Difficulty: Challenge vs Frustration

Today’s topic is one that is important for all sorts of game design: difficulty. There’s lots of ways to make your game difficult, but unfortunately most of those ways are shortcuts that don’t lead to appealing gameplay.

Lots of game developers will feel the need to make their game more difficult, so they add all sorts of “features” that only end up making the game more frustrating. “But the player is dying more often,” they say, “it’s a challenge.” Well, kind sir—is it really a challenge? Or is your gameplay just hard for no real reason?

Today we’re going to look at the difference between challenge and frustration, and how to add to your game’s difficulty curve while avoiding making your players feel bad about it.

Difficulty Curve

People overlook the importance of a difficulty curve. Sure, most people understand the basic idea: the game starts easy, and it gets harder as it goes. Unfortunately, there’s more to the idea than that. It’s not just about how hard the game gets, but in which ways it becomes more challenging to the player.

I could easily write an entire article about difficulty curves and training the player (and maybe I will!), but for now, I want to cover some important ideas about how to establish a difficulty curve that makes sense for your game, and won’t annoy your players.

I’ve seen a lot of games that start out smoothly and easily, but then you get past that “beginning”—and wham!, the game becomes incredibly difficult as soon as your turn that corner or enter a new area. What happened to the idea of curve? Keep it natural and gradual, and do so by putting the player in situations where his ability is tested.

That’s the most important thing to keep in mind when trying to create a difficulty curve for your game: a game’s challenge lies in the way it tests the player’s skill at that game. Simply making enemies have tremendous amounts of HP usually isn’t the best way to do that. The player should feel like he is overcoming obstacles, that he is getting better at the game the further into it he goes. A good difficulty balance is one that tests the player’s ability, not his patience.

As the game progresses, it’s easier to feel the need to artificially ramp up the difficulty, by doing things like giving enemies ridiculous amounts of HP, or giving them moves that kill player characters in a single hit. Sometimes these things make sense—but if you don’t have a reason for them other than to make things “hard”, then think about other ways to add to the challenge. Build on the gameplay that has come before, and throw new situations at the player. Give him a reason to use the skills that he has developed in new ways.

There’s a reason that most players prefer RPGs that encourage strategy in battles over level grinding, and that reason is because they like a good challenge, not frustration.


So what exactly is frustration? What causes it? What makes a player want to turn off the game and never play it again?

Frustration occurs when the player feels as if his time has been wasted, and that the game is at fault.

There are two important parts to that statement, so let’s break it down. The first part has to do with the value of a player’s time, which is an important concept to understand in modern gaming. Thirty years ago—or twenty—or hell, ten—players valued their time differently. Games back then were a lot harder (and a lot more frustrating) than they are today. This isn’t to say that players’ time was less valuable. Accessibility to videogames was different, and gamers didn’t have the luxury of thousands of games available to them at a moment’s notice. In today’s world, if someone doesn’t like your game—maybe because they feel that it’s not worth their time—they can just delete it and find another one within moments. Twenty years ago, if a game frustrated a player, they didn’t really have that option, so they kept pushing through until the game was beaten.

Gaming culture has changed, and game design changes to accommodate the lifestyles of games. You can’t get away with wasting your player’s time.

So what is a waste of the player’s time? Think about the times that you have gotten mad at a videogame. Maybe you died and were forced to replay a huge area—maybe you were forced to sit through that long cutscene again and again. Maybe you were just about to land the final blow on a boss that you’ve been fighting for an hour, and he hits you with a cheap shot, leaving you to do it all over again. Or maybe you find yourself in a random battle every other goddamn step you take.


No Zubat… no Zubat… please no Zubat…

The second part of my definition of frustration is key for a game designer to understand and constantly work into his gameplay. When something goes wrong, the player blames the game, not himself.

Obviously, the biggest example of this is a glitch. If the player’s going along, having a good time, and gets stuck in a wall, he isn’t very happy, and he did nothing wrong. Those aren’t intentional, though. What about aspects of gameplay that leave the player howling at their monitor?

Camera problems are a common cause of this in 3D games. It happens all the time—you miss a jump when the camera suddenly rotates, or a wall is blocking your view of your character, or enemies are attacking you and you don’t know where they are coming from. The player feels like he has no control, and the last thing you want your player to feel is that he isn’t in control.

In RPGs, these kinds of problems are harder to pinpoint, but no less frustrating. Here’s an example that seems to come up a lot. Picture the classic block pushing puzzle, and the player somehow gets a block stuck in a corner. Uh-oh. He has no choice but to leave the room, reset the puzzle, and start all over again. “B-b-but the player shouldn’t have done that”, you say. I counter with “he shouldn’t have been able to.” Design your maps in such a way where blocks can’t get stuck in corners, or (preferably) allow the player to pull them as well as push them. Avoid situations where your gameplay allows your player to get trapped.

Here’s another example, going back to the idea of random encounters. Say that your player has fought his way through a tough dungeon, and his party are all sitting at a dangerously low HP. The end is in sight, so he goes for it. But nope! The screen flashes, and he’s in a battle. He tries his luck, chooses to flee, and fails. The monsters kill the player. These kinds of things can be avoided with some simple gameplay tweaks. For one, maybe monsters don’t attack on the same turn when a player tries to flee. Sure, it makes the game easier, but it prevents situations that cause frustration. Or maybe you could just drop random encounters altogether.

Even without random encounters, your player can find himself blaming the game for out-of-nowhere deaths. When working with visible enemy encounters, think hard about where the enemies spawn and how they move. You want to allow the player to dodge them (most of the time), and you don’t want to clutter the screen to the point where he panics. Incorporate your encounters into your level design, rather than just plopping them here and there.

Scour your gameplay for areas where the player dies and it isn’t his fault. Push yourself to find ways to give the player control of his fate.


So we know what causes frustration. That makes for bad difficulty. What makes a game difficult in a good way? Challenge.

Challenge is a test of the player’s skill. Any failure feels like the player’s own fault.

I’ve talked about testing a player’s skill. That’s what a player wants as a game gets more difficult. They don’t want to grind their way through hours and hours of the same things. They want to be put into situations where they can use the skills that they have been developing, and often in new ways. Think about the mechanics of your RPG. RPGs are thinking games, for the most part. Encourage your player to think, to use strategy. To make the most out of the mechanics in front of him. Don’t throw everything that you have at the player from the beginning. As the game goes on, present the player with a new type of problem that can be solved with the same tools that he’s been using. In a battle, in a map puzzle, the idea is the same. And as the game continues to go on, mix the problems together, and introduce more. Sure, make the enemies harder, make the puzzles more complicated, but remember to challenge the player to think.

An RPG doesn’t get more difficult when the enemies have higher HP. It might be harder, but the difficulty dwindles. If all the player has to do is grind and then he can just bash his way through the battles, then he’ll get bored quickly. Challenge the player’s mind.

The second part of my definition is, again, about blame. When the player messes up, in a good challenge, he has nobody to blame but himself.

The final level in Super Mario Galaxy 2 was hard, but rewarding—every time you died, you felt that you made a mistake and you learned something for your next try.

The final level in Super Mario Galaxy 2 was hard, but rewarding—every time you died, you felt that you made a mistake and you learned something for your next try.

Now, I’m not saying that the player should be getting mad at himself—that’s easily frustrating. But instead, every death should be a learning experience for the player. He should be able to pinpoint the mistakes he made so he can improve on the next time. If a player dies, it should give him the chance to change his approach to the challenge. Maybe he’s tackling a boss from the wrong angle, and his death teaches him to try another strategy. Deaths should lead to learning.

That’s the important point: a good challenge can be overcome by the player’s ability to adapt to the situation. A good challenge encourages the player to do his best. A good challenge makes the player want to keep playing the game.

And frustration just makes him want to give up.


  1. Sindaine says:

    Hey Des,

    Where were you when they were designing Diablo 3 originally? Blizzard could have taken some pointers. You speak about a curve and Diablo 3′s Inferno mode, although was supposed to be hard, had a 100 foot jump from Hell mode. As you said, monsters cheap-shot you, one hit you, had ridiculous affix combinations or had a stupid amount of life. That was frustrating, not challenging.

    As always, a great read. Thanks for continuing your site even after getting banned from the official forums. Can’t wait till the next pod cast.


    • Despain says:

      Thanks man. Never played Diablo 3 but that sounds exactly like what I’m talking about here.

      As for the podcast, the newest one is recorded. I just need to edit and upload—should be up in the next couple of days.

  2. LockeZ says:

    Honestly, the examples of RPG frustration in here are borderline. If the player messes up a puzzle, that’s absolutely, totally and completely his own fault. Failing to run away is admittedy a bad dice roll, but if the player is relying on running away, it’s because he already made MANY mistakes of his own on the way, and the strategies he was trying to use didn’t work. Escape gives the player a random chance to succeed when he deserves to fail – if that chance doesn’t activate, it’s not the game’s fault.

    Your definition of frustration is failure that’s not the player’s fault – making it impossible to fail even when it is his own fault doesn’t remove frustration, just difficulty.

    Meanwhile, random chance to miss with key skills and enemies that use instant death attacks are at the tip-top of my list of frustrating bullshit in RPGs. The difference between a failure chance on escaping and a failure chance on an attack or status effect skill is that the skill is the player’s Plan A, their optimal strategy and the thing they’re supposed to have picked to win, while escaping is Plan Z, their last resort that they’re only supposed to pick after realizing that their bad choices have led to failure. And instant death attacks are even more obvious. You can’t do anything about them. The game rolls the dice and gives you a game over even though you did everything perfectly. (If the enemy telegraphs them ahead of time and they can be stopped or dodged, that’s different. Instant death doesn’t leave much margin of error, but that’s possibly fine, depending on the expected skill of your players.)

    • Despain says:

      You’re absolutely right dude. Some of your examples are better than mine! I haven’t been playing many RPGs lately, and even though this was a topic I’ve been planning for a while, my head kept going to BioShock and platformers, so it was hard to come up with great examples in the RPG genre. Hopefully people will be able to take away the important stuff from the article—the main points and definitions of challenge vs frustration.

  3. As always, learned alot! That part about giving the player control of their fate was nicely put. I’m still in the design stage of my game and this article reminded me about the difficulty curve that is so crucial in rpgs. I played a ds game…the name escapes me and im on my phone but basically it was about traveling the world and collecting relics in your airship that was it’s own party for battles in the air as opposed to the normal party for exploration. It had a great skill system and the standard menu-based battles were refreshing. Problem was all those cool powerful skills you learned were too damn powerful and every boss battle in the game except for the secret post game boss fell to your ultimate power in 3 to 5 turns. This was a COMMERCIAL title. It was a pretty big turn off. One thing to remember about difficulty in battles is to make players use their arsenal of skills. If every battle is the same thing or the balance of power is off in battles to the point where boss fights are like fighting zubats then your game is going to be boring. Also, there is no satisfaction in killing a zubat boss where you just spammed rock throw til it hit. Make the player strategize and work for their win!

    Something I’m working out right now is what is the best way to handle failure so that its not frustrating but still challenging? Because the player will make mistakes and they will die. Games nowadays seem to throw around autosave to remedy this or give the player the option to save whenever they want just on case. Old school games would give you the option to try the battle again like in final fantasy mystic quest. I guess how one chooses how to handle failure ties in to challenge/frustration…

  4. Aceri says:

    I am 25 years old, been playing games since the Legend of Zelda came out on the NES, and since then I have been an avid gamer. We all (for the most part) know how difficult the old school games were, but there are some modern games that do challenge the player like that.

    I was watching “Indie Game Developer” or whatever the movie was called where they followed three games; Braid, Super Meat Boy, and Fez, and the guys behind Super Meat Boy said something in that movie that is similar to how I am designing some aspects of my game. They said something like,

    “Most games in the ‘tutorial’ level of the game just tell you things like, ‘Press Circle to jump!’ and the like, but to give the player a real sense of immersion, and to make the PLAYER feel smart for thinking of it, design an obstacle in your game that forces the player to figure out and learn something new in order to overcome the challenge before him. That way, the player leaves that challenge feeling smarter for having figured out how to do it on his own, and because he had to figure it out on his own it now becomes a skillset that he will carry with him through the rest of his time in that game because the trick to getting over the obstacle wasn’t spoon-fed to him.”

    That’s not word for word, of course but that’s the jist of what he was saying.

    When it comes to the whole, “Skill > Difficulty” or however you want to refer to it as is the modern games Demon’s Souls for PS3 and Dark Souls for PS3/Xbox360. Those games on the first playthrough were infuriating to just about everyone who played it, but to people like me, although it was infuriating to me as well I felt a sense of accomplishment when I finally cleared a stage. To anyone who doesn’t know how those games are, it’s basically like this:

    Enemies are unforgiving. The game doesn’t block attacks for you based on % or random chance, if you want to block an enemies attack, YOU have to hold your shield up manually, and if you’re not using the right type of shield for the right type of attack, a portion of the damage went through and still hurt you. If you were good at timing, you could parry/riposte attacks for critical damage(usually 1-shotting enemies), or if you were skillful enough with your sneaking, you could land backstabs that dealt critical types of damage, if not outright killing most enemies. Bosses are “Learn from experience”. A great example of that is this:

    The first boss in Demon’s Souls, stated by the developers, was designed to kill you straight up. The whole purpose of the boss is was to get you used to the idea of dying by killing you right off the bat. In subsequent playthroughs if you learned the bosses attack and knew how to dodge his swings and flops(by standing under his weapon arm), there is a follow up boss that kills you via a cutscene.

    Dying in that game was PART OF THE GAME, not the end of it. But the game also punished you for not using your head and developing skills. Every time you died, you started from the beginning of the level with all of the monsters respawned and your health cut down to 1/4th or 1/3rd or whatever it was, and subsequent deaths without clearing a boss for that given area was represented by making the enemies much harder. They dealt more damage, could take more damage, and “Black Phantom” versions of the standard monsters would spawn after a certain amount of deaths, where their purpose was to completely crush you and punish you for not using your thinker. But on the same hand, specific types of loot was much more common, or only available, in the world once that harder difficult was implemented, and they gave more “souls” or experience than normal mobs. So although it was designed to punish you for dying so much and not using your head, it also gave you substantial rewards for going through the “hardcore mode” so to speak of the game and prevailing, finally learning from your mistakes.

    Sorry that was such a long explanation, didn’t expect to ramble on about it, but basically, to me those games represented a true example of Risk + Skill = Reward over the standard RPG motto of just Hack ‘n’ Slash your way to victory.

    Sorry again for the super long post.

  5. skyblaze says:

    One of the better fighting systems I have seen in a RPG is in the kids game Zubo on the DS (its painflly flawed in some other areas though) Heres a brief explanation – you control up to 3 Zubos to attack up to 3 Zombos in a turn based combat system ala Final Fantasy…BUT you cannot attack with your best powers at the start of the battle you must build up power pills during the battle (similar to FFs limit breaks) Once you have gained those pills you can unleash powerful attacks…however depending upon the opponents and powers you have it may be better to use a lower cost power which affects status…also choosing 1 of the 3 Zubos to attack places them in a vulnerable position where they can be attacked….A poor explanation sorry…anyway after years of playing RPGs it was neat to find a combat system which tested your strategy at times and nice to see a system which rewarded using low level attacks to build up for the bigger attacks – I would advise any game designer to check it out…good but of course not perfect

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