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Difficulty Tuning In Single-Player Games
This is sort of a big catch-all thread. Questions for discussion:

1. As a level designer specifically for Quake (or any game that allows for three or so player-selectable and mapper-tunable skill settings,) how do you go about the task of tuning the three settings? Should the settings emulate the challenge of the original game levels? Do you use your own skill level as a guide? Do you implement the "hard" skill first, then scale back? If scaling back, how do you decide what enemies/items to remove?

2. As a level designer in a game where there are NOT multiple "skill levels" to choose from, what techniques are available to the designer to make the level fun for a range of player skill levels?

3. As a game designer, how do you design game systems that enable the game to be fun for people of varying skill levels? Is it possible for a game to be fun even though it's too easy? Is it possible to for a game to be fun even though it's too hard? Are game systems that adapt to the player's current performace too deceitful to be used? Or, if the player knows about them, can it still be fun?

(my responses inside)
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Response To #1 
My personal approach to SPQ skill settings is to populate the level until I find it slightly challenging, then use that as the "Hard" setting. My reasoning is that I'm a fairly average SPQ player who plays other people's levels on "Normal", but my familiarity with the level gives me an advantage.

I have varying thoughts on monster removal for lower skill settings. One idea is that the most interesting or novel encounters should be preserved for all skills, since those are part of the experience of a particular map. You'd never have a skill setting where e1m7 didn't have Cthon, for example. Another idea is its only the really tough encounters that one should remove when lowering the skill setting, becuase the less difficult encounters ones are just as straightforward for everyone. Also, one thing I do often is try to place an easier monster in the same spot as the hard monster -- an ogre for a vore, for example. Finally, there are a lot of large-scale encounters where I simply scale back the numbers, while keeping the placement and types about the same.

For health, I think it might actually be a good idea to simply leave the health the same in all skills -- I figure that the less skilled you are, the more damage you'll take.

I'm not really sure how to tune ammo placement. Obviously, there should be enough to kill everything, but beyond that, how can we tell what percentage accuracy to expect from easy, medium, and hard players? 
Response To #2 
Without player-selectable skill settings, what can you do to make the map feel "just about right" for people of different skill levels?

1. Allow multiple solutions to a problem. Especially when these solutions require different types of skills. The easiest example is secrets -- since the item in a secret usually makes an encounter easier, people who are worse at combat but better at exploring can get past a monster encounter that would otherwise be too hard. The player who is better at combat but not at finding secrets will get through the fight on skills alone, and will not feel that it was too easy. Another example is using stealth to get past a fight, or to get an advantage when the fight does start. Players who think more tactically can use that part of their brain, while players who don't, but are crack shots, can once again brute force through the encounter.

2. Allow multiple routes to the goal. This is similar to #1, but allows more player freedom. It can be seen in games like Mario 64, where the player doesn't actually have to play all the levels to get to the end. At any time, the player has a handful of levels to complete next, and each level will unlock a new one. The player never gets stuck on a single level. To apply this to a level design, try making a door that opens only after finding X buttons, but put X+2 buttons in the level. Each player might think that different hiding places are the "unfairly hard" ones, but it doesn't matter becuase those ones become optional. And by thinking that they had to find "X" buttons, they will not think that they've missed out on content when they stop searching after finding the necessary amount.

Another example of multiple routes is Mega Man 2 (or any Mega Man game, probably.) Players have to complete all stages, but in the order of their choosing. Each stage gives the player a new weapon, so he can play the levels he considers easier first, and then tackle the harder levels once he has more firepower. To apply this to level design, try making a level with multiple keys to retrieve, but no set order to retrieve them (like Quake's e1m5.)

3. I'm not sure what the general principle would be called for this, but there's a cool effect I noticed in Half-Life 2. When your health is up, and you're doing well, the natural instinct is to charge ahead into the next encounter. When your health is low, you start looking around for health packs. Basically they had health packs hidden all over the place, in houses, behind pipes, etc. etc. In fact, if you had to walk past all of them, you'd probably pass most of them up, and conclude that the game was way too easy. But since players doing well don't look as hard for health packs, they don't see how many they passed up. As a result the player gets the sense that they are playing a game that is just about the right challenge level for them. 
Response To #3 
1. Leveling up. RPGs have a nice feature where if an obstacle is too difficult, the player can go kill orcs in the woods until he gains a level, and then go try again with a stronger character. This is a really elegant way to design around difficulty problems, becuase everybody can eventually beat the boss when they're level 50, but good players can beat him at level 30 and feel like they really accomplished something.

2. Unfamiliar control schemes. Any game that uses a well-established control scheme, like WASD+mlook, must be harder simply to satisfy genre veterans who have played all previous similar games. This means that the game will be unplayable for the newbie to the genre. The difference in ability between a top player (Thresh or whoever) and a total noob (your mom) is going to be huge. A game with a relatively novel control scheme will be equally unfamiliar and awkward to most people. The difference between the ability of a hardcore gamer and a casual gamer when playing this game will be smaller becuase they ALL have to learn the controls -- the hardcore gamers has less of an advantage.

3. Adaptive difficulty. This just means that if you get low on health, the bad guys shoot less accurately, or the breakable crates give health packs at a higher rate, or, have the other race cars magically teleport right behind you when you have a ridiculous lead, or some other sneaky way to make the game go easy on you when you're losing, and get harder when you're doing well. I think the big flaw with this idea is that it's dishonest, becuase if the player knows about it, he loses a certain amount of the satisfaction of playing. And if he doesn't know about it, he's being tricked.

3b. Pretend danger. This is like 3 in that it's dishonest, except instead of tricking the player by changing the rules, you just trick the player by making it seem like they were in more danger than they really are. Example: in Prince of Persia 4, there was a section where you had to jump from stalagtite to stalagtite in a sequence. Just as you jumped, the previous stalagtite would break and fall into the bottomless pit, making it seem that you had just barely made it. In fact, you could wait there for 5 minutes and it would still break right after you jumped. Scripted battle chaos in Medal of Honor type games also falls into this category.

4. Fixed-length games. One general problem I see with too-challenging games is that they are very frustrating to casual gamers. When you read a book or watch a movie, there's a reliable sense of how much time you are committing, and whether you will get to experience the entire thing, including the end. A game can en-trance and engross a player, and then halfway through simpy end up being too hard, thereby never giving the player the rest of the story or experience. Indeed, part of the experience of playing a game is the sense of accomplishment, which would not be present if you could see the end no matter what. However, I think it should be possible to design games which take a known amount of time to complete, and yet still provide a sense of "winning" and "losing" or at least "doing well" and "doing poorly." Most sports simulation games take the same amount of time whether you win or lose. And some interactive fiction is set up to last a set number of turns regardless of player performance. In the end, I think the types of games that can be designed to have a fixed length might be limited, but it's probably more than we think.

5. Hint systems. In any game that involves puzzle solving, a system that gradually gives better hints (for example after the player is stuck for a couple minutes) will help anyone that gets stumped on a puzzle for a while, while allowing the puzzle to feel challenging enough for people who solve the original puzzle quickly. This is sort of a fuzzy idea so i'm not sure of any good examples, but i suppose just having characters in adventure games you can ask for help is a decent example (any recent Zelda game.) 
Reaper bots had an option to be adaptable to player performance. I had a lot of fun putting four bots in a level with this option enabled and fragging them for 20 minutes. Maybe it was acceptable because there was no victory condition. I'm not sure. 
You've pretty much said everything there is to say yourself. Wow.

I don't like grinding RPGs, I don't think there is much satisfaction in constantly battling the same shitty monsters for hours just so you can do it all over again with some slightly harder monsters. I know this sounds like most games, and not just RPGs, but there is something I find that is rather tedious about many RPGs. It is nice when you reach a new level, and can tackle the next area, but sometimes the time commitment asked of the player is just stupid. Then they boast about how many hours the game takes to finish. Huh?

I hate the computer cheating on harder skills. It's ok if the harder skill levels make more baddies appear, makes them smarter, or, as in the forthcoming SiN: episodes, has the baddies wise up to commonly used tactics, but I can't stand the AI cheating in Mario Kart. There is also the powerup selection, which kinda pisses me off (mostly because of the blue shell in the recent versions). Oddly, I don't like the way Half-life makes the enemies physically tougher on hard difficulty. I think this is shit because the game is balanced for normal, and if the enemies take too many hits to kill, it make the game less satisfying. It's shit if you have to unload your whole clip into a guy's face to drop him, imho.

As long as the computer doesn't seem to be cheating, it think difficulty auto-adjust is ok. It's just when it's really obvious it is no fun. If the player is being lied to and the player is buying the lie, but having fun, so what?

I certainly don't mind when a game decreases the difficulty of some part of the game when I've been stuck there for ages. FPS games don't seem to do this often, and rely on the player having a previous save to fall back to. This is the wrong way to do things in this case. I would have LOVED it if the shitty ninja zombie marines in Doom 3 became temporarily less accurate after a couple of reloads from the same point. I don't want to have to replay a chunk of the game just because I now have 3% health and because of the high accuracy of the marines, it's very unlikely I will survive and encounter with them without getting some more.

Hint systems are ok, but only if they aren't forced on the player (like a dialogue popping up or something). What's to say the player isn't about to have a eureka moment, and then they have it spoiled by the game telling them what to do because some designer decided that if the player hasn't finished the puzzle after x minutes, they are dumb and need help.

Having a sidekick you can ask for help is cool though. I haven't played it in ages, but in Indy and the Fate of Atlantis, I'm sure Sophia was quite helpful sometimes, but only if you asked her.

Bleh, I can't be bothered to write any more. I think that different games require different methods of making things manageable for players of all skills. Some ways work, some ways don't. 
Thanks for this thread. That is what I'm working at the moment in my map.
I agree with everything you said in "Response to #1". This propably is the way most mappers go when implementing skill settings. One thought is that I want to leave some surprises on higher skills for people who replay the level starting form easier skill. Thus I don't always want to place an easier monster in the same spot as the hard monster (or easier battle in the same place as a harder batle).
I do it similar to you. First implementing hard skill, then removing/replacing monsters for lower skills. Also some architectural changes can be done to enhance skill settings like removing/adding a wall or lift.
I also came to the conclusion that health packs shouldn't be removed on any skill. Maybe they should be only replaced to the weaker ones (hp25 to hp15 etc.)
Ammo seems a bigger problem for me. In my map there will be 90 monsters on skill 2 and 50 on skill 0. So there will be plenty of unused ammo on easy skill, but I also tend to leave it this way. Easy skill is for fun I think. Lot's of ammo should enhance it.
One way of implementing skill settings I use, is to trigger monster on higher skills to wake them up earlier than in easy skill for example. This way I make it a bit tougher and can surprise players replaying the level on higher skill.
What do you people think about changing weapon/artifact position between skills? I have done it in my first map, but now I think it isn't the best solution. On the other hand I somehow remember that Id used to do it in the original levels. 
1: I don't really have an opinion on how difficultly modification should be done, but I do think that easy should be easy and hard should be hard, which is fatuous but I guess I mean that there should be really quite a lot of variation between the skills.

2/3: I think the idea of having a hard but 'proper' way and a slow and less satisfying way to get past a given point is a good idea. I remember Jesse's Runners Delight maps which were designed for speed running and so had masses of opportunites for tricking but were completable by more usual running as well -- a bridge slowly extending, so you could rj if you wanted, etc. 
Quick Balancing Quake Comments 
I think it is ok to add extra ammo and health on hard, since it can help the gameplay if the played doesn't have too much stuff on easy and too little on hard.

With apsp1, I made small changes, the main difference between easy and hard being the size of ammo boxes and health/armour contained in pickups (and number/strength of monsters, obviously). I don't know if this was completely neccessary in all cases, but I didn't find the gameplay frustrating at all, and didn't get any negative feedback regarding difficulty, so I guess it was ok.

I also had a fair few people test it. Probably 10 testers or so. They didn't all get the map at the same time though, so I was able to test the couple of iterations that I made before release, each time with new testers, so comments regarding difficulty would be valid.

Actually, I think always using the same testers is a bad idea. It is fairly common in the games industry to just have the same people testing the same game for months, but I believe this leads to them overlooking problems a fresh tester might spot. I don't know if larger companies cycle their testers between projects, but I think that's I would do it were I in charge of EA or something :) 
Good Points 
and some random ideas, mainly concerning quake:

given the fact that everybody who's still playing quake has so many years of experience, new maps should have a higher, more challenging, difficulty than, for instance, the id maps. like id hard equals today's normal.
i don't know what i would change for easier skills, maybe some weaker/fewer monsters, less ammo/health on harder skills..
personally, i like challenging maps (in a healthy relation), so if i run out of ammo - which rarely happens - i try to continue like this, even if it means i have to axe a shambler. i reckon it's annoying for most players to run out of ammo completely or e.g. have only grenades left, but this can a nice twist as well, for it will force them to use a different (more thoughtful) tactic - the grenade thing happened to me a few times and i was pleasantly surprised how nicely it influenced the way i played the map. such things can also be used deliberately by the designers, though it has to be carefully tested, e.g. axing a shambler is ok if there is enough armor/health around, but it sucks in situations were regular combat was intended.

metlslime's 'more buttons than needed' idea is interesting, but i'm not sure how it could be realised appropriately. at any rate, the map has to be fairly large for such features (in most cases maps/paths are more or less self-explanatory anyway) and the extra buttons would have to be 'presented' in a way that makes sense (ok, likely not that much of problem). all of this has to be considered when planing the map's layout, and it would lengthen the creation process even more. of course, this would add greatly to a nonlinear gameplay and replay value - something that has been lost in the (fps) games of the last ~6 years.

this is also somehow related to the megaman thing metl mentioned. hub-based games/levels - quake can only be vaguely counted to them.
there is more to megaman than just the possibility of choosing another level if one is too hard, though: one can play them in any order, but there is always one weapon that works best against one level-boss, and there are other weapons that are utterly uneffective. this could be applied to other games, too. quake is probably not the best example, but i could imagine a hub where you get a different weapons in each level, like the rocket launcher in one, and it's possible to play the shambler map afterwards, but it will be damn hard. so the player might want to finish the supernailgun level first. or something like that... 
More On Hint Systems 
Infocom games (text adventures like zork and planetfall) had a hint system called "invisiclues" which had a series of clues about each puzzle. The clues were set up so that you could see each clue one at a time, and the clues got progressively more blatant. It was entirely up to the player's discretion, but it was designed to make it possible to get just a little hint if you needed one, but a bigger hint if you needed that.

More info and examples:

The strength of this idea is that if players want/need to cheat to get past a tough spot, they want to be able to cheat in a way that has the smallest impact on the rest of the game. 
i could imagine a hub where you get a different weapons in each level, like the rocket launcher in one, and it's possible to play the shambler map afterwards, but it will be damn hard. so the player might want to finish the supernailgun level first. or something like that...

Sounds like a cool sm theme 
Good Thread... 
...I'm in the process of populating qte2m2 at the moment, so I'll have a go at "1".

During the construction of my levels I tend to only include enemy if I'm wanting to test a specific set piece or pieces. If the set ups are successful then these enemy typically stay in the level till alpha. qte2m2 had 10 enemy only for a long time. Once the brushwork is finished I'll then start populating the level from the "start" so to speak. I don't specifically keep skill 2 in mind when populating, rather I ask myself "What enemy or combination thereof (type and number) best turns this particular place into a hard place to survive?" Of course, the end product of using this method is generally that I end up with skill 2 as a starting point.

Obviously, progression is an issue so I don't tend to stick three shamblers in the start room :)

I'll work "forward" into the level in stages, adding ammo and health as I test each stage. I find working in stages that seem to fall naturally from the level design means that the player will end up having some moments during the level to catch their breath.

I've only implemented one case so far where I want the player to HAVE to use the axe to kill an enemy :)

So once scraggy sends through a few demos and a test report I can then go back and adjust the level to be skill 2, just so. Then I use a combination of subtraction and substitution of enemy to get skill 0 & 1. Also, if a shambler is the best enemy for a particular set piece then I might keep it so but add some health (or maybe armour, or both) for lower skill. I tend to not adjust ammo downwards, but rather leave it the same for all skill. The rationale being that the monsters might be easier to kill but the easy player might waste more through lack of skill at aiming etc.

Now I have a beta, and the real testing and tuning can begin. 
think i agree with pretty much anything said so far.

The megaman idea is VERY interesting, but you'd need a whole game/mappack to try it out. oh pity :/

the 'hidden' healthpacks in hl2 are shitty for explorers. I think im quite a good fighter AND i love to explore, so im the guy who runs into every healthpack. of course with its linearity hl2 fucked with all explorers anyway, so i soon got frustrated with exploring and stopped it :/.

Adaptive enemies: are a major turnoff, i remember this being fcking annoying in one of the NFS underground games:
there was easy and hard skill settings, and easy the enemies were no problem at all, but still were 2:30min behind all the time regardless of the map/my driving/number of laps (which totally destroys the fun in dominating enemies) and on hard they cheated to be always just around me, so (in a racing game) you ended up crashing into something in the last lap and loosing 10mins of WORK (thats what it felt like then). (and of course you couldnt get yourself some nice seconds between you and your enemies in the first laps). This creates 'Instant kill on error' gameplay then. IIRC this was in both games.

Getting better stuff is FUN! hack and slay ala diablo is fun in diablo, but not in other games. i dont want hack and slay mmorpgs, ffs!
i always liked the 'get-better' aspect daikatana had - e.g. if you were good you putall your stats into jump higher and run faster and could get more secrets. makes for replayvalue, too. Or system shock2. Yes, rpg in fps is good. v good. 
let me start by saying that I don't think there's an ideal way to deal with difficulty yet. I would like to know :)

The classic fixed difficulty level system works reasonably well, and it is enjoyable because you have a decent idea of your skill level. Feeling that you mastered something is important. Its issues are of course its inflexibility, especially that if you start on normal and in level 6 it is getting to be too frustrating, having to start over in easy mode is a pain. I think any game should allow changing of difficulty between levels (warcraft 3 had this).

The difficulty curve being wrong can also happen inside a level, when you are out of health before a big fight. This is what makes the whole quicksave/load thing necessary. You could say level designers should always have some health especially before big fights, but I am not sure if this can fix things entirely.

Adaptive difficulty: I hate this with a passion, because I always notice it. It seems to get more popular nowadays, I guess with the average gamer being more casual they don't really notice, and more and more gamers are looking to be entertained rather than to be tested. They want a joyride that is only really mildy interactive, yet gives them a great sense of accomplishent and skill. I always assumed that in game design you'd want to maximize the players ability to use skill, but hey, if you can make them think they have skill even though they don't have it... why not?

I just tried Need For Speed Most Wanted, it topping the charts everywhere I had to try what the fuss was all about. And yes, it does feel pretty smooth, until you notice how blatantly the AI just hovers around your position, no matter (well, almost) what you do, how much faster your car is than theirs, or vice versa. They start braking for opposite traffic, cornering slower, or conversely, drive perfectly and go faster than their cars would allow. I deinstalled the game as soon as I saw this. At least when I play gran turismo, I can turn "catch up" off, and then I can judge my progress in learning a track beautifully from how far behind I am off the 1st car. It is only about skill then.

The only AI cheats that you could get away with, are very insignificant ones, so I'd say its not a solution at all, ever. Unless you're in the interactive movie business, like EA.

Which leaves the last solution: make resources in the game infinite, so the clumsier you are, the more time it will cost you. This is still my favourite as it is so flexible along every axis, every part of the game basically has perfect difficulty automatically.

The big problem of course is that it is the wrong way around: crappy players (often newbs or casual players) have to invest 50hrs to beat an rpg, and good players (often the fans of the genre) get only 30hrs out of it. The good players are the ones that would enjoy finding every item in every corner, but are the ones that don't need it. The newbs don't even have the genre experience to know where to look for the extras, yet they need it the most.

One minor equalizer in this is the non-quickload permanent death, in games like diablo (any other games?). Here when you die, you lose x% of your gold or whatever, and you respawn in the village. You can do this as often as you like at no further penalty. Since gold is coupled with advancing much like everything else in an rpg, it holds you back. So in this case, the good players that charge ahead are much more likely to die than who spend longer building up their character, and then are forced to play longer as well to recover their lost gold.

I think a combination of all of this could work well: infinite resources + no quicksave (as diablo) + selectable characters that are fundamentally different in how fast they can acquire things (and thus represent difficulty levels!). The casual newb can choose "barbarian that learns fast and has good starting stats" and the genre fan can choose "8yr old wizard apprentice with no possesions, no stats, and no friends". The only problem here is that characters don't easily allow for skill changes half way the game, though there may be ways to make this possible too.

In the end everyone wants different things out of a game, and wants to invest a different amount of time. Yet we want to feel that we have accomplished a skill level of a certain standard. A difficulty system should allow all of this. 
(part2 ;) 
What it comes down to, is that a game can always be seen as overcoming a set of challenges. Now the game has to decide what happens if the challenge fails. It can't let the game just continue as normal, because that would make the player feel like there was no challenge, thus no game. So the gamer has to be punished. Sofar, ALL methods of punishment all amount to extra time spent (anything from repeating the level, to just doing more of the same). Does anyone know of other ways of "punishing" the player when he fails other than extra time spent?

I guess what I am saying here, that if the player needs to spend extra time, it might as well happen in the smoothest, least annoying way.

The problem is also in the formula:

game skill level / player skill level = time

That means that I, as a seasoned FPS player, if I want a game to last long, I have to play it on ultrasuperhard mode, which just makes it last long thru being very annoying. Or conversely, if I am playing a new FPS whose gameplay I don't particularly care for (has happened to me many times), I may play on easy mode just to shorten the game, but it also makes the game no challenge, so worse than it already is.

So ideally, time and skill should be decoupled somehow. The rpgish idea above does this to some extend, in the sense that an easy character doesn't necessarily make combat easier, you just need to kill less monsters to progress. But this can't work as easily for an FPS. Anyone any ideas? 
You're Overthinking This, Aard 
"Time and skill should be decoupled"? Bollocks. It's natural that beginners take more time to do everything. Twisting a game's design to try and align both noobs' experimentation and veterans' rapid confident play with some "ideal" rate of progression is silly.

Your first post makes much more sense. 
Here's A Couple Of Thoughts... 
What it comes down to, is that a game can always be seen as overcoming a set of challenges. Now the game has to decide what happens if the challenge fails. It can't let the game just continue as normal, because that would make the player feel like there was no challenge, thus no game. So the gamer has to be punished. Sofar, ALL methods of punishment all amount to extra time spent (anything from repeating the level, to just doing more of the same). Does anyone know of other ways of "punishing" the player when he fails other than extra time spent?

How about having a tricky section (like a jump, for example) where if you make the jump, then you get a reward, like a weapon that you would be getting in a couple of rooms time anyway. But if you fail to make the jump, then you fall down (and take damage from the fall) but there's a teleporter at the bottom that takes you to the other side of the jump (or the beginning, but with a bridge extended) but the weapon isn't there, and you will have to wait a couple of rooms to get it.

Also, and this is more coming from a coder's point of view than a mapper... If you have several monsters which are similar in most ways (except how they attack you), then have some way of randomy replacing some of the easier monsters with more lethal ones, and the changece to upgrade the monster increases with the difficulty level. 
Time VS. Success 
"Time and skill should be decoupled"? Bollocks. It's natural that beginners take more time to do everything.

Not always true. It would take a beginner less time to get to the end of a computer chess game than an experienced player. 
In chess the main time cost is thinking through the game's possibilities, and beginners can move quickly only by doing far less of that. Besides, good chess players will not always move slowly - they might rip through the first twenty moves of a well known opening in mere seconds.

IMO an FPS shouldn't be time regimented like chess (except for effect), but be playable at any rate the player sees fit to take. 
Eh? SiN Episodes? 
So ideally, time and skill should be decoupled somehow... ...But this can't work as easily for an FPS. Anyone any ideas?

I read a recent interview with some guy from Ritual (possibly Tom Mustaine) who said that they recently had a novice player and pro gamer play through SiN episodes, and they finished within 15 minutes of one another. To me, that suggests that they might have taken the balancing to the extreme (if some OAP finishes the game in the same time as Fatality), but I do like the ideas they have for making things tougher for veteran players.

Mind you, you could argue that increasing the difficulty automatically if the player is exceptionally good could be seen as punishment for skill, which is the opposite thinking most game design has had since the first game was ever made. Skill is usually rewarded. Then again, if a player likes to be challenged, the extra challenge could also be seen as a reward, and is similar to the standard difficulty curve that should apply to most games (but often doesn't) where the game gets harder to compensate for the player getting better.

...I wonder if Sin episodes will complete itself if the player is REALLY bad. 
great thread. comments later 
You can punish lack of skill with time, but I would hope it's sometimes possible to reward skill with satisfaction, or at least a warm glow that comes from knowing you did something the "right" way.

Hints in puzzly type games are like this -- it's nice to only read them _after_ you've solved the puzzle. This is difficult to apply to FPSes in the large, I guess, though there's an element of it in quake when you take out a shambler 'properly' with the DBS rather than wanking the corner. 
Damn. This Is A Good Thread. 
Some thoughts:

When adjusting difficulty, I must be weird or something, as I tend to start in the middle (normal skill), and work to both ends once I have a sense of what I want "normal" to feel like. If I'm at all hesitant, I always, always err on the side of "easy" being too easy. There are people out there who just aren't very good at [insert game here] and I don't want those people to be hopelessly frustrated. When ramping up to "hard"...well...I don't know that I really do anything different from what's already been mentioned (e.g. new/different/more enemies, fewer weapons/ammo/health), but, like metl, I try to make health less of a variable, since it will tend to adjust itself.

Adaptive difficulty: I hate this with a passion

Amen brotha', preach it. I suppose if it were done in a way that isn't hamfisted and insulting, I might tolerate it a bit more, but generally it's done in ridiculously unsubtle ways, and you can almost hear the designer saying, "'re pretty damn retarded aren't you? Let me turn that off for you." *pats head*

Re: decoupling time and skill...IMO the trick to this is to make the exploration FUN. So what if the skilled player doesn't have to find that extra health/ammo; if you accompany finding that with finding something mildly cool that doesn't really affect game mechanics all that much (minor eye candy or Easter egg or something) then it will be enjoyable regardless, and the skilled player won't feel like they're wasting their time or jumping through hoops when they don't need to. 
Okay, a few people brought up the secondary issue of difficulty progression. So in addition to the problem of shifting the challenge curve up or down, there's the problem of deciding how steep it should be.

The intent/assumption behind the traditional action/platformer type game is that everyone is equally good by the end, right at the moment when they beat the last level. Going into the game, some people will struggle all the way through becuase even the first level was somewhat of a challege for their pre-existing skill level. Other people will breeze through 60% of it and then hit the first level that forces them to improve their abilities. This experience can actually be MORE off-putting than the novice's experience, simply because the first part of the game created a certain expectation.

This in part depends on the difference between being "good at game X" and being "good at genre X." The more skills you can carry over from previous games, the better you'll be when you start playing. If we make the control scheme novel, then most people will find the first level mildly challenging, and nobody will be suddenly hitting a wall halfway through.

This also ties in with my idea that a game is the most fun when it's right at that threshold where if it was any harder, the player would be stuck. Slightly easier would be slightly less fun, and slightly harder would be no fun at all. By bringing people in at the bottom of the curve, they will be at the frontiers of their own abilities throughout the game.

But there's still the problem of players having a maximum skill potential. If there are some people that can only get so good at a certain type of skill, then what if those people hit that cap after playing most of a game?

Also, a steep difficulty curve probably gives people who succeeded a greater sense of satisfaction, especially when they see how far they've come in ability (the first levels will be very easy, where before they were hard.) 
Are You Suggesting... change the controls of a game to make it more difficult for players of a genre with established controls? The only reason I can see for doing that is if the controls could use improvements to start with. With the FPS genre there have only been minor changes since Quake, and Quake itself simplified the basic controls for FPS games slightly by removing the need for a use key (carried through in all id titles up until today afaik). Other games have added extra keys for things like leaning and going prone, but aside from that, I can't think of a single FPS title that has messed with the standard controls (though the default configuration has moved from using the cursors to wasd).

Anyway, with FPS games (on PC at least) there is very little improvement that could be done to the existing standard - I can't imagine anything anyway. Developers can only develop for a mouse and a keyboard, since that's what PC gamers all have. Console FPS game controls, on the other hand, are generally shit, so could probably be improved somewhat, even using standard controllers. I'd imagine that developers should concentrate not on the mapping of buttons to the controller (this should be up to the user imho), but on the way the game code interprets the players input to make things as effective as they can be.

I am looking forward to seeing how FPS games work on the Revolution :)

With regard to your original suggestion that introducing novel controls to established genres will level the playing field somewhat, I have to disagree. I think it would frustrate fans of the genre unless the controls were a huge improvement on what has already gone before. I also believe that the way to make it more difficult for these players is to bring something original to the gameplay and introduce situations that require a bit of strategic thinking rather than focussing on the reflexes of players. This way, I think players will only blame themselves for failure rather than the weird controls.

I do agree that a game is most fun when it is just at the point before being too hard, but I don't think that it is neccessary for a game to be like this all the way through. To me it's nice to have some short sections that are easy (although not short sections that are too hard). For instance, it might be fun after having difficulty with a certain type of enemy early on in the game to later on encounter them and deal with them very easily. This is probably a staple feature of grinding RPGs, although thanks to the time investment usually required of the player, I haven't really played any (certainly recently). 
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