Types of difficulty in games
Some games are easy. Some games are hard. But not all hard games are hard in the same ways. Dark Souls is not difficult in the same way as, say, Go1. To that end, I would like to propose a model of, let’s say, five different types of difficulty in games.
Difficulty type 1: patience and mental endurance
One of the easiest ways to make something “difficult” is to stipulate, directly or indirectly, that a player spends a lot of time on it. In video games, this can be thought of as the “let’s give all the enemies more health” approach - common for games that have multiple difficulty settings. As a bonus, from a programming perspective, this can be pretty easy to implement.
If a strategy requires luck, and the player must simply attempt something over and over until they succeed, then that could also be considered to come under this type of difficulty.
Difficulty type 2: physical execution
Sometimes, performing a task requires a certain amount of physical fitness, quick reflexes, or hand-eye coordination. Much of the difficulty of most real-life sports comes under here. While fighting games do not rely as heavily on this type of difficulty as some might think, it is true that fast reflexes and precise timing can still prove helpful in many such games.
In the middle: practice and muscle memory
One of the most common ways to make a game difficult is to design for the player to attempt something over and over again until they improve. Notice, this is not exactly the same as Type 1 difficulty, where the player is merely asked to either wait or to repeat the same behavior over and over again until they succeed - instead, they must actively get better as they play.
There are two general ways that this can be done. The first way is to have the player learn something new from failed attempts - for example, the attack patterns of an enemy. Games like Dark Souls fall into this category. As the player learns more, the game gradually feels easier and easier.
The other way for a player to benefit from practice is to have them slowly build up muscle memory over time. Rhythm games as well as combo-heavy fighting games specialize in this kind of difficulty. In reality, however, pretty much any action-oriented game will have some muscle memory component so that the player can feel themselves becoming more comfortable with their controls over time.
Oftentimes these two approaches go hand-in-hand - for example, in a bullet hell game, the process of learning the attack patterns of an enemy is also the process of gaining the muscle memory necessary to dodge their attacks. Thus, I’ve grouped them together, somewhere between Type 1 difficulty (patience) and Type 2 (execution). Games that cultivate muscle memory can often feel like they have a high execution barrier, but in reality, all that is required is dedicated practice.
Difficulty type 3: mental execution
This broad type of difficulty encompasses games that force players to envision different possibilities, manage uncertainty and risk, and make intelligent, creative decisions in pursuit of their goals. Strategy games and puzzle games, for example, thrive on pushing players to their mental limits. Some games force players to make decisions under strict time constraints, like StarCraft and most timed chess variants, whereas others have no time limit, like Fire Emblem and Civilization. Most board games and card games have this kind of strategic component.
Difficulty type 4: research and preparation
As they say, the devil is in the details, and some games have a lot of devils - I mean, details. At the time of writing, there are nearly 900 Pokémon out there, each with their own unique typing, stats, move pool, abilities, and whatever else. A reasonably competent competitive Pokémon player could be expected to have some basic knowledge of every single one of them, and much more detailed knowledge of the more popular creatures out there.
As another example, Tekken 7 currently has 52 playable characters, each with their own unique mechanics, moves, sidestep direction, stances, and all sorts of other aspects that any competent Tekken player would be expected to know off the top of their head. Many moves in fighting games can only be dealt with in a certain way - these are sometimes called “knowledge checks”, and can be frustrating to deal with for new players.
As a particularly notorious example of this kind of difficulty, the trading card game Magic: The Gathering currently has over 20,000 distinct cards in circulation. Fortunately, most common formats greatly restrict the available pool of cards so that newer players aren’t completely overwhelmed. Still, the challenge of having to memorize copious amounts of information outside of normal gameplay can feel daunting to many.
Difficulty type 5: human difficulty
There is something special about playing a game with a human opponent. A skilled human opponent is not merely challenging - they are actively trying to outwit you. They are looking for patterns in your behavior, they are looking to condition you into bad habits, they are trying to make you angry, or fearful, or cocky, and then take advantage when you least suspect it. An opposing human player is not a wall to climb, stiff and static - they are actively adapting to you and forcing you to adapt to them in kind. Those who achieve a high level of skill in any competitive game, be it Street Fighter, Go, or poker, will always talk about the “mind games” involved and the psychological aspects. This is what competitive games are really all about.
As an aside, games that require cooperation could also be considered to come under this kind of difficulty. Working in a team for a shared purpose still requires many of the same skills that competitive games entail - you have to put yourself in the shoes of another person and try to understand how they think. Truth be told, I don’t understand these types of games very well, but there’s no denying that most real-life sports entail watching teams of people work together in pursuit of a shared goal.
Of course, most games do not restrict themselves to a single type of difficulty. To become good at chess, for example, one must be willing to concentrate for long periods of time (Type 1 difficulty), research and memorize long lists of opening sequences (Type 4), and consider the results of many possible decisions in a short time frame (type 3), all while trying to outwit a human opponent with their own goals and emotions (Type 5). And hey, if you make the chess pieces big and heavy enough… maybe you could fit Type 2 in there as well.
Overall, however, I hope this provides a bit of insight into what it might mean for something to be “hard”, and how not all hard things are hard in the same way.
As you might notice, here I’ll be using the word “game” loosely to encompass video games, board games, card games, and physical sports. You’ll have to forgive me for drawing most of my examples from video games, however. ↩