Difficulty without sliders


Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about games that have different difficulty modes baked into the game rather than having a menu option. I’m currently reading Derek Yu’s book about Spelunky where he discusses his problems with difficulty sliders, such as asking the player to make a major decision before knowing anything about what that decision actually means, and how he more made difficulty options in Spelunky much more natural. New players can focus on unlocking the shortcuts and using them to practice later areas. More experienced players can work on completing the game from beginning to end and the most dedicated can make their way through the secret areas.

A lot of the traditional rougelikes Spelunky take inspiration from do a form of this as well. Generally the goal is to return to the entrance with an item found on a specific floor of the dungeon but if you want some games have additional items you may collect on additional floors to further improve your score.

I’m playing through Mario Odyssey right now and this is something Mario games have been doing for a while too. You could play the game until you see the credits or you could collect the extra collectibles to unlock the often difficult bonus levels. Odyssey takes this idea even further by allowing you to purchase moons. The final level of the game is locked behind a set number of moons and there is no real limit of the amount of moons you can buy, meaning you can skip any moons you find too hard or not fun but still see every level.

These two examples of this achieve pretty different things. Mario Odyssey’s take on this is in favor of accessibility while Spelunky and Rougelikes provide additional challenge to games that already pretty challenging.

So I’m wondering why this isn’t something we see more of? Are there a lot more examples that I’m not aware of? Is this possible in all genres or are some genres structured in a way that difficulty HAS to be behind a menu?


People complained about “Kirby’s Epic Yarn” being too easy, which basically did the same thing as “Odyssey”.

Similarly, but the other way around, people complained about “Souls” series being too difficult, while it actually gives you a lot of tools to make it easier (but, in fairness, it hides them, as everything else).

What I’m saying is, you need to be careful while doing this no-slider thing, because perception of your game is important. Simple choice of 3–5 difficulty levels is, well, simple.


I always thought the 3D Mario games handled this beautifully; the main game content has a low enough barrier to entry that anyone can enjoy it regardless of skill level, and the post-main-game content is challenging enough to satisfy those who are looking for one.


I haven’t played Epic Yarn but I was thinking of Triple Deluxe while writing this. Which is honestly a little bring normally but is full of really surprising and fun secrets.

I don’t think a slider always fixes that issue though. I’ve seen a few arguments that the default difficulty in Wolfenstein is too hard and that easy mode is the best way to play. And there are also games that are designed around hard mode but still have an easier “normal mode” that is theoretically a lesser experience.


I actually really dislike the way Mario handles that. I’ve played enough platformers that the first bit of any Mario game is super boring so I’m stuck with like ten hours of banal jumping backed up by “whimsy” and the same bland sexism as every other game in the series so I feel like to get to the fun part I have to spend ten hours playing a bad Wes Anderson movie

I don’t necessarily think they should change it but it’s not a style that works for me personally


Of course. I’m just pointing out something maybe obvious: there is no one ultimate way to do difficulty.

@VulpesAbsurda Good point! But I want to examine it from the other side. Those games basically have built-in difficulty spike. If I want to finish the game I started, saying that those additional 100 starts (or whatever), that I don’t have skill or patience for, are optional is just annoying. They are right there!

And, yeah, fuck sexism.


Oh yeah totally. I just find it interesting since it seems so much less common.

Edit: @VulpesAbsurda That’s fair and sums up my feelings on New SMB and 3D World. Personally, Odyssey gets a pass because there’s more going on then just platforming. It’s fun to figure out what you need to do to get moons even if the actual execution is fairly simple. In the last 7 years of Mario you’re kinda just going right, which makes those world’s inherently much less interesting to explore.


Hm. Maybe it is less common specifically because of “optional” nature of that? Developers don’t like to make content that only some people would experience.


I think that difficulty without sliders can be very good, but needs a lot of finesse to implement well, so that the player doesn’t, say, accidentally activate it without really realizing, making the game too hard for them or making it feel like its just a weird diff. curve.
Another solution to this that’s somewhat related I’ve seen (albeit only once or twice) is having more detailed sliders. Say, one slider that lets you modify how hard/rewarding you want combat to be, one that lets you modify how hard/rewarding you want puzzles to be, how strict you want time limits to be, etc., which has always interested me since I first saw it.


Odyssey for me has the issue of handing out so many damn moons that I feel like I’m playing a Diablo clone that stops the game every time I pick up a grey sword to tell me how great it is that I got a grey sword. The game only has one real tier of reward and hands it it out so often that it just feels exhausting to me


Are there any good examples of “collectibles as difficulty”?

Personally I lean towards “no”. Those are separate things for me. Getting through “Dark Souls” in any way at all is rewarding, but I hate when some of 100 things I need to gather for some reason hidden behind something difficult. Again, just personally, and I’m not even sure why.

And there is also an option of dynamic difficulty, when health and DPS of enemies would be lowered if you dying a lot, or “Half-Life 2” would have stuff you need right now, like ammo or medkit, in a crate. DD can work with a slider, too.


One interesting method of dynamic difficulty is levels and experience in a lot of JRPGs. Generally speaking, the more experience and levels you gain, the easier the game gets, so if you want higher difficulty, you can avoid getting extra experience and levels. Final Fantasy games in particular tends to be beatable even with the minimal amount of experience you can get, although this tends to require a lot of planning to perform.


I like how Supergiant handled this in Bastion and Transistor (still haven’t gotten around to playing Pyre). Both games are balanced to be pretty easy but give opportunities to activate items that make the game harder. Opting-in to difficulty feels much better to me than having to opt-out or even just playing a standard difficult game. It feels really good to beat a game when you’ve got a ton of self-imposed barriers but doesn’t make playing on the easiest difficulty feel like cheating.

I like being overprepared for opponents in games, which often leads to ways to play that err on easier difficulties and boring strategies. Being able to activate optional difficulty modifiers goes a long way towards countering this, because instead of grinding in-game experience, I’m able to grind the real experience of becoming good at tackling the harder game. Critically, if the game does become too hard to be enjoyable, you can then take the training weights off and steamroll the default easy game.


True but I think the best examples use a fairly miminal amount of additional content. Mario places additional collectibles within existing levels and rewards you with a few extra levels. Spelunky does pretty much the same thing in a very different way. I think it’s less about adding harder content but finding a way to ask the player to approach the same content a more difficult way. I think another good example would be different character classes that change what resources you have to complete the same challenges. @majugi and @Meophist also posted examples that are good ways of adding challenge while adding pretty much no additional content.

I wouldn’t say collectibles as difficulty is inherently bad, it’s just a matter of the quality of the collectible. Seeing a power moon way up somewhere and trying to figure how to get it is fun (for me) but having to collect 9999 star bits to unlock the last stage of Galaxy 2 was just boring filler. I do think its hard to do consistently though. There’s no game where every single collectible is fun to get. Not that I’ve played at least.


Pyre does this too and also does it well. There are a wide variety of buffs that you can give your opponents and it’s nice to not only be able to make it harder but to make it harder in a way that you personally find fun.


It’s probably important to note that “difficulty” is a many-headed concept and the response a developer needs to make to create an inclusive and considered game design around it must also be more than one thing. There is no magic pill, no single path, no solution. There are many ways of making things less bad and they must all be implemented to provide a game that’s actually interested with engaging with challenge.

A dyslexic person who is using a TV that’s not been tuned for response speed could be unable to respond on the controls to a prompt within 50-100ms of someone who is neurotypical and using a low latency TV to play the game. The baseline “fair” test of can a person take the audio-visual cue on the screen and respond to it would need to allow for both experiences to even start to engage with a concept of difficulty. This is very much the easiest thing we can talk about, because it’s so easy to quantify. Researchers love to do audio-visual response tests on populations to try and find differences and modern TVs, after a few years of mainly being all really bad, are now mixed in performance and independently reviewed on how long it is from a game generating the prompt to the screen displaying it.

This is a very fundamental consideration: how long after this prompt comes up does the user have to decide which input to press to react to it. The answer is the developer can’t know (without it being played on completely fixed hardware - including no XB1S, no Vita 2nd revision with a different screen; literally a single hardware platform that can never change). The second part of the same consideration: should we make games only suitable for neurotypical people to play because the response times have been tuned to only work for that population? Welcome to the need for a dynamic difficulty or a slider just to be able to tune reaction windows. Failure to include this would, quite clearly, mean your game cannot meaningfully engage with difficulty unless it is purely turn-based (and Spelunky isn’t).

It is only after dealing with that layer that we can even meaningfully discuss optional content (as offering extended challenges) and difficulty of the higher-level game design. The traditional difficulty slider is often just there so people who don’t want to repeat content can avoid doing so. Enemies that vanish faster, more spaces that can be moved through without clearing them first, less grinding per level/skill unlock to shorten the progression curve. We could rename some of that function the “how much time have you got” slider. Is that even difficulty? This is how the topic is so much bigger and the safe play is just doing it how previous games have (and tune via user testing/evaluation to try and keep it generally palatable for the majority of expected customers).

Should You Feel Bad Killing the Monsters of 'Monster Hunter: World'?

I love these. To me, the less non-diegetic design in the game, the better. Of course, I recognize this is also a totally garbage perspective, because sometimes tutorials and HUD elements are super beneficial. It’s mostly just a preference. The problem is, with a lot of these, players will frequently opt for the easier version. (See: path of least resistance) A smart way to circumvent this is to change a higher difficulty to a trade-off. Of course there’s the gambling systems in Kid Icarus Uprising, but I’m thinking more of something like, how in Downwell, there’s a mode where you can have more health, but less upgrade options. You could do this with increased damage or higher ammo or whatever fits the game.

What I’m surprised by is no-one’s mentioned one of the most classic versions of this: scores! Asking a player to get an S-Rank is a super simple way to get players interested in mastering the game. It’s not that different from collectibles. This doesn’t as much make the game more or less difficult, as it does propose a difficult challenge within the game you’re already playing.

Alternatively, there’s the structure of saving/checkpointing. For example, if your game has a quick save system, there’s nothing stopping you “save-scumming”. You are totally allowed to. But if you want, you can opt to only occasionally save. Same would go for save stations (or something like Dark Souls’ bonfires): you can absolutely opt to play it super-safe and run back to the save every time you’re close to death, but it’s also pretty easy to keep going in your run.
I’d love to see a game try this, and I think it would work interestingly in a Shock game: why not have a save system as an upgrade? As in, why not have a more forgiving save system that is an upgrade you can opt into, or that you choose over other perks?

Like I said, I love this stuff. I love to see creative and subtle game design. :slight_smile:


This question is very interesting, and, arguably, more important, but no, we can discuss how to approach different levels of difficulty without even knowing what that difficulty level implies and how it is implemented. Basically, you can put “obstacles” of “easy”, “normal” and “hard” variety throughout a game based on difficulty slider, or you can put “easy” “obstacles” on a main “path” and more difficult “obstacles” on optional “paths”. What that “easy” even mean? What are “paths”? I don’t know, I’m not making a game. I don’t even know the genre or if it even a video game at all.

But, yeah, way to make us all look bad :­P (I’m joking)

Edit: How you approach difficulty is very important, from inclusion standpoint and from “plain” game design, too. For example, correct me if I’m wrong, but aim assist in shooters is now decoupled from difficulty slider as a rule, but, arguably, is still part of a difficulty. It’s just having that option is important for people with disabilities, while how much HP enemies have is less so.


I mean, if difficulty level is something that can be changed after you start a playthrough, I don’t see what’s the big deal about the player not knowing exactly what it means from the get-go. They’re not going to know exactly what they’re in for with secret areas or whatever, either, until they actually go for them.

Crypt of the Necrodancer has a few different modes and characters available to play from the start rather than “slider” difficulty, but you could just as well argue that providing actually different content for different audiences unfairly gates some kinds of unique content behind skill, as @onsamyj sort of alludes to.

Of course, I’ve also heard some players comment that the Bard character is an interesting case, as speedrunning it can get you into a lot of unexpected deaths even though playing it normally is five million times easier than playing the default character Cadence, but other than the inclusion of leaderboards, speedrunning is a self-set challenge.


This is a really interesting argument. I definitely understand and agree with you, but I think there’s something worth considering: art isn’t made for everyone. Maybe I’m misunderstanding your point. I don’t think this argument is exclusive to neurotypical vs. neurodivergent, but also just whether a player is someone who is very skilled or dextrous. Too often do you hear the saying “get good”. But at the same time, I think there are some games that exist to be difficult.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t look to make more inclusive. I absolutely think we should. But I also think that games like Flywrench are designed to be difficult in the first place, and that’s okay.