Is Sony’s Adaptive Difficulty A Good Idea?

Sony has been reported to be considering adding adaptive difficulty to all of its games. This feature would likely allow gamers to play more difficult games that usually have a skilled player barrier and also make it so hardcore gamers can get a good experience out of typically easier games.

It’s a controversial idea, to say the least, but Sony has never been afraid to shake the hornet’s nest that is the gaming community. The idea of adaptive difficulty is a complex one, offering many stances for both supporters and opposers to take. It’s likely to be a situation that’s discussed and dissected for hours on end before it comes to fruition, so we’re here to offer our take on the whole scenario.

The question is, is this right? Is it wrong? Is it even feasible? There is a lot that goes into creating a working adaptive difficulty for every first-party game they make, so let’s jump into it and figure out if Sony is insane or if they might actually have a solid idea here.

Examining the Difficulty Addiction

Way back in the beginnings of mainstream video games, you could find games that would brutalize you without mercy. I’m talking about the Nintendo days, where you could spend hours beating level after level, but if you died, you were sent back to the start of the game. That type of difficulty isn’t even fathomable to today’s audience.

You used to have limited lives; most games didn’t have save points, and without the infinite resource that is the Internet, your best hope of a guide was a magazine or a ludicrously priced telephone hotline. Yes, that was actually a real thing. 

However, as gaming got more popular, companies began to realize that this level of hardcore gaming wouldn’t sell well with a more mainstream audience. Slowly but surely, difficulty began to reduce, and while there were still games that bludgeoned you over the head, such as Battletoads for example, bigger titles like Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy, to name a few, began to get more user-friendly, offering clear paths forward and even objective markers.

This continued through the PS2 era, and the difficulty in games began to lessen until that hardcore feel was all but a thing of the past. But like a phoenix from the ashes, a new sub-genre of RPG would come along to stoke the fire and give gamers a way to be sadistic and self-flagellating through video games again. In 2011, Dark Souls was released, and suddenly, the difficulty-craving collective came back in a big way. Gamers and journalists alike praised FromSoftware’s approach to difficulty and how it made their game one of the most iconic titles of the era. 

Unlike most games at the time, Dark Souls didn’t have a difficulty selection available. There was no way to turn a fearsome boss into a pushover. You had to learn, adapt, and do research, and if you didn’t like that, well, you were out of luck because FromSoftware didn’t care. That lack of focus on accessibility for all led to a renaissance of difficulty in the gaming world and spawned the 2010’s most iconic and enduring sub-genre, the Soulsborne genre. 

“Git Gud” became a slogan for Souls games, with each company trying to make their controller smash-worthy bosses bigger and badder than the next, and we have even seen some old-school Nintendo-esque games of old like Octopath Traveller and Fire Emblem offering no-holds-barred difficulty akin to the wild west of gaming in the 1990s. 

It’s safe to say at this point, gamers worldwide like a bit of a challenge. The more realistic games get, the more gamers want to immerse themselves in the world, and feeling the struggle of their protagonist is a big part of that. There is a hunger for difficult games, and a desire to preserve this gaming sub-culture rather than have it fade away like it did in the early 2000’s. 

So, with Sony’s announcement, it’s worth asking, is adaptive difficulty a good thing?

How Adaptive Difficulty Could Help Gaming

I think, in a sense, it’s a brilliant idea. I have seen time and time again that gamers will avoid certain games like Elden Ring because they’ve heard the challenge is too tough. Well, with this adaptive difficulty idea, those super hard areas would become more forgiving for players struggling with them. This would immediately increase sales for souls-like games and other hardcore games that may appeal to some content-wise but scare people away because of how hard the game is said to be.

This also goes the other way too. For example, let’s talk about 2023’s Final Fantasy 16. It was a great game, in my opinion, but there was something that held it back from standing in the pantheon of Final Fantasy games. The difficulty was non-existent. I come from an era where Final Fantasy bosses would take hours of grinding and careful strategy to take down, with optional super-bosses lurking in hidden areas that stand amongst the hardest bosses in gaming history.

Final Fantasy 16 had some incredible-looking fights, but they were all so easy that the spectacle behind them was kind of ridiculous in retrospect. What’s the point of having enemies the size of mountains throwing nuclear-level blasts at you if you barely flinch when they hit you? Paper monsters, that’s what Final Fantasy 16’s bosses felt like compared to bosses in Souls games, Nioh, or Lies of P.

Now, if Sony’s adaptive difficulty were in place, perhaps this system would sense that I was breezing through the game without dying, and all of a sudden, the bosses and other enemies would become much more difficult.

Adapting like this in real-time without intruding on the player would be an interesting thing to see in motion, and it would surely need a few iterations before it got things perfect. But even if it could immediately adjust things like health and damage, that would be a welcome change.

It’s interesting to think about how this could alter so many games that don’t come prepared with difficulty settings. Souls-like games, action games like Bayonetta, and some very tough indie titles would have entirely new audiences due to accessibility, and it wouldn’t harm the hardcore players in the process as it’s assumed this option would be optional and not required.

How Adaptive Difficulty Can Hurt

On the flip side of things, adaptive difficulty might be a problem for many developers because of one key factor. Artistic integrity. Yes, video games are an art form, just like TV, movies, paintings and books are. Because of that, these creators have visions of how they want their games to look and feel. Part of that feeling is in the difficulty.

Once again, a FromSoftware title is the perfect poster child for why this type of system wouldn’t work. Let’s examine Elden Ring in this regard. The opening boss, Margit, was the most talked about thing in video games for a solid week when Elden Ring came out. He even made an appearance on The Daily Show. Now, why is that? Well, it’s because Margit quickly gained attention as being one of the hardest, if not the hardest, first bosses in gaming.

Players were stumped for hours and hours on this boss, and he was incredibly tough to beat, even if you knew his every movement and attack. He also taunted you throughout the fight, and every time he killed you with the now iconic “put these foolish ambitions to rest.” comment. What if we had adaptive difficulty in this fight? What if, after dying however many times, Margit just rolled over for you like he was just another enemy?

Immediately, the community aspect of the struggle, something that Souls fans value dearly, would be completely gone; gone would be the memes, the hilarious Youtube videos of people struggling with the fight, the countless Reddit posts on the fight, and so on and so forth. Gone would be the entire point of the fight. Margit is essentially the gatekeeper who is there to stop you from really beginning your journey. Gatekeepers defend the gate, and that’s exactly what Margit does. He forces you to master the mechanics, explore the world around you before progressing, and generally, ‘Git Gud.’

If his difficulty were to dissipate for the players who struggle against him, where would the cathartic victory be when he finally goes down? Where is the reward for the effort? Where is the aura that he created for Elden Ring almost single-handedly? It’s all gone, and gone is the effort the fight designer put in, and gone is the work the character designer put in to create an intimidating roadblock. It’s obviously not limited to Elden Ring, as boss fights throughout the gaming world could suddenly become trivial, bending to the player’s skill instead of requiring more from them.

In case you think this type of situation is far down the line, you might want to think again, as the Lies of P developers have already released a patch that makes the game way easier. It’s also happened with Lords of the Fallen, Sifu, and it will continue to happen the more online communities fight back against difficulty in games. 

We’re living in a world now filled with participation trophies, but there is no reason to add that to gaming. Certain fights are supposed to be tough; certain levels are supposed to drive you insane. Would we ever do this to movies or TV shows? If the show was too violent or dark, would we ever have an adaptive watching filter that adapted what we were watching if we were triggered by certain subjects?

Hopefully, I’m not giving anyone ideas out there, but the answer is likely no. Lowering the challenges can lower the overall value of the product. Elden Ring would not be revered if it was as difficult as Fable II, so maybe this adaptive difficulty isn’t the way forward. This begs the question, can it even work?

Could Adaptive Difficulty be Possible?

Considering the patent that Sony has already secured, it seems that it’s not only possible but in the making. The patent itself mentions “Parameters that relate to movement speed, delay or hesitation, character strengths, numbers of competitors, or other metrics may be changed incrementally until a current user performance level corresponds to an expectation level of a particular user currently playing the game.”

This is interesting because it’s not only going to potentially lessen the attack power of enemies but also completely change how they behave in general, going so far as to alter how many enemies would appear. This is a fascinating and somewhat troubling bit of information.

The trouble comes because it takes what I mentioned before and quadruples it. Not only does your fight design not matter much anymore, but the very way these developer’s creations will move and act and how many of them will appear will be changed according to how the player is playing. This is too much.

There is not a difficulty problem with gaming. Most single-player games that release have difficulty options, and the ones that don’t still are not in the realm of impossible challenges. While this adaptive difficulty could benefit players wanting more of a challenge, how will they qualify that? Is there going to be some sort of limit on deaths that can occur before they start throwing the kitchen sink at you? Will it even make sense in certain scenarios?

For example, if I’m destroying bosses throughout a game, are they all of a sudden going to spring a double boss on me? How will that work? Will the developers need to create alternate versions of each fight for the adaptive difficulty to use depending on how the player plays? It’s a mind-boggling topic to dissect, and it feels like Sony may not only be creating solutions to problems that didn’t exist, but more work for developers who are already worked to absurd lengths.

It’s likely that developers, at least for first-party games with Sony, are going to have to prepare their games to be infested with what will essentially be an AI. They will no longer be in full control of what the player plays. If something goes awry and suddenly, your supposedly super tough scenario throws a couple of harmless bunnies at you instead of hulking death machines, well, that’s no longer the developer’s fault. If the final boss suddenly goes down in 3 hits after it pastes you against the wall for 5 hours straight, that’s no longer the developer’s fault. We have always hated when big companies try to interfere with developers, and this might be another example of a crunch epidemic waiting to happen. 


Question: Will adaptive difficulty affect every game?

Answer: It seems like it will only affect new games, so you can take solace in knowing that past titles will not be affected. 

Question: Will other consoles use adaptive difficulty?

Answer: It remains to be seen. If this idea fails miserably, then probably not. If it’s a success, Sony will have created the blueprint that other consoles are sure to follow. 

Question: Will there be an option to turn off adaptive difficulty? 

Answer: I hope so, but nothing is written in stone yet when it comes to the patent on adaptive difficulty. 

Difficult to Come to Terms With

While Sony has not confirmed that this is, in fact, AI, it’s pretty clear that’s what we’re dealing with now. Are you all alright with AI determining your gaming skill and producing challenges or easier experiences on the fly? It’s a situation we’ve never faced in the gaming world, and I’m honestly not sure how to feel about it. I see the merits, I see the negatives, I see the artistic integrity threats. It’s certainly not a clear-cut answer either way, but we’re likely to see what this has in store for us in the coming years, so get ready. 

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