I wish the games community at large had better ways to describe difficulty

I just started playing Quake Champions since it was free during E3 weekend, and I’m loving it. But a weird thing I’ve noticed is that every stream and youtube video says without fail that Quake is a “hard” multiplayer game. It’s not even in an elitist way most of the time because people are trying to get others to actually stick around, but “Quake is a hard game” gets thrown around with no examination or explanation. For a game still trying to build a stable community, this seems like a fast way to scare everyone off. I personally avoid self proclaimed difficult games, but I don’t want to do anything but play more Quake right now.

And yes, I suck at it. But it doesn’t “feel” hard because it rarely punishes failure. Quake Champions’ skill ceiling is astronomical, but the community and tools provide a clear path to reach. I never lose progress for mistakes and getting fragged just means a near instant respawn. The best comparisons I can make are platformers like Celeste and Super Meat Boy that provide absurd tests of skill and ingenuity, but never make the player regret death. Quake doesn’t punish players for sucking. To me, “difficult but forgiving” seems like a much more approachable and accurate description of the game than just “hard.”

I know I can come to places like here to discuss all the super interesting and important aspects of game difficulty. But I’m frustrated that I’ve probably been scared away from games I’d love because I don’t know if their version of “hard” will appeal to me or set off my anxiety.


I agree! Saying a game is so hard!!! doesn’t really communicate a lot about it. More specificity and maybe even intentionally staying completely away from broad and vague words like hard/difficult/etc in the ways I’ve seen people talk about avoiding “visceral” etc. to describe games could be helpful?

The way Souls games get talked about is a really good example of this imo! When I first tried Dark Souls a couple years ago I’d heard it was very tough to play without much more explanation than that. I played it, found it really difficult, and gave up, because I had no notion of what improvement or progress would look like in that game, or how I could possibly get it. I finally came back to the game about a month ago in the leadup to the remaster where lots of people were revisiting Souls games and talking in detail about their particular brand of difficulty and perseverance-based/very conscious improvement. With the knowledge that it wasn’t just “hard” and I wasn’t just Bad At The Game I had a really fun time and enjoyed playing it!

Descriptive specificity is good!!

1 Like

I recently ran into this while playing Dark Souls for the first time. I had put off playing it for a long time because its supposed to be so “hard”, but once I got into it I didn’t find it to be “hard” at all. Sure, I died a lot, but dying is an integral part of the game. When you die you don’t lose progress, because progressing in this game means learning how to navigate an area or boss without dying- its part of the game loop, not a break of your experience.

So I thought, the game is not “hard” because it isn’t difficult to do what the game is asking you to do. You almost never get “stuck”, because everytime you die you find out what next do or not do. So you might even say that Dark Souls is quite easy.

I’ve kind of gotten to the same place as you, where I’m questioning that if Dark Souls (basically the cliché “hard” game) isn’t difficult, what can we say that difficulty is instead?

Edit: I just saw that someone mentioned DS right before me and I think its interesting that you bring up that it depends on your expectations. I guess DS is “hard” when you consider that the objective is to progress linearly while overcoming obstacles as they come up (like many games). But in DS the point of the game in one way is to meet obstacles that challenge you and therefore the traditional way of saying hard as in “you will meet many obstacles that you challenge you” breaks down. And this is the point where I get lost, let’s hope others in the thread have some good ideas!


Yeah, I remember seeing this conversation w/r/t rhythm games when Thumper was new and its really hard to describe failure/progress. Rhythm games in general are “hard” because there is an objective measure of your performance - there is a maximum score and you are trying to hit that. And Thumper gives you this huge sense of accomplishment when you beat a level, because they’re long and very intense. But there’s checkpoints every ~30 seconds (ish? been a while) and the actual fail conditions are completely separate from scoring (in Thumper you have 2HP and lose that during turns or on spikes, NOT when you miss a beat).

In comparison, games like DDR or Osu! are much harder. The BPM trends higher, failure is directly tied to scoring enough points (unless you change the game from default settings), and there’s no checkpointing. We can apply similar logic to 3rd person action games. I am not a souls person, so my knowledge is only discursive/from a spectator perspective. But the point of those games seems to be teasing out the rhythm of a fight and adhering to it. The first boss in Dark Souls isn’t really that “hard” - you get to take half of its HP off for free, and it only takes 3-7 hits to kill it. But the boss is not afraid to kill you and send you back to the checkpoint. So you get a parallel process to a hard rhythm games. The correct inputs are less specific, but still generally predetermined. Compare that to an easier game - Bayonetta. There is so much freedom in that game. You improvise, and often a fight that goes well looks nothing like the last time you did it (except the bosses, where the game does ramp up the difficulty). Mastery comes not from knowing every beat of a fight, but working fluidly inside a general framework, adhering to a few rules - don’t get hit, and look cool as heck doing it (which hopefully translates to a high combo score).

So maybe difficulty can be defined not as what % of players can complete a task, but how closely they have to adhere to the designers’ intentions in order to do so.

1 Like

One reason it’s hard to nail down “difficulty” is because, just like other mediums, difficulty in most games primarily comes down to literacy.

The Souls series is a great example. In 2009 when Demon Souls came out, a lot of people HATED how hard it was, calling it unreasonably punishing for no reason, and that people were only pretending to like it to seem cool. However, to a Bloodborne veteran, nearly all the bosses in DeS are dirt simple.

Competitive games are an exception, but even in those games, in-depth knowledge of the system is almost always going to beat out faster reactions.


Dark Souls is so good at having crushing punishments for failure, but almost always feeling like you learned something. But yeah, it took the internet nearly five years of not talking about anything else before they actually started talking about the ways Dark Souls handles difficulty.

Thumper seems super cool and I should play it. It seems like the designers wanted it to feel oppressive, and your description seems super interesting. It seems like you’re meant to survive Thumper while you’re meant to perfect other rhythm games.

1 Like

Difficulty is really interesting to me because when I handed my girlfriend the pad to play Halo she told me ‘It’s too hard’. It was on normal and though she was being killed over and over it had more to do with her lack of experience playing first person shooters. She simply couldn’t figure out left stick to move, right stick to look. Now most people who play games have a complete grasp on FPS controls as they have generally been unified since COD4 with some exceptions.

Her experience playing Halo and finding it ‘too’ hard is a completely different one to mine, however it has the exact same outcome. I played on Legendary and similar to her I kept on dying. For me the game was too hard not because I didn’t understand how I could use the verbs of the game but because the game increased damage output and accuracy (also grenade spamming).

So whilst I experienced an increase in the software’s difficulty, my girlfriend experienced found the difficulty coming from the new verbs she now has control of. I think this is similar to me trying to play Dark Souls, on paper I know what these games are and I can certainly control a 3rd person character game. However I’m not familiar enough with the verbs of Dark Souls and therefore find it difficult. Those who have played any of the Souls games can easily hop into the next one and know exactly how to play, sometimes creating difficulty by choosing a unconventional build.

It’s AI difficulty that really interests me, playing Arma for a while at various difficulties is a good example of how to utilise AI to ramp up the difficulty. On the lower ends, the enemies accuracy is poor and they have shorter sight lines, and panic under fire, you can then on a slider scale increase their precision and skill attributes which turns them into aimbots that stare fire in the face and engage from 600m away (dont get me started on mortars). I would love to see more of this in games where you can define AI behavior on a scale.

That mechanical literacy part is huge. It’s why I can’t play RTS games on anything but the easiest difficulty. I never grew up playing games on mouse and keyboard.


Im in the exact same boat, I can manage the speed of Total War but that’s my limit. Something like Starcraft scares the living shit out of me. I do enjoy messing with Company of Heroes and Men of War though but like yourself, it has to be on easy


They seem so cool…from a distance.

1 Like

The distinction between “hard skills to master” and “harsh punishments for failure” is definitely a good one. Maybe a good question to ask about difficulty is “how hard would this game be if you had a rewind button”?

I think it’s also important to recognize that different games test very different skills, and different people may find certain skills more or less “hard”. For example:

“Requires a fast reaction speed”. COD-style shooters are an easy example of this: when 2 players come around a corner, the winner is often determined by whoever can pull the trigger first.

“Requires precise timing”. When you start to measure time in “frames”, it’s probably a game that requires precise timing. Parrying in Dark Souls is a good example: an enemy attack might have a 2-second “windup” animation, but you have to precisely hit the parry button within a 0.2 second window.

“Requires a lot of muscle memory”. Most games rely on this to some degree. But a lot of it can be summed-up by asking “how much do you need to practice?” In an F1 racing game, you might spend hours just trying to perfect your technique on one part of a track. Or in a fighting game, you might spend hours in “training mode” just trying to perfect 1 character’s combos.

These types of skills make a big difference in what different people perceive as “hard”. You might be really amazing at DDR, but if you don’t have a great reaction speed you would probably be terrible at Quake. If you’ve been playing fighting games since Street Fighter 2, you’ll have a very different perception of difficulty from someone who doesn’t know how to throw a hadouken.

I think there’s also something to be said about pacing. Even games known for extreme difficulty tend to have breaks between the hardest parts. The hardest songs in Guitar Hero still have long held notes between the ridiculous solos. The hardest Touhou bosses still have spell cards that clear the screen and let you catch your breath. The most technically-challenging F1 race tracks still have some straightaways. Part of what makes certain Dark Souls bosses so difficult is that you can’t ever relax for more than a second or two.


Heh, I came from the entire opposite end of the path, grew up playing Starcraft (and Warcraft before it), and Couterstrike / Half Life / TFC. Can still remember my first time playing Halo CE. I could aim fine. And I could move fine. But it was an either or choice. I could not get both thumbs to work at the same time

1 Like

I love the term “mechanical literacy!” I haven’t had a console device since ours were stolen years ago, and always have a terrible time controlling things when I visit someone who has one. (Heck, I do most of my gaming on an iPad these days so WASD is pretty lame…)

So even though in some ways I’m an illiterate gamer, at least I’m physically capable of using those things. Not everyone is, due to (hopefully) temporary things like RSI or longer-term conditions like arthritis.

1 Like

In a hard puzzle game, you don’t know what to do, but it’s easy to do when you figure it out.

In a hard shooter, you know what to do, but it may be hard to execute.

I would almost any multiplayer game is automatically hard, because I am almost always going to have to play against people who not only know what to do, but have figured out how to do it.

In terms of better ways to describe, most people also misuse the term “learning curve.” A steep curve is good, since you plot learning over time.

Really thoughtfully designed difficulty is one of my favorite things in games, but it seems like such a difficult thing to get right, since everyone is bringing their own experience and skillsets and ways of thinking to it. Usually with tougher games I think it’s good to start firm but fair and ease players into harder challenges, but there’s also value in the Dark Souls approach of throwing a more intense challenge in the beginning as a mission statement to let people know what they’re in for. I think Iudex Gundyr in DS3 is a good example of this; he seems impossibly difficult at first but once you can beat him you’ll be ready for the challenge of rest of the game, as it shows you that what seems impossible at first never really is. And then on subsequent playthroughs you’ll steamroll him and marvel at all the openings he gives you that you couldn’t see before due to panic and inexperience. This approach is much more difficult to pull off correctly though, and with Dark Souls it has the unfortunate side effect of playing into the stupid HARDEST GAME EVAR marketing of the series that games journalists and the worse parts of the DS community uncritically buy into, thus scaring some people away by confirming largely false preconceived notions.

A good rhythm is really important too, because you need to give players room to breathe after long periods of difficulty, or else risk fatigue or frustration. I think Bayonetta was pretty good at this where it broke things up with short little quieter moments of traversal or light puzzle-solving in between all the high-octane action.

1 Like

I would argue against this. Sure I guess at a very basic level you know to point the gun and at the guy and shoot, but that’s not all there is to a shooter. Can you read the lines of sight? Do you know not to sprint around corners? Do you know how long it takes to reload the gun or aim down sight? Do you know the common spawn locations and how to predict them? Are you using all of the tools available to you? These are all factors to think about in a typical shooter, and none of them have much to do with difficulty of execution.

In general, I think that people over-emphasize the importance of precise execution in relation to video game difficulty, when it’s actually almost always secondary to things like familiarity with the systems, employment of tested strategies, and maintaining situational awareness.

I actually come from an academic backgroun d in modern and contemporary art and diffficulty is a big topic and overlaps with games. In art there’s a sentiment that the less people who can get a work, as long as the number of people who “get it” is big enough, the better, and I think that’s true in the mind of some players.

I think the perfect difficulty for games, as in art, is a difficulty that requires you think with and engage with the work, and that gives more meaning to the work/game itself. Just as re-doing a segment in Celeste 100 times made me re-evaluate how I approached platformers, or how bending your mind for a piece of conceptual art leads you to the point of the piece.

I also think though, that there are other avenues for difficulty. Jennifer Doyle put out a great book in 2013 about art that engaged with personal histories, bodies, and social issues in ways that could challenge or push audiences. She phrased this in the term of “difficulty,” expanding the notion of difficult art. I can think of a few games that have been difficult in this way, for me, including some twine games and games from personal experience that deal with queerness, mental illness, poverty and other issues. But this idea of difficulty is interesting in that it repositions the value of difficulty. You don’t just add this difficulty and have it for difficulty sake, and it changes the experience entirely.


This is a bit of an aside, but one of my big pedantic pet peeves is when games call the easiest difficulty setting “story mode”

I mean, I get it, but gameplay (and difficulty) is part of the text. A story where we witness the protagonist effortlessly overcome all opposition is fundamentally different from one in which they fail 20 times for every success.

1 Like

Related to the point above, but not the same thing (and maybe only sort-of related to this topic): it’s a bit grating how obnoxious Wolfenstein is about its difficulty settings. At its standard “bring it on” difficulty level it’s a game that (and here I am avoiding just saying “it’s really hard!!!”) wants you to be able to be fast, use cover and the environment in smart ways, handle a ton of very aggressive enemies, and frequently re-strategize and change your plans. Which is exciting and challenging and rewarding when you finally get through a fight that you’ve had to try a bunch of times, but for me normal is absolutely the highest setting I want to play on because more and I’m not having a great time playing anymore.

The lower settings are called “don’t hurt me” and “can I play daddy?” and imo c’est rude! You put these settings here and let the player change them whenever they want, and it’s just flavour or whatever - there’s no mechanical penalty for changing difficulties, just the corny menu options - but don’t like, de-incentivize or demoralize people for using them. >:-/

That said I think the Wolfenstein games are pretty forgiving in terms of death/failure – there’s always a checkpoint nearby, wait times are fast, your health slowly ticks up if you retry multiple times, you have lots of options for how you want to run through an area so you can mix it up if something isn’t working for you or one option doesn’t personally click for you, etc. etc. It feels at odds with the HARDER IS BETTER like, We Are Gamers No Casuals Allowed attitude that the game also suggests.

So again, I’m not sure how I’d describe the difficulty of a game like that much more concisely than I already have. Maybe difficulty isn’t even a particularly useful thing to discuss when it can take such different forms in different genres, and be mitigated or tweaked in so many ways, or be a different kind of difficulty than we often talk about in games, where the text is hard to engage with on an emotional or ~intellectual~ level. I’m not sure!