Difficulty Settings and Fail Safes

For years in the videogame industry, difficulty settings were almost standard in game design. Although seen less frequently in current games, difficulty settings are a feature that are enjoyed by disabled and non-disabled gamers alike. Note: The needs described here span both mobility and cognitive disabilities.

As an example of a game that did this well, Mass Effect 3 from BioWare allowed the user to become nearly invincible and simply enjoy the story. In this mode you can one-shot most mobs and run through without using anything to regain hit points. This only aided in making Mass Effect 3 a success to a wide range of gamers. Some games also provide ‘hardcore’ difficulty levels that provide challenges that would alienate all but the most driven of players; in both the casual and hardcore cases, difficulty levels are tools to provide a tailored experience to all potential members of your audience. 

In most situations, the goal of publishing and developing a game is to make an emotional connection with the player, and tell a good story. Giving the end user multiple ways to enjoy the experience means all your hard work gets enjoyed. Difficulty settings support the needs of everyone from the most casual gamers, and the most hard-core gamers, letting both enjoy the same title regardless of ability.


Imagine a teen with ADHD and learning difficulties - one with cognitive disabilities that do not affect motor function. He is having trouble completing the steps necessary to advance in his favorite action game. In the game’s ONE difficulty setting, the player must manage: ducking behind cover, jumping over obstacles in a timed manner, and aiming and shooting successful headshots. This complexity is just too hard, so he gives up and turns to another game.

If the title he was playing had difficulty settings, he would be able to complete these actions in a more forgiving manner and enjoy the game in his own way. An even better approach would have the game recognize when he failed in this task a few times, and display a dialog asking if he would like to skip this; he chooses “yes,” there is small cut scene showing his character making the shot, and he keeps progressing. 

A woman with Multiple Sclerosis loves playing her favorite RPG, but it’s difficult for her to use the mouse for extended periods of time. If the game has multiple difficulty levels, she can enjoy the storyline without fear of being slaughtered because she has times she can’t move the mouse another inch.