Ever get that feeling that there’s something awful lurking in the shadows?  That there is a face in the dark staring at you while you attempt to drift off to sleep?  “Ahh! It’s the boogie man!” many of us think.  We don’t like how we’re feeling so we give our collection of frightened thoughts a name.  The boogie man haunts us all in different ways but we all call him the same.

When on the topic of video games, artificial difficulty is the boogie man.  It’s a term coined years ago that’s been spreading throughout the gaming community like smallpox.  It’s typically used to describe a type of difficulty that is perceived as unfair.  Whether that means enemies are too strong, there are hidden traps that blow you to bits with no warning whatsoever or an NPC has tools that the players do not.  Frankly, I’ve heard a lot of different definitions of what people think artificial difficulty means and the only thing that has remained consistent through all of them is “The difficulty doesn’t feel fun.”

ghost n gobs

In the spirit of the boogie man, let’s kick this off with the OG of difficult video games, Ghosts ‘n Goblins.  This game kicked my ass as a child.  Ghosts ‘n Goblins required an immense amount of trial and error.  Some enemies had a ton of health and some weapons were complete trash. The brave protagonist could only sustain two hits before dying and having to restart the whole level, no checkpoints.  If Ghosts n’ Goblins came out in the last 10 years I am certain there would be a vocal crowd of crybabies stating that it’s artificially difficult.  Ghost ‘n Goblins is hard, it’s frustrating, it’s sadistic and it will punish you in the most cruel ways but It is as real as it gets.  I have the scars to prove it.

Throughout the game there are multiple intentional traps such as being offered weapons that are absolutely terrible and will only make it harder to achieve your goal.  There are enemies who fly overhead while spraying projectiles toward you and guess what? You don’t have any attacks that can reach them until they swoop down and are one pixel away from teabagging you in the mouth.  Worst of all is that when you do finally defeat the devil after many deaths and much frustration, the game reveals that it was all just an illusion.  Go back to start and do it again.  This was the biggest middle finger to players in gaming history and why Ghosts N’ Goblins is widely considered the most brutal game of all time.

middle finger

While Ghosts ‘N Goblins may be hard and unfair for a variety of reasons, why should we call it artificial?  Is “artificial” synonymous with “unfair”?  I don’t think so.  What about “Not fun”?  Still, no.  That’s how people seem to use the term when criticizing a game with poorly implemented difficulty and I am tired of it.

The same sobbing toddlers who quit Ghouls n’ Ghosts grew into the whining adults who quit Dark Souls and say it’s artificially difficult.  Their reasons always boil down to the same things – it’s harsh, unfair and unpredictable.  One of the main culprits that will receive blame in games like these are the seemingly random events that surprise and punish players.  This type of gameplay is a punch to the balls but is also designed to teach players what to expect in similar settings later on.  This type of difficulty is often regarded as…

TRIAL AND ERROR / MEMORIZATION 

All games require at least some degree of knowledge in order to be successful.  Whether that means learning what attacks your enemies are capable of, what different stats effect, what different weapons do or where to go to find the best treasure.  Whatever the case may be, none of these mechanics that build a learning curve should be labeled artificial.  They are pieces of a puzzle that must be learned in order to complete the challenges ahead.  Sometimes one of those puzzle pieces will grow a pair of buff biceps and punch you in the nose, but you are meant to learn from this encounter and prepare for these sorts of meathead jerks in attempts to come.  Knowledge doesn’t come freely.  As you play more and as you die more, you are meant to adapt and overcome.

You may be playing a game where you’re piloting a space ship and get a distress signal from a crew being attacked by giant alien spiders.  Do you help them or abandon them?  You’re a god damned hero and you know you are, so of course you’re going to rescue them.  Whoops, game over idiot.  Giant alien spiders are no joke – which the game did tell you – but you didn’t listen.  Sometimes you just have to learn the hard way.  This is an example of a trap intentionally created by developers to sodomize you – A.K.A a meathead jerk puzzle piece.  Next time around, you’ll know to not mess with the giant alien spiders.

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3. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, i’m getting the hell out of here.

A lot of gamers feel cheated when they are tricked into making certain decisions that place them in situations they can not win.  Despite how intuitive and perceptive they may be, there may be no indication of the danger that lurks ahead.  Anyone familiar with roguelikes knows that memorization and trial and error are very important and very legitimate parts of the game.  Not all games are meant to be beaten in just one life and not all encounters are scripted.  Surprise events force players to adapt on the fly, creating an unpredictable and exciting atmosphere.

Getting your ass kicked is a learning experience.  Applying what you’ve learned to turn the tables next time around is a rewarding and fun experience.  Obviously not everyone has fun in the same way, but there is an entire genre of games dedicated to randomized events and a punishing learning curve.  It’s definitely not artificial and serves as an engaging tool if used correctly.

Among the many tools used to adjust difficulty there is one that is more commonly misused then any other.  This is the elephant in the room and the first thing many people think of when “artificial difficulty” is mentioned…

SCALING ENEMY DAMAGE AND HEALTH

We’ve all played games that are guilty of overtuning enemy health and damage and we can all agree that it’s never fun.  Ideally enemies would become more intelligent with harder difficulties, but how smart AI can become in any given game has its limit.  When enemies reach the height of their IQ the only tool left to make them more powerful is the scaling of their damage and health or how plentiful they are.  These numbers often get completely out of whack in a lot of different games and it can create for a pretty frustrating experience.

Enemies doing more damage generally means players die faster and fights are shorter, while enemies having more health has the complete opposite effect.  It’s fair for a boss fight to take longer on harder difficulties because bosses are typically interesting and dynamic encounters.  Health scaling is used in just about any game, but if it’s done correctly it’s not very noticeable.

Unfortunately too many developers get the wrong idea and while giving bosses and threatening enemies more health, cannon fodder enemies are given much more health as well.  Whether it’s a celebration of communism or a form of affirmative action, it’s got no place in video games.  Weak enemies should generally remain weak.  They don’t have attacks that make them threatening or interesting so it’s not fun dedicating any significant amount of time to killing them.  Nobody has ever had fun emptying an entire clip into the weakest enemy in the game and nobody ever will.

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That said, requiring a full clip to kill even the weakest enemies definitely makes the game harder.  Is that accomplished in a fun, engaging or meaningful way?  I don’t think so.  Does that mean the difficulty is artificial?  Still, no.  The mechanics determining difficulty not being fun does not also make them artificial.  Despite the frustration associated with bullet sponges, immense amounts of health are just another way to challenge players to be efficient and creative in order to achieve victory.

Players may be forced to devise unorthodox strategies in order to win, but is that not the most true test of difficulty?  To have the odds stacked against you where you’re given no choice but to use every possible tactic at your disposal?  We’ve all played games where we’ve had bags full of potions and pheonix downs that we save “for what we need them”, but we never do.  We don’t need them because few games really push us to use everything at our disposal to win, because few games are challenging anymore.

Most games now have difficulty settings that allow players to choose what kind of experience they want.  Normal is typically the standard and most balanced experience, while hard mode or above is more of a dice roll.  Some games put a lot of attention into the higher difficulties while some feel tacked on.  The one thing that’s true of  all games is that they are beatable.  No matter how bullshit the difficulty might be, you can still win.  It may be unfair, it may not be fun, it may be frustrating but it sure as heck isn’t fake.

Gamers have allowed their frustrations to manifest into the boogie man.  Artificial difficulty didn’t exist until it caught on a few years ago.  Before that time, people actually examined what made the game hard and why they felt it was unfair or not fun.  For any game you may become frustrated with there are going to be reasons why.  Attempting to identify those reasons helps promote meaningful discussion.  There is always a better word to describe your grievances with a games difficulty other then “artificial”.   Tossing a blanket over mechanics you don’t like and calling them artificial only discourages the sort of dialogue that could be helpful in achieving a heightened understanding of what actually makes certain types of difficulty feel fun or not fun.

The boogie man is not real, your dog didn’t go to live on a big farm with hundreds of other playful dogs, your parents were Santa Clause and artificial difficulty doesn’t exist.

 

About The Author

Luke

I'm into massive multiplayer online gaming communities. My online alter ego is 18 feet tall and has wings like an angels, but also like a demons. His name is Yogzula. Yogzula can fuck anything and he will and has. Women. Devils. Angels. Animals. If you meet me online by Grub's tavern, I will show you where the treasure is hidden.

12 Responses

  1. yume

    I believe that the “unfun” aspect simply scaling mob HP and damage stems from the fact that it makes playing on a higher difficulty feel pointless. For example, if I play Skyrim on Normal, I can have a quick, somewhat enjoyable experience. If I play it on Difficult (or whatever the hardmode is named), I am stuck in the exact same boring combat for a longer period of time. As such, it seems pointless to play on a higher difficulty since there is no substantial change to the gameplay. Medals aren’t (or shouldn’t be) awarded for doing the same thing for fighting the same boss for an extra five minutes. Part of why the issue of scaling being the way that Bethesda increases difficulty bothers me so much is that I strongly dislike their clunky combat systems. If I am made to engage in more clunky combat and for longer, that makes the game unfun.

    Reply
  2. Luke VanTrieste
    Luke VanTrieste

    Completely agree and bethesda games are a prime example of health being overtuned too much on harder difficulties without any effort to tune anything else. Skyrim and fallout could absolutely spawn more NPCs instead of making the handful of the ones you do encounter have a ton of hp, but they don’t. I think it’s an example of developers being lazy and not really caring to tune the difficulty options properly.

    The only saving grace in those games is that you can change the difficulty whenever you want to. So lets say you get really strong for some reason and start one shotting things, well, maybe you don’t want to do that. So you can adjust how many hits it will take you to kill an enemy. Or perhaps you’re really weak and want to tune the difficulty down.

    Because fallout and skyrim are role playing games before anything else, that might be why they allow the difficulty to be scaled with a sliding bar that strictly tunes enemy health.

    Reply
    • masq
      masq

      Basically that and what Yume mentioned earlier. You hold mouse 1 for about 90% of the game while strafing like a madman spraying bullets into enemies. Difficulty is scaled by HP, and playing at the highest difficulty seems a bit pointless because it just makes enemies soak up bullets longer than they should, while not posing any real threat beyond that.

      Reply
  3. John Lusky
    John Lusky

    Skyrim is a game I never wanted to turn the difficulty level up on. It never made the game more fun. It was more challenging, but in a why am I even bothering kind of way. I really didn’t play that game for a crazy challenge though. I played more for the adventure and story, so I didn’t think it was a huge deal.

    Also the Spongebob gif makes me laugh every single time I see it.

    Reply
  4. Luke VanTrieste
    Luke VanTrieste

    Yeah like I said I don’t think anyone likes bullet sponge enemies and they don’t really add anything meaningful to the way difficulty is scaled. It doesn’t feel fun in anyway – it mostly feels tedious, cheap and lazy.

    There are certain games that just weren’t built for difficulty. Skyrim is a good example. It’s an exploration RPG. The combat system is incredibly basic and rather dull. If it controlled like god of war or darksiders or any action hack and slash style game then it’s reasonable to expect the difficulty to be tuned for smooth, fast paced combat controls. Skyrim’s controls are anything but that. They’re slow, clunky, hard to navigate and generally limited so that it’s impossible for any real “fun” difficulty no matter what they did.

    Reply
    • John Lusky
      John Lusky

      Another interesting example would be Destiny. I know you’ve never played it, but it’s been accused of having bullet-sponge bosses. There’s no doubt about it because Destiny bosses have a ton of HP and can take forever to kill. I give it a pass though, because they try to make the boss’ abilities interesting enough that it takes focus and concentration to kill them.

      The devs put a lot of effort into making maps that you can’t just camp in one spot or jump in and out of cover until you win. Enemies spawn to support the boss all over the place, and they’ll drive you out of cover and all over the map, sometimes frantically trying to find a safe place to recharge your shields. I don’t mind the huge HP in these cases because you have to switch targets constantly, keep an eye on your ammo (because you do run out and in some cases that screws you), and keep moving and being creative in staying alive. There’s a good bit of strategy involved in completing strike missions.

      Reply
  5. Luke VanTrieste
    Luke VanTrieste

    Increasing HP especially on bosses can be meaningful. It just prolongs the fight so that you have to be more mindful of your limited resources, as well as evade more attacks. Because bosses are typically more interesting fights I see it as less of a problem.

    When the basic enemy who has one type of attack takes any more than a few seconds to kill, then we have a problem.

    Reply
  6. Whitemoon
    Whitemoon

    Bullet sponge enemies are the reason I got burnt out on Borderlands and just quit.

    I think it does definitely depend on how the combat in the game flows or how fun it can be. In Rogue Legacy I found the HP scaling very appropriate. You are constantly upgrading your equipment and stats, but most importantly by the time enemy health becomes problematic you have played the game long enough to have mastery of the controls and combat. It still feels fun. Great pacing in a game’s difficulty curve is also important.

    Reply

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