Most simply, difficulty is inversely proportional to the chance of success for a given action. When you try to do something that has a low chance of success and claim that it’s difficult to accomplish that task. But what if that task is rolling eleven thousand consecutive 6s on a 6-sided die?
The primary question regarding difficulty in game design should be whether the difficulty of the game has a positive or negative effect on how fun the game is to play. There is no correct difficulty in a broad sense, only levels of difficulty that enhance or deaden the fun of playing through events in the game. The target audience’s skill-level and familiarity with similar games can also play a significant part in what difficulty is appropriate.
Worthwhile difficulty that leads to fun requires:
- Agency. The player needs to have a significant say in the outcome and/or set-up of the difficult event.
- Alignment of Expectations. The scenario must have a difficulty that is in keeping with the story surrounding the event and the mechanics the player has learned and utilized prior. Difficulty is contextual—difficulty is significantly more fun when it is justified by its context.
- Sufficiency. The event needs to be non-trivial and the goals or advancement conditions need to be physically achievable.
When the player’s role in the proceedings is reduced significantly, the player’s expectations are disappointed, or when goals are unreachable or trivial to accomplish, the difficulty of the game severely impacts the game’s quality.
Games can also be designed in a way such that they are interesting to play multiple times, but never is there true failure. Mouseguard, a tabletop roleplaying game, does not directly penalize players for failing to make high-enough dice rolls. Instead, a low die roll leads to a complication. The game master shunts the players progress through the campaign sideways down a different path instead of sending him sprawling backwards. In this case, difficulty is not about failure, but instead of progress. A difficult game would be one where moving forward towards a positive conclusion has a low chance of occurring, whereas reaching a lukewarm (or worse) ending is highly likely.
Player motivation plays a critical role in judging difficulty, as well. A player who is aiming for easy fun will not want to be confronted by even a well-set-up difficult encounter. A player who likes to be challenged and forced to push his abilities to their limits would quickly grow bored with a game that has a series of appropriately easy encounters.
In MMOs, we encounter an unsolvable difficulty issue. Some players want the game to be easy for them, but difficult for others. Players feel special when they’re doing something not everyone else has done, and they relish this feeling. There is no way to accomplish such a difficulty curve, so MMOs tend towards being absurdly easy as a compromise.
Fully sidestepping the issue of difficulty, there are plenty of gamers in the MMO space who have no interest in chances of success; They are happy meditating and cavorting with their friends (or finding new friends) in a world that offers good prospects for escapism.
MMOs are doomed to have difficulty issues primarily because they intend to appeal to too wide an audience. It’s in the best interest of MMO businessmen to make the game trivial so that anyone can play it for as long as they can remain mesmerized. So we’re stuck with distorted difficulty terrain and interminable arguments that can have no resolution. The only way to dodge the problem is to be less massive—to fit a niche (as I’ve previously pointed out, this will be the future of good MMOs).