Not Taking Sides
I’m writing this mostly because of the whole kerfuffle around Sekiro: Shadows die Twice, and whether or not FromSoftware needs to add an “Easy Mode.” Every time FromSoftware releases a new game this same debate comes up. I’m not going to take a side on the Sekiro Easy Mode debate, because FromSoftware has built its brand and reputation by making games that literally taunt players to win or die trying. Gamers with masochistic tendencies are free to enjoy the games. But the truth is, most of us gamers are not as good as we think we are. Introducing Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment.
Games are hard
The truth is that most games are incredibly hard, and there is a thing that game developers use to help and, in some cases guarantee that a player will win the game: Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment. This tool has been part of the game developer’s arsenal since at least 2001. Gamers have been playing “your mode,” not “easy mode” because of DDA in nearly every single player or PVE title you have ever picked up, no matter the platform or genre.
What is Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment?
Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment or DDA does not actually refer to the difficulty level you selected at the start of your game. The difficulty level sets the “minimum” and “maximum” of the difficulty, and DDA is the sliding scale between those two points to ensure that the game will remain challenging to play and rewarding when you win, without getting you bored. There’s a really great short video on DDA and how it works courtesy of the Game Maker’s Toolkit, which you can watch here:
How Long has DDA been around?
Historically, it has been in use since 2001 with the release of the first Max Payne. It was there, and very subtly applied. In Max Payne, the adjustments were minor things that made your aim a little better, increased enemy health slightly, how much healing painkillers did and of course how fast you’d run through your bullet time. Another example would be Half-life 2 (2004) which very subtly to change contents in the supply boxes you encountered, depending on what you needed and how good/bad you were playing.
What does DDA actually DO?
Today, nearly every game uses DDA in one form or another, and its purpose is simply to keep you playing the game. If things get too hard, then people will quit and never come back. The same applies if the game is too easy. So DDA adjusts the game, while you are playing to make sure that it stays challenging and keeps you playing. Psychologists call this the “cognitive flow.”
Flow? What Flow?
Psychologists call this the “cognitive flow.” Game developers call it simply “flow.” Flow to a game developer is the ultimate objective of a game. No matter the story, mechanics, the world and lore, the art and beauty of the game, all of those design elements are about creating an optimal flow. Creating optimal flow means putting four elements together:
When the Flow is done right, players will find themselves “in the zone” meaning: They will have an extreme focus on the task (gameplay) because the goals and rules are clear. This, in turn, gives them confidence in their capabilities to get things right, keep progressing. Developers make sure this happens by giving clear timely feedback (that are a mix of visual and audio) and as players find the flow, they will lose their awareness of their surroundings and experience a distortion of time. You know you’ve been gaming and, in the Flow, when you blink and suddenly a few hours – or twelve have passed by.
DDA and Getting the Flow
So ultimately, that’s what DDA does. It’s the tool used by game developers to ensure that you keep facing a game has concrete goals, clear rules, objectives that you can achieve with clear and timely feedback. The best games are designed with this in Mind. Titles that do this really well across the genre-scape include: – Command and Conquer 3, Skyrim, Witcher 3 Wild Hunt, Beat Saber, Tetris, Mario Kart.
Easy Mode. Hard Mode. Your Mode.
You pick up the game, you play it, you do great, and the game will subtly get harder, get more challenging. The reverse is also true. Why? To keep you in that Flow State for as long as possible. Because the longer you stay in the flow, the longer you play the game, and ultimately, you will win that game. Good developers are already explicitly or implicitly taking this in to account in the design of their games.