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Are Games Getting Easier? Where'd the Difficulty Go!?

This October I'll be giving a talk at Dreamhack in Denver about game difficulty, if games are really getting easier, why, and how can we design games to be difficult again. 

However, most of you ModMic fans can't fly out to Denver just to hear me prattle on for an hour or so. And, since I don't know if a recording will be made available, I figured everyone can get a preview before the event. This will certainly be the shorter version, but I'll do my best to hit the key points. The real presentation has a lot more numbers in it, and a couple extra dad jokes because I am unable to resist the allure.

A Brief History of Game Difficulty

Between 1978 and 1982 we enter what is now called the golden age of arcades. 

To put it in perspective, by 1982 game revenue was greater than music and movie sales COMBINED.
Arcades operated on a pretty simple design philosophy, the more quarters per hour the better the game.


And then there was this quote from a user in our Discord channel:


Now at first this seems like a logical and pointed statement. However, we have to realize that it is the confluence of the business model and a physical limitation that drove us EXACTLY to make this adage "true." 

Hard drive space, or ROM space in the case of an arcade cabinet was EXPENSIVE. Ms. Pac Man used a 16kb board. While not apples to apples, the 16kb IBM 5051 cost $4,200 (adjusted for inflation). I was unable to find the actual price of a Ms. Pac Man machine.

It literally cost more money to make games longer.

So making a game harder not only made you spend more quarters per minute, it ALSO made it actually cheaper to manufacture!

And so the games that defined our industry, from Space Invaders to Dragon's Lair focused on incredibly high skill ceilings and straight up punishing difficulty. Spoiler alert, punishing difficulty is not usually considered good design.

After the collapse of Atari and the rise of Nintendo we start seeing the first signs of a larger, more diverse audience and for the first time in the mass market games like Final Fantasy that focused on things like story over... well, gameplay.

Even though it is in the title of the chart, this is just made up nonsense to show a point

It turns out the larger market in games is not games that are punishingly difficult, or even difficult AT ALL. Making difficult games is ... difficult! So, with a higher difficulty to create good, hard, games and a smaller overall market, they really start getting hedged out.

And so, yes, the average game difficulty has come down dramatically. That doesn't mean difficulty has gone away, and by and large the average game has become flat out better designed since our "golden age" of arcade games. With changes to how we develop games we're starting to see difficulty come back into the limelight in a new and less punishing way.

Game Design for Difficulty

At its core, I like to teach that difficulty of a game diverges into two parts. The User Experience and The World Experience.

The User Experience

Basically the user experience is how you directly interact with a set of tools to achieve your game objective. Tools, in this case, could be a set of weapons, a portal gun, whatever. The higher the skill ceiling on the required tools to win, the more difficult the game.

Perhaps counter-intuitively to some, the tools required to win should be the most difficult to master.

It was only a matter of time: Dark Souls


You can WIN at Dark Souls with nothing but ANY weapon in the game and the dodge-roll.

Those are the required tools and the skill ceiling to win in this way is incredibly high. 

Every other tool, especially the Shield and Magic has a lower skill ceiling and makes the game easier. 

When we combine the required tools time to master we get the overall feeling of difficulty.

The longer it takes to master the key tools, the more difficult your game will feel.

Once you have your core difficulty, add in a few tools that have a lower skill ceiling and presto, you have varying difficulty that isn't as overt as slapping a big "Easy Mode" button in your options menu.

The World Experience

The rules that the world follows I categorize as the World Experience. The primary goal of the world experience is to reduce the frustration in tool mastery.

The #1 item is Consistent Rules.

If the AI cheats in a way that is clearly not following the same rules the player is forced to, it immediately generates a feeling of frustration. It doesn't matter if its intentional or a bug, it is equally frustrating. When Civ 6 launched the AI encampment could shoot you before it was even done being built. RAGE!

If it weren't for the fact that Civ 6's AI was so terrible this would have made me rage quit.


The #2 item is Telegraphing.

This is the art of telling people what is about to happen and then making it happen. It can be minutes in advance or miliseconds in advance. When you ambush a player with something they had no warning of nor way to avoid you're getting further into frustrating territory.

This is something that the aformentioned Punch Out does great. Every boxer has a tell that lets you know not only from what direction, but which actual punch they're about to throw. You screw up it is because you were too slow. 

In Punch-Out's Tyson fight we're talking milliseconds of warning, though admittedly the above video the person cheats by using an emulator and slowing him down, so don't gawk TOO hard at that cheater's video (I'll never beat Tyson without cheating, I have given up).

Punch Out is far from perfect, but great one example of how we've been practicing telegraphing in games for quite some time now. For additional examples watch how MegaMan has enemies show their attack before they can hit you or how in an action movie an actor will pull his arm back for a big punch (unless its Bruce Lee).


The #3 item is Time to Return

The basic idea here is that punishing the player for making it take a long time to get back to where you lost is flat out terrible design. The shorter the TTR, the less frustrating losing feels. This is where NES Punch Out fails big time. If you lose in the circuit fight you have to re-fight 3 boxers to get back to where you were. Heck, earlier games with no codes at all could cost you hours of play. 

The feeling of overcoming a new obstacle makes us feel good. Repeating an old obstacle makes us feel bored.

These are the factors, as gamers or game developers, we should be watching for when we want difficult games. Games that have good difficulty and cohesive world and user experiences will be rewarded!

So, are games getting easier?

YES! Of course they are! 

As a % of total games there are more easy games than hard ones because that is what the market wants. However, there's still PLENTY of good, difficult, "modern" games. Here's some to get you going!

Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup (Roguelike, FREE!)

Dwarf Fortress (Top Down Survival, FREE!)

Rimworld (Top Down Survival, a lot easier than Dwarf Fortress to get into)

Any CAVE Shooter, (SHMUP Bullet Hell, Mushihimesama being the hardest)

Dark Souls (Third Person ARPG, Of course)

Sunless Sea (Top Down ... er.... naval survival?)

Darkest Dungeon (Side-Scrolling RPG)

Suggest some more in the comments below or in our Discord Channel and I'll add them to the list!


Edit: Here's some user recomendations!


Xcom (Turn based tactical - He didn't specify, but I suspect he meant the remake, though the original is ALSO difficult, just not modern)

FTL (Roguelike)

Super Meat Boy (Platformer)

Mud and Blood 2 (RTS of sorts?)


Cuphead (Beat em Up, which literally hadn't even launched when I wrote this)

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