Poll Question 029 – Do you prefer having a pre-defined or adaptive difficulty setting?

4th May 2007

Single Player First Person Shooter Maps and Mods for Half Life 1, 2 and 3

I believe Unreal Tournament featured something called adaptive difficulty (Not sure if that’s the correct name). Instead of setting a difficulty level the game itself would adjust the skill level of the bots to ensure that the player encountered enemies that almost matched his or her skill. So this weeks question is this:

Do you prefer having a pre-defined or adaptive difficulty setting?


Personally I preferred the pre-defined settings because , as probably you did, I set it one level above what I thought I could manage. Having bots that were supposed to be better than me made me take the game more seriously. Now, I know that UT is not a story-driven SP FPS but the actual gameplay can be similar, especially in the Assault mode. I was later to learn that in reality the setting were easily beaten because of the predictability of the enemies.

Within a story-driven SP FPS using pre-defined difficulty settings may be a bad thing because you may pass one area or even get a long way into the game only to find yourself stuck. Of course you could simply go back to an earlier save point but that may not be the solution. I suppose the perfect option would be to be able to simply reduce the difficulty level for the particular area where you are stuck and then jump it back up again but that misses the psychological defeat!


I occasionally used the setting to see if I had improved. (Which wasn’t very often!) It’s nice not to have to worry about setting and just let the game make the changes for you but in reality it doesn’t seem to work. Can anybody think of a really successfully SP FPS that used adaptive difficulty settings? I like the idea and have little doubt that eventually it will become better but for now I choose pre-defined.

What about you?


  1. Matt Glanville

    The only game I’ve played that implemented this feature (as far as I’m aware) is Sin Episodes: Emergence.

    I’m often wary of difficult games and I usually play games on an easy/normal setting first time round. I think this is because I get more satisfaction from exploring the game and seeing the next part of the story than I do from actually overcoming any challenges.

    The difficulty feature in SE:E was, I thought, very well done. The game was constantly testing your ability, but I never felt ridiculously over-powered (except for a few moments near the end which were obviously meant to be harder anyway).

    I like the feature and I enjoyed SE:E quite a lot. But at the end of the day, as with many many features with games, I resent the inability to choose. Why not implement the traditional difficulty approach as well as this new method? It would at least allow players to tailor the experience exactly how they like it. I’m sure some people prefer to switch difficulty mid-game if they’re finding it too tough or too easy. I don’t understand why game producers don’t give us the freedom of choice more often with issues like this.

  2. Darth Marsden

    I believe Max Payne had adaptive difficulty, although they didn’t particularly advertise the feature. That was a great use of the idea.

    Given the choice, I’d go with adaptive, but I agree with Matt that you need to be able to choose between Adaptive and Pre-Defined. Otherwise you’re forcing a certain style of gameplay onto a gamer, and that’s always going to irritate people.

  3. The only game I’ve seen use adaptive difficulty really well is Resident Evil 4, but that’s enough to show me it has a lot of potential, as my first playthrough of RE4 had perhaps the best difficulty curve I’ve seen (I always felt like I was in constant danger, yet I still ended up having more than enough to pull through, and died several times without it happening so much it became frustrating). Although the hardest difficulty in RE4 (unlocked after finishing it) is essentially pre-set (as it always leaves everything on its hardest setting). So there’s was still a sort of “pre-set” mode.

    I heard its been patched to work better, but on my first playthrough the Sin Episodes difficulty seemed overly rubber band (sometimes there were big changes to easy fights you just screwed up on, then really hard, frustrating, battles/enemies got no changes at all). I also heard Prey had adaptive difficulty, but I never noticed it (it didn’t matter much since you couldn’t die anyway).

    Pre-set tends to work better in most games right now as adaptive is very easy to screw up, but RE4’s example is enough for me to be controversial and choose adaptive as the way of the future 🙂 .

  4. I agree with Mr. Glanville; having both specific and adaptive difficulty functionality would be ideal–particularly if each was an option that could be enabled and disabled.

    I don’t think one or the other can ever really work well on its own. On the other hand, some players may want only one method of difficulty adaptation. For example, sometimes I want a game to be easy. I tend to be the “exploring” type, and sometimes I just like to do my thing while poking around a game environment, and enjoy one-shot-kill ability. I’d like not to have to go all the way to using a cheat to accomplish this.

  5. Tetzlaff

    A general problem with that adaptive difficulty is that it basicly punishes you with harder enemies when you are performing good, and rewards you with weaker enemies when you just don’t play as good as you can. I don’t see how an adaptive difficulty system could avoid this dynamic.
    So for me fixed difficulty settings are perfect when they are well balanced.

  6. Personally, I’d never want an adaptive feature to punish me for doing well. It doesn’t have to work that way.

    But adaptive difficulty also doesn’t have to just mean weaker or tougher enemies. To me, it should also mean more or fewer health packs or suit power-ups, more or fewer ammo available… That sort of thing.

    If a developer really wanted to work on such a feature, they could tweak it so that enemies didn’t notice you as readily, or they could enable you to run a little faster–the list of possibilities goes on and on. For “puzzles” or “challenges”–whatever you want to call them–they could implement some sort of hint system.

    If it was done well, I think it could make games a lot more fun, and less frustrating–especially for those of us who aren’t the best gamers around. 🙂

  7. Level playing field. I Much prefer an adaptive difficulty. Playing on easy always seems like cheating to me. Games also tend to avoid calling a setting Normal. It’s easy to just jump into a game and believe that everybody plays at the same level. A lot of the mods I’m playing from this site seem to eschew the usual difficulty conventions anyway. I have just started “Breakdown” for Half Life. It’s a “Russian” mod and is making me swear at the monitor alot (anybody else do that?). I think adaptive is likely to be more realistic however. I would like to think that if I wup *ss that my robot opponents would wup *ss harder. If it makes the game more active then good. I hate stepping into a level/map to find everybody standing around. So, I prefer adaptive, the game actually “working” against me. I prefer to have the “choice” taken from me (weird, huh?).

  8. Tetzlaff

    Quote: “Playing on easy always seems like cheating to me.” – I fail to see why this should be a reason against fixed difficulty settings. There is no reason to choose the easy difficulty level when you know it’s is too easy for you. For casual players easy might be the only setting they can enjoy and beat the game.
    I normally play games on medium difficulty for the first run, then later try a harder difficulty for a replay. In cases I heard the game is too easy on medium (for example FEAR) I choose a higher difficulty setting right from the start. IMO difficulty settings work fine when the designers put some effort in it. You don’t need to fix what isn’t broken.

  9. Herbarius

    I once heard, the game F.E.A.R. had some kind of adaptive difficulty. Is this true?

    My comment to the adaptive difficulty in Unreal Tournament: Normally I played against the average level or if I had some more “traning” moved up to slightly above average difficulty. On the 2 or 3 hardest settings it was just too hard, I did not have any fun anymore, because I just died all the time…

    However, when I activated the adaptive difficulty, the game was raising the difficulty very quickly until it was on “Godlike”, the highest available setting… Quite strange, perhaps it only happend on my computer, but thats the reason I’m rather sceptical about adaptive difficulty.

  10. I’d go with adaptive, provided it worked properly. I don’t see any way that can really work. I’m already adapting to the game, if it pushes me harder, I’ll push back and learn what works, ultimately, within half an hour of playing (if you don’t just get frustrated and quit) you’ll be up at the highest difficulty the game can offer. You might as well just set it to the highest difficulty and be done with.

  11. Some times upping your difficulty levels can sharpen your skills.. It’s good to get your arse wooped now and then.. If it’s become too easy, then up the level of difficulty by 3 then back down to level two.

  12. Spoondog

    Playing on my own, I prefer pre-set.

    But for multi-player games (UT) I often play with inexperienced friends against bots and I’ll be getting a ton of kills while they’ll get 2 or 3 and not enjoy the game. Now I could just hold back, but thats tough and then I don’t have fun. So I’ve often thought it’d be good if there was an option for the AI to a) have better accuracy against the better players and b) always pick the better player as the target. That way if the AI basically see me I’m dead, but they have terrible accuracy against a useless player, so that player can still feel good about themselves and rack up some kills. I think that would be quite interesting as an option, if done right.

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