Difficulty Levels

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Controls in a game for letting player choose how difficult the gameplay should be.

To be enjoyable, a game being played needs to have a difficulty fitting the challenge its players wishes to have. Many games try to solve this by steadily become more difficult as gameplay progresses under the assumption that players are getting more skilled - which can be described as keeping the players in the Flow channel[1]. This does however not solve the case of games that are replayed since they start at a higher skill level. Difficulty Settings are design options that allow players to modify the difficulty to what they perceive as being their right level, which may be harder than normal if they are skilled but also easier than normal if they are not used to the type of game or simply want a more relaxing experience.


The Doom series lets players choose between five different Difficulty Levels: I'm Too Young To Die, Hey, Not Too Rough, Hurt Me Plenty, Ultra-Violence, and Nightmare. These differ by the number of monsters encountered (or their strength), ammunition available for weapons, the speed of monsters and damage taken from their attacks, and how often they respawn. Left 4 Dead series lets players choose between Easy, Normal, Advanced, and Expert when playing, and this affects the speed, strength, and health of the "infected" as well as how often hordes of them attack players. In addition, players of Left 4 Dead 2 can choose to use the Realism Mode in which the game does not provide non-diegetic information about where the other players or supplies are.

The Hearts of Iron series of grand strategy games let players select Difficulty Levels ranging from Very Easy to Very Hard. These affect the number of manpower available, industrial capabilities, availability of resources, revolt risks, and efficiency of naval bases and supply networks.

Difficulty Levels can also be found in board games. Space Alert lets players choose difficulty simply by choosing between different scenarios (the actual challenges are randomized, so it is the structures that are chosen by selecting particular scenarios). Players of Pandemic can increase the level of difficulty in games by seeding card stacks with additional "epidemic" cards while in Forbidden Island one can make it harder to win by starting with a higher water level.

Using the pattern

Designing Difficulty Levels consists of deciding on different types of modifications to the gameplay that should be used to describe different levels of difficulty. The options naturally depend on what values are handled by the game system, but generally Decreased Abilities or Improved Abilities form the basis for creating a difficulty level. For Multiplayer Games a general choice also exists regarding if all players need to have the same difficulty setting or not - if they do not have to have this then Difficulty Levels provide a Handicap System (as they do in any Single-Player Game). Difficulty Levels can also be created by having game features as Optional Rules. For example, systems that offer Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment or Player/System Action Composites to players as options let players choose to make the games easier by using them. In contrast, the possibility of switching if Friendly Fire is on and off in games with Teams can make games harder or easier depending what is the norm.

Examples of more specific modifications include to change how much Health players have, introduce general multipliers to Damage taken or given, make Ammunition or Tools that restore Health more or less common, change the numbers of Enemies encountered and how often Spawning occurs, as well as modifying the skill of AI Players and Algorithmic Agents controlling Enemies. In games with Teams, limiting the possibilities for Coordination is a way to make gameplay more difficulty. The Realism Mode in Left 4 Dead 2 is an example of this, but also shows that Difficulty Levels do not have to be simply choices along one scale. In this case the use of Geospatial Game Widgets are severely districted and thereby makes Coordination more difficult. Board games requiring no dexterity and with Perfect Information provide a very specific form of difficulty setting - that of not using any Tokens and thereby requiring some or all player to continuously having to engage in Memorizing the game state. Chess played in this way is called Blindfold Chess. The use of Permadeath in games can be the basis for additional Difficulty Levels; Diablo II and the hardcore version of BatMUD are examples of this. For games that allow Saving, such as Diablo II but also the X-COM series, this also requires enforcing the use of only one save slot per game instance to avoid Save-Load Cycles (and especially Save Scumming) since this breaks the intended Difficulty Level. It should however be noted that Difficulty Levels may be re-modified when Save Scumming has been detected to encourage players to try and beat challenges through gameplay rather than Save-Load Cycles through modifying the gameplay challenges in other ways than the previous Difficulty Levels did.

The use of Asymmetric Starting Conditions for Abstract Player Constructs such as countries are often based upon the setting of the games - not all countries in the Hearts of Iron series have equal possibilities to handle the turmoil of the Second World War and, as the name suggests, not all countries in the Europa Universalis series were posed to be able and expand their influence between the 15th and 19th century AD.

While Difficulty Levels in themselves do not provide explicit goals in games (they modulate the ones that exist), an except can be found when they are used together with Goal Achievements. In these cases, i.e. when there exists Goal Achievements tied to specific Difficulty Levels as for example done in Torchlight, they do give rise to the presence of Handicap Achievements.

In games with Sanctioned Cheating, Difficulty Levels can make use of these to provide different difficulties by disallowing some types of cheating. For example, starting a game in ironman mode in the Europa Universalis series disallows the use of the various cheats accessible normally through the Command Line System) (besides hindering Save-Load Cycles).

Interface Aspects

The setting of Difficulty Levels is typically done either in Secondary Interface Screens, or, for Multiplayer Games, in Game Lobbies.


Difficulty Levels are a form of Handicap System, and since players can choose to deviate from the standard they also represent a form of Optional Rules. They give players a Freedom of Choice to have either Casual or Challenging Gameplay, as well as set the level of Framed Freedom they wish to have if some freedom exists to begin with. When players use Difficulty Levels to gradual increase the levels as they get better, this use of the pattern allows for Smooth Learning Curves that can be used to develop Gameplay Mastery. However, this is under the responsibility of players that this occurs - Difficulty Levels can as easily work against Gameplay Mastery if players are tempted to play on easy levels to complete or dominate the game.

Negotiable Game Sessions can be supported through Difficulty Levels since they can both change the amount of challenges that need to be overcome as well as making it less likely than one fails and has to redo parts of a game.

As mentioned above, Difficulty Levels can be combined with Goal Achievements to create Handicap Achievements.

Difficulty Levels provide a weak form of Social Adaptability in games since players have a basic level of influence in what the game will require from them. It also provide a weak form of Further Player Improvement Potential since players that have completed a game on a certain level can try to do so again on a higher level. This is a weak form since the highest difficulty level does show a clear limit on how much players can improve their gameplay skills.


Can Instantiate

Challenging Gameplay, Casual Gameplay, Freedom of Choice, Further Player Improvement Potential, Gameplay Mastery, Handicap Systems, Negotiable Game Sessions, Optional Rules, Smooth Learning Curves, Social Adaptability, Permadeath

with Goal Achievements

Handicap Achievements

Can Modulate

AI Players, Algorithmic Agents, Ammunition, Framed Freedom, Geospatial Game Widgets, Damage, Enemies, Game Lobbies, Health, Sanctioned Cheating, Secondary Interface Screens, Saving, Spawning, Tools

with Teams


Can Be Instantiated By

Decreased Abilities, Improved Abilities

Asymmetric Starting Conditions together with Characters or Abstract Player Constructs

Memorizing together with Perfect Information

Optional Rules together with Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment, Friendly Fire, or Player/System Action Composites

Can Be Modulated By


Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Gameplay Mastery, Save Scumming, Save-Load Cycles


New pattern created in this wiki.


  1. Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-06-092820-4.