Managing Difficulty in Games

Vince Palban

Figure 1: Game Over image by Sigmund on

The difficulty is a concept that is present in all video games. It is the catalyst for challenge in a video game and this is an aspect of the game design process that must be given serious thought for game developers to be able to achieve their desired experience within their game. Difficulty can serve many different purposes in a game, each of which has an effect on players and their overall experience. Difficulty can serve as the foundation or stepping stones for progression, helping players learn the game and keeping them engaged throughout their experience, it can become an obstacle that players must overcome to progress in a game or it can serve as a punishment for a lack of mastery. Not every game needs difficulty to serve all, or any, of these purposes and thus it is crucial for game developers to define what purpose difficulty serves in their game and to manage the difficulty within their game to achieve this desired purpose. This process of managing difficulty is both extremely subjective and intricate and is entirely dependent on the needs of the game and the experience developers wish to convey yet many have sought to find the ideal course of action or, at the very least, the aspects which must be considered while undertaking the task. To begin learning about these intricacies, we must first discuss the forms of difficulty used by developers in their games.

Types of game difficulty and progression

Difficulty in video games is a very intricate and heavily debated subject on personal, professional, and academic levels. Being the very foundation of challenge within most games, difficulty and how it progresses throughout a player’s experience is a crucial yet subjective aspect for all game designers and their individual games. There are two standard difficulty systems present in most modern video games being Static Game Difficulty(SGD) and Dynamically Adjusted Difficulty or Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment(DDA) as it’s more commonly referred to as. SGD refers to the standard choice difficulty that many are familiar with i.e. Easy, Medium, Hard, that persists throughout the whole game whereas DDA is a system within a game’s design that will change factors within the game(often discreetly)  in an attempt to adjust the difficulty to the player’s individual needs. Alexander et al., (2013) explore the effects of both of these systems of player enjoyment in their study testing both types of difficulty on players of different skill levels playing their proprietary game. Both difficulty types, SGD and DDA, have their own benefits, downfalls and effects on player experience to varying degrees and despite the ongoing debate on the validity of one or the other in modern game design, both persist due to the niche that each system fills.

Types of players and factoring their skill/experience

An essential factor in the process of deciding and implementing the kind of difficulty a game should have is factoring in the game’s player base and the skill and experience of its players. It is imperative that designers find the right challenge-skill balance for their players to provide an enjoyable and engaging yet still challenging experience. Although some developers may choose to intentionally disregard player ability in favour of encouraging mastery of their game such as in games like the Dark Souls series or Hollow Knight, the most common and effective approach for adjusting the challenge-skill gap in games is to employ DDA techniques for balancing. Kristan et al. (2020) discuss several of these systems that have been implemented in popular games and data in a paper by Alexander et al. (2013) indicates that overall, DDA systems fare better in matching a player’s own perceived skill for all skill levels in comparison to SGD systems. Honing a game’s difficulty to suit the largest majority of players is a difficult and extremely intricate process but is a necessary aspect of game design that designers must undertake to produce a game of mass appeal.

Flow State and competency

Although not often expressly discussed in conversations on difficulty, the goal for most video game designers is for their players to achieve and maintain a flow state while experiencing their game. Doing so is a complex and relatively ambiguous undertaking in which difficulty plays a major part as finding the correct balance in difficulty for players is integral to motivating a state of flow. Successfully motivating a flow state within players during gameplay heightens their perception and enjoyment of the game and thus creates a far more positive experience of the game overall. One of the indispensable ways to achieve this within players is to encourage self-efficacy in players and developing their feelings of competency with the game systems, enhancing their ability to overcome further challenges thus maintaining the flow state for longer. The relationships between the concepts of flow, competency, and self-efficacy are discussed extensively in papers by Schmierbach et al.(2014), Smith et al.(2017),  and Power et al.(2020) with the latter introducing the concept of Mastery Experience(The feelings within a player when they gain positive feedback as an outcome for a task that they complete). Although it is quite a discrete concept, flow, and encouraging it within players, is an essential aspect of the game design process and one which must be taken into account when assigning difficulty.

Effects of difficulty on enjoyment

Difficulty and enjoyment have an almost inseparable relationship in video games. Though enjoyment is a very subjective experience, a game’s difficulty system is a main objective factor within a game that has a direct effect on individual players’ experiences and thus enjoyment, though this effect is neither strictly directly nor inversely correlated. In a study by Alexander et al.(2013) researchers found that scaling difficulty and challenge seemed to increase enjoyment for experienced players whereas more casual players seemed to favour lower difficulties regardless of their performance. Although enjoyment is often perceived as the paramount purpose of games and thus other aspects of the game should work strictly in favour of player enjoyment, in some cases a higher difficulty is essential for a game’s systems to attain their desired effect. This usually comes with the consequence of reducing the player base to only those able and willing to gain mastery within the game itself. This choice to put the developer’s goal and thus difficulty first may hinder enjoyment for many players but, in turn, heightens the enjoyment for those able to succeed within the game. Though player enjoyment is a significant factor for a game’s success, this does not suggest that factors such as difficulty must compromise for the enjoyment of the majority. Games of both high and low difficulties can and have succeeded in providing enjoyable experiences of their specific player bases.

Maintaining player attention and engagement

One of the greatest challenges for game designers is gaining an audience’s attention for their game in an ever-growing market. This challenge then develops into retaining said attention and engagement in their game for the entire experience of the game without players getting bored or losing interest. A common component of retaining player engagement is a game’s difficulty and especially its difficulty progression during a player’s experience. Overall it would be understandable that DDA systems would fare far better at retaining player attention for longer and for a far wider player base than an SGD system due to its adaptation to each individual player’s in-game needs at any time. Unlike an SGD that only has pre-determined challenges set by the designers for their expected player base, a DDA system can adjust to different players’ skill and progression and mitigates problems of difficulty being too high or too low at different points throughout the experience thus keeping player’s in a flow state, holding attention.

This desire to induce a flow state to prolong engagement and motivation is discussed in a paper by Kristan et al.(2020) in which the authors explore the challenge of finding the balance between skill and difficulty that achieves the flow state. Through engagement and motivation are difficult to maintain within players for extended periods, i.e. the length of a game, game developers have found success in implementing DDA systems to aid in achieving a flow state in players and thus holding attention throughout their games.

Although managing difficulty and the effects that it has on one’s game and its players is a very subjective process, game developers can look to the plethora of completed and ongoing research and study on difficulty, it’s effects, and the elements surrounding it to influence their own game design processes and decisions. Although much of the data may still be debated or inconclusive, developers taking the data into account and employing the solutions and strategies that have been found in these studies into their own games will help in both supporting current research and will lead to innovations for future research. Be it customised progression systems, unique difficulty styles, captivating in-game challenges, appealing in-game experiences, or captivating storylines and features, as developers build and innovate on the work that came before them, game design and systems will progress and adapt with the ever-evolving needs of both developers and players alike. This innovation will provide future developers with an even greater pool of choice when managing the difficulty in their own games and thus allows for more varied games with unique systems and more varied playstyles and experiences.

Check your understanding


Alexander, J.T., Sear, J. and Oikonomou, A. (2013) ‘An Investigation of the Effects of Game Difficulty on Player Enjoyment’. Entertainment Computing, Vol. 4 (1) 53-62.

Hendrix, M., Bellamy-Wood, T., McKay, S., Bloom, V. and Dunwell, I. (2019) ‘Implementing Adaptive Game Difficulty Balancing in Serious Games’. IEEE Transactions on Games, Games, IEEE Transactions on, IEEE Trans.Games, Vol. 11 (4) 320-327.

Kristan, D., Bessa, P., Costa, R. and Carlos Vaz, d.C. (2020) ‘Creating Competitive Opponents for Serious Games through Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment’. Information, Vol. 11 (3) 156.

Power, J., Lynch, R. and McGarr, O. (2020) ‘Difficulty and Self‐efficacy: An Exploratory Study’. British Journal of Educational Technology, Vol. 51 (1) 281-296.

Schmierbach, M., Chung, M., Wu, M. and Kim, K. (2014) ‘No One Likes to Lose: The Effect of Game Difficulty on Competency, Flow, and Enjoyment’. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, Vol. 26 (3) 105-110.

SIgmund (2020), ‘Pixelated Game Over screen on an oversized PAC-MAN arcade machine’, digital image taken on Google Pixel XL,, accessed 15 April 2021, <>

Smith, L.J., King, D.L., Richardson, C., Roane, B.M. and Gradisar, M. (2017) ‘Mechanisms Influencing Older Adolescents’ Bedtimes during Videogaming: The Roles of Game Difficulty and Flow’. Sleep Medicine, Vol. 39 70-76.

Tian, Y., Bian, Y., Han, P., Wang, P., Gao, F. and Chen, Y. (2017) ‘Physiological Signal Analysis for Evaluating Flow during Playing of Computer Games of Varying Difficulty’. Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 8.


Vince Palban is a 2nd Year Creative Digital Media student at Technological University Dublin, Blanchardstown. He has a deep interest in game design and the game design industry as a whole and has been immersed in video games and video game culture from a young age. In particular, he has an interest in amateur game design and Indie Games. He enjoys watching educational game design videos like those of Extra Credits on YouTube, following the work of Indie Game designers such as Team Cherry, Dan Fornace, Yacht Club Games, and exploring Indie Games on public sites such as Game Jolt. His recent favourite games are Hollow Knight and Enter The Gungeon.


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Game Design & Development 2021 Copyright © 2021 by Vince Palban is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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