Game difficulty is a wild, barely manageable beast that gamers often forget has to be thought up by someone and then playtested before it gets to the consumer side. A game in early alpha and the finished product are often worlds apart in difficulty, even at the same "difficulty level". But even worse, gamers themselves don't have any common idea about difficulty, because they vary in skill, attitudes, perseverance, and masochistic tendencies. In the end, it comes to the game designers and their teams to create what they believe to be the standard difficulty, which may be atrociously hard for some and hideously easy for others.
And then enters the games aimed at children—not the edutainment plague, but games aimed at younger audiences with less-honed reflexes or no interest in mastering the game mechanics, those who just want to play, and the games aimed at hardcore audiences where the difficulty is absolutely brutal, punishing, and utterly cracked.
When you factor all of that in, you realize how hard it is to create a difficulty ladder for everyone without alienating people expecting your easy mode to be in fact easier, and disappointing hardcore gamers with a hard difficulty that's too forgiving.
This is where most developers will turn toward "auto-adjusting" difficulty and "auto-scaling" enemy levels. But what if that's wrong? Generally, if a player chooses a certain difficulty at the beginning of the game, they don't want the computer trying to divine if they're stuck and send them quietly on a lower difficulty level due to, say, bad level design or glitches that caused them to die in some mysterious, undefined way. And if a player is leveling up at the same rate as enemies, it can cause dangerous power imbalances if they're not maximizing their character's stat growth and the enemies are accounting for a maxed-out character decked in the new available equipment from the latest sidequest dungeon.
An easy solution to those two errors is an in-game option to alter the difficulty setting, and usage of variables to "level up" enemies based on the story progress (and bonus content progress) as opposed to numbers attached to a character. It's still a flawed system; a player could abuse the in-game difficulty settings to make a boss easier then go back to hard for rewards, and another could advance a story to the point where random encounters are suddenly grueling because they rushed through the game instead of gaining levels when the enemies were weaker than they are.
But some wise decisions can help prevent the worst of the scenarios. If the player is only allowed to change the difficulty settings at their base of operations, save points, or a stage selection screen, then they can't "cheat" by beating a boss on a lower difficulty and reap high difficulty rewards. Likewise, if a game designer plans for the average player to fight every encounter on the most direct route to the mission objective, they can reasonably assume the player will have enough practice or experience points and items to complete the objective if careful.
But in the end, it's still a balancing act on the part of the game developer to satisfy a wider group of players. I, for example, am faced with the task of creating a fangame semi-linear RPG that will make me and a casual, roguelike-loving gaming friend happy, amongst others. We have drastically different ideas of what a good game is. She likes early roguelikes that destroy character saves upon death, I find those soul-sucking because my efforts are wasted whenever the random number is unfavorable. I love hours of mindless grinding to stay ahead of the difficulty curves, she… Well, doesn't. Because it's mindless grinding. So I of course have to plan for that in my difficulties.
But I understand better now why game difficulties are so "incoherent" even from one game to the other; it's just too hard to please everyone, and you have to guess what even the normal difficulty should be.
At least I can console myself with the fact that if a game isn't hard enough, the gamers will take on self-imposed challenges, something I'm not sure every game developper takes into account. How many guides are there just on GameFAQs for player-made challenges in RPGs? Low level, speed run, initial equipment, no magic, no physical attacks, no usage of the gimmicks of that particular game, permanent death… And they can combine the rules as they see fit to augment the difficulty. The players themselves can adjust the difficulty level to the point the difficulty they chose becomes just right for them, all without making it too hard for other players.
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