A Discussion on Artificial Difficulty

What is artificial difficulty? Artificial difficulty can be classified as two things: an implementation of simple padding to create difficulty or having severely random or invisible factors in a course instead of making thoughtful designs that involve multiple components of the gameplay to increase difficulty. One of the bigger cases of the former is in Super Mario RPG Revolution, the hack of Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Most of the changes made to the enemies in the game are HP increases and/or increasing the damage output of the enemy.

Adding more HP doesn’t make the enemy difficult, it just makes it more time consuming to beat. Increasing an enemy’s STR and SP could force you to block more often or use buffs and heals, but it also ignores things like status effects, patterns, and weaknesses. In most cases just increasing the damage just makes the player spend more time healing or to grinding levels so they won’t have to heal as often.

In this example they could have reworked some of the status ailments to be more threatening because Fear isn’t threatening as it should be and there could be more fights designed with limitations similar to the Forest boss who could turn off one of the controller’s buttons or causing Mute when a boss is more susceptible to special based attacks. Even a time based boss like Odin in FF games would’ve added some needed variety. Super Mario RPG Revolution also added a new boss called Defender that is the worst case of this artificial difficulty. Defender is accompanied by another boss called Factory Chief that has a moderate amount of HP and isn’t that much of a threat in terms of attack, but you still want to block his attacks when you can. It basically plays support for Defender, the real threat. After taking the Factory Chief out, your attention can be fully set on Defender. Like other bosses, Defender has powerful attacks, but the issue here is that it has such an insane amount of HP that you start to question if you’re making progress and if the boss is actually constantly refilling its HP. Here’s a video for you to get a feel of exactly how long that fight is.

Organic difficulty is difficulty that asks the player to increase their skill and utilize all the gameplay mechanics they’ve used thus far. I haven’t played many video games in a while so it’s a bit hard for me to bring up some examples at the moment, but two examples that spring to mind are Bayonetta 2 and the rom hacks Pokemon Blaze Black and Volt White.

Bayonetta fights the devil woman.

Bayonetta 2 is a game that requires a lot of skill out of the player. Bayonetta rides on the progressive difficulty structure. Enemies become more aggressive, strike faster, some may require you to target another to get rid of invulnerability etc, but the game does ask you to learn different components throughout mostly through the arena challenges which are optional. You are required to learn how to dodge, win a battle without taking a hit and fight without ever touching the ground. Learning how to dodge is necessary just to make it through to the end so it works there and its ideal never to take a hit if you want the best rankings. Sadly the never touching the ground part never becomes necessary in the main game, but it does teach you how to control space and move fluidly.

Throughout the course of the game the enemies as I mentioned earlier become faster and more aggressive, but their patterns become more complex, making you pay attention more to signs to dodge, move away and to attack.

The Pokemon hacks, Blaze Black, Volt White and their sequels go for the approach of a smarter AI. There is some small padding involved in the changes such as trainers. Pokemon have a slight increase in level and some use more Pokemon than they do originally, but how the AI reacts is the key part. More Pokemon have moves that cover their weakness keeping you on guard throughout the playthrough. If you have a grass Pokemon and fighting a Water/Ground Seismitoad for instance, the Seismitoad will react with a Sludge Wave. In addition, after making an opponent’s Pokemon faint, the AI will switch in an available Pokemon with a type that counters yours or a Pokemon that has a coverage move that can take out your Pokemon. The hacks also add new abilities to Pokemon including yours which forces you to think about each battle accordingly and to play with proper strategy rather than just plowing through with an over-leveled starter.

Difficulty is all a part of a game’s design and flow. The implementation of it can make or break the experience for a player.