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  • Hi, this is Mark Brown with Game Maker's Toolkit, a series on video game design.

  • Resident Evil 4 does something really clever.

  • I mean, that's an understatement: the game's a masterpiece. But I'm talking specifically

  • about the way the game dynamically shifts its level of difficulty to meet your skill

  • level.

  • Perform well at the game, by avoiding attacks and shooting accurately, and the game will

  • get harder as enemies do more damage and become more aggressive. But if you suck, and keep

  • dying or just keep getting hurt, the game will ease off and the Ganados will go down

  • more easily, and wait around longer to get shot before rushing at you.

  • Also, the contents of the crates and barrels shift from being generous to being stingy

  • as you become more skilled. And, sometimes, enemies will completely disappear from existence

  • if you're really struggling.

  • Here I've been playing really well...

  • ...and I enter the notorious 'water room', and get set upon by nine cultists - seven

  • on the ground, and two crossbow snipers up high. But then I die a few times and

  • suddenly, the snipers are gone, making this room slightly easier to tackle.

  • Because the game keeps pace with your own skill as a player, Resident Evil 4 helps you

  • slip into a zone that psychologists and game designers call "flow", which is the fabled

  • middle ground between a game being so easy it leaves you bored, and so hard it makes

  • you anxious or frustrated.

  • While the gradually rising difficulty curve of most linear video games will try and keep

  • players in that flow state, it can't account for every type of gamer. And if the player

  • picks the wrong difficulty option at the start, they may instantly rob themselves of a satisfying

  • experience.

  • That's the advantage of a dynamic difficulty setting, which constantly corrects itself

  • to provide an experience that challenges the player, without overwhelming them. And it

  • stops them from getting stuck in a rut, but it doesn't let them waltz through the game

  • either.

  • This is, however, not the most clever thing about Resident Evil 4's dynamic difficulty.

  • The smartest thing is that many gamers watching this video right now are saying to themselves

  • "Wow! I didn't even know the game did that!"

  • And that may be the point. Capcom never officially stated that the game altered its own difficulty.

  • It's not an option in the menu, and it's not in the manual. It wasn't in a trailer or a

  • bullet point in a press release, and designer Shinji Mikami - who would later turn this

  • system into an entire game in the brilliant PS2 brawler God Hand - didn't gab about it

  • in interviews.

  • The only real source for the feature's existence, other than the experiences of Resident Evil

  • obsessives, is from an official strategy guide that came out almost a year after the game.

  • You see, a number of games offer to help out if you're struggling, like the Super Kong

  • in Donkey Kong Country Returns, which clears a tricky level for you if you fail too many

  • times.

  • But many hardcore players are too proud to accept the helping hand, and would rather

  • beat their head against the wall in frustration than suffer the indignity of getting a free

  • pass.

  • Especially when the game actually mocks you for reducing the difficulty. If you die too

  • often in the upcoming Metal Gear Solid 5, you'll be given the option to wear a goofy

  • chicken hat, which reduces the challenge but makes Snake look like a complete burk.

  • However, by making the effects subtle and not advertising them to the world like it

  • did with Resident Evil: Darkside Chronicles, Resident Evil 4 gives players all the advantages

  • of dynamic difficulty adjustment without making them feel patronised.

  • Plus, if they don't know about it, players can't game the system by intentionally killing

  • or injuring themselves to drop the difficulty setting, which is exactly what speed runners

  • do.

  • Here's a top Resi 4 speed runner, Robert 'Sunblade' Brandl, getting hit on the ski lift and purposefully

  • failing QTEs, to reduce the difficulty and therefore make certain sections easier to

  • dash through.

  • Resident Evil 4 did not invent the idea of a sliding difficulty scale, of course. NES

  • and arcade shmups like Zanac and Xevious were doing it back in the eighties, and Remedy

  • applied the idea to a third person shooter in Max Payne, a few years before Capcom had

  • the chance.

  • Left 4 Dead made particularly good use of dynamic difficulty, to modulate dramatic tension.

  • Here's Valve's Gautam Babbar on the subject:

  • "We created a system that tracks each survivor's stress level by watching for events like 'how

  • much damage are you taking?', 'how many zombies have you killed near you?', and so on."

  • "If a survivor's stress level gets too high, the system will step in and forcibly throttle

  • back the zombie population system to make sure the team gets a break every now and then".

  • Kid Icarus Uprising and Super Smash Bros have an interesting system where you essentially

  • place a bet on the difficulty level you think you'll finish the stage at. If you succeed

  • - you get a big payout. But if you fail - you lose a bunch of your stuff and get knocked

  • down to an easier difficulty level, until you can beat the game.

  • And Flow, which is named after that psychological zone, lets you manually moderate your level

  • of difficulty, by choosing when to delve into deeper waters - by chomping on a red organism

  • - and when to retreat to safety by munching on a blue one. It's a bit like deciding whether

  • or not to grind for a while in a RPG.

  • But the number of games with dynamic difficulty adjustment is pretty small, and most of them

  • advertise it to the world, like SiN Episodes, which made a big song and dance of its 'Personal

  • Challenge System' right there on the Steam description.

  • But I think this is something that game designers should keep on the down low. Don't make it

  • a press release or a blog post. Keep it a secret.

  • You want to let players reap the benefits of a sliding difficulty scale, that keeps

  • perfect pace with their skill level and helps remove areas of boredom or frustration. But

  • you also want to avoid the drawbacks, of hardcore gamers getting cranky, and others spoiling

  • their own experience by cheating the system.

  • And yes, I do realise that there may be many games that use this system but have done it

  • *so* subtly that no one has actually noticed. In which case, bravo mysterious game developers.

  • Thanks for watching! Think you've spotted a game with a secret sliding difficulty scale?

  • Whack it in the comments below. Plus, please like the episode, subscribe to the channel,

  • and consider supporting me on Patreon.

Hi, this is Mark Brown with Game Maker's Toolkit, a series on video game design.

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Game Maker's Toolkit - What Capcom Didn't Tell You About Resident Evil 4

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