, since night time is pitch black and hunger and thirst are tuned to the day-night cycle.

    This is kind of getting off topic, but yeah, Eschalon could use way more settings, even for the time speed. And a faster walking speed would be nice too…

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    As I have more games than I have time to play right now, I have tried to ignore the Steam sale. I have not succeeded.

    As to Cheetah’s blog – I’ve always felt that the strategy aspect of (traditional) RPGs was much like any form of gambling… it was about managing the random number generator. A good RPG will give you tools to manage / control the probability ranges to your liking… and will manage its own to avoid really unfair, un-fun extremes.

    I ran into that a bit with Frayed Knights, too. I had to bend the probability curves far closer to the mean than I ever expected. While technically hitting a target 30 times in a row followed by missing him 20 times in a row is a perfect result for an attack with a 60% hit probability, it’s not much fun. Neither would be guaranteed exactly two misses for every five attacks. But something in-between the two extremes seems to be what feels fun and fair.

  • skavenhorde said,

    Funny I loved that about Eschalon. You had to focus on certain areas to survive. My first character was a total washout because I tried to be a jack-of-all-trades, but then I went back and concentrated on being a full mage with a few fighter skills thrown in for good measure and it worked out great.

    As for the night cycle. Once again I liked that. It added suspense to the game. Darkness isn’t really something that developers use anymore. Everything is nice and brightly lit, but Eshcalon actually made you fear the dark again. Sorta like when I was playing the old Ultima games and it got so dark that you couldn’t see the monsters coming. I absolutely loved that.

  • kalniel said,

    Merge that with character design choices and greater rewards for defeating harder things though and you have a positive feedback loop in the most negative sense:

    Skilled gamers, who would prefer a more challenging situation, might powergame their character builds because they understand the mechanics better. Making challenges easier without having to grind the character, in turn giving greater rewards that make the character even more powerful, reducing still further the challenge.

    On the other hand, players who want an easier time end up making things harder for themselves.

    That’s why levelling mechanics shouldn’t be confused with or used in place of game difficulty. The former is a character progression device, the latter is the out of character, player game difficulty.

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  • Andy_Panthro said,

    One of the best difficulty choices I’ve seen was on System Shock.

    You had four sliders which could be moved from 0-4 (four being hardest difficulty). The four sliders were: Mission, Cyberspace, Combat and Puzzles. You could set the sliders as you wished, to remove combat for a more adventure-game feel, or to turn it into more of a shooter.

    Personally, I tend to turn down difficulty if games are based on real-time combat. I just don’t have the twitch reactions to deal with such things, and prefer turn-based games. Even then, I will often play games on easier difficulty levels to finish them. If a game is good enough (or easy enough) I’ll want to return to it and increase the difficulty.