When looking to use a universal difficulty system in a meaningful way, consider Fallout: New Vegas. Players begin the game in the small settlement of Goodsprings with the goal of getting to the city of New Vegas. Despite that Goodsprings Cemetary up on the hill offers an excellent view across the Mojave to New Vegas, players are informed that traveling straight there is not a good idea because of dangerous areas blocking the way. As players start their journeys along the road, they may be turned away from passing through Sloan because of a pack of deathclaws that have nested in the quarry and a super mutant encampment in the nearby mountains. Players don’t have any other option than to go the long way around. These moments set the tone for the journey to come, as many characters along the road to New Vegas will warn players of dangerous locations nearby such as Primm, Nipton, Camp Searchlight, Boulder City, and Nelson. At the same time, many characters in the settlements along the way will talk about the riches of New Vegas. The game makes effective use of difficulty and desire to steer players in a desired direction. The death traps keep players on the road, and the characters keep players focused on New Vegas.
Both Splinter Cell and New Vegas are built using traditional, proven difficulty systems, but their developers designed them to work with other elements to create unique, fitting solutions. They’re only two of many examples of how to take difficulty to the next level.
A Choice of Great Difficulty for Your Consideration
I’d like to suggest that game designers choose difficulty based on compatibility rather than market statistics. I’d like to encourage difficulty by design rather than by default. Moving forward, I hope that difficulty is thought of less in terms of quantity and intensity and more in terms of encouragement and guidance.