Challenge Everything – On Gaming Difficulty

The basic element of any video game is challenge. You can omit any other element and still identify something as a “video game.” You require no graphics for text-based adventure games. You require no music in your games. Stories can also be completely done away with. But think about a video game without any challenge? Not in the sense of not posing any challenge, but rather not putting you against any task, no matter how menial? Notice how I don’t say “overcoming a challenge” as being another basic element? Well, if you can’t overcome a challenge in any conceivable way in a game, then it’s a bad game, simple as that, but it’s not a necessary element to make one.

Another element which isn’t necessary, but in a way is expected and derived from the basic one is “reward”. This one is much more difficult to pin-point as rewards can take many forms. They aren’t necessarily trophies or true endings, but sometimes just a “Thanks for playing!” or the thrill of mastering the game’s mechanics. And sometimes you just get a shiny hat for New Game+. Which one is appropriate? All of them can be. Reward is highly relative to the actual game. If a “Thank you” seems fulfilling, then the reward is appropriate. If it’s a gigantic cinematic, you can still feel cheated. And yet, some people are spoiled and will never be happy.

It often boils down to the actual difficulty of the challenges you faced. Did you find a particular section hard? Was the game too easy? Is the CPU a cheating bastard? Achieving proper difficulty is hard. The more elements you include in your game, the harder it gets to stay fair towards the player. Some games are difficult because of bad design, others because they are compensating, or because they’re being retro. If you are looking for additional gaming options visit

The Inconvenient Difficulty

Inconvenience usually happens on a meta level. You are not being challenged by crazy-prepared ninjas, demons from hell, or Taekwondo practitioners. Oh no, the game hates your guts in this one. Do you see that pitfall, Player? No, you do not, because the camera is too busy focusing on that guy standing in the corner. No, that guy, the one who didn’t just hit you from behind.

Whenever you are not aware of something your character would logically be aware of, you are being a victim of the actual game’s shortcomings. This doesn’t apply to games with swarm tactics, like bullet-hell shooters or zombie genocide simulators, where perception is actually being challenged. It’s more about bad camera angles, enemies spawning directly behind you out of thin air, or general obstruction of vision due to perspective. Yes, even the hidden doors your characters can see, but you can’t in top-down RPGs which are using fake difficulty.

Clunky combat also gets thrown into this bucket, unless it makes sense. Is your character a trained commando-soldier-marine-person? Then why can’t he swing the damn melee weapon half-way decently? I can understand James Sunderland not being able to swing a pipe, since he’s a store clerk, but why can’t people who should know how to fight?

The whole fighting genre is guilty of this… if played alone. The pretzel movements exist regardless of whether you’re playing solo or with other people, but when playing solo, you need to execute very complicated inputs in order for your character to do special moves or basic combos. But when you’re playing with other people, you are not overcoming a challenge set by the game, but by another human being.

One of the rare instances where this kind of difficulty is a viable option are strategy games. Titles in this genre have far too many variables, and making a worthy AI is extremely hard, if not impossible. Hence the need to resort to resource boosts, faster build speed and so on… It was certainly possible for chess, something with a reasonable number of variables, but what about games like Heroes of Might and Magic III? You need to take into account resources mines, buildings, cities, heroes, individual units, spells, skills and skill combos, artifacts, day of the week… And even when a good deal of work goes into making an AI, it will certainly have some brain farts. Giving the AI an edge here isn’t a case of fake difficulty as much as it is a self-imposed handicap.

Of course, other genres also resort to “cheating AI”. Racing games where your opponents always catch up, even if you’re having a perfect run, are a lazy solution to compensate for lackluster challenges.

The Trial and Error Difficulty

A game with proper difficulty should be a game which you could, in theory, finish on your first playthrough. Well, in theory, you could apply this to any game, but we’re talking about humans who lack clairvoyance. Trial and Error mostly appears in old Point-and-Click adventures, but isn’t limited to them. If you have three identical doors, two of which kill you, and you have nothing to help you decide which door is the right one, it is not a challenge, it is a guessing game. It is random and independent of player knowledge, skill or existence. If the only way of overcoming a challenge is knowing of it or its solution beforehand, you are doing it wrong.

Anyone who has played King’s Quest or Space Quest knows what I’m talking about. This also applies to games where failure isn’t penalized. Spending time combining various items in your inventory until they make sense is also a “trial and error” method.

The Old-school Difficulty

New games aren’t casual, old games were cheap. They were cheap beyond cheapness. Because they all came from the arcades, the old money pits, now replaced with DLC. It was the place where you monetized gaming to the fullest. They weren’t hard because they were developed well (usually), they were hard because they were hungry. Hungry for your coins and quarters (and tears).

Most console games in the 8-bit era were either arcade ports or heavily influenced by arcade games. Possibly out of fear that the game wouldn’t warrant the insane price tag slapped on the cartridge and you wouldn’t spend a long enough time with it. Don’t believe me? Fire up an emulator, play a game that keeps track of your “clear time” and see what it says when you abuse the quick save option? Pretty short, huh? Games like the Revenge of Shinobi thrived on off-screen enemies which Musashi could see, but the player couldn’t. While the 16-bit era was a bit more forgiving, it was still guided by the previous generation.

Difficulty in games took a dive when developers introduced regular saves and slowly walked away from the concept of limited lives. As this was a counter to previous design philosophy, the essence of Old-school difficulty was lost.

The “Teach You Through Tears” Difficulty

Super Meat Boy. It did things right, many many things. Was it hard? It was bloody insane, but it took all the good and did away with all the bad of the previous category. While games like this could be finished without losing once (again, in theory), they went with the assumption that you would die a lot. The dying is usually a part of your training to be a better player. Any person who has played Super Meat Boy will know what I’m talking about. The Light World is your training for the Dark World. All the later challenges are based on maneuvers you were expected to master in the previous ones.

What makes this a separate category from Old-school? It isn’t hungry for your money, you don’t have to start from square one when you exit the game and it lacks all other silly technical limitations. It’s the “We fixed Old-school” category. A lot of good indie games fall under this one: the previously mentioned Super Meat Boy, VVVVV, Dungeons of Dredmor and a few more.

Some commercial games have also recently delved into this category. Demon’s Souls is extremely brutal, probably too much, but most mistakes you make are your own fault. It’s kinda tricky though, when the multiplayer aspect comes into play, with players invading your world at the worst possible moment, but it does more things right than wrong.

God Hand

The pinnacle of video game challenges. The goal all should strive to work towards. The most perfect and most rewarding difficulty in any game ever. It is the previous category, done flawlessly.

God Hand is a game that loves you. It loves you until you make a mistake, and then it punishes you. But it only does so because it cares for you and wants you to be a better person. Your vision is not obstructed, you are rewarded for playing smart and the difficulty scales based on how well (or bad) you are doing. It is fair. Let me bold that: it is fair. If you fail, you know it is your own fault. It’s not because the game is cruel, it is because you are awful at it. Nobody in their right mind would blame God Hand for their shortcomings.

The dodge mechanic is so precise and simple that you can avoid any threat as long as your reaction time is good enough. The enemies are often visible early enough for you to get prepared and pick them up one by one. In case you are getting sneaked up on from behind, the radar is very accurate. Heck, even enemies hiding behind corners, waiting to beat you up, give you enough reaction time.

Some may say that the random demon spawns from defeated enemies are unfair, but like mentioned before, the dodge mechanic is done so well that they’re merely a difficulty spike.

The game dropped a lot of elements we seem to deem necessary for a good game. Awesome graphics, detailed story… The developers themselves said that all the zaniness was added slowly as the game progressed. The goal was clear in the beginning: make the core polished.

And it shows.

If you do not like God Hand, you have never played it. Either that, or you don’t know a damn thing about video games. It is simple as that. Not all games need to be as hard as God Hand, but they need to take a good look at it and see what rewarding difficulty means. If Silent Hill 2 is the greatest achievement in video game storytelling (it is) and Crysis is the greatest achievement in video game graphics (it is), then God Hand holds the throne as the greatest achievement in video game challenges.

By Miodrag Kovačević

Hailing from the strange land of Serbia, often confused with Siberia, Miodrag has been playing video games, watching cartoons and soaking up trivia his whole life. His first (and to date only) console was a Sega Master System II.


  1. Hi. First of all, I’d like to say that this is a very good article and I agree with most parts of it. I’m a brand new gamer myself (the first serious machine, PS3, acquired just a month ago) and with disappointment I must admit that unfortunately I see almost no or no chances at all for the developers to get the difficulty right.

    I’ve bought four games for the PS3 already. That is: FIFA 11, Transformers: War for Cybertron, Gran Turismo 5 and Portal 2. The first three have the very typical difficulty level system and it’s up to the player to set himself the level of play.

    While this might be a good idea, I find myself setting the lowest difficulty and then storming through like a boss (well, with the exception of GT5; it’s hard to drive a car with two sticks). And in a game like FIFA, this could be a killer for the gameplay.

    I played the FIFA Online beta back in the day, and it had one thing I adored. (At times.) There was overall 20 levels of difficulty, and they rose according to your progress. The bad thing was, if you went on a bad spell (due to various reasons) it would not go down. Ever. And that got frustrating at times.

    With some polishing, I have no doubts that EA could use this very effectively. People would be happy and the AI would be challenging. That would require some tuning, but it would be an awesome addition to video games.

    However, Portal 2… is a different story. The tests, the quintessence of the game, are fabulous. You have everything you need to solve the puzzle in the test chamber. The only two remaining things you need to have are your brain and your reflexes. With that, everything comes together.

    You intuitively know the answer is obvious… but it isn’t. “Come on, I’ve got everything I need” you say to yourself, and you keep trying. And keep trying. If you die, so what? You’ve got your game saved. Try again. Experiment. Until you solve everything.

    [Warning: Mild plot spoiler alert follows]

    The only parts I hated are the old testing track parts. I absolutely hate pixel hunting. And that’s what happens then. You search for a portal surface everywhere to find nothing useful. Unfortunately, I had to resort to video walkthroughs – with the extensivity of the landscape and the number of details, I could not progress. Not a chance. It doesn’t help that you don’t have any hints. Just zoom and try shooting a portal everywhere. It’s a standout. A black sheep, if you will.

    [End of spoiler]

    So, on the end of this lengthy comment – bravo to Valve for doing it almost right, for finding the balance. And shame on you, Electronic Arts, Activision, Polyphony – for taking the easy route. For just throwing on levels – well balanced or not – and not caring about the player.

    1. Dude, the fact that you chose easy to breeze through the game says more about yourself than the game.

      Some people suck at video games but still like playing them, some want as much challenge as they can get, and some are just average. Some games obviously just appeal to one group (bullet hell game easy mode? I don’t think so, Tim), but others it’s not a bad idea to give multiple difficulties. Also, on a second playthrough, one generally wants a harder difficulty anyway (depending on the genre/style, again). How is this “not caring about the player”?

      1. Well, there is some merit to your argument, I’ve got to admit. Consider this though; someone plays a game, sets himself the Medium difficulty. He sees that it’s too easy, so he goes to play Hard, and he can’t take it.

        He obviously wants to enjoy the game, so he has two choices. One, to keep playing on Hard until he gets better or rage quits. But that’ll surely just cause frustration and sooner or later the game will lose its appeal to him.

        And if he goes back to Medium, that’ll make a boring and uninspiring session which will lead to the player essentially stopping play because it’s just too easy.

        That’s why I oppose to the standard 3-difficulty model. It’s not good enough. It leaves a lot of grey areas which kill the enjoyment within the game – a good video game should adapt to the player. With most of today’s video games not worth of getting a second playthrough (why should I re-do the campaign in Transformers three times? To get a bloody trophy?) it is really necessary.

        One footnote though. I am by no means a hardcore player, but I wouldn’t consider myself a casual either. I play games to kill time and enjoy them. I don’t want to get frustrated because of a piece of software and I don’t want to sleep in front of the TV either. It’s a way of spending time, like reading or taking photos, not a lifestyle…

        The casual v hardcore battle is also quite frustrating to me. One group has its own rules, perfect games, etc. so why bother abusing the other? Let the people game Bejeweled if that’s what they want to play. Hell, I think many of the hardcores have played a flash game before. Or a smartphone game. It’s a question of preference.

      2. I guess I can give you that. It is possible for 3 to not be enough, if it starts at easy. I’ve never once even thought about choosing easy, so for me (and many others, I assume), it’s like there’s only two difficulties, which is the problem you stated. So I prefer it when the modes are easy/medium/hard/insane or normal/hard/very hard, or something other of that nature. But in general I’d say it isn’t a problem with the system; it’s more a problem with the devs not thinking the difficulty levels out very well. (and I would rarely buy a movie/tv based game like transformers, if I were you)

        As for hardcore vs. casual, I don’t really have much of an opinion about it. Neither one of them has a real definition, so there’s no real way to argue about it. I would assume I meet most people’s criteria for a hardcore gamer, though. The only time I have any problem with “casuals” is when they come in and complain about a game being too hard when it’s either supposed to be really hard (like super meat boy or something), or when it isn’t even hard at all (terraria is a good example). I wouldn’t go to a Bejeweled forum and complain that it’s not enough of a challenge, so it’d be nice if I got the same respect back.

  2. “Crysis is the greatest achievement in video game graphics (it is)”

    Nope. Metro 2033.

      1. I’d argue on PC it’s Crysis 2 (can’t say about Metro), but on console I’d definitely argue Killzone 2/3’s corner.

        I’ve played Crysis 2 on 360 for a large amount of time, and Killzone 3 moreso. I’ve never been so stunned at a games graphics as I have at Killzone 2/3. I’ve even played highest-end computers and barely been as amazed as I was at KZ2/3. Just incredible, the lighting effects and design are sublime, and the textures are unreal. (I guess the design work is just as important as the actual graphics in this case, but still. I’d easily say Killzone 2 and 3 are the most impressive visually.)

        On your article- excellent stuff. I totally agree. My only shame is that I’ve never played God Hand D=

      2. I have a PS2… seems the average price is circa £20. A bit pricey for me atm. But in future, that shit is getting bought!

  3. Bad article. This is TVTropes-level analysis, with stupid terms like “artificial/fake difficulty” (as opposed to things in games that AREN’T artificial?) and misrepresentation of trial-and-error (the fact that it is POSSIBLE to brute force a puzzle is a separate consideration, and moreover a possible tactic even when there are penalties for failure, given enough time and patience). The worst is the portrayal of arcade games as “cheap,” when the good arcade games were designed to be beatable on a single credit and are “fair,” to use your word.

    It’s also pretty funny to see VVVVVV as an example of “fixed” difficulty when it has save points on practically every screen. I thought “no penalties for failure” was bad? It’s especially amusing considering you mentioned “abusing the quick save option” in the previous section.

    I see a lot of empty assertions–labels that are applied with very little justification. Read TVTropes less, think more.

    1. Someone’s a bit butthurt about TVTropes. But ironically, it seems you’re the one who reads it the most. :P

      You apparently decided when you started reading this article that you would post a scathing comment. And barely read it, just finding stuff to pin together a barely passable argument. You say what you didn’t like, but offer no actual points as to why it’s wrong or why you disagree–except that it’s like TVTropes in your eyes, which is in no way a legitimate point. In some parts you even intentionally feign ignorance of a meaning when you know full well what the author meant. Example: “(as opposed to things in games that AREN’T artificial?)” — This is clearly BS.

      Basically, if you’re gonna waltz in and call the whole article terrible, then get your shit together and actually try to do something besides point fingers and laugh–nobody’s laughing with you.

      1. If you think there are “no actual points as to why it’s wrong,” I suggest you read it again because they’re not hard to spot. Those are the most obvious ones, but it would probably take an article of similar length to go through all the mistakes. My username is also a hint.

        And the fact that people mindlessly throw around the term “artificial difficulty” without thinking about what the words mean IS the point. It’s a nonsensical term. The best you can do to translate it is replace the phrase with “stuff I think is bad,” but people latched onto it as a way to guard their preferences against criticism (“This game is hard in a way I don’t like? Oh, I’ll call it “fake” and say it’s bad design–yeah, it’s definitely a problem with the game and not me”). Again, no consistency.

    2. You may have some valid criticisms, but I’d encourage you to back off, take a breath, then try again with a little less pent-up internet rage to make your point better. I’m sure Miodrag would love to discuss the finer points of this article you disagree with, assuming you drop the arrogance.

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