There is a zone beyond that which is known to game designers. It is a place as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between boredom and frustration, between easy and hard, and it lies between the tips of our fingers, and the sparks within our CPUs. This is the dimension of pleasure. It is an area which we call... THE FUN ZONE.
(Forgive me, Rod!)
Okay, that out of the way, I'm going to start off with an actual, complete email I sent to the project leader of Max Payne a few months before the initial release of that game in mid-2001, almost three years ago:
From: "Scott Miller"
To: "....... ......."
Sent: Thursday, April 12, 2001 1:54 PM
Subject: Re: Max Payne Build 125
Here's the reasoning behind not having an easy skill level: We do not want players to finish the game and not have a satisfying feeling of accomplishment. Too many players will pick the easy mode just to get through the game, and end up finishing and think, "Well, that was nothin'! Where were the enemies!? Where's the challenge?!" In other words, if we give players a chance to shoot their own foot, some will.
Diablo 2 obviously didn't suffer from not having a skill level choice -- it's one of the three best selling games ever, with 2M and still selling.
Also, my view is that as developers, it should be *our job* to properly play balance the game, not the player's choice. In other words, skill levels are an easy way out for developers too lazy or incompetent to properly play balance their own games. (Okay, a bit harsh, but I'm saying this as someone who used to be a strong proponent of skill levels, too, so I was part of that incompetent developer group! *grin*)
Finally, a skill level screen is just another screen getting in the way of enjoying the game itself, like those boring as hell logo screens that I hope to g.o.d. we can get rid of in all future games we release!
Anyway, the perfect game will adjust its difficulty based on the player's personal ability. This was done in arcade games going back to Atari's Xevious in 1982. It should be really easy to do: Simply have a few variables that rate the player's ability, and the player's rating (completely internal to the game) determines the damage that both the player's weapon delivers, and the enemies' weapons deliver against the player. You do not want to adjust the health benefit of pain killers because that's something the player might notice being adjusted as the game goes along because it's represented by a visible bar.
A few ideas for variables that determine the damage ratings of weapons might include:
o Max's average health (i.e. if it averages around 25%, then the weapon power variables need to be adjusted to favor Max slightly, but if Max's health averages 80% or higher, then up the difficulty).
o Kills made per level, vs number of possible kills per level. A good player will leave few left standing, if any at all.
o Number of times Max dies per level -- this is a good indication of how good the player is.
o Note: I wouldn't keep track of shots fired or number of saved games--those can be misleading either way.
Finally, never make a change during a level, only between levels.
At the end of the game, via a cheat code, you could plot a graph of the ups and downs as the player played the game, which would be a very interesting graph to compare with other players!
3D Realms Entertainment
As can be gathered in this email, it's my opinion that games should only rarely allow players to set their own difficulty level. Afterall, it should be the designer's job is to insure the proper play experience, not the player's. The idea behind auto-dynamic difficulty (ADD) is to keep the player in the sweet spot, where the game remains challenging, but never impossible. A perfect game experience is one that constantly tests the player's skill, without being so hard they want to give up. Completing such a game gives a player an elated feeling of accomplishment, because they know they passed a tough test of their ability.
One of the key challenges developers must overcome in broadening the appeal of our games is making our games less hardcore in nature. We need to improve in many areas, like interface, content, and adding emotional involvement for story-based games. ADD should become one of our best tactics to help us achieve this important goal.
One of the most common ways games sabotage their potential to appeal to larger numbers of players is by being too difficult (or too easy, but that's much less common). Practically everyone designing games nowadays is a hardcore player with elite skills. It's therefore easy for game designers to misjudge the difficulty of their own games, making them too hard for average or new players.
Sequels, especially, are a breeding ground for ramped up game difficulty. The natural tendency with sequels is to add more features, leading to more controls. And higher game difficulty. Also, with sequels designers naturally assume that players have all the skills learned from the previous game, and so the challenges are made tougher for new installments. Not exactly an inviting situation for anyone but the hardcore gamer.
ADD provides the near-perfect solution for most problems dealing with game difficulty. At least if implemented well, but that's the case with any facet of design. There are two primary issues with implementing ADD:
 The first issue when implementing ADD is to make it invisible to players. It should not be obvious when the game is self-adjusting its difficulty level, as this can hurt the game's immersion.
 The other issue is to make it so that's it's hard for player's to manipulate the system, taking advantage of it. For example, a player might play very poorly for the level leading up to the boss, just to make the boss a breeze to beat. While clever players will always be able to manipulate games with ADD, there are ways to make manipulation more trouble than it's worth. And, the bottom-line is that players who do this are only cheating themselves, so perhaps this is not too great of an issue.
One last point that developers should consider: If a player completes your game, they are much more likely to buzz about, spreading the word that it was a great game. We all love to brag about feats of accomplishment, and beating a game, for a gamer, is near the top of the list. A game with a well implemented ADD system is more likely to allow players of wide ranging abilities to complete your game.
I think Max Payne benefited greatly from its implementation of ADD. And I think this should become a standard feature for most games. At least, if broadening our customer base is of any concern.