Quick Framework for thinking about how people respond to challenge

Games are often full of tasks presented to the player. Some tasks are difficult, and the player is challenged by them. How do we design for players' many possible responses to a difficult challenge?

I've found it useful to break down the "difficulty response" into several different items here; this framework helps me consider what it is that players are doing when they are playing my game.

1. Repeat

In a game with high randomness/variance, basic repetition of the same approach to the same situation may eventually succeed. Repeating your tactics is effectively another shot at rolling the dice.

2. Practice

Action games that rely on reflexes and real-time skills can also be thought of as effectively having some degree of randomness/variance deriving from the player themselves, even if the game systems are computationally deterministic.

Rote practice of certain activities may increase various internal parameters (e.g. reaction speed, reaction accuracy, judgement/evaluation) leading to an increase in success rate.

Note that if a player Repeats such an action it may eventually succeed. Repetition and practice often go hand in hand.

3. Change Tactics or Strategy

This primarily describes a player's internal decision to approach the same challenge in a different way, often involving spending one's (in-game, physical, or mental) resources on different things.

E.g. Using ranged weapons instead of melee weapons; playing more aggressively; paying more attention to dodging and less to striking accurately; spending mana on healing spells instead of buff spells.

4. Make the Challenge Easier

Grinding to level up and improve your stats, changing into better equipment, reducing difficulty settings, hacking/cheating to give yourself infinite lives -- or (as a developer) altering the rules of the game to give yourself infinite lives.

These actions seek to reduce the challenge in a generally unambiguous, externalized way. In many cases, friction exists to make this response less desirable: grinding for better stats and equipment costs time, and hacking/cheating is generally seen as an immoral act (however mildly).

5. Procrastinate or Give Up

All of the other reactions are attempts to overcome the challenge in the here & now, as an immediate goal. I won't say very much about this final reaction except to say that it shouldn't by default be considered negative or a failure on either the player's or the developer's part.

For one example, a challenge may be genuinely impossible: in this case the most informed choice is to give up as quickly as possible.


These aren't a perfect taxonomy, but even with that in mind I think it's important to indicate that these can be deeply mixed & matched.

In order for Changing Tactics or Strategy to have value, one may need to Repeat or Practice or both a certain amount to judge the value of the changes that have been made. E.g. I am stuck on a boss fight, and decide to try a different approach/loadout; I will be worse the first time, but each time I fight it my personal skill with the particular approach/loadout will improve, and through repetition I will likely defeat the boss sometime before achieving a 100% success rate.

Breath of the Wild immediately presents the player with the challenge of fighting the final boss, Ganon, fully expecting them to Procrastinate this task and instead focus on Making the Challenge Easier by increasing their personal stats and finding better equipment.

Faced with the blind choice between eight stages (as in Mega Man), I may Procrastinate after challenging a very difficult stage in order to Practice my transferrable skills on a different stage that I might come back stronger.

Conclusion & Recap

When presenting a difficult challenge, it can be hard to understand why one person (yourself, for example) engages, while another disengages. I present these five "Challenge Responses" as a starting point for understanding differences in disposition:

1. Repeat - Try again, changing nothing, until the dice roll in your favour.

2. Practice - Improve your basic internal response. Includes "muscle memory".

3. Strategize - Try a new approach, which may or may not actually be better.

4. Reduce Difficulty - Make success more likely. (External.)

5. Give Up - Do none of the above.

Reflect upon your own approach to a problem under this framework and consider that others who are having difficulty may not be capable of, aware of, or willing to utilize the approach you took.

You can raise awareness of or destigmatize a particular approach, you may increase access to an approach, or you may increase viability of some approach (including making a completely unviable approach into a viable one).

This article is my 8th oldest. It is 771 words long