Comparing the difficulty of competitive games

2020-09-04

If anyone knows me, they know that I love playing Heroes of Might and Magic III, especially with the Horn of the Abyss mod. I especially enjoy the competitive PvP in this game - even though I am a relatively weak player, and there are certain random map templates that I don’t like. Recently, I had a small discussion about what exactly the term “difficult map template” meant. We haven’t reached any meaningful conclusion, but at least this inspired me to analyze this myself in a broader term - as in for competitive games in general.

Now, if you are a person who wants to prove whether DotA or LoL is more difficult, and stumbled upon this article… Well, you will be disappointed by what I am going to write. I am going to say it at the very, very start - there is no single metric of difficulty that you can use for this purpose, at least not in a way worth discussing. It is important to think about the difficulty on multiple layers, each being relevant to the discussion.

The ideas of skill floor and skill ceiling

The skill floor represents the minimal skillset required to effectively play the game. It shouldn’t be confused with knowing the rules or controls - while these are enough for you to be able to turn on the game and click around, these aren’t enough to make you even minimally effective at the game.

A good example would be playing any FPS game - at the very least you should be able to use both hands at once effectively, one hand on mouse for aiming and shooting, the other on keyboard for movement and weapon switching, and often also other actions - like reloading, throwing grenades, using voice commands, etc. You can join and play a game like this, but if you will have to constantly look at the keyboard to locate the WASD keys, it will be a needlessly frustrating experience.

Another good example are fighting games, which often have a massive entry barrier in form of a very high skill floor. In Street Fighter, before your gameplay will be even minimally effective, you have to learn how to make quarter circle inputs, dragon punch inputs, charge inputs, etc. and learn what moves the character you are playing as can perform.

The skill ceiling, on the other hand, is the upper limit of a player’s skill. If someone has attained the skill ceiling, then such player is able to play the game perfectly. In most cases, this ceiling can be merely approached by players, never attained.

A perfect example of a skill ceiling is in chess. The skill ceiling can be pinpointed exactly, with perfect play being well definable - simply the solution to the game. Yet, while this ceiling exists, it is unattainable by humans, and even by the strongest computers.

There is also a less common term, the skill gap. It this context, it is just a difference between the skill ceiling and the skill floor.

You may ask why I have even started with these terms. The thing is, usually when people are arguing about the difficulty of competitive games, in practical terms they try to argue which game has the higher skill ceiling or the skill floor… or both at once. In many cases, the people arguing “which game is harder” usually won’t be sure themselves which of these they mean.

I believe that competitive games should ideally aim for low skill floor and high skill ceiling, maximizing the skill gap while still being approachable to newcomers. Even then, I still understand that games with high skill floor AND high skill ceiling have their niche - but for many people, having to practice basic things for 20+ hours before even being able to properly enjoy the game will quickly alienate most of the newcomers. There is also a place for the games with low skill floor and low skill ceiling, but these aren’t usually considered as competitive games.

Complexity and depth

There is another pair of concepts, related to the ideas of skill floor and skill ceiling, yet still distinct from them. They both can serve as the difficulty determinants in arguments.

The complexity is an abstract measure of how hard it is to understand the rules of the game, and how much mental load the game requires.

The depth is a term to describe how many meaningful decisions a player has to do during the game.

The ideal situation for a competitive game is low complexity and high depth - with go being the ideal example of such a game. The rules are extremely simple and can be explained in few minutes, and yet it requires a player to truly dedicate the life towards this game to reach mastery - not to mention it is possible to aim to surpass the state of mastery. On the other hand, the commonly played e-sports titles often have seriously high amount of complexity. MOBAs have dozens of champions and items, Pokemon has hundreds of, well, Pokemon, and Heroes of Might and Magic III has multiple factions with unique units and buildings. All these games still have an amazing depth to them, but they are also incredibly complex with the amount of raw information the player has to learn to truly understand the game.

When it comes to comparing the difficulty between the competitive games, one has to take care to not mix up the complexity and depth. Complexity is usually regarded as a negative element in the game design, and oftentimes game designers try to take measures to cut down the complexity while retaining as much depth as possible.

Accessibility

There is one additional factor that may be relevant depending on context, and it is the accessibility… or more specifically the lack of thereof. For example, the FPS games are extremely difficult to play for one-handed people due to the inaccessibility factor - which in certain genres, such as this, is impossible to mitigate, barring specialized controllers of course. Other games are inaccessible due to the fact that they are Japanese arcade games, never released on a home console - making most of the world nearly unable to play this game. In almost every case, the inaccessibility is viewed negatively, but sometimes it is necessary when the game is expected to reward mechanical skill.

So, how to actually compare the difficulty?

The problem when trying to determine which competitive game is more difficult, is that there is no single definition of difficulty in this game. Even more so, not every definition of difficulty is regarded as positive in the game design - especially the complexity and inaccessibility. Quite a few people will also scorn at the high skill ceiling of the game, preferring something one can get into in a way faster way.

If you say that competitive game A is more difficult than competitive game B, it is meaningless in practice, unless you want to instigate a flame war that is. If you say it is more difficult to get into, more difficult to master, or otherwise you’ll make it more precise what do you mean by the word difficulty, you will often be able to easily back up your words with substantial arguments.

Now, if you have the idea to combine all the aspects above into a single metric, don’t. All five of these are different enough to make merging them impossible - and even if you would find a way to do so, you would end up with an effectively useless metric.

In conclusion, I have one thing to ask from you - be precise about what exactly you mean by the difficulty of a competitive game.