More games should handle difficulty like Slay the Spire

I’ve recently been playing a lot of Slay the Spire. Between writing about it for my year end wrap up and the (relatively) recent version two patch I’ve been having a ton of fun playing it. All of my recent playtime has been spent on raising my ascension levels and that’s gotten me thinking about how difficulty can be used as a tool to teach the player about a game’s depth.

First off, what is an ascension level? Ascension levels are how Slay the Spire modulates challenge. Once you’ve beaten a full run on the default difficulty you’re able to turn on ascension levels to add discrete modifiers that marginally ramp up how challenging a run is. These modifiers include, but aren’t limited to, increasing the spawn rate of elite enemies (mini-bosses), increasing damage output for specific types of enemies, reducing the volume of healing received, and adding a negative curse card into your starting deck.

The other notable bit with ascension levels is that they stack. This means that each subsequent level has all of the effects from the previous levels in addition to whatever new modification it has introduced. This leads to what would be a series of easy hurdles combining to becomes a much more daunting challenge.

So why would anyone want to partake in these ascension levels anyway? I will admit that in the beginning I only tried out ascension one, which adds more elite enemies, out of curiosity and thought it was the worst thing in the world. It made a game I already found fairly challenging even more so. But eventually I got better at fighting the elites that I previously struggled with and ascension one was no longer challenging. When that happened I bumped up to ascension two, and the process repeated.

Eventually it dawned on me that I was learning more about the game’s systems and how to play it better with each subsequent increase in difficulty. Being forced to deal with more elites meant I had to rethink which cards I added to my deck and how I played them out. As I’ve continued to ascend I’ve been forced to re-evaluate cards I previously believed to be without use and discovered synergies I didn’t have any knowledge of. Slay the Spire’s difficulty hasn’t just created a greater challenge for me to overcome – it’s also taught me a lot more about the game.

The best part about all of this is that each of the ascension levels only makes Slay the Spire marginally more difficult. There isn’t ever a steep increase in difficulty: rather there are several small steps. This helps to minimize frustration as you’re able to slowly improve with each of these discrete changes and bump up the difficulty once you feel you’re ready.

Believe it or not I did win this battle

After realizing all of this it got me thinking: why don’t other games do this? We see a lot of focus on accessibility when it comes to the discourse of difficulty, but I think there could be some value in asking games to be better teachers. I’ve never personally been able to find the motivation to dive into Dark Souls, but many who have are able to discover all of the depth and nuance that the various systems within the game lend toward. If Dark Souls had more clearly defined difficulty modulation in the same way that Slay the Spire does it might be easier for more people to get into and understand it.

And don’t takes this to mean I think that only harder games should be better teachers as there are games where the easier difficulties go too far in the opposite direction. I’ve played some games where the easier difficulties fail to utilize critical mechanics. This led to a lot of confusion when I eventually bumped up the difficulty and discovered I’d been learning said game incorrectly up to that point.

It isn’t like this idea is new either. All of Supergiant Games‘ releases that I’ve played (everything except Hades)¹ have featured a difficulty system like this. You’re able to add modifiers that by themselves aren’t necessarily hard, but combine to much greater effect. And by enabling them you slowly learn more about the game’s systems and how to play better. So even story driven experiences can use this kind of modulation, instead of it being relegated exclusively to games like Slay the Spire.


I think difficulty modifiers that slowly increase the players understanding of the depth in a game could hold a lot of value. Easing players in, rather than expecting them to take the plunge, might help to entice those who can’t get over some of the larger learning curves that deeper games have. It could also help to reshape how games teach us about their mechanics and systems, regardless of how difficult they are. Personally I’d like to see more of it rather than the established trend of a few static difficulty settings with nondescript names.

Where do you stand on this? Would you like to see more granular difficulty options in games? Do you like the way difficulty is handled right now in games? Let’s argue about it in the comments section.

1. I have now played Hades and can confirm the modular difficulty that I referenced above is indeed present within it as well.

23 thoughts on “More games should handle difficulty like Slay the Spire

  1. I like what Ascension levels are doing here from how you’ve described it. I haven’t spent a great deal of time with Slay the Spire as yet (Steam tells me 2 hours) and certainly I’m by no means ready for that difficulty — but I like that it’s there and also layered on as another element of progression, too.

    I think how granular to make the difficulty options does depend on the game/genre though. In something like StS, this makes perfect sense. In an ARPG I’d much prefer the typically more significant jumps set way back with Diablo’s Normal/Nightmare/Hell modes.

    Although I guess Path of Exile shows us there is room for both styles. They used to have Normal, Cruel and Merciless — those break points still exist in the game, but now occur at certain act transitions rather than enforcing a full playthrough of the same content again.

    On top of all that though, is the Mapping system where you can roll additional modifiers on top of maps that themselves have different tiers of difficulty going up in much smaller increments than the Normal/Cruel/Merciless jumps.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ARPGs aren’t exactly my wheel house, but it certainly sounds like Path of Exile takes a very similar approach with the mapping system.

      Broadly speaking, I think there are a lot of different ways to approach implementing this kind of difficulty system, but it requires a lot more work than simple number tweaking. That’s probably why the current system is so prolific. It’s a lot easier to tweak damage and health values and then slap a name on it and call it done instead of thinking about the best way to slowly scale up challenge to keep players improving and engaged.

      But I’m not a game designer, so…I can’t say any of this for certain.

      If you don’t mind my asking: what are your reasons for preferring the typical difficulty model in ARPGs? Anything specific or just a “I dunno it just feels better”?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. In the context of ARPGs (although I’m sure there are other areas it could be applied to), I suppose I see the inclusion of the quite significant leaps in difficulty between the replays perhaps being the earliest instances of New Game+ modes.

        NG+ is quite often a rightly maligned way of increasing replayability, because so many games implement it poorly (read: lazily) — but Diablo and others following in it’s footsteps managed to make these repeat runs highly engaging with entire new loot tiers and types, new monsters — and while not originally, in more recent days, even new mechanics.

        So if I was forced to choose between having a (well implemented) NG+ *or* granular difficulty options; I’d very likely take the former.

        Dark Souls II is another pretty good example of NG+ done well; there is new content to be found for quite a number of playthroughs. I still remember being absolutely *stunned* when I started my first NG+ run and found there was a whole new enemy type I’d never even seen before right at the start. No doubt the very effect the designers were going for with the placement, but hey. I’m happy to oblige. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Now that you mentioned it, I smell it, too: the people at SuperGiant games do love their granular difficulty. I remember that in Bastion, I constantly re-visited the shrine to activate and de-activate different combinations of idols to find my sweet spot of challenge and reward. It did give me a lot of customisation options, probably even more than in Slay the SPire (because afaik, the order of ascension levels is always the same).

    In the end, any form of difficulty either stems from the game’s layout (is the area open or narrow, what weapons/options do you have at your disposal, who has which abilities, etc) or raw numbers. This does not only have to be damage or health, it can be the number of enemies, how much information they are allowed to process and at which speed, how quickly enemies hit you, how “lucky” they are with their draws or dice rolls and much more.

    Originally, I was going to argue that this approach would not work for all types of games, but after looking at Bastion’s system, I’m not too sure any longer. Bastion has it all: passive stat improvements for enemies, status effect inducing attacks, random invincibility, faster movement, and so on…The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of having a granular difficulty setting because it doesn’t replace a “traditional” stat-based system, but expands on it and ultimately gives players more choice.

    You want to increase difficulty in general? Crank up enemy stats one by one. Love a certain enemy type? Increase the number of those encounters. Want to be forced to adapt your playstyle? Select a few special abilities for enemies that might or might not activate at random.
    Even when faced with the simplest form of turn-based combat (for example, the one with the higher dice roll deals the difference as damage), this customisation can work. If you want to increase overall tension and be kept at the edge of your seat, set the difficulty to slightly favour your enemies with the rolls. If you want the games to be fair, but more difficult, just increase the amount of damage enemies deal when winning the roll. Of course, in a purely luck-based environment, this approach might be a bit shallow, but I think you get the idea.

    The problem I see with this is that it’s probably a bitch to balance. In slow-paced, strategy-focused, well-structured games, you can view systems on their own and balance them. Similarly, it can work great in arcade-style games, solely built around their mechanics, where you jump in and out of the action, death is meaningless and you try and try again. What’s one death more or less when we’re looking at numbers in the hundreds and experimentation is a huge part of the game? The question is: how long does it take? And is it worth to put 300 hours of development into the game, just so that people can tick a box “your dodge roll is significantly shorter”?

    But what about games with a clear focus on their narrative or that have a clear cut experience in mind? With granular difficulty options, devs effectively give a bit of their own game structure into player hands, and therefore they lose a great deal of “influence” on the game. This can leave players feeling like the devs took the “easy way out”, and didn’t bother with carefully balancing every aspect of their game to offer a streamlined experience.

    It’s similar to a lot of stuff that’s already happening. I’m sure you have watched a few videos where people explain that some platformers are not as precise as we think they are, or how the last bit of the health bar really counts as much more, etc. These elements are basically the same thing as granular difficulty option, but they are hidden from the players and are directed at making the games easier instead of harder (and to feel fair. as we all know, games only feel fair if the game is rigged in the players’ favour).

    Plus, all the available options would be highly dependant on the type of game. I have mentioned random invincibility for enemies. This could be a fun quirk in a game like Into the Gungeon, where the game might suddenly tell you “haha, get fucked”, and we all have a proper laugh. You can’t have that with a Dark Souls Boss, for example, where clear communication and telegraphing are ever so important.

    In games where you do something over and over and over again, only to gain minimal progress each time, you can’t change how anything works during a playthrough. In games where crazy stuff is happening all the time, a “WHAT?! HE COULDN’T DO THAT BEFORE!” might be cool, but not when a merciless enemy (who may even be a key element to the story) suddenly decides that he learned a new way to make your life miserable.

    All in all, I agree that granular difficulty options are a severely underused design choice, and mainly because devs are too lazy (I don’t mean it as harsh as it probably sounds, but I don’t know how to say it otherwise) to carefully balance every aspect of their game. But I’m pretty sure it’s not a solution that we can have for all games by a long shot.

    Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Taking the easy route on this one: I generally agree with the majority of what you’ve said here.

      As you’ve pointed out, in some games having these sorts of options probably don’t make as much sense as they do for others. In a game that is specifically balanced for evoking a certain feeling from the player for the sake of story telling then there isn’t much need for difficulty options, so there wouldn’t be a need for the granular scale here.

      I also agree with the conclusion you came to as to the why. It likely IS a lot harder to implement these kinds of small adjustments and tweak the balance to be ever so perfect when compared against the traditional system that is widely used by games in the present. The worst part about this is even if you have these options in games not everyone is going to use them. I mentioned at the start of the article that I had no intention of playing the ascension levels in StS, but tried them, essentially, on a whim and really enjoyed it. If you spend hundreds of hours developing granular difficulty options and less than five percent of your players actually use them then that was a huge sunk cost for little pay out.

      On the topic of SuperGiant’s games: whenever I convince people to play any of their releases I also try to encourage them to make use of whatever the granular difficulty system therein is. I think their games are fairly mediocre without said systems. The various tweaks you’re able to make challenge you to experiment with and discover all sorts of depth that you otherwise don’t need to bother with. And once you find it the games becomes much more meaningful experiences, at least in my opinion.

      And for what it is worth, I’ve had people thank me for encouraging them to experiment with the difficulty in these games. They didn’t necessarily go as deep in as I did, but they found a much more rewarding experience by pushing themselves just a little further than they would have otherwise.

      Sidebar: this was not the kind of response I was expecting from you based on our conversation yesterday (relative to my time). Glad that my post made a better point than I did in our brief back and forth, though I didn’t really want to devolve the entire article which might account for my weaker talking points. 😀

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Sorry to rob you of the argument you were looking forward to 🙂

        To make you happy, I’m going to say that I still think Dark Souls is not the best example for this topic. The points you address are communication and modulation of difficulty. Let me talk about difficulty first: In our discussion on Discord, I talked about stat-reliant games and DS, and I fear I might have given the impression of seeing DS as a stat-reliant game.

        That’s not the case, though. You can finish the game at lvl 100, or at lvl 1, naked and weaponless. In DS’ case, the difficulty comes mostly from how the game is built, on enemies attack patterns, on your manoeuvrability, hazards around you, etc. If you think about it, the stat page basically IS the granular difficulty option! Want to roll faster with more armour? Increase your endurance. Want more Spells? Attunement. Choose which weapons to wield by manipulating your strength and dexterity.

        Even the starting class (which affects your base stats and equipment) or the starting gift can in- or decrease the difficulty. Or burden yourself with a challenge, like no armour, only a broken sword, no blocking, using a different controller; whatever you can think of, it can be done. True, it’s not advertised as granular difficulty options, but a lot of these things work in the same way, (increasing challenge and forcing you to learn the game’s ins and outs) and are only possible because of the relative unimportance of the stats.

        For example, changing the controller in StS does not really do anything for you. And limiting your deck (I can’t give a good example, as I have only watched your stream once and have had no further exposure to the game) is probably more akin to limiting your options, rather than forcing you to learn new things. On the other hand, if you don’t allow yourself to block in DS, you’re forced to properly learn the other evasive manoeuvers, like countering or rolling.

        Let’s compare this to a highly stat-dependant game like WoW. Not levelling up is not an option. If you’re under-levelled, the game will simply kick your ass. Of course, you could limit yourself, too, by having sub-par gear, or aren’t allowed to use certain spells/items, but rather than forcing you to interact with the game on a deeper level, it just ends up being an inferior way of dealing damage.

        You could argue that there are different difficulty options for dungeons, but I guess that’s more of a definition issue, as what it takes to be a granular difficulty option, instead of a “traditional” bump up in general difficulty.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Fair points all around. Hadn’t really thought of Dark Souls’ leveling system as the way by which it modulates difficulty. Though that likely, in part, comes from my not having played it and also from the leveling system in most RPGs being a mandatory component of character and story progression like it is in WoW (as you highlighted).

          Though my point back to you would be: aren’t all of your examples, with the exception of how you choose to build your character, player motivated rather than developer designed modulation? Choosing to forego the use of certain mechanics to focus on others is ostensibly like tying a hand behind your back. There isn’t any incentive or direction from the designer to play the game in these ways – rather players came up with them on their own. At that point you, as a player, are inventing new ways to play the game instead of playing a fine-tuned experience that was developed by the game’s creators. So it is less a product of design and more an expression of player creativity.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. See, now we’re getting our discussion, after all! 🙂

            I’m not too sure about the self-imposed challenges coming just from the players. True, the choice is entirely within the players, but isn’t that the point of granular difficulty? To give the players the freedom to choose their difficulty and slowly ramp it up?

            It may very well be that I’m defending DS here a bit too much, but I do think that a lot of these challenges (not all of them, though) were considered by the developers, at least as the series progressed. We have to keep in mind that even DS1 wasn’t the first in the series (but I can’t say anything about Demon Souls, as I haven’t played it).

            The reason I’m saying this is that there are a lot of details in the game that seem to nudge you in the right direction. Sure, it isn’t really advertised like the ascension modes or the shrine, but these elements are more like “hidden” gameplay modes (which would validate your point about communication).

            For example, take countering into consideration. You can easily complete the game without it, and through my playthroughs of all three games I countered maybe twice! Here’s where the fixed difficulty comes into play: Nobody can say “yeah, but you had it easier than me, if you didn’t play in easy mode you would have been forced to learn how to counter”. No, I played the same game with the same challenges as everyone else.

            Like the ascension levels, countering in DS is a high risk/high reward element that was put in the game intentionally. Don’t use it, but hide behind a shield all day? It’s possible, but you can maximise your damage output and speed up the game if you choose to learn it.

            Similarly, you can choose a starting gift, which can have a huge impact. I’d argue that the skeleton key (which lets you open most locked doors) is unarguably more useful than the Pendant, which is completely useless (and even tells you so).

            Perhaps I portrayed this in a false light in my previous comment: you do not have to set arbitrary challenges for yourself, but you can simply choose to learn how to counter. Similarly, different weapons have vastly different movesets, some easier to grasp (like the standard sword swing), others slow but powerful, and others completely unique and/or erratic. Again, learning to master these movesets is entirely optional, but can be a source of great fun and mastery of the game.

            Maybe these things do not entirely fit into your definition of a granular difficulty system, but I’d say they are a subset at least.

            In my opinion, these additional challenges are different from really just self-imposed challenges.
            But does the difference even matter? Take the Pokemon Nuzlocke Challenge, for example (did I spell that right?), or coinless/pacifist runs in Super Mario. Clearly, these game modes were never intended by the developers, but they provide tons of fun and let you see the game in a whole new light. Speedrunning as a whole falls in the same category.

            If the outcome is the same, does it truly matter if the developers or the player invented it and/or balanced the rules? Isn’t it even a strong pitch for the advantage of granular difficulty, that even when not intended, players still find a way to implement them?

            You might say that these things are not granular difficulty settings, as they provide additional challenges with no option to dial them up or down, but I’d have to disagree. With these self-imposed challenges like speedruns or pacifist runs, it’s always up to the player how far they want to take it.

            If the game tells you that you die after three hits, then you die after three hits. If the player says “I can’t stomp any goombas”, and he messes up once, he can always choose to say “ok, time to restart” or “welp, I guess I’m allowed to hit 5 goombas in total…”. Similarly, players might not be allowed to STEP on GOOMBAS, but they may very well incinerate them with fireflowers or stomp on any other enemy type.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Well I can’t disagree with you there because I agree with a lot of the points you’ve made.

              So maybe now my ask would be either games more clearly communicating the spectrum of difficulty therein, or perhaps having developers attempt to add in some additional options so players don’t have to come up with their own external challenges (a la speed running, Nuzloke, pacifist runs, etc.). Though I feel like well implemented achievements sometimes, to an extent, encourage these kinds of self imposed challenges that players wouldn’t otherwise attempt.

              Off-topic for a sec – this right here is the reason why I like these kinds of posts so much. It was already fun to write the post, but the discussions that sometimes flower up in the comments section are just as enjoyable.


  3. As I almost exclusively play competitive games these days, I don’t think about this topic too much anymore. But in terms of solo (or indeed co-op “vs” the game) challenges, this post reminded me of a segment of one of my longer articles “Easiness is not always easy” with regards to one of my favourite games ever Splosion Man:
    (near the end! it’s a long post).

    I think basically, as per the other comments, difficulty setting in any ‘challenge’ title is very complex, and everything has to be a case by case basis and the nature of that exact system as to the best way(s) to do it. But as you’ve astutely pointed out in the comments here, this always comes down to a cost vs reward issue for the development of a videogame. I do reckon (as mentioned in my article above) that a generic way that can be applied to many types of games is an “undo/rewind” type of mechanical option for difficulty.

    I also had a very different take on this when I reviewed Bastion (and games like it!) here:
    Basically, offering granular ‘difficulty’ options becomes a problem by itself at times, as the player can’t easily judge what they are getting into with them:
    ” Instead of a difficulty setting there is the option to switch on “the Gods” in Bastion which act as difficulty modifers in various ways, much like ‘Skulls’ in a Halo title. But in the regular levels there’s little incentive to actually use these Gods, because although they offer you more money & experience points for using them, you’ll get plenty enough of both of those anyway by other means so it’s not much of a reward. It’s the same problem again as Bullet Witch et al, where you’re giving a player quite granular control over their difficulty setting, but then they don’t really know what it will mean from level to level. It’s also offset by the fact as you gain more money & experience, those levels then become easier again… so… yeah, it’s really just a bit of a mess. Still, I played the vast majority of levels with at least a few Gods on so at least I had some small level of challenge.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting take away, Remy. There are some games which make use of such a mechanic (Into the Breach springs to mind) and that does ease up on how punishing they feel. You’re able to undo a small mistake instead of repeating an entire segment of the game again. Though exactly how that would manifest and how many undos you get would need to depend on the type of game and that gets into the cost vs payoff conundrum.

      While I see where you’re coming from I think that is part of the draw (at least for me) with these kinds of systems. You slowly move up the bar until you finally can’t overcome the challenge and then either reduce it a little or push back until you improve. In my case I lean into using this sort of difficulty as a means to improve at a game, but I could see others hitting the point where they can’t surpass the challenge and opting to leave it on a comfier level tailored to their skill set. True, the onus is on the player to figure out exactly what those settings look like, but you’re given a lot more control over how challenging your experience is and in what ways it is difficult.

      More specifically to Bastion – I think that increasing the challenge is sort of its own reward. I too didn’t feel like the exp was enough justification to actually use the “Gods”, but I found the experience painfully mediocre until I started to ramp up the difficulty. Making things harder forced me to experiment more with the upgrades, re-evaluate how I approached combat, and improve my overall execution. This made the whole of the game a lot more rewarding to play. I will admit that won’t be reason enough for most to make use of those systems, but I think that’s a different component of the conversation. That’s more of a “how do we convince people to use these systems” and less of a “should we implement these systems” question.

      Still good to get an opposing view point on the subject.

      Liked by 1 person

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