Artificial Difficulty (also known as fake difficulty) is a term that refers to how some games use cheap methods to make segments more difficult, for the sake of making the player lose and get a game over more often.
Arcade games are operated by inserting a coin to be able to play until you get a game over. Because of this, arcade games were often intentionally made to ramp up their difficulty level to the point of being nigh-unwinnable, therefore encouraging the player to insert more coins and try again. Many of these games used cheap methods to be difficult rather than being truly challenging.
The Nintendo Entertainment System, while a very popular and important console in gaming history, is also very notorious for having extremely difficult and overly-punishing games, most of which used artificial difficulty, as well. Since home console games don't operate with coins, artificial difficulty was instead used to extend game length. The average NES game lasts one to two hours. Therefore, game length was often extended by making the games extremely difficult, often unfairly so. This is partially where the term "Nintendo Hard" comes from.
Over time, the concept of artificial difficulty has been toned down significantly. Games on the SNES and Sega Genesis were also known to be very difficult but more forgiving with extra lives and continues. Difficulty in games is now a rather debatable topic in today's gaming, due to the use of artificial difficulty in the past; in particular, the much greater length of modern games means a full-on game over that drops the player back on the title screen and rests their progress is rare, as it is seen to be too punishing. It can be very tricky to make a game difficult without it being unfair. Games like Dark Souls have proven to be very difficult while still being fair and having a large amount of content.
Common Methods Of Artificial Difficulty
- Controls that make basic navigation harder than it should be.
- Putting knockback after damage on the player character, combined with cheap enemy placement near bottomless pits or other instant-kill obstacles.
- Older JRPGs often relied on giving enemies sudden spikes in levels without giving the player enough EXP. to keep up, forcing the player to either fight a battle completely underleveled or spend large amounts of time grinding EXP, only for the next major enemy to have another spike in levels thus forcing more grinding.
- This is made worse by JRPGs that have randomized enemy encounters, as those often make it so the enemies that give good amounts EXP. rarely appear, further slowing down level progression.
- Trial-and-error level design where the only way to make progress is to die over and over until you figure out how to beat a certain obstacle reliably, only to then die again on the next obstacle. This is particularly true if there is no logical basis to the overall design.
- Sudden genre changes, particularly in games that have no meaningful mechanics for being that genre, such as sudden instant-fail stealth sections in action shooters without any indication of the player character's visibility or the enemy's sighting range.
- Blind jumps in platforming games, also known as "Leaps of Faith", where the player is required to make a jump but the camera doesn't show you what you're supposed to land on, meaning you'll likely fall into a bottomless pit you didn't know was there.
- "Pixel-perfect" jumps in platforming games: this refers to overly precise jumps where there's absolutely zero margin for error, specifically to the common practise in 90s 2D games of requiring the player to jump while standing on the very last pixel of a platform. This is made worse when the platforms are placed over a bottomless pit.
- Having few or no checkpoints or save points in a level, requiring the repetition of large sections of gameplay on death. This doesn't make the game more difficult, only more punishing because one single mistake could cause the player to lose a large amount of progress. This was used in some survival horror games with the argument that it created greater tension and fear of death: while this may be the case, repeating long periods of gameplay multiple times tends to be frustrating rather than tense. This tactic is particularly frustrating if checkpoints are placed before long, unskippable cutscenes that precede difficult encounters.
- Punishments for death that make the game harder on subsequent attempts, such as the immediate reversion to a useless basic gun in many arcade and arcade-style scrolling shooters. This hearkens back to coin-op arcade design, where this negative feedback loop of dying making the game much harder was used to make players give up around halfway though a game so they would try again on their next encounter with the machine.
- SNK Boss Syndrome in fighting games refers to an entire list of "dirty tricks" used to design difficult enemies in one-on-one fighting games.
- Some games have boss fights were the boss spams too many overpowered attacks without proper telegraphing or uses huge attacks that deal too much damage at once and are too hard to avoid without trial-and-error. The only way to defeat those bossess is to die over and over until the player has fully memorized how to dodge every single attack, but by the time they do they already died so many times that they get a game over.
- Shooter games refusing to give the player access to the weapons best suited to the current task, for example making them fight a lot of enemies at long range without access to a sniper rifle.
- Giving enemies extremely high amounts of health (sometimes coupled with health regeneration) and effectively turning them into bullet sponges, forcing players to level up or gain better gear to defeat them instead of parcticing and defeating them skillfully.
- "Rubberbanding" is a common trick used in many genres (mostly racing), and refers to systems where opponents will be given arbitrary boosts to their capabilities so they never fall too far behind the player. While such "dynamic difficulty" can be a good thing if it is used to make enemies more intelligent, it is extremely noticeable in games where the CPU-controlled characters have fixed capabilities and the rubberbanding allows these to be exceeded. The classic example is in many racing games, the speed of CPU racers is based entirely around what the player is doing, and they will always be close enough to jockey with the player for their current position even if this requires them to go faster than their character should be able to.
- More generally, any game where the player and AI are supposedly using the same resources but the AI either uses them in a perfectly ideal or outright impossible way. This was often used in older games to mask the lack of intelligence of the AI by giving it the advantage of brute force. For example, it was very common for the skirmish AI in older real-time strategy games to have fully teched-up their base by the time the player had built a single vehicle, and to turn out units at a fixed rate even if the player had already destroyed all of their resources.
- Giving very few or no invulnerability frames after getting hit in a game where enemies can perform multiple hits in rapid succession, in particular if there is no way to escape such a combo.
- Giving enemies abilities that inflict extremely punishing status effects on the player character such as stunning them and preventing them to attack or evade, screwing with their interface (think Call of Duty flashbangs), or reversing the player's controls, with no way to shorten the duration of the status effect.
- Extremely tight time limits where the player instantly fails if the time runs out. This can allow level makers to place in large level lengths where there is little to no room for error before the time runs out.
- AIs in escort missions are bad offenders of this, often having the character you're escorting have bad AI that can prematurely activate traps and often go to areas that can hurt or kill the escorting character.
- If gun recoil is present, a method is making it extremely unpredictable and unrealistic which would make the game more frustrating rather than challenging.
- Adding luck-based factors, meaning that even being unlucky for something you cannot control can cause devastating actions to occur. Plants vs. Zombies Heroes is infamous for adding luck-based factors like Conjuring and the Super-Block Meter to easily give cheap deaths to the player and being more favoring to the opponent.
- Having enemies deal large amounts of damage that can kill the player in a few hits. The worst offender of this is Dragon Ball Z: The Legacy of Goku, where just about every enemy can kill Goku in less than five hits, or the first Mega Man game, where Elec Man and Ice Man can both decimate Mega Man with just three hits.
- "Scripting" is a common trick in football games such as FIFA or Winning Eleven/Pro Evolution Soccer, where the game will perpetually nerf your players despite their stats or abilities in an attempt to even out the game, but the reliance on scripting can go wrong easily, as you will find that scripting makes it so that your goalkeeper can't save anything, or you lose games consistently because scripting nerfs your side and perpetually makes the opposition more powerful, leading to lots of frustration from PES and FIFA alike. Mostly from FIFA players because EA perpetually makes it worse than PES so that you will buy more packs or make more In-App Purchases to get them.