Why are difficulty curves so wonky!?

Zloth

Community Contributor
The re-release of Mass Effect reminds me of something I first noticed in Mass Effect 1: if you can get through the opening 20 hours or so, the rest of the game (barring a few boss fights) is a cake run. That's really become the norm now in games, particularly RPGs. I just finished Trails of Cold Steel on hard and it managed to stay hard for the first two thirds but still, run-of-the-mill enemies in the last three chapters could hardly ever even damage me and certainly never posed an actual challenge. In many games, I don't even bother advancing levels or spending my skill points simply because I'm already beating the tar out of the game, so why take the time to get more powerful?

There are definitely exceptions to this. I don't remember Divinity: Original Sin 2 ever backing off the difficulty, for example, but the exceptions are fairly rare now.

Has anyone heard developers talk about why this is happening?? Are they doing it on purpose for all those people that want to "feel more powerful"? Maybe games are balanced around players skipping lots of quests so, by doing most of them, I'm getting ahead of the expected XP? Maybe they expect players to put the game down for weeks at a time and forget how to play optimally so the act of learning to play and actually remembering what I learned is messing it up?

Whatever the case, it's getting more and more under my skin.
 
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Nov 27, 2020
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I haven't experienced that too much, although I play mostly RPGs, and most of them older games, they feel fairly well combat balanced. There are exceptions, like Skyrim & Fallout 4, which I tend to play every year for several hundred hours. In vanilla games, your character does become way OP after so many levels, which is one reason I mode those games, not just graphics, but for better combat.

You're right about DOS2, that game was a challenge for me from start to finish, very well balanced.

As far as newer games go, I recently finished Outer Worlds, and that definitely fits what you are saying about the difficulty curve. Combat early on was challenging, up until about level 15ish, then it became kind of a joke and pretty boring I was so OP.

I hope it's not a trend. It does seem like some newer games are geared more towards players who just want to bull-rush through, caring little about the story, or side quests, or reading books/computer terminals, just to say: "hey, I beat the game in # hours".
 
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Jun 26, 2020
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It's funny you mention D:OS2. I'm one of the moderators for the subreddit, and I frequently see people complain about the difficulty spikes in that game. Specifically getting to act 4 and the big jump in difficulty with those fights. The fights get a lot bigger, the bad guys hit a lot harder, their armor pools are way bigger, and some people tend to struggle with it. I think it can be a difficult thing to balance for, especially since different people wrap their heads around these sorts of systems at a different pace, and want their games to be more accessible. In D:OS2, by Act 4 you should have a great handle on your skill trees and your abilities, and have the tactics nailed down pretty well to dish out insane damage, but not everyone can hold it all together that long.

Pathfinder is another good example of one that doesn't hold off on the difficulty spikes, but I think it's to the detriment of the game. The amount of game knowledge you have to have to get past certain parts is a little much, I almost gave up in Vordekais tomb quite a few times specifically because of stuff like negative levels. The difficulty in that game is all over the place, though. That tomb was tough as hell to get through but the end was stupidly easy, and you see that kind of theme throughout the entire game.

Another thing I see people talk about a lot in relation to RPGs and the such is the feeling of power throughout the game. I think a lot of people enjoy starting as something typical and weak and growing to become god like in power, and enjoy it less when they're still struggling at the end of the game, despite having gained all these levels and new spells and the such. I enjoy the challenge more, myself, but I guess it's a decision on whether you want your game to be made more accessible or more challenging. Looking at the niche audience of a game like Pathfinder I kinda get why a dev might make the former decision instead of the latter.
 
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With Skyrim, it very much depends on your play style. Playing as a sneaky archer is pretty easy from the beginning, there's only a few places in the game where you might have some difficulty. Playing as full melee is harder, especially against dragons in the beginning. Playing as a mage starts out pretty hard, until you can stagger opponents and have boosts to your mana regen and discounted spell costs.

However, one of the weird things about Skyrim is that if you play on a lower difficulty setting, the game gets comparatively harder, as you get less combat XP as combats are over quicker, so you get relatively more levels in non-combat skills, meaning you probably have less combat related perks and you're relatively weaker, as enemies level with you.



Skyrim also just makes cheesing the game very easy. It's incredibly easy to get to a position where the enemy can't hit you but you can hit them.
 

Frindis

Moderator
I do think a lot of it has to do with us having played RPG games for plenty of decades. We know what to expect, how to build our character properly and the learning and difficulty curve does not cater as much to an experienced/hardcore RPG person, as it would a casual player. Mix that in with the fact that a lot of RPG games are also catered to the wider audience, thus not really have any major difficult parts because you are supposed to be able to finish the game without banging your head against the door and losing your sanity.
 
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be able to finish the game without banging your head against the door and losing your sanity.
I can't imagine it's easy to get a good balance in difficulty that caters to both casual players and veteran players, especially if you want to support a wide variety of builds and play styles.

Also, "difficult" as a term is not very well defined. For example, even the most veteran players of Angband still end up dying in most of their runs. However, with the standard rules, it's not actually hard to get to the end, but it is incredibly boring to play super safe.

I think it's harder than most people think to create a difficult game that doesn't require playing it super safe in a way that sucks all the fun out of the actual gameplay.
 

Frindis

Moderator
@Zloth Depends on the game I would say. As an example, take my first time playing ELEX :

When you first start the game everything wants to kill you and you feel pretty weak. At least, that is what they want to make you feel. Instead of feeling weak, you can do something about it and basically gear/level up by kiting enemies to each other or kite enemies away from the loot. In Elex it took me a long time to even start the main quest because I decided to go my own path, a path that ended up with me getting an early hard-hitting companion that could basically be my bullet sponge while I was hoarding loot.
 
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Zloth

Community Contributor
Yeah, Elex was that way for me, too. When you start out, you do a LOT of running away. Kenshi is even more extreme that way.

I don't think newer players are still going to be having trouble once they get a companion or a good weapon, though. It's still a case where the game starts out far harder for everyone then gets a lot easier for everyone. Maybe experienced gamers figure out that they can exploit their NPC faster than new gamers but I think both will pick up on it. (Assuming the newer gamer even gets that far!)
 
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When I 'git 2 gud' at a game, I make my own difficulty—providing of course more difficult = more enjoyment, which isn't always the case. Eg in Far Cry games, I ignore the super-guns like buzzsaw, ripper etc, or I'll decide to take this outpost without firing a shot, or I won't take a companion with me.

Conversely when I play Civ 4, challenge isn't a thing so I'll play at a lower difficulty and explore & build for 100-150 turns before rolling a fresh game—I don't want the AI interfering with my god complex, other than the raging barbarians :D

I suspect that with the much more social aspect of gaming these days, a lot of players want cooler talk and bragging rights more than actually smelling the roses on the way to whatever achievements they chase.
 
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Conversely when I play Civ 4, challenge isn't a thing so I'll play at a lower difficulty and explore & build for 100-150 turns before rolling a fresh game—I don't want the AI interfering with my god complex, other than the raging barbarians :D
My wife and I have played Civ V with a friend of ours quite a few times and it's funny to see how different our play styles are. I do not care about winning the game at all, I just want to make a nice little country, while my friend only plays to win and my wife is somewhere in between, wanting to win but also wanting to roleplay as the civilization she's playing as.
 
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Zloth

Community Contributor
I suspect that with the much more social aspect of gaming these days, a lot of players want cooler talk and bragging rights more than actually smelling the roses on the way to whatever achievements they chase.
Wait a minute, you mean water coolers, don't you? Those were in those... what were they called... offices! Yeah, I remember those! From back in the Before Times! They had video games way back then, too? ;)


So I went poking around the literature (such as it is) to get a little more educated. One thing is getting really clear: game designers are having a pretty hard time gauging difficulty. The developers themselves are pretty intimately familiar with the game even before its playable. QA folks can give you a good understanding but I bet they tend to be a good bit better than average players plus they can only give you that good understanding once. So how do you check your difficulty tweaks? As @Frindis pointed out, more experienced gamers are going to adapt quicker (though, if your game is really original, their experience might actually put them at a disadvantage early on). People using mouse aiming are far more accurate than those using a controller. Oh, and if you allow skill choices, you can make it even harder yet to guess how hard the difficulty will be. Optional content really makes a mess, too, as completionist player may have three times the playtime (and rewards) in as a player avoiding the optional content.

Maybe what's going on is just a reflection of that. The further into a game a player gets, the less clue the developer has about how difficult the game is going to be, even on average. So they err on the side of making it too easy. After all, players can easily make adjustments to make a game more difficult like me not spending my skill points or @Brian Boru skipping weapon rewards.
 
Maybe what's going on is just a reflection of that. The further into a game a player gets, the less clue the developer has about how difficult the game is going to be, even on average. So they err on the side of making it too easy. After all, players can easily make adjustments to make a game more difficult like me not spending my skill points or @Brian Boru skipping weapon rewards.
Yeah, maybe instead of thinking games need to be a perfectly crafted experience, we should really see games as a bunch of tools thrown together for users to pick and choose to make an enjoyable experience themselves.

This is already a lot more normal in board games and especially in table top RPGs, where a lot of people make up house rules to make the game more fun if the official rules don't deliver the right experience.
 
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