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Why Difficulty in Games Matters

What do you get from playing video games? This is a question you probably don't consider often, and the only times it is posed to you is by your grandmother when she catches a glance at your play times on Steam. This question is important, personal, and says more about you than what types of games you gravitate towards do. Video games are more than just fun, they are compelling and they offer things no other medium of art, hobby, or social experience can.

As an example, how do you generally respond to things that are difficult in life? Difficulty is a negative trait for something in our day to day lives, best avoided if possible, and otherwise dealt with efficiently.

I've asked a couple questions already, but to jump ahead to just one more:

Why would someone try to beat a Megaman game hitless because it provides a stronger challenge, but won't choose to walk to work by foot, despite that also offering more challenge? Both will take more time than the alternative. Both are arguably worth bragging over, and yet, the latter is uncommon as a compelling activity. Meanwhile, the self-imposed challenge of a time limit is so enjoyable, that there's an entire community built around it, with some even making it their career.

The answer may be that because games are designed with intention to be compelling experiences and difficulty within games are imparted with that same quality. While this is one possible solution, there are several others. For example, another may be the intention to design in such a way where player choice matters. This often repeated adage extends to more than just dialogue options, but simple things like choosing to play well or by self or community imposed constraints.

We often see accessibility focused towards designing around challenge itself, rather than erasing challenges completely. Accessible Player Experiences includes elements like offering helping hands to struggling players, to more fundamental things like controlling remapping. Making a game suit what the player is capable of is important first to access the game, then to make it a challenging experience. While access is the first priority, there's a reason challenge is held is such high regard when designing as well.

Games where difficulty skews too low often see the player putting less effort into playing. Sometimes they intentionally test just how little they actually have to put in. Far from being something desirable, this is usually regarded by gamers as a design issue. Iain Collins of "Medium" describes lack of difficulty as "theme park experiences and I breezed through unsatisfyingly." Series like Kirby and Pokémon have large adult install-bases, and one of the most common requests for these games are harder modes. Kirby and the Forgotten Land was highly praised on release for the addition of a more difficult mode that offered those who played on it more rewards.

This is why difficulty matters. It is far from a challenge that just offers a feeling of gratification. It's the challenge itself that gives so many games the feeling of player choice, in lieu of making story decisions. A challenge in and of itself that gives the player a choice- whether to improve or not.

The best way to exemplify this point is to ask why game genres without difficulty are compelling. Visual novels, or walking simulators like Journey and Gone Home, have a high focus on player choice. Giving the few decisions you have - purpose and weight, giving the player the ability to explore wherever they like - these elements are great, but they can't fit in every game.

Designing challenge in a game is one of the most important tools in a designers kit because without the chance to have your involvement matter, without the chance to have a personal experience, and without the chance to really feel like you've accomplish something, what do you get from playing video games? The next time you pick up your controller, tap to play on a mobile device, or otherwise engage in playing a game- ask yourself this question. It may help you discover more about what motivates you best.

Works Cited

“Accessible Player Experiences (APX).” Accessible Games, 19 May 2022,

Collins, Iain. “Gaming: The Difficulty with Difficulty.” Medium, Medium, 21 July 2023,

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