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kottke.org posts about Kyle Orland

A Taxonomy of Video Game Difficulty

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 15, 2022

When someone tells you that a particular video game (like Elden Ring) is hard, it can be tough to figure out what they might mean by that because games are hard in different ways. As Tolstoy might have said had he been a gamer: “All easy games are alike; each difficult game is difficult in its own way.”

Two recent articles have attempted to categorize the different ways in which players are challenged while playing games. Back in September 2021, Rhys Frampton outlined three main types of difficulty: comprehensive, executive, and strategic. Comprehensive difficulty relates to understanding the rules of the game while executive difficulty is about physicality (e.g. fast reflexes, coordination). Strategic difficulty relates to how to use your understanding of the rules and your reflexes to best master the game, your opponent, or yourself.

Once you understand a task’s goals, as well as the physical abilities required to perform the task’s actions, your final hurdle will be optimizing those actions to most effectively achieve those goals. This is strategic difficulty, the third and final category, and it is often the trickiest both to overcome and define. To demonstrate this, examine the difference between an intermediate Go player and a master. Both of them fully understand the game’s rules, while also being capable of reliably moving their pieces to any desired spot on the board — thus, they both have an equal mastery of Go’s comprehensive and executive difficulty. However, the Go master will always win against the intermediate player, because they have a superior understanding of Go’s strategic difficulty (i.e., the various tactics and divergent outcomes that will best lead them to victory). Go is a particularly important case subject for those interested in strategic difficulty, because despite being very simple to pick up and play, its strategic depths have still not been fully mastered even after thousands of years. Within the framework of “what,” “how,” and “why,” strategic difficulty represents “why,” and Go is one of the only examples of an activity whose difficulty is almost solely strategic.

I found Frampton’s piece via Clive Thompson, who riffs briefly on it here.

Earlier this month, Ars Technica’s Kyle Orland listed “five noncomprehensive subcategories” of gaming difficulty. Mechanical difficulty is about reflexes, punishing difficulty relates to how much of penalty you pay for mistakes (e.g. does the game make you start from the beginning when you die), arcane difficulty is about how much the game helps you learn to play, grindable difficulty is about the game giving you an option to power up via spending a lot of time performing tedious actions, and difficulty walls is about the presence of “impassable walls that fully impeded a player’s progress”. About grindable difficulty, Orland says:

Even the hardest mountain can be ground down by a gentle stream if given enough time. Similarly, some games that seem tough at first can eventually be completed if you’re willing to put in the time to grind out improvements to your character’s power level.

In a game like Super Meat Boy, there’s no item you can find to make a difficult series of jumps any easier. In Elden Ring, on the other hand, the game can become significantly easier as you put in more time collecting the runes and items needed to power up your character level, weapons, and spells.

It’s unclear whether Orland read Frampton’s piece or not (there’s no reference to it in the article), but there’s both overlap and not between the two systems. I am sure there is prior art here, both related to video games and in describing the various types of athletic or intellectual challenges — let me know if you know of anything I should read about. But anyway, it’s interesting to think about this stuff in the context of games I like to play and ones that I really really do not…and also in hobbies I like to do and don’t.