Adaptive difficulty is a game design concept that held a great deal of traction for a little while but has seemingly fallen out of favor recently. “The player should be challenged at all times,” is the ideal, “but never actually fail.” “The game should be balanced such that the player is always exerting herself to the utmost of her skill,” is what they say, “but under no circumstances find that skill insufficient.” This is the premise behind Adaptive Difficulty, the idea that the game adjusts its challenge level as you play to match your skill, to present a maximally compelling experience.
It’s kind of a crock of shit. I’m glad that designers don’t seem to take it seriously as a concept any more, but I suspect that that has more to do with a shift away from single-player being the primary mode of game consumption than the concept being actively debunked. So, hey, let’s take a little while to debunk it here.
To explain why this is a silly idea, let’s take it to its logical conclusion. Let us envision a game that perfectly, moment to moment, adapts its difficulty to what the player is doing. Such a game would be impossible to lose, because the moment you make a mistake it would adapt to make it a non-fatal mistake: We can actually imagine taking this to somewhat hilarious conclusions as the world, cartoon-like, warps itself to account for what should be fatal mistakes. Maybe the spikes are rubber, or gravity reverses, or your lucky bulletproof bible takes the bullet. Whatever. The wall of resistance normally proffered by difficulty becomes a thin fabric, unable to resist our touch in any way.
In its most extreme form adaptive difficulty is, effectively, no difficulty at all.
Of course, that’s an impossible and largely undesirable ideal. Most games that experiment with adaptive difficulty have some form of inertia built into the system, so once you fail the difficulty lowers itself and when you succeed it raises itself and hypothetically achieves some form of long term balance this way. This really doesn’t do much to prevent the kinds of choke-point issues that normal static difficulty presents, and also, once a player is aware of it, tends to undermine any sense of achievement they would get from beating a difficult game.
“What, you mean you let me win?”
These ideals exist for a reason, though. The big issue with most older games is that you choose the difficulty once at the start, if at all, and are stuck throughout with a game which is probably too difficult or too easy for the player’s skill level. We can allow the player to change the difficulty after the start of the game, but this then restrains us from using certain tools in order to craft a more difficult experience– for example, if the primary method you use to set the difficulty of the game is to limit the player’s starting resources, you can’t really change that on the fly. Many games aren’t even hospitable to difficulty changes at all– what would an easy mode in Super Meat Boy even look like?
It is assumed that it’s a problem with the game if it is hard enough that a player has genuine difficulty completing it. Most players don’t complete the games they play, regardless of difficulty, and can lose interest just as easily because it is too easy as because it is too difficult. It is assumed that frustration is necessarily a fault with the game. It is assumed, in effect, that players would rather have drama masquerading as challenge than the drama of a genuinely challenging experience.
What you have to remember about people who play video games is that if there’s one thing that games have taught them it’s how to dissect game systems. You can’t expect to give them a system that adapts the difficulty to their performance without them noticing and without it affecting their reaction to the game in some capacity. Or, at least, you can’t if you frame it like that…
But what if, just as an example, you added a system to your game where it gets steadily easier as the player plays it? And what if, in this purely hypothetical example, the content of the game got harder and harder over its duration, but the harder content and the easier play were in rough parity such that, as the player progresses, the difficulty remains more or less constant– perhaps a bit harder if the player is progressing quickly, a bit easier if she’s taking her time, but fairly consistently regardless? And all of this is made completely clear to the player, so she knows exactly how powerful she is and approximately where that stacks up relative to the enemies and, if she’s feeling overmatched, she can willfully hang back for a while to build power to progress to the next phase?
Yes, it’s my revolutionary new adaptive difficulty system, and if you pay me $500,000 you can license it for use in your own game. I call it: Experience Points.
This isn’t all experience points have been used for. I could write a whole other piece about the many game design problems which this premise has helped to solve, and probably another of equal length on the problems it has introduced. Nor am I claiming they are a perfect solution to this problem– but they are a solution, and one which doesn’t require us to posit alternate easy and hard realities for our worlds, one which doesn’t require us to convert our mighty monsters to paper targets to satisfy a player’s narrative urge. The effect is similar, but the context is different.
Instead of making the world smaller, we’ve made the player bigger. Maybe everything works out about the same, but in the end the experience is as much about its context as its content. There’s a difference between a system which implies “of course this is easy for you, you’re the main character” and one which implies “of course this is easy for you, you’ve mastered the Thousand Blade Strike of Master Vividalfofo over 5 years of training on Monster Mountain.”
Without that kind of context, what remains of the narrative they gutted the game’s challenge to showcase? They have undermined themselves by giving narrative supremacy over the systems of the game instead of using one to reinforce the other. And, in the end, they have made nothing at all.