Difficulty in Video Games: Evolution, Variation

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With the remake of Demon’s Souls, a cyclical debate about difficulty, accessibility and author intent is reignited. We recall its origin and explore some related variables.

At its premiere in 2002, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was not only a high-quality action RPG, capable of showing new possibilities for the genre in the open world and reaping almost unanimous success among the press and the public. It was also the first installment of the saga with a console adaptation (Xbox), where a good port took shape and began a trajectory that would define both the future of Bethesda and that of other companies specialized in role-playing. Although somewhat crude in animations and combat, Morrowind offered great freedom when exploring, accepting missions from different guilds and factions, developing the physical and social capacities of our character or adjusting the level of difficulty using a slider with multiple values. , adapting to many player profiles and leaving them wanting more.

When developing the next installment, Xbox 360 occupied a more important position both when it came to taking advantage of its hardware and adapting the interface to the command, being Bethesda’s objective, in addition, to accompany the console in its launch – an objective that it did not achieve for a few months -. Over time, Oblivion would also end up coming to PlayStation 3, but long before that, and seeing the growing interest in the franchise, Sony moved to have its own “Elder Scrolls”: From Software, a more humble, but experienced Japanese company mixing the role in first person with medieval fantasy (in Japan, King’s Field IV had been released shortly before Morrowind), she was the chosen ally for the task. And although the result would end up being quite different from what was expected, it also redefined the panorama of action RPGs, also stimulating a debate on difficulty that resurfaces periodically and today we will explore including – but not limited to – From’s work.

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It is not possible to speak of difficulty in video games without treating its origin as a necessity to counteract the limitations in both design tools and storage space, as well as incentivize replay in arcade machines that collected an extra coin for each attempt to continue progressing or return to improve scores that then showed our initials to the rest of the players. However, while often responding more to a commercial advantage than to an artistic expression, it required a considerable amount of planning and talent to create games whose level of demand invited to keep trying rather than producing the opposite effect. After all, if the player considered the game in question to be “unfair,” they would soon stop tossing out coins.

As might be expected, this notion of “fairness” is not a mathematically quantifiable element, but rather a matter of perception that varied from player to player – and continues to do so decades after the arcade boom – although developers could greatly condition it. calibrating aspects such as control precision (response as immediate and constant as possible so that the player stops thinking in terms of buttons and does so in terms of actions), clarity in visual design (video games are like a language with names and verbs and, as such, they must be organized in a logical and orderly way, not confused like a dialogue where several interlocutors overlap) or through acceptable reaction times (if we detect the beginning of the animation of an attack, we should be able to avoid it before completion). It is a fine line that countless games have traveled to one side or the other, sometimes zigzagging.


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