Difficulty in Games: A Question of Accessibility

The Dystrophic team encompasses a variety of video game aptitudes. Some of us avoid the combat aspects of Stardew Valley. Some of us are mid-Plat on Overwatch. We all have different tastes and skill levels when it comes to games, so when we sit down together to play video games, some of us have a better time than others. These nights playing Mario Party, Ultimate Chicken Horse, Speed Runners, or Rocket League (to name a few of our favorites) often lead us to questioning game difficulty and its purpose.

Two branches of the video game experience

In a sense, it’s possible to divide a game into two distinct components -- the mental stimulation of overcoming challenges, and the mental stimulation of experiencing a story. It’s like the difference between completing a Sudoku puzzle and watching a movie.

In another sense, however, these two components are impossible to separate if the true experience of the video game is to be preserved. If you’re really only looking for a story, you could watch a playthrough. If you’re really only looking for the challenges of the gameplay, you could play an equivalent game that had a unicorn-and-bunnies theme instead of a dark medieval game -- but neither of these alternatives would be the same as experiencing that game for yourself. From our perspective, the entire point of video games is that the two can’t be separated. The point of interactive media is that these two experiences were combined into one single thing that exists. Otherwise you have a movie or novel, or a series of disjointed puzzles or combat levels to solve.

Setting expectations

We need games to be difficult for the sense of accomplishment to feel real and rewarding when we overcome their difficulties. But, as mentioned earlier, different people have different abilities when it comes to overcoming difficulties. This is why we feel that setting expectations is another important part of game difficulty. Gamemakers signal to their players in a lot of different ways what the difficulty of their game will be -- sometimes it comes through in marketing, by teasing shots of impossible maneuvering in gameplay or intimidating puzzles for difficult games. Sometimes it comes through in the aesthetic of the game -- the bright colors and cartoonish animations of a Mario game, coupled with Nintendo’s reputation, signals to players that this is a game that anyone can play. Nobody feels that Dark Souls needs to start making easier games, or scalable difficulty -- because being very difficult is expected of them, and therefore, accepted.

For Dystrophic, the role of difficulty in video games is mostly about accessibility. Some games, with a reputation for being difficult, are fine with appealing to a niche audience. And there are some people who would be happy only experiencing the story side of a game experience. We believe in creating a game that’s accessible to as many people as possible, without diluting the core experience. That means understanding the role of difficulty in games, and how to leverage it correctly.


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