Challenging Gameplay

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That players experience the gameplay as difficult or challenging their abilities and skills.

Some games are intended to challenge players while others aim at entertaining players in other ways. The typical reason why games are made to have Challenging Gameplay is the idea that the value of succeeding with some task is in proportion to the difficulty of finishing it. The positive psychology concept of Flow[1] can be related to this. It states that people that encounter and, most of the time, overcome challenges in areas where they are skilled experience these events as positive. Designers of games can try to create such challenges by controlling the skills needed for specific gameplay tasks as well as setting the conditions for success or failure.


Go can be played on boards of different sizes: 9x9, 13x13, and 19x19 are the most common. Players can choose the difficulty of a game by choosing the size of the board, as the complexity and thereby the difficulty (and length) of a game grows with the size of the board. However, this does not necessarily balance the game against one's opponent (it may since the sizes require somewhat different skills) so one can also use handicap stones to give one player an initial score advantage and thereby provide Challenging Gameplay to both.

Adventures that can be bought for many types of tabletop roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons are categorized after which levels the players' characters should have. Although a game master may use any adventure for any group of characters straying from the suggested levels are likely to make the challenges too easy or too hard.

Zelda: The Ocarina of Time starts with easy quests that require mastery of very few actions and pose few threats. As players complete the quests, they move on to more challenging quests, and the game can thereby increase the level of difficulty as players show that they have mastered the current level of difficulty.

The Left 4 Dead series allows players to choose different difficulty settings to adjust their gameplay experience in the campaign modes. In Left 4 Dead 2 this can be further be modified by choosing the realism mode, which makes the game more difficult by not highlighting important items in the game world.

Portal makes two more difficult modes of play available after a player has a certain length of the game. Challenge mode is made possible about half way through the game an allows levels to be played with additional goals of minimizing time used, portals used, or footsteps taken. Advanced mode is available after completing the whole game and makes levels more difficult by adding obstacles and hazards.

Some games are well known for being difficult. The 2004 version of the video game Ninja Gaiden has been described as difficult by many reviews[2] due to its combat system while Slaves to Armok II: Dwarf Fortress provides an extremely detailed game system that challenges players' management skills[3].

The choice of car and transmission type in the Need for Speed series allows players to make driving easier or more difficult but this choice has to be put in relation to the performance of the car. This since what is easier to control, e.g. cars with manual transmission, may be less powerful or provide less opportunities to control oneself how the vehicles behave.

Using the pattern

That which is easy for one person might be hard for another so of course it is hard to ensure that all players have the same level of difficulty when gaming. This makes Challenging Gameplay a Subjective Pattern. Although the difficulty of a game is individual to each player, games can be designed so that players can progress according to their own learning curve. Setting Challenging Gameplay in such games can either be done by making challenges more difficult, by making challenges easier, or by controlling which challenges players have to meet. Some general approaches to affecting how hard a game is includes providing Difficulty Levels or Handicap Systems, incorporating Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment or Balancing Effects controlled by Dedicated Game Facilitators, or simply have the game become progressively more difficult and assuming that players will quickly play through the ones that are to easy for them. Which of these are feasible typically depend on other attributes of a game, e.g. if it is a Real-Time Game. Puzzle Solving and Solution Uncertainty are however worthy mentioning specifically since it is an activity where designers have quite good possibilities of controlling how difficult the activities actually are.

Making challenges more difficult can be done by introducing Conflicts through opposition or by making the required player actions more difficult to perform. The actions opposition do can be make reach goals more difficult because they negate what players have done, but they may also interrupt ongoing actions if they are Interruptible Actions. Opposition can take forms ranging from simple Enemies through NPCs to the Preventing Goals of Agents or other players (in Multiplayer Games). Human opposition is often the simplest way of providing Challenging Gameplay, but may need to use Ranking Systems or Handicap Systems to achieve the right level of challenge. Algorithmic Agents puts the difficulty design more under the designers' control but may need fine-tuning through tests. Here, the use of Units is an easy way of calibrating the difficulty simply by varying the number of enemy Units and this can be used together with Spawning to let more Enemies appear; one examples of how this can be done is through the use of Waves. The speed of Spawning and having a maximum number of Units are ways to further calibrate Challenging Gameplay through Spawning. Boss Monsters in contrast can provide more difficult individual opponents and combine this with Narration Structures; this is something often done in Finale Levels. Challenging Gameplay can more generally be applied to Finale Levels and Endgame Quests to increase their significance in a game. In all cases the opponents can both be a way of making Challenging Gameplay exist and a way to modulate how challenging the gameplay is.

General ways of making challenges more difficult are by making the game have Complex Gameplay and give players Limited Planning Abilities, introducing Time Limits for the challenges, changing actions from been done instantaneously to being Combos or Extended Actions, distracting the players through Disruption of Focused Attention events, or forcing players to choose how to perform Attention Swapping. Temporary Ability Losses or Decreased Abilities (for example lowering Skills) can be used to make an otherwise easy challenge be more difficult; while simply increasing the speed which Rhythm-Based Actions need to be performed can also work. Red Herrings can make gameplay challenging since wasting time and resources on them can be disastrous for the outcome of game instances. Movement offer many ways to create Challenging Gameplay: Obstacles can be introduced and Line of Sight can be limited to make Game World Navigation difficult; Resources such as fuel can be limited; acceleration, momentum, and turn radii may need to be considered; and this may have to be done as Maneuvering in Real-Time Games. In games with opponents with matching Capture and Evade this can easily be turned into Challenging Gameplay by giving the other side Privileged Movement. Combat in general provides Challenging Gameplay since opponents resist and may be able to attack back, and this can be complicated further by Friendly Fire, Variable Accuracy, and Enemies with Invulnerabilities or Achilles' Heels. Stealth goals may or may not provide Challenging Gameplay in themselves, but can be made to have more Challenging Gameplay by combining them with Herd goals. Challenging Gameplay can also be created by Varied Gameplay to require players to use different competences. Permadeath can be applied as a general solution for creating Challenging Gameplay since any failure in dangerous tasks can lead to the game session being terminated, while having Spawn Points for resurrected Avatars can lead to Challenging Gameplay in the form of enemy "spawn" Camping if they are not also Safe Havens.

If the gameplay is too challenging it can be made easier, either by providing information about how to solve the challenge or by making the actions of overcoming the challenge easier to perform, for example, by making it easier to identify the Achilles' Heels of Enemies. Information can be given by Clues, Traces, Extra-Game Information, or by letting players discover it themselves through Experimenting. Making challenges easier usually requires some form of Trade-Offs for players in that the Rewards may also be less, and players can be given a this choice through a Selectable Set of Goals or Supporting Goals. The problem of too difficult challenges may also be solved by providing Improved Abilities, better Rewards, including positive Extra-Game Consequences such as acknowledging Goal Achievements (and possibly Grind Achievements based on these). However, these and especially Improved Abilities may make the Challenging Gameplay not so if these have too much effect, so careful balancing is required for these types of design solutions.

Instead of manipulating the difficult of specific challenges in a game the challenges may be removed or not be necessary. This is often done through letting players directly control the difficulty, probably based upon the view that the players can themselves judge if the challenges are appropriate or not. Explicit providing Difficulty Levels is a classic solution which also can let players have Casual Gameplay instead. Optional Goals (e.g. Handicap Achievements) is another possibility since these may be harder that the mandatory ones or just add additional complexity to the existing tasks. An example of the latter is the gaining the Guardin' Gnome Achievement in Left 4 Dead 2 which requires one player to significantly limit his or her abilities throughout most of a campaign as firearms cannot be used against the enemies when carrying the gnome. Supporting Goals, for example trying to find Easter Eggs, do not have to make other goals impossible but may in themselves be difficult to complete. In addition they may take extra time to perform and may deplete Resources for the player. To motivate players to make the gameplay challenging for themselves there is often a Risk/Reward structure so that the greater challenge provides a greater Reward even if this is only seen in Public Player Statistics such as separate High Score Lists or Achievements. Multiplayer Games supporting Drop-In/Drop-Out have a particular problem with Challenging Gameplay in that players may avoid difficult sections of the game by simply not playing them, and to ensure that the players that completed those section feel a Value of Effort compare to the others game designs may use specific extra-game rewards such as Achievements.

Another challenge with keeping Challenging Gameplay lies in that gamers typically learn how to manipulate systems in games simply by playing the games (i.e. they are gaining Gameplay Mastery). When they can do so the gameplay can easily turn into Grinding (and it follows that providing this to begin with in a game counters the idea of Challenging Gameplay). This means that games often need to be designed so that more experienced gamers have, or can have, harder challenges. An easy solution for this is to use Ever Increasing Difficulty. However, this can be problematic for Unwinnable Games or games that are intended to have significant Replayability since these typically allow players to train extensively on particular skills required by the game. Levels are common ways of controlling difficulty in throughout a game, simply by having the Levels become more difficult as the game and Campaign progresses and letting players gain access to them when they show that they have mastered the previous Levels. This however assumes that players do not replay Levels extensively and may therefore interfere with Replayability. A common solution to this (e.g. in the Left 4 Dead series or the Bomberman series) is to reuse Levels from Campaigns for other game modes where the challenging aspects are different, e.g. Multiplayer Competition or Time Limited challenges instead of Single-player Traverse goals.

This problem of Gameplay Mastery has some additional properties in Multiplayer Games and especially so when gamers compete against each other since difference in relevant skills easily disrupt the Player Balance, i.e. make the game too difficult for some gamers and too easy for others. This can be done through Handicap Systems before gameplay begins to make all players have equal possibilities in the game or through Balancing Effects during gameplay, e.g. by Player-Decided Distributions of Rewards or Penalties. The relation between Challenging Gameplay and Multiplayer Games is however more complex since the latter also offers a solution to providing more difficult challenges as a player becomes better at the game; simply play against a better opponent. For this to work players need to be able to find other players of approximately the same skill level; making Trans-Game Information such as Public Player Statistics available in Game Lobbies can be useful for this. Multiplayer Games also offers the design possibility of using Betrayal (e.g. Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game) that can add additional challenge to the gameplay and require more complex Social Interaction. Having one of the players take the role of a Game Masters allows Challenging Gameplay or Casual Gameplay to be present as wanted, as long as the Game Masters can gauge the merit players' plans and adjust the difficulty accordingly.

Another way of providing Challenging Gameplay is to make it complicate when one should play - this can be done by combining Encouraged Return Visits with Continuous Goals and possible Interruptible Actions. This is one way that Grinding can be combined with Challenging Gameplay - the Grinding challenges players to find ways to have as much Player Time Investments as possible.

Diegetic Aspects

Making games more difficult by removing information can be in many cases be done quite easily by removing Geospatial Game Widgets. One example of this is the realism mode in Left 4 Dead 2 where all outlines of important objects in the game world (which can be seen through walls) are removed and thereby finding equipment or the other players become more difficult.

Interface Aspects

Manipulating the way a game is controlled, for example as a Penalty, can easily provide Disruption of Focused Attention and thereby Challenging Gameplay if used. Inverting the controls so that up is down, left is right, etc. is a direct way of doing this and can for example be found as a Penalty for taking the skull Pick-Ups in Bomberman games, as a consequence of becoming a zombie in Zombiepox, or as an attack by the last Boss Monster in Beyond Good and Evil for the Gamecube[4]). Inverted control can relatively easily be adjusted to while using Randomness can provide more of a challenge (c.f. Bozo's Night Out for the C64[5]). Unless the control mappings is reverted back it may however be seen as a new norm and stop being challenging. Switching between many different control mappings can continue to create Challenging Gameplay but may take away the focus on the gameplay itself.

Narration Aspects

If Challenging Gameplay is to be maintained over gameplay time, challenges need to be increasingly more difficult. The makes successful design of Challenging Gameplay provide Higher-Level Closures as Gameplay Progresses in games.


Providing Challenging Gameplay in games typically create Performance Uncertainty. Regardless, this allows players to feel Tension as there is a risk that they may fail, while at the same time offering Empowerment if they have a Determinable Chance to Succeed or an Exaggerated Perception of Influence. However the latter relation is fickle since as soon as players feel that they have no chance of succeeding the gameplay challenge hinder Empowerment and Exaggerated Perception of Influence. Actually reaching goals while having Challenging Gameplay confirms the sense of Empowerment but also provides a Value of Effort. Being able to handle Challenging Gameplay, either measured against ones previous performances or what other players perceive as difficult, is can work as a strong indication that one is gaining Gameplay Mastery. Challenging Gameplay can lead to FUBAR Enjoyment, especially when combined with Real-Time Games, and being able to persevere in these situations is another example of players can feel that they have Gameplay Mastery. Failing Challenging Gameplay is not necessarily a bad experience since this can provide Spectacular Failure Enjoyment.

Even if a game design manages to constantly provide Challenging Gameplay (probably due to the presence of Red Queen Dilemmas), this does not guarantee that it will continue to be interesting for any given gamer, i.e. it does not in itself provide Replayability. If players do not also feel Further Player Improvement Potential improvement in performance is more likely to be attributed to Randomness and thereby making continued gameplay a form of Grinding.

Challenging Gameplay brings with it a strong likelihood that players will fail with actions or goals. This negative experience can, especially if the challenges fail due to failed collaboration, lead to Ragequitting.

Challenging Gameplay can make games difficult to win or complete but the opposite does not need to hold. Games can have Casual Gameplay but still be hard due to Randomness. It is difficult for games with Challenging Gameplay to support Social Adaptability unless the challenges are optional (e.g. through Difficulty Levels) or can be balanced between players (e.g. through Handicaps).


Can Instantiate

Empowerment, FUBAR Enjoyment, Gameplay Mastery, Higher-Level Closures as Gameplay Progresses, Illusion of Influence, Performance Uncertainty, Ragequitting, Spectacular Failure Enjoyment, Tension

Can Modulate

Achievements, Endgame Quests, Finale Levels, Maneuvering, Multiplayer Games, Player Balance, Red Queen Dilemmas, Rhythm-Based Actions, Single-Player Games

Can Be Instantiated By

Agents, Algorithmic Agents, Balancing Effects, Betrayal, Boss Monsters, Combat, Combos, Complex Gameplay, Conflicts, Dedicated Game Facilitators, Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment, Difficulty Levels, Enemies, Ever Increasing Difficulty, Extended Actions, Friendly Fire, Game World Navigation, Game Masters, Handicap Achievements, Handicap Systems, Levels, Limited Planning Ability, Movement, Multiplayer Games, NPCs, Optional Goals, Permadeath, Puzzle Solving, Red Herrings, Selectable Set of Goals, Solution Uncertainty, Spawn Points, Time Limits, Units, Variable Accuracy, Varied Gameplay, Waves

Capture together with Evade and Privileged Movement

Continuous Goals together with Encouraged Return Visits

Grinding together with Player Time Investments

Herd together with Stealth

Can Be Modulated By

Agents, Ability Losses, Algorithmic Agents, Attention Swapping, Clues, Decreased Abilities, Disruption of Focused Attention, Easter Eggs, Enemies, Experimenting, Extra-Game Consequences, Extra-Game Information, Goal Achievements, Improved Abilities, Limited Planning Ability, Multiplayer Games, NPCs, Rewards, Spawning, Supporting Goals, Traces, Trade-Offs

Interruptible Actions in games where Conflicts also exists

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Casual Gameplay, Determinable Chance to Succeed, Exaggerated Perception of Influence, Gameplay Mastery, Geospatial Game Widgets, Grinding, Illusion of Influence, Improved Abilities, Multiplayer Games, Smooth Learning Curves, Social Adaptability


One half of splitting the Right Level of Difficulty pattern from the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[6]. The other half is Casual Gameplay.


  1. Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-06-092820-4
  2. Wikipedia entry for Ninja Gaiden
  3. Wikipedia entry for Dwarf Fortress
  4. IGN guide to Beyond Good and Evil
  5. C64 Wiki entry for Bozo's Night Out
  6. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.


Erik Fagerholt, Jesper Juul, Aki Järvinen, Petri Lankoski, Jonas Linderoth, Johan Peitz