Change game difficulty during gameplay - pros, and cons?

Jragyn

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How it will affect the gameplay?
What are the advantages and the downsides of that?
Should I limit the changes somehow?
Generally speaking, while it is almost philosophical to discuss difficulty in games these days, especially when the user can change it (anytime or only at the beginning), I think the most important part is just to be very deliberate about what each difficulty mode is intended to accomplish. I also would probably not recommend introducing a difficulty system of any kind that messes with stats/features/gameplay until you're nailed the rest of the game down, as that would almost always define "normal" mode, whatever "normal" means to you (typically 'default' is how i envision it).

After nailing the game down, you can then sort out what even a "difficulty system" would be, as it most certainly doesn't have to be the conventional easy/normal/hard type stuff. Hades is the first game that pops to mind that has a difficulty system of sorts, but rather than just choosing easy/normal/hard, it instead offers specific things that can make it harder (or easier in some cases) for the player to progress through their gameplay, such as adding extra enemies to areas, less time to complete the journey (as you described), or giving bosses new abilities.

As long as its fun and meaningful, I say have fun with it.
After you've wrapped up the main gameplay.
 

Soulrender

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Keep as is. Honestly most players will not do that unless they find the boss too hard or the boss takes way too long to defeat due to HP bloat. Both are things you can control anyways in dev
And I'll do that.
Can I ask why you are offering optional difficulty modes in the first place? Does it include an easy and hard mode for struggling players and players craving more challenge? Or is it only normal mode with the option to play harder modes for hardcore players?
But of course. I could elaborate on that for hours, but the main issue that comes to attention is that not all potential players are the same - one is a core player and likes challenges, while others prefer an easy walk, finding a perfect spot between these two types of the player is almost impossible, that is why I implemented that feature - balancing game and picking a difficulty level are two different things.
So the most reasonable solution was... Difficulty levels that affect not only HP/Damage of enemies but many other aspects of my game.
Okay...what if? I just don't see why you would care.
Actually, you nailed me here and you are 100% right. That's a good question. Why should I care?
Let the player decide how to play.
 

KoldBlood

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But of course. I could elaborate on that for hours, but the main issue that comes to attention is that not all potential players are the same - one is a core player and likes challenges, while others prefer an easy walk, finding a perfect spot between these two types of the player is almost impossible, that is why I implemented that feature - balancing game and picking a difficulty level are two different things.
So the most reasonable solution was... Difficulty levels that affect not only HP/Damage of enemies but many other aspects of my game.
Thanks for the clarification. If the difficulty mode is only used for player comfort/preference then it won't matter which one they pick or if they switch mid-game. So I wouldn't worry about it, I think you're good there.

After reading back over your explanations of what your difficulty modes will modify I think you'll be ok for the most part. The only thing that makes me a little nervous (dev-wise) is the modified rate for Exp and Gold. If your game relies heavily on levels messing with Exp rate could throw things off balance making things grindy or steamrolly (<- definitely not a real word) on different difficulties which could be jarring. The gold rate could also easily mess with the game's economy as well (unless item/equipment prices are also scaling, then maybe it won't matter?).

I can't speak on the modified MP/TP rates for skills since I've never used or seen that used that as a balancing factor for difficulty modes before. I'm actually interested to see how that plays out in practice.
 

Soulrender

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@KoldBlood, Nah, everything is calculated in a particular way, so the player won't feel a difference with exp/gold, besides, in further levels (chapters) player eventually will meet another party member, Marceline, a fairy godmother with the ability "Transmutation" so she can instantly kill an enemy and turn opponents soul into gold - sounds like an OP skill? at first YES! but it has limitations:

- Cannot use on monsters with levels higher than 5, bosses, demi-bosses, and deities.
- Skill can backfire, dealing to Marceline damage equal to gold set for enemy in database.
- Delay (in turns) between usage is 5 turns (battle usually lasts 20 turns)
- Skill can be used only two times and require to be recharged for the next battles.
- Skill cannot be activated when HP is below 25%
- Each usage - regardless of the result - slows down MP regeneration.
- If any of the negative effects (states) is applied to Marceline, "Transmutation" also cannot be used.

(PS - forgot to add skills descriptions for her...)

The game is still in its infancy because I'm strictly everything checking (barely half of the game is done and since I started this project passed 3 years)
 

Stapleton

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Well there is another factor to consider. A good challenge in a video game is essential. The main way to accomplish this is to limit what the player has access to. Rogue-like games for example. If you put a save around every corner in a rogue-like game, it will fail to be a rogue-like game and it will fail to appeal to people who want a STATIC challenge.

If you offer a way to change difficulty level at ANY time, then defeating something hard after REALLY trying to beat it won't feel rewarding from the games aspect but rather that you had the discipline to resist turning the difficulty down.

It really depends what type of game you want. Casual (sure difficulty, save scumming, and other ways to make it easier) makes sense. Do you want it to offer a generic challenge without forcing the player to resist the ability to save-scum or difficulty-scum (I dunno if those are words but whatever lol).
I offered a way to change the difficulty in my first game. Since it wasn't casual, you could only switch it to be easier. NEVER harder. So you couldn't switch it back and forth. Also there are achievements for completing the game on harder difficulties to give incentive to stick it out!
 
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TheAM-Dol

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Looks like there have already been a great number of responses - which I didn't read all of them, so sorry if my opinion is just parroting what others have said already or if someone has brought up something similar:
In my opinion, any negative for players not being able to adjust the difficulty on the fly is pretty much outweighed by the positive of being able to.

I believe it was Mark Brown who had said: 'what does the difficulty even mean?' When starting a new game.
You can provide cute descriptions that try to inform the players of what to expect, but they truly won't know how the game actually feels until they have played it. So allowing them to change difficulty midway can help them make a more informed decision about the difficulty level they want without having to completely restart the game.



A bad example of preventing players from changing difficulty I recently experienced was from Bioshock: Infinite and it's DLC, Burial at Sea.
I had picked up the whole trilogy for dirt cheap during the winter sale and found playing through Bioshock 2 relatively easy for my skill level on normal difficulty.
So when I moved on to Bioshock: Infinite, I started the game on Hard thinking that it would provide a better challenge and therefore more fun to play. It was still relatively easy, but better than my experience with Bioshock 2.
So when I moved on to the DLC, Burial at Sea...this is where problems happened. Because my experience with the main game was it being a pretty easy even on the hardest difficulty, I set the game to hard for the DLC where now suddenly hard meant something entirely different for the DLC than the main game. The balance was completely different and felt more like a test of patience than an actual challenge. Were I able to adjust the difficulty midway, I would have lowered it, unfortunately I was stuck with either: just giving up, struggling through, or restarting from the beginning with a lower difficulty. I chose the first option: give up and quit. I never finished Burial at Sea.



So that's all to say, even within the same franchise, or even the very same game, difficulty means nothing until the player is actually in the moment experiencing it.

Some games I've seen at the start ask you to pick a difficulty, then moments after the tutorial level ask if you would like to raise or lower the difficulty, but I also still find this as a bad compromise for the problem because - depending on your game's complexity - the player likely hasn't seen all the mechanics in your game and therefore won't get a real taste of it's difficulty until, well...probably much later than just the tutorial.



I think I saw someone mention in this thread that RPG's have leveling to offset difficulty. Theoretically, if the game is too easy, just don't fight, and if the game is too hard, just grind. But this really is a fools errand.
If the game is too easy, so you just expect players not to fight, well...then you are basically telling your players "don't play the game." Regardless, exp is embedded into the core nature of most RPGs and therefore I doubt it would be possible to not level up at all - not without pulling some gymnastics to avoid it that I doubt most players would want to execute just so they can maintain a level of challenge they prefer.
Likewise, for those finding the challenge too difficult and you ask them to grind...well, basically you're asking them to stop progressing with your game's story so they can do a mindless activity. A little bit of grinding is probably not too bad, but depending on how severely crippled the player feels in comparison to your game's challenge level, the grinding could amount to a multi-hour chore. And what you have effectively done in both of these scenarios is given your player a chance to ask this question:
"Do I want to keep playing, or should I just play something else?" You have created a quit moment just like myself with Bioshock.

So, if it's not clear already: Always allow players to adjust the difficulty during game play.



On a similar note, but somewhat unrelated:
Don't be that guy who locks higher difficulties behind game completion. Every chance I can get to bring up Blue Reflection, I will, and this is one of those moments.

I love this game, but even on it's normal difficulty, the power your characters gain quickly over power any challenge, making every combat encounter mindless, and totally negating thoughtfully built equipment sets since the difficulty is so low there is no reason to waste the time and energy on carefully considering what you equip. The first game was like this, and if the second game had let me, I would have started the game on hard mode from the very start, unfortunately, in order to unlock hard mode, you have to complete this 60 hour JRPG and I couldn't be asked to replay another 60 hours just so I can finally enjoy a difficulty level that is more appropriate for my skill level. If you want to lock special difficulty modes like 1 hit KO modes like 'Dante Must Die', that's fine. But your basic Easy/Medium/Hard(maybe add a "very hard" in there too) should never be locked.
 

KoldBlood

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@Soulrender Sounds like you've got your bases mostly covered then. :thumbsup-right:

BTW, I like the fairy godmother idea, never seen that before. That skill's also pretty detailed and seems like it's got some specific situations in mind.

(barely half of the game is done and since I started this project passed 3 years)
Dude, same. I've been working on mine forever (since VX <- yeah the one before Ace, then ported to Ace). It's been a struggle for dev time between work and life but I'm getting it done, one database entry at a time. LOL

Good luck with your project! :rock-right:
 

RCXGaming

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@Soulrender I like that transmutation idea. The execution sounds like a skill I would make.

A bad example of preventing players from changing difficulty I recently experienced was from Bioshock: Infinite and it's DLC, Burial at Sea.
I had picked up the whole trilogy for dirt cheap during the winter sale and found playing through Bioshock 2 relatively easy for my skill level on normal difficulty.
So when I moved on to Bioshock: Infinite, I started the game on Hard thinking that it would provide a better challenge and therefore more fun to play. It was still relatively easy, but better than my experience with Bioshock 2.
So when I moved on to the DLC, Burial at Sea...this is where problems happened. Because my experience with the main game was it being a pretty easy even on the hardest difficulty, I set the game to hard for the DLC where now suddenly hard meant something entirely different for the DLC than the main game. The balance was completely different and felt more like a test of patience than an actual challenge. Were I able to adjust the difficulty midway, I would have lowered it, unfortunately I was stuck with either: just giving up, struggling through, or restarting from the beginning with a lower difficulty. I chose the first option: give up and quit. I never finished Burial at Sea.



So that's all to say, even within the same franchise, or even the very same game, difficulty means nothing until the player is actually in the moment experiencing it.

Some games I've seen at the start ask you to pick a difficulty, then moments after the tutorial level ask if you would like to raise or lower the difficulty, but I also still find this as a bad compromise for the problem because - depending on your game's complexity - the player likely hasn't seen all the mechanics in your game and therefore won't get a real taste of it's difficulty until, well...probably much later than just the tutorial.

See here's my stance on the whole difficulty thing. I think it would be pretty sick to have adjustable difficulty during the game.

If you had to ask me what I'd implement, I'd just have Normal and nothing else. But there IS a model I like that I'm tempted to include in my games. There's a Paper Mario 64 rom hack called Dark Star Edition that has something called "Curse Badges". These are little buttons you can equip that increase the HP and strength of the enemies.

I even made a little visual guide on how they work:
HTxdxUe.png


This is something I would like to call "stackable difficulty". It's Normal difficulty but you can manually increase the strength of the enemies. A normal enemy set becomes boss-strength and yields the appropriate rewards, bosses become super bosses, and superbosses become super-duper-ultra bosses.

Dark Star has ways to let you strategize around high strength enemies by letting you take advantage of enemy weaknesses like status ailments, and it provides a ton of tools for you to even the odds.

I'd go one step further and have it so having a "difficulty modifier" on will force new behavior out of enemies and bosses alike to change things up.

And if you don't like the difficulty, you can take them off to turn it back to Normal again.

I think I saw someone mention in this thread that RPG's have leveling to offset difficulty. Theoretically, if the game is too easy, just don't fight, and if the game is too hard, just grind. But this really is a fools errand.
If the game is too easy, so you just expect players not to fight, well...then you are basically telling your players "don't play the game." Regardless, exp is embedded into the core nature of most RPGs and therefore I doubt it would be possible to not level up at all - not without pulling some gymnastics to avoid it that I doubt most players would want to execute just so they can maintain a level of challenge they prefer.
Likewise, for those finding the challenge too difficult and you ask them to grind...well, basically you're asking them to stop progressing with your game's story so they can do a mindless activity. A little bit of grinding is probably not too bad, but depending on how severely crippled the player feels in comparison to your game's challenge level, the grinding could amount to a multi-hour chore. And what you have effectively done in both of these scenarios is given your player a chance to ask this question:
"Do I want to keep playing, or should I just play something else?" You have created a quit moment just like myself with Bioshock.

So, if it's not clear already: Always allow players to adjust the difficulty during game play.

I'm pretty sure this is the main reason why everyone says that stats and HP shouldn't be the only thing that changes during difficulty. Not only is it super boring but I feel if you really want to challenge the player, you need to force them to adjust their game plan and not just grind to raise their stats.

Difficulty should not be synonymous with tedium, which is unfortunately the model a lot of peeps use to make things harder. Cutting the amount of EXP/Gold or waiting for the player to reach an arbitrary level for a stat increase means you wind up doing the same thing but it takes longer for no good reason.

There's many ways you can improve this in even a bog standard JRPG:
  • Counterattacks or berserk modes (aka. the giant metal gorilla going buck wild if you electrify it, which is otherwise its weakness)
  • Pattern recognition (enemy will use [X] attack on this turn or when they're at <50% HP, so guard or stun them. Higher difficulties would change this up to give the player more to deal with.)
  • Having to disarm enemies to weaken their defenses to actually make them beatable (the Chrono Trigger special)
  • Having more mooks show up with their own defense ratings and roles in combat (i.e healing the big bad guy if you take long enough) to force the player to use something other than their favorite AOE skill.
  • Level-ups are less about the stats and more about the skills you learn, and the utilities they provide. That or you gain skills another via another method. Skills that will make you be like "wow this is super useful! This streamlines the process a lot!"
 
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TheAM-Dol

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Yeah, the idea of scaling difficulty is fine too. In the case of scaling difficulty, I would say there is a psychological side to it that should be considered.
Framing it as simply "increasing the challenge" probably feels better to people once they can step it up - it feels like, "Yeah, I've gotten good enough at this game to step it up a bit!"
But then on the opposite side of this spectrum we have stripping the player of something (even if it's as simple as a name)
Some player's sense of pride may make it difficult for them to want to step down in scale, even if it might make their experience with the game better. And if you start adding negative multipliers with stepping down the difficulty, then you aren't just taking away any pride they might feel, but also taking away stats/gold/exp from them.
Most people would rather never get something at all (such as something never being promised in the first place), than to have something taken away (such as something being promised but never given or just outright taken from them) - it's just basic psychology, not just for video games.

So, I think your Paper Mario rom hack is a good example of how to do this.
The way they framed (from what I can tell by your example) is that the player is playing on "normal" difficulty - so it's framed as 'this is standard' - and the player can chose to step up the difficulty, which likely makes them feel like they are overcoming challenge.
I think another similar example to this in a AAA game would be Borderlands 3 with their Mayhem system. It's very similar to the Paper Mario rom hack. Borderlands 3 only has 1 difficulty (in other words, no difficulty selection), we'll just call the base difficulty normal mode.
Once the game is complete, you unlock Mayhem. Mayhem has up to 11 levels, the player can chose what level of Mayhem they want, where each level of Mayhem increases the difficulty: from simple things like health and damage modifiers, but also it starts adding more enemies, different enemies, random buffs and debuffs. I think the highest I ever reached was Mayhem 4 or 5, I can't imagine how chaotic it gets at 10 or 11, but people seemed to love the whole Mayhem system.
(But there is something to be said about locking Mayhem until the story is complete...but, since it also starts adding whacky random buffs, I suppose it falls more into the "special difficulty mode" I talked about before, not to mention the game play loop of Borderlands can sort of get away with unlocking difficulty at the end of the story - though, if I had it my way, I probably would have unlocked Mayhem midway through the game.)

p.s.
I may need to check out that rom hack, I really love Paper Mario 1 and Thousand Year Door...my magnum opus game has combat somewhat inspired by those games, though I'm sure I am years away from ever beginning work on that game.
 

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I don't remember being able to change difficulty in games like Sonic or Gunstar Heroes, which I played the F out as a kid, nor did I seem to care about being able to change it.
I played whatever situation I was faced with.
now, take the same approach 20 years later, in a game such as NFS Most Wanted: I can *see* the AI cheating in order to come up on top. I *see* the challenges being designed in such a way that they are "unbeatable". But even then, I still beat it by knowing what to look out for.
one challenge in particular I played a good 100 times before I could beat it, and every time I was discovering cheat moves by the AI: spawning enemies right around the corner, throwing roadblocks at me without warning, even with NPC cars (literally a random civilian minivan crossed in the middle of the road as if it was a police car, suddenly it's NPC AI took over and it left me a hole to pass through).
what did I do? I kited it... I soared right through it... I didn't play to win, I played to bust the system.
eventually the AI ran out of tricks and I could anticipate every move.
difficulty is only an obstacle if the player intends to win, but some games aren't meant to be "won", they're meant to be *played*: narrative adventures, management games, rogue-likes, sports games,... if you win it's game over, and everything you've built and developed gets locked out, and you can't pick up from there to keep playing.
 

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