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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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Are You Suggesting to 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...

No, I'm not really suggesting that. I was actually repeating my earlier suggestion that making original games instead of following existing genres reduces the problem of balancing for both experts and newbies.

In the case of designing games in an established genre, I think you have to stick to some version of the accepted control scheme. Ways to reduce the expert/newbie gap in that situation would revolve around (of the top of my head) creating novel gameplay dynamics, like monster attack patterns that are not rehashes of familiar monsters from past games, weapons that behave differently, and perhaps interactive world objects that are not direct clones of past objects. 
a game is the most fun when it's right at that threshold where if it was any harder, the player would be stuck.

That's a gigantic blanket statement, and the blanket has a lot of holes in it. A player's enjoyment of a game can vary wildly depending on a great number of things.

Some people just plain don't like difficulty and having to work at something very hard. Many people do like it, but not consistently (e.g. it could vary from game genre to genre, or even from game to game, or even depending on the particular player's whim and how much shit they had dropped on them on a particular day). 
I Tihnk 
you have to take into account what action is involved when talking bout the 'right' level of challenge. doing a very hard jump a hundred times is no fun, whereas outsmarting a very hard chess computer a hundred times is fun (or at least has a much better chance at being fun). 
On The Theme Of Adaptive Difficulty... 
what about having just certain areas with certain monsters have the 'adaptive difficulty' setting enabled? this way, the core parts of the level's combat will remain novel, but whatever more tedious parts can have adaptive difficulty enabled, thus saving the silly newbie from getting slaughtered.

just an idea, be sounds good to me 
On The Theme Of Adaptive Difficulty... 
what about having just certain areas with certain monsters have the 'adaptive difficulty' setting enabled? this way, the core parts of the level's combat will remain novel, but whatever more tedious parts can have adaptive difficulty enabled, thus saving the silly newbie from getting slaughtered.

just an idea, but sounds good to me 
Hmm, If It's That Adaptive... 
it should be toggleable during gameplay. Then again, many developers can't even implement a resolution change without having to restart the fucking game these days, so maybe it's a bit of a tough one. 
many developers can't even implement a resolution change without having to restart the fucking game these days

lol :) 
I first would like to say this is the better thread I saw since a long time ! kthx metl ! ..err... even drunk thread is not so good ;) Anyway... hum...

IMHO, it's not so easy to find the good trade-off between game skill and several player skill... I mean that playing game in medium skill can be either very easy or very hard depending of the experience of each players... (it has been already said)

Concerning mapping, it's completly subject to mappers experience both as a player, and as a mapper... On my side, as I'm using QuArK editor, normal skill is the default one when you launch quake from the editor... So normal gameplay is the basis from which I set other skill levels... From the "normal" gameplay, I simply remove/add monster in order to set easy/hard skills... Generally I use this method: if in medium you have 2 monsters, remove one for easy skill, and add 2 for hard... it also depends of the monsters strenght... (it's for sure different between soldier and shamblers..) Or sometimes replace monsters by powerfull/powerless ones... Maybe it is a "rookie" method, but at least it is very very simple... maybe too much, and it could explain why my maps are too easy for certain players sometimes... though.. ;P 
Sin Episodes Difficulty Tuning 
Courtesy of shacknews (great site, and Chris Remo awesome)

Haven't read it yet. 
I Dont Like The Sound Of It... 
With short development cycles, the team cannot afford to do months of playtesting and balancing, so they opted to create a more powerful dynamic system that should provide every gamer with a truly unique experience.

So far the auto-skill setting I saw in games was was utter shit rubberband 
How Can You Rubberband An FPS? 
An FPS is not a race, it's a killing competition, them vs you. It's a bit difficult to come back in the last lap when you are dead.

This adaptive stuff is probably doing exactly the same thing as the difficulty levels in Quake/Doom/whatever, except the level is derived from characteristics of play instead of selected from a menu. That's not rubberbanding. Perhaps if the game spawns health packs every single time you drop under 40 health you might get some of the same why-the-fuck-do-I-even-bother feel, but hopefully Ritual isn't that incredibly lame.

IMO adaptive difficulty could work brilliantly as long as there is the tension, caused by real risk, which makes a difficult, balanced game such a joy to play. I also hope that players will be allowed to tweak or bias the difficulty system as they see fit in order to create that tension.

Why be so jaded? Let's wait and see. 
ever played UT? 
I'd Like To See 
some grunt style enemies. (humans usually)
get impatient with you hiding away and stop running for cover themselves and just blitz you sometimes. Like a full on charge at you, pistols firing, maybe ready to cock you in the jaw with the butt-end of their shotgun.

If this Sin - Episodes incoporates something like that as part of their 'system' I wouldnt be as skeptical as I am of things.

As for the Noob vs Seasoned vet. I don't think you can find a flawless method because there are new players and then there are people playing who can't even install the game themselves.
As much as I admire my father as I watch him struggle with Doom 3's inhospitable hallways and dark dark dark crevies. I can't help but watch him get extremely frustrated simply by the lack of control and unfamiliarity with things. Which is also kind of peculiar to me because he managed to make it through Quake using only the keyboard. Then I showed him how mouselook works and to my surprise I found him the next time in an effort to use it. He then managed to pass Medal of Honour and I think he quite enjoyed that one. So I gave him Doom 3 (remember that game I played as a kid dad you always yelled at my for playing late into the night...well there's a new one) His level of skill is still way below that of the easiest level setting. Nearly every combat situation he has to reload over 3 or 4 times, usually a lot more when there's a tricky set of stairs for him to navigate first. I guess my point is there are players, and casual gamers, and noobs, and then there are the extremely casual gamer that struggles not only with the game but the actual implements required to play the game. There ought to be some ways to keep these players interested enough that they can get past these hangups and grow without patronizing hints and over abundance of goodies.

On a side note: My dad in his constantly losing his direction in Doom 3's dark has found almost every secret so far simply by trying to find his way back to where he's supposed to be. Except he doesn't even realize they are secrets and instead thinks he's going a new route he hasn't explored yet.

mind boggling 
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

Nethack. Save game, game exits. Reload saved game, savefile is deleted. You die, you stay dead. Utterly awesome game. Has been keeping me occupied for years on and off. 
That sounds, ummm, yeah right.

It would keep me occupied too....right up until the first time I died, and then I would be more occupied with uninstalling it and binning it. 
Oh Come On 
Getting killed in nethack is an artform. So many ways to do it. Actually when it comes to difficulty tuning, it's a rather unique example. Incredibly hard at start, but middlegame is rather easy. Endgame very hard again.

This combined with one-off characters most likely wouldn't work well in FPS games. But RPGs with proper dynamic content creation.. that might just work.

I think my point is: Game can be silly hard if it stays fresh every time you play. 
is fantastic and weirdly addictive.
of course you CAN abuse the save games by renaming a copy of your savegame file but that takes out so much fun of the game.

It's all about taking risks, but not being stupid about them. And you will die so many ways you can't help but not laugh. 
Random Map Generator + Adaptive Difficulty = Potential Solution? 
One thing I wonder about is having the amount of gameplay correlated to how well the player is doing. More specifically, the amount of difficult gameplay. For example, if the player is not doing well, remove portions of the game; in particular some difficult portions in upcoming areas. Then let the player proceed, and if he gets better, add some difficult sections back in. On the contrary, if the player is doing above average, add new areas so the game appears to be both expanded and more difficult, thus taking the same amount of time to complete as the below average player. As an added bonus, if the player has improved their skill by the end of the game, then this will add plenty of replay value.

Mind you I'm not sure how this would apply to some traditional games such as racing games, unless the race track was just a simple point-A-to-point-B style track where the player never completed more than one lap.

This also reduces the intricate layers of transition that designers use, and can limit the presentation of the story; though I suppose you could include the essential story elements in easy sections, and add sub-plots into the more difficult sections.

I can also see a potential problem where if the player is not given a challenging situation, then they don't have the opportunity practice advanced skills, and this may result in a self-perpetuating situation unless the designers are careful. 
it would destroy what makes levels great: good composition.

But generated levels are a nice idea that just need good algorithms to work. i hope ;) 
I'm Cureently Playing Enclave 
and the single most retarded feature is check points. not only do they get more scarce as the levels get tougher (bit of a paradox if you ask me), it keeps breaking the atmosphere when i have to retraverse half the level to get back to where I was. A reload form a quicksave is different because you pretty uch start off from near where you died (unless oyu quicksave rarely).

But checkpoints are crap. 
In the game 'Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus' for ps2, the player moves forward through setpiece puzzle-ish areas, that all have lots of ways to die. But in traditional console game style, the player will respawn at the beginning of the area he or she is in. So, press button 1, 2, then you die -- you respawn to the place just before pushing button 1, but not any further back.

This was also used in Mario64, but you always started at the beginning of the level, which was harder.

Seems a sensible way to deal with player deaths, as long as the game doesn't take itself too seriously (could ruin the atmopshere of a ww2 game). 
Changing Monsters Vs Ammo And Health 
Maybe this isn't a direct response to the original questions, but it might be worth some thought.

In a game where the level designer implements the difficulty settings (e.g. Quake), is it better to simply vary the number and types of monsters, or should the level designer change the amount and availability of ammo and health?

It's pretty uncommon to find a map that changes the ammo and health instead of the monsters, but it occured to me that changing ammo instead of monsters may require just as much skill from the player. So changing monsters may not be the best approach.

Maybe instead of replacing the fiend (on hard) with a couple dogs (on easy) I should remove the SNG just before the fiend and force the player to use the shotgun. Alternatively, maybe I should remove some nailgun ammo and hand out more ammo for the grenade launcher, since that takes more skill to use effectively.

Or is this forcing the player to play in a certain way and limiting the gameplay? Is the best approach to find a balance between the two? 
Perhaps if the game spawns health packs every single time you drop under 40 health you might get some of the same why-the-fuck-do-I-even-bother feel, but hopefully Ritual isn't that incredibly lame.

They're not - they set the mark at 20 instead. :)

I was down to 15 at one point, and happened upon a good spot where I could slaughter guys at a distance with the pistola as they came down a long hallway at me, and since I was at 15 the whole time every one of them dropped a medkit for me. So, it's not without it's problems - if you're low on something you can 'sploit the system by killing a ton of guys before picking up whatever you're low on and you can generate stacks of it.

The easy fix for ritual would be to consider player's stats PLUS items that have dropped for the player already, but then you get the hairy problems of how old do those dropped items have to be before they no longer count, what if they fall into unreachable places, etc. 
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