Broken Kommandments: Mortal Kombat’s Poor Dynamic Difficulty

Broken Commandments is an ongoing series of articles discussing fundamental mistakes that game developers make that render their games annoying, punishing, unenjoyable, or totally unplayable.

The developer is dead, the player is God. This is the fundamental reasoning behind this article, and all those that may follow. Developers should design games for gamers, and more specifically, they should design games for gamers to enjoy. I am going to spend a good amount of time here discussing difficulty in games, but please do not misunderstand me: difficulty is both positive and necessary. A difficult game can be and should be fun. Where problems arise is when the game’s difficulty, and how it is implemented, gets in the way of fun.

Hard but fair.

First, a few brief notes on the concept of difficulty and implementation. In general, difficulty in games should never rise to the level of being “unfair.” A difficult game should always be difficult for a good reason, and it should provide adequate tools for that player to succeed. Third person action games have recently embraced this ideology, including Ninja Gaiden, the Devil May Cry series, and Bayonetta. Those were unarguably very difficult games, but they provided systems that, once learned, allowed the player to play better and enjoy the game. See also Demon’s Souls, a game that was, at times, mind numbingly difficult, but never unfair. If a player loses in a good but difficult game, they will know why they lost, and will be able to potentially avoid that loss in the future. The difficulty in Demon’s Souls was an essential element of the game, and learning how to work within that difficulty enhanced the experience.

Short but very difficult. Speeder bikes still haunt my dreams.

Difficulty in games generally serves one of three purposes: to educate the player as to gameplay mechanics or systems, to improve or test his skills, or to extend the life of the game. It is where this third purpose is exploited that developers tend to run into trouble. Far too often, game makers decide that increased difficulty is a good substitute for additional gameplay, or depth of gameplay. This was especially common in the early 1990’s, when games could theoretically be beaten in a matter of two hours or less, but often took weeks (if you ever beat them at all) because of the difficulty. This was an acceptable solution for the days of 16 colors and cartridges, but is completely unacceptable now.


This is also compounded when developers decide to artificially increase that difficulty during the game when they perceive you are doing “too well.”

Pictured here: That FUCKING yellow car.

What I am talking about is known as dynamic game difficulty balancing, or, in layman’s terms: rubber banding. All gamers have experienced this: from Pac-Man, where the ghosts get progressively smarter the more pellets you eat, to RC Pro-Am where that fucking yellow car becomes unbeatable, to more modern games like Mario Kart (or indeed most racing games) where previously slow cars will all of a sudden jet past you if you are in the lead for too long. The dreaded blue shell is like dynamic difficulty balancing made corporeal: an avatar of a god known only as “not so fast there buddy.”

Dynamic difficulty can be a good thing: after all, gamers often get bored of games that are too easy. Modern RPG’s often increase the difficulty as the player progresses, presenting players with a rising challenge in order to keep them engaged. Sports games have also been recently utilizing this technique, in order to keep games close, and give the player a greater sense of accomplishment than simply shutting out game after game. Again, this serves to enhance the game, to make it more fun. Ideally, this is the way this feature should work, difficulty should rise just enough to keep the player engaged, on the edge of his seat, but should avoid becoming overly frustrating. It is a delicate balance, but when achieved it can be extremely effective.

However, rubber banding difficulty can and does often go too far, to the detriment of gamers. Sometimes developers eschew a more elegant difficulty balancing curve in favor of a simple computation: once a player has done too well, the game gets so difficult as to become impossible. In essence, the game says “You have won for too long, now you need to lose for a while.” I can think of no better recent example of an egregious violator than the otherwise stellar Mortal Kombat.

These guys loved to eat quarters

Now, the Mortal Kombat series has a long history of dynamic difficulty balancing. This has it’s genesis in the game’s arcade roots: for every match the player won, the game would get progressively harder, usually forcing the player to lose and spend more money to continue, at which point the game would start the cycle over again. Mind you, I am not even getting into the heinously unfair bosses that have been a staple of the series since the first game.

These guys act like they love eating quarters.

In short, the new Mortal Kombat game (recently released on the Xbox 360 and the PS3) suffers from terrible rubber banding difficulty throughout its various single player modes. For example, in the story mode, the player fights through a series of three to four opponents between a large number of cinematics. The more fights that player wins, the harder the next opponent becomes, to the point that, at the highest difficulty, every attack will be countered, the player will often be air juggled, and all but the very best Mortal Kombat players will lose. Upon losing and continuing the game, the difficulty decreases again. This leads to an inexcusably frustrating experience for players.

Lessons learned all the way back in the 1980's.

Further compounding the difficulty problem is the game’s tendency to put you into two-on-one matches in the story mode, more often then not after one or two relatively easier fights. Since the player will have likely won the prior fights, the AI is ramped up at the same time as the player must face two enemies at the same time. The game ramping up the difficulty on a straight one-on-one fight is hard enough, but with two enemies, it almost becomes unwinnable and a game should never be unwinnable. I have friends that purposefully lost those fights, just so the game became fun to play again. The developers have forced players into War Games mode: the only way to win is not to play.

Once players are forced to lose the game in order to keep it fair, the game developers have failed in their primary goal: to make the game fun.

Instead of challenging players with difficult but winnable situations, the game straight up punishes them if they win too often, requiring them to lose to keep the game playable. The only real purpose this seems to serve is to extend the length of the game artificially.

And he will. Over and over and over again.

The way this system is implemented in Mortal Kombat is neither clever nor elegant. It is annoying and frustrating, and mars what would otherwise be a wonderful game. Again, it is difficult to implement dynamic difficulty well, so it is understandable that an effort to implement a good system of rubber banding difficulty failed. I suspect, however, that the designers of the new Mortal Kombat simply stuck to the roots of the series, and implemented the same difficulty system that worked so well for them back in the arcades in the 1990’s. Whatever their intentions, this was the effect. This system of difficulty is outdated, a relic in a modern day of games designed to engage players, not constantly kick them out to “Game Over” screens when they play well. We are not spending more quarters on this game, just more time, and the more often the game forces us to lose, the more likely we are to put that game down and play something more fun.

If they really wanted to implement dynamic difficulty, the designers could have made the curve more elegant, perhaps dynamically increasing and decreasing the difficulty within the fights themselves and not just between fights. This may have made for a shorter game, but players would not leave it claiming that the game “cheats.”

Again, I loved this game, I thought it did so many things right, and the stellar story mode in general has revolutionized the way I feel about single player fighting game experiences. Even so, it is with a sad heart that I declare Mortal Kombat has broken one of my basic game design commandments: “A Game Shall Never Punish The Player For Playing.”

May others learn from their failure.

About Mike Cantor

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