Should Adaptive Difficulty Be The Future Of Video Games?
One of the most contentious issues to be found in gaming is the question of difficulty. In the modern industry there is the necessity of catering to the casuals with easy access and playability, which has led many gamers, such as our own Dave Bouchard, to question whether they are too easy. Of course, many games give players the ability to select their own difficulty settings, which usually does little more than ramp up the accuracy, dealt damage and health of enemies (or similar statistics depending on the genre being played), but this leaves me questioning if there isn’t a better way. As often as not, higher difficulty settings rely on cheapness to present a challenge to players, detracting from the fun and ultimate satisfaction garnered from testing oneself at those levels, but how could this be combated?
In my eyes, the best way has not yet really been achieved in any game that I have played. The natural progression for any game is for it to become harder, according to the developer’s intention, as you proceed through. Nowadays, this comes about by increasing the odds, rather than through intelligent level design, but this is more the fault of the popularity of certain genres. Open world games, first person shooters, non-progressive racers and their ilk are simply not conducive to such an alteration, while platformers and puzzlers are. Both strategies require the same processes, though, and this, I feel, is the point at which the design falls apart, as there is simply no way for the actual skills of the player to have an affect on what they are being faced with.
This has led me to believe that adaptive difficulty should become a standard in games moving forward. In saying that, I’m not sure that it is even possible to create the kind of system that I envision, even though it is a relatively simple concept. Rather than the developer setting up spawn points, attack patterns and specific amounts of damage, imagine if it were all created on the fly, dependent on the way that you are currently playing the game. Similarly, the artificial intelligence would be scaled to your play style, setting themselves up as targets if you are inexperienced, while using flanking tactics, cover and a variety of weapons if you are experienced. Of course, this example is based around shooter gameplay, but racing games, and even platformers could alter themselves in such a way as to cater to the player at hand.
The precedent has already been set in online games through matchmaking, which aims to pit gamers of similar skill levels against each other. Moving the idea offline is a different matter.
I cannot deny that RPGs have often adopted something similar to what I am suggesting, but the key difference is that they alter the enemy types and damage dealt by them depending more on the skill of the character than that of the player. Of course, in many instances, the two are intrinsically linked, but experience can be gained regardless of how well the player is playing, thus creating a disconnection between the two. It needs to be based around the skill of the player.
Tailoring the game to read and adapt to your ability of play would be no easy task, as evidenced by the fact that there is barely a game out there that does it, however, with the ever growing convergence between hardcore gaming and the mainstream, it seems to be the most appropriate way to engage players of all different levels. Moreover, we all expect a leap of some form in the next generation, and it will almost certainly not come in the form of graphical computation. Why not, instead, focus on altering one of the core concepts of game designs since the very beginning.
While I highly doubt that this will happen, the possibilities are amazing and the ramifications for the industry going forward, I feel, would force some developers to rethink everything that they’ve done so far.