A lot of games like to market themselves as “difficult” or for “hardcore gamers” only. But some of these games get difficulty woefully wrong.
There is nothing wrong with a hard game. Games like Cuphead and Dark Souls are marketed as difficult and are hailed as masterpieces. What makes good difficulty all comes down to level design. Dark Souls consists of vast open areas with a few beefy enemies that require pre-planning and careful consideration. Games like Metal Gear require you to survey your area and plan your strikes to not be discovered.
An example of bad design is best shown in a new genre that has popped up fairly recently: the “rage game” platformer. Games that market themselves as “the hardest game ever” and typically tell you how much you’re going to die. These games, I believe, are the pinnacle of bad game design.
The key to difficulty in games is pacing, and whether you make your game fast or slow, it must remain consistent in its design. These rage games have none of that. Rage games typically move at a breakneck pace and require pixel perfect jumps. One mistake can typically cause the end of that run, and most rage games are devoid of checkpoints. This is intrinsically bad design, as the pace is completely broken. A well-designed game eases the player into the difficulty and doesn’t include any abrupt spikes in difficulty. The design shown in these games can lead to frustration in the player and instead of feeling they played the game, can lead to them feeling the game played them.
Frustration is by no means a bad thing in games. It can be used to motivate the player to do better than ever before, and also a tool that can make players feel accomplished after completing a particularly tricky level. These games typically give no semblance of a reward to the player after completing, and instead, they just wear the player down until they can take no more. Victories feel like winning a war of attrition, rather than executing a strategically planned outmaneuver
An example of great difficulty design can be seen in the PC Action puzzle game “Doorbusters”. Doorbusters puts you in the role of a squad of police officers infiltrating and attacking enemy compounds. The entire game is based on careful planning and executing of operations in order to assure the minimum amount of police (and sometimes hostages) are killed. This is obviously much much slower than your average platformer but contains the exact same tools that make difficulty design good for other games. You need to be challenged by being given a set of tools and limitations, and manipulate the environment around you in order to win. The Zelda Series for example typically gives the player a new item such as the hook shot and then has an entire dungeon based on that mechanic, and previous items/abilities gained. Challenging the player to think outside of the box and come up with new solutions to a problem is much more effective than throwing them into a room with 100 spikes and saying “go”.
Difficulty in games is all about balance. The game must master its pace, and help the player achieve the goals it wants the player to achieve, rather than actively fighting the player the whole way. The level design, enemy design, pacing, and even things like control scheme must work together to produce a difficulty level that encourages success, rather than repel it.