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Dynamic Difficulty

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"And then there was our annoying way of making players earn continues [in the first game.] This was a major mistake. It makes players that need lives fail while boring players that don't. It is the opposite of good game balance. [...]We had realized that if a novice player died a lot of times, we could give them an [extra hit point] at the start of a round and they had a better chance to progress. And we figured out that if you died a lot when running from the boulder, we could just slow the boulder down a little each time. If you died too much, a fruit crate would suddenly become a continue point. Eventually everyone succeeded at Crash. Our mantra became 'help weaker players without changing the game for the better players'."

Video games attract all kinds of people, from the casual gamer to the hardcore tournament champion. But this raises a problem: how do you create a game experience that is satisfying for players who might have wildly different skill levels?

One common solution is to allow the player to select their own difficulty level, but this can be unsatisfying in its own way — it might make the player feel like they aren't playing the "real" game, or feel inadequate for not being able to play the harder difficulties. (Particularly if the game insults them over it).

Instead, some games take a different approach: they automatically adjust their own difficulty to match the player's skill.

If done correctly, all players should experience the "same" level of challenge from the game — it's just that the challenge level automatically rises or falls to adapt to the person playing it.

Implementing Dynamic Difficulty can be a nice equalizer, allowing players to just play the game at their own pace without worrying about difficulty, and it also frees the game designers from having to spend time tuning the difficulty since the game will tune itself. It can also address the problem of Unstable Equilibrium by preventing a player from gaining a runaway advantage. It is considered good design practice in tabletop and board games, as a player will likely not enjoy such a game if they feel they have no chance of ever catching up or winning.

The downside of Dynamic Difficulty is that, like AI, implementing it well is hard. There is no 100% reliable way to tell how good a player is, other than to check in-game metrics and try to interpret their success from those. This can often go wrong in unforeseen and unexpected ways, particularly if the player does something the game wasn't expecting.

In the worst case, this can result in Do Well, But Not Perfect, where players learn that the game will punish them if they are too good, and thus will deliberately refuse to play their best game.

There are also some players who simply don't want an adaptive challenge, be they a casual gamer who enjoys the power trip of kicking ass on Easy mode, or the hardcore/borderline-masochistic Challenge Seeker who will happily fight That One Boss over and over again on the hardest difficulty and will feel cheated if the game just "lets them win".

Speedrunners, on the other hand, delight in exploiting the nuances of adaptive difficulty settings and will happily use them to manipulate the game into doing whatever is fastest for them.

This an especially common feature of arcade games, where the practice is known in industry parlance as "rank". Not to be confused with Schizophrenic Difficulty, where the difficulty goes up and down unpredictably, regardless of the player's performance. If the single-player mode has dynamic difficulty but the multiplayer mode doesn't, this can result in a Multiplayer Difficulty Spike (although this can be mitigated with matchmaking players with other players of similar skill). See also Comeback Mechanic.


Video Game Examples

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    Action Adventure Games 
  • Early games in the LEGO Adaptation Game series, such as LEGO Star Wars II, LEGO Indiana Jones, and LEGO Batman, feature the "Adaptive Difficulty" free extra, which merely affects the amount of LEGO studs you lose upon death depending on how well you play, which can go up to a very high amount.
  • In Cave Story, the Last Cave becomes a much harder level if you enter it with Booster v2.0, whose proficient use is required in the "hidden" version.
  • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild implements a system that gradually increases the value of both enemies and weapon pickups as you progress through the game. For an explanation of how it works:
    • When an enemy dies via any means, it will provide points towards a hidden Experience Points counter; this happens until 10 enemies of that specific type are killed, after which that enemy type will no longer contribute points when killed. After earning enough collective points, a certain enemy type will be upgraded to their next available level, and this will apply to every enemy on the map that is not specifically tagged to avoid the enemy scaling system. There are 11 levels in total, which you complete after earning 1200.2 points; roughly equivalent to 120 Lynels for perspective.
    • There are two notable exceptions to this system. The first is the Lynel and its allies that hang out in the Colosseum, who do gradually grow in strength, but their progression is linked to how many Divine Beasts you have freed, instead of enemies defeated. The second is the Yiga Clan, who instead get a strength upgrade after a story event (specifically, returning the Thunderhelm to Riju).
  • In Monster Hunter: World, monsters' maximum HP scales depending on whether they're being fought solo or by a group.

    Adventure Games 
  • Snatcher had a shooting range which could be accessed for fun. If you get consistently high scores on the shooting range, the game amps up the challenge of the plot relevant shooting set-pieces. It's advised that you do intentionally terrible on the shooting range, or finishing the game may require inhuman reflexes.
  • Creepy Castle adjusts things based on how much or how little damage you take as you proceed through each area, as a way to make it feel like you "just barely" made it. If you get hit by traps a lot and/or mess up a lot of duels, then enemies' normal attacks and traps will have a chance of missing entirely, they won't crit as often (if at all), and the food you find will be items that restore more HP. If you ace most or all of the duels you fight, then enemy attacks and traps will crit you more often, and you'll find smaller food items instead.

    Beat 'Em Ups 
  • In Aces Wild: Manic Brawling Action!, your Rank fluctuates as you deal and take damage. A higher Rank makes enemies attack more aggressively, but it also boosts the number of points you score with each hit, and how much "Wild" (energy used for power punches and health-restoring "Panic" attacks) you generate per hit.
  • The arcade version of Final Fight raises or lower its difficulty depending on how well the player performs. The difficulty is raised as play time is accumulated and is only lowered every time the player loses a life or uses a credit. On the game's DIP switches, Difficulty A (which has eight levels) affects the overall difficulty while Difficulty B (which has four) affects the rate in which the difficulty changes.
  • God Hand will adjust the difficulty up a level (1, 2, 3, and Die) if the player lands enough hits on enemies, increasing enemy strength and durability. It will then scale the difficulty back down if they take too many hits. You gain more rewards for defeating more enemies at higher difficulty levels. The game has "normal" difficulty settings, as well — the difficulty level never rises above 2 in Easy Mode, and Hard Mode has you always on Level Die.
  • In The Simpsons arcade game, the amount of enemies on screen depends on how many people are playing. In the boss fight against Smithers, if there are more than 2 players he won't throw any bombs you can throw back.
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game features a dynamic difficulty involving the enemy count that kicks in depending on several factors, including how many people are playing in the game, and — chiefly in one-player mode — whether or not the player has died/continued. Beating any level without losing a life will make the subsequent level much tougher (in that you have many more enemies to contend with in each wave), and dying at all will reset the soldier count to an easier level. Also, some bosses (namely the Dual Boss with Rocksteady and Bebop, and the final battle with Shredder) will have more health if you reach them without dying.

    Card Games 

    Driving Games 
  • This shows up in Forza Motorsport 4's World Tour. The AI starts ridiculous easy, but the more events you win, the harder they become.
  • The Need for Speed: Underground series utilizes dynamic difficulty in two ways: first, the more you tune your car, the faster the other cars will be; second, the "Catch Up" feature causes competing cars to go faster as you pass them, and slower as they pass you. In theory, the latter makes the game more balanced; in practice, it's nothing but Fake Difficulty. With regards to the former, one of the recommended strategies if you're having difficulty is to remove all your upgrades, as the lower speed makes it much easier for you to react to obstacles and avoid mistakes. It's like playing in slow-mo.
  • In Need for Speed: Most Wanted, the AI's cars get faster the more races you win, and become slower when you lose one. Thus the easiest way to win races is to deliberately lose about every fifth race to keep the competitors' car speeds as low as one wants.
  • In Midnight Club, the type of vehicle you bring to a race determines what kind of opponents you'll face: bring a VW Golf and the other racers will be driving low-level tuners; bring a Lamborghini or Ducati and they'll have high-end exotics.
  • Gran Turismo 4 uses "A-Spec Points" to encourage you to choose slower, less powerful cars to win the race: the more powerful your car is, the smaller your score will be. If, for example, you manage to win against a squad of sleek German machines with a puny little Pontiac Sunfire, you'll win 200 points; but if you win the race with the superpowered Polyphony Formula Gran Turismo, you'll win 1 single point. However, A-Spec points aren't a reliable method of judging difficulty, as the game seems to mainly base the point levels on your car's specs relative to the AI, and it's possible to get easy 200 point races in vehicles such as the Suzuki GSX-R/4, which is much less powerful than most supercars but is good handling and very light.
  • In The Simpsons Hit & Run, cars that you're supposed to follow or stay close to drop below your max speed when you fall behind and climb above it when you get close. At the same time, cars that you're supposed to outrun or escape from do the opposite. This also gets less exaggerated as the game goes on to make the challenges more difficult as you progress through the game. Similarly, after failing a challenge a couple of times it will subtly get easier by, for example, having other cars during races move a little more slowly.

    Edutainment Games 
  • Many edutainment games start you off on the lowest difficulty setting by default. Then, depending on how well you're doing, it will start to throw harder challenges at you. If you have trouble on a certain difficulty level, it keeps you on that level.
  • In Jump Start Typing, you have to type to a certain level of words-per-minute to unlock Coach Qwerty from the trophy closet, and the activities are merely to practice typing. The difficulty of the game, however, is proportional to how well you do in the initial trial, and it is therefore possible to finish the game in a ridiculous amount of time by simply typing at 1 word per minute so the goals are set low, and then proceed to steamroll through it all.

    Fighting Games 
  • Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe features this type of AI. Lose, and it will edge down the difficulty slightly. Lose more, and it keeps sliding the difficulty down until you can win and continue progressing through the story. The final boss is not exempt from this difficulty edging, either.
  • Most of Capcom's fighting games will make it so that the opponent gives more and takes less damage the more you win. This occurs on any difficulty setting.
  • SmackDown vs. Raw: After a few wins the computer will kick into overdrive and engage The Computer Is a Cheating Bastard mode to make you lose, no matter how much it has to break the game to do so.
  • Super Smash Bros. began using this in its later installments.
    • Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U borrows from Kid Icarus: Uprising the system of using currency to increase the single-player mode's difficulty level. The more coins the player wagers before beginning, the more difficult the battles, but the more valuable the prizes for victory. Losing causes the difficulty to be reduced by one half of a level, as well as costing some of the initial wager and a few prizes that had been won. Higher difficulties are required to face the True Final Boss, who takes on more forms depending on the difficulty level.
    • Super Smash Bros. Ultimate will increase the difficulty of Classic Mode based on how well you perform in the previous match. The higher the difficulty gets, the more items you earn and the more points you get upon completion. The difficulty also takes a drop if you lose and pay coins to replay. If you want the reward for beating it on 9.9 difficulty, that means you can never lose a life while doing extremely well on almost every fight.

    First-Person Shooter 
  • SiN Episodes: Emergence features the Personal Challenge System, designed to adapt itself to the player's skill level and varies the skill, numbers and toughness of enemies faced in accordance the player's performance. It was claimed that thanks to this, a proficient FPS player and a brand new FPS player would be able to finish the game in roughly the same amount of time. However, a bug present on release in the system caused the game to never ease up on players making it overly challenging and unforgiving. This has since been corrected. note 
  • Unreal Tournament: In practice mode, there's an option to auto adjust skill. This causes the bot's skill level to automatically change if it kills or is killed by a human player, with the developers aiming for an even kill-death ratio, but it is thrown off in team games should bots be moving along a "kill corridor" where they can be picked off trivially. The sequel Unreal Tournament 2004 forces auto-adjusting skill for the final championship 1-on-1 battle, thus making the final opponent to be just better than you even if the game would otherwise be the lowest difficutly.
  • Left 4 Dead features a "director AI" that spawns Infected based on how easily the players made it past the previous encounter. If the skirmish ends with the players healthy and having used few ammunition, the director sends in a horde. If the players are dying and low on ammo, the director only sends in a few. If you are playing on Expert and are doing poorly, it says "why aren't you dead yet?" and redoubles its efforts. Whimper.
  • Killing Floor, in addition to the regular difficulty levels, increases the number of specimens per wave and gives them more health depending on the number of players.
  • Cruelty Squad has an unusual, one-directional variant of this. You start up in the hardest non-secret difficulty and bumps you down one tier after just a single death, onto the mode that halves the damage you'd take. Dying few more times within the same mission in that one downgrades you ever further which adds ability to eat corpses for a single hitpoint. With all that being said, the way of bumping up the difficulty is a bit more convoluted and whatever remains of this trope stops applying at all when the secret difficulty mode — colloquially named Hope Erradicated — is activated.
  • Deep Rock Galactic has enemy health and damage scale based on how many players are in the current session. This means that even in single player mode, the game won't become too difficult even if the lone player is facing a boss enemy.

    Four X 

    Light Gun Games 
  • The arcade Lethal Enforcers started with a certain amount of time a baddie took to hit you (a bit under three seconds). This gradually decreased over time and reset only after you took a hit. The upshot was that you'd have to shovel in a ton of tokens to get to the end of the game no matter how good you were. Lethal Enforcers 2 was even more brutal, with a shorter starting time and a much faster decrease.
  • Many Light Gun Games amp up the difficulty if there are two players present. Which means if some little kid decides to jump in on your game despite your protests, the game becomes much harder because the presence of an annoying kid who doesn't know how to play has made enemies more numerous and difficult to destroy.
    • For a specific example: The House of the Dead III. With 2 players playing, zombies double in number, and bosses take twice as much shots to cancel their Break Meters. This is especially bad with The Fool's swiping attack, which requires 6 shots in less than 2 seconds to cancel, and that's only in 1-player mode. In 2-player mode, you need 12 shots (6 per player), so unless the other person is competent at the game, he or she will be bogging you down and making you lose a life EVERY TIME, NO MATTER WHAT. Also, for the whole series: Playing good or poorly in a stage will change the boss' speed.
    • Brave Firefighters, though not exactly a "true" gun game (you use simulated firehoses instead of guns), operates on a similar principle. If you play in 2-player mode, the time bonuses for clearing segments quickly are lower.

  • EVE Online features wormholes, where the amount of enemies depends on the number and size of the player ships. Don't ever try to bring a carrier (a capital ship) into the fight, however. Each time you do, there is an extra spawn of a few sleeper battleships. Unless you are doing this specifically to farm them, this is tantamount to suicide.
  • A staple of open-world content in Guild Wars 2. Dynamic events adjust the number of enemies, variety of abilities available to bosses, and HP of destructible objects according to the number of active players present.
  • Final Fantasy XIV has many FATE events spawn more and more enemies the more players participate in them, making it easier for everyone to contribute enough, but not overwhelming smaller groups of players. FATES and dungeons also have sort of a reverse version of this in the form of Level-Synch, which temporarily lowers the players level to the intended level range.
    • In addition, for specific events (usually related to special occasions), enemies don't have a level, and scale dynamically, from the player's perspective, to whatever level the player is. In reality, everyone does the same amount of damage, and the enemy has an amount of health that scales based on the number of players around, while the enemy's attacks do a variable percentage of the player's health rather than a strict number amount based on stats.
    • Some side quests also scale themselves based on your level so that no matter what level you are, you're given the right amount of challenge and EXP rewards. This is handy for when you are leveling multiple classes.
  • Minecraft surprisingly features a dynamic difficulty system in Survival mode that is separate to (but impacted by) the world difficulty. The longer a player stays in one location and the longer a certain world has been active, the more difficult the game gets. With each passing day-night cycle, the difficulty steps up a small amount. In time, this manifests itself in monsters having higher chances of spawning with armor, enchanted weapons, increased strength of certain attacks, seeing the player from further away, and even enabling certain monsters to access new attacks. At even higher difficulties, the enchantment levels on the monsters' weapons and armor increase as well.

    Platform Games 
  • Games in the Crash Bandicoot series will often disable environmental hazards and/or move checkpoints if a player dies too often on one particular obstacle.
    • The spin-off party game Crash Bash does this for practically every game with computer-controlled opponents. If you win too easily on the first match, the computer suddenly gets harder for the second, and vice versa if you lose by a lot of points. Case in point: the final boss (a PONG clone) is nearly untouchable the first time you fight him, but every time you lose, he gets easier and easier until he can't even return the very first ball. However, the instant you DO score against him, his difficulty goes back up. Winning this fight means using his Dynamic Difficulty to make sure he's easy enough at the first ball that you can still win when he hardens after being scored against.
  • Ratchet & Clank has a leveling system, and experience points are kept when you die. If you die a lot, you will end up getting stronger than if you played through the game without dying or revisiting old areas. In addition, dying against a single obstacle too many times will either disable it or have the checkpoint moved.
  • Mega Man Zero: The series assigns you a rank after every mission based on how well you completed it. If you fought a boss while having an A or S rank, the boss used new, stronger attacks which Zero would gain for himself after winning the battle.
  • Spyro the Dragon: The series scales difficulty depending on the skill of the player. Unfortunately, this results in an individual playing on the lowest difficulty setting being incapable of completing the third game 100%. Thankfully the third game also has cheat codes to adjust the difficulty for you (O, Square, Right, Left, Right, Square, O, X for Medium, and O, Square, Right, Left, Right, Square, O, Square for Hard).
  • Gods: At predetermined points, the game gives the player a "help bonus" if he's doing poorly or spawns additional enemies if he's unhurt.
  • Rabi-Ribi has two types of boss scaling available. The original type has bosses increase in level the more equipment and stat-raising items you collect (difficult at first, but can lead to a relatively easy endgame), while the alternative type has bosses increase in level based on current story chapter instead (you can steamroll a lot of the bosses early on, but expect a bone-crushing Final Boss).
  • Will You Snail? has an "Automatic Difficulty" setting. When it's turned on, Squid, the game's fourth wall-breaking AI antagonist, adjusts the difficulty if he believes the player is progressing too quickly or too slowly. He wants the player to die a lot and get frustrated for his own amusement, but he also doesn't want to get bored.

    Puzzle Games 
  • Hangaroo: The words/phrases you have to guess each round are randomly generated with no regard to difficulty. You might get a proverbnote  right after having to name a very obscure animal/plant/disease that contains uncommon letters (e.g. "mononucleosis").
  • In Master Mode of Tetris: The Grand Master 2 and 3, certain game mechanics behave this way:
    • TGM2 requires the player to clear each section in under 65 seconds to get a Master or Grandmaster grade (the latter being the ultimate goal of the game), and failure to do so in any section caps the player's grade at S9 for the session. However, clearing sections in 63 seconds or less can raise the bar for subsequent sections for that session. The time limit for section 6 is 65 seconds or the average time for the first 5 sections plus 2 seconds, whichever is lower, and the time limit for each subsequent section is 65 seconds or the previous section time plus 2 seconds, whichever is lower.
    • In TGM3, if you complete a section fast enough, you will get a "COOL!" message, which gives a bonus to your grade. Each time you do this, it also causes the speed level to increase by 100. Meaning, if you get a COOL!, then advance to level 200, the game will act as if you're at level 300. Do this for the first two sections and you'll hit maximum drop speed at only three-tenths into the game (as opposed to halfway through if you don't get any COOL!s). In addition, the time limits to get a COOL! are also set as "X seconds or 2 seconds more than the previous section's time", with lower values of X for later sections.

    Real-Time Strategy 
  • Homeworld scales enemy fleets to match yours. However, it doesn't count captured enemy ships, and due to a bug it's much easier than the developers intended to do so. By kiting enemy fleets while your salvage corvettes steal them one-by-one, you can become game-shatteringly overpowerful.
    • Homeworld 2 addressed this by making capturing enemy ships a lot harder, to the point where it's not usually worth the effort outside of a few occasions where it's required to complete an objective. Unfortunately, there's no upper limit to how many additional enemy ships it will spawn while the player's faction is still subject to a quite restrictive unit cap, meaning that not only can later missions become effectively Unwinnable thanks to Not Playing Fair With Resources, but the game can potentially try and spawn so many units that it lags or freezes because the CPU can't keep up. There's also nothing stopping you from exploiting it by dismantling or self-destructing most of your fleet right before you complete a level, tricking the game into thinking you're doing much worse than you really are.
  • AI War: Fleet Command and AI War 2 both have a particular version of this as the selling point. AI Progress (AIP) is a counted measure you are always aware of, that rises whenever you claim a planet for yourself from the AI, among other actions that either alarm the AI or make it think now's the chance to finish off the problem that is you. The higher it rises, the more tools the AI deploys to deal with you, and the more of its near-endless resources it reassigns from dealing with whatever is outside the galaxy to taking care of you. As a result, even in bolder high AIP runs you need to play the guerilla game, because if you just conquer everything you see the AI will stomp you. The sequel makes it track even more variables, and gives it more to respond with; the AI even gets Godzilla Threshold options if you're really running wild (or another faction is), in the form of Extragalactic War vessels that are nastier than anything else in its arsenal.

    Roguelike Games 
  • The Binding of Isaac:
    • While playing through the game more and more times unlocks more items to use, it also inevitably unlocks more bosses to have to fight (including stronger versions of previous bosses) and more levels to have to clear, making the game harder and longer the more you play it and beat it. One achievement even blatantly makes the game harder (increasing the likelihood of champion enemies and curses,) and beating Isaac in the Cathedral for the first time increases the likelihood of a curse even further.
    • The two new bosses added in the Afterbirth DLC to Rebirth are designed to counter players who increase their damage so high that even bosses fall in seconds to the onslaught. That is to say, each of them gauges a player's attack power and scales their health to match it. At least one of them even has a hard cap on how much damage the player can do to it. This ensures that no matter how powerful you made yourself in a given run, these bosses will take you some time to defeat.
  • Bonfire's Endless mode becomes more difficult the further you go, but will temporarily let up on the difficulty curve if you lose a hero. Unlike in other quests, instead of the hero coming back injured in the next battle, they're replaced with another hero from your roster; the reduced difficulty is to account for the fact the new hero starts at level 1.
  • Diablo III allows a player to select a difficulty, which can only be increased by quitting the current game in progress (though players are allowed to decrease it mid-game if they're alone). Regardless of difficulty, enemy levels scale with a player's to always give them a decent amount of XP and challenge for their current level on whatever difficulty they've chosen. However, once you hit the level cap of 70, you start gaining Paragon levels, which enemy difficulty does not scale to, meaning that unless you raise the difficulty level (if it's not already at Torment XIII, the highest one selectable), enemies can only get easier for you to fight.
  • Enter the Gungeon initially has a 10% chance of each enemy in the game not spawning so newer players have an easier time. This drops by 2% every time the player successfully reaches the Forge, and disappears completely if the player completes the game for the first time no matter how many times they've reached the level.
  • Hades: God mode operates like this, gently lightening the difficulty each time you lose to find the right medium for the player.

    Role-Playing Games 
  • Pok√©mon Yellow is a subtle example. You start with a Pikachu (Electric-type), and your rival starts with an Eevee. What he evolves it into depends on whether you win the first two battles with him:
    • If you win both battles, he evolves it into Jolteon, which is resistant to Electricity.
    • If you win one battle and lose or forfeit the other, he evolves it into Flareon, which takes normal damage from Electricity.
    • If you lose or forfeit both battles, he evolves it into Vaporeon, which is weak to Electricity.
  • The difficulty of a level in NetHack is based on the average of your character level and the dungeon level.
  • Final Fantasy:
    • In the 20th Anniversary Edition of Final Fantasy II, there's a superboss Phrekyos: a summon beast that changes its stats depending on the amount of key words you've gathered (which indicates your progress in the plot and, naturally, your level).
    • Final Fantasy VIII scales monsters level to match your party, and then gives them stronger attacks on top of that. This makes Experience Points a kind of industrial waste generated by grinding for junctions, Guardian Forces and crafting materials, which are the real source of power. (On the other hand, it's a boon for a Low-Level Run.)
    • Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light: Once you open up the Very Definitely Final Dungeon, monsters and bosses will keep pace with the party's levels.
  • Fallout 3 assigns experience points based on the difficulty setting. Conversely, the higher your level, the tougher your enemies will be when entering new areas. Fallout: New Vegas also has level scaling for certain enemies, especially in the DLC's.
  • Konaes Investigations: Door unlocking difficulty is lowered by having better stats. Word Of God says:
    The difficulty of that is based on a combination of LUCK and INT. Also, the numbers for unlocking/convincing/hacking are fairly arbitrarily to begin with, as it's typically based on having an X-level character and max (for the moment) equipment. Though, the target percentile for the hack into Project Saturn was 60% rather than the 50% that was the aim for most other attempts. Though, I would also admit that it really didn't occur to me to reason anything out!
  • SaGa Frontier: Improving your party's effectiveness via Stat Grinding increases the difficulty of enemy encounters.
  • In Iter Vehemens Ad Necem, monsters get more difficult as you become more powerful (and boss monsters will appear at particular thresholds), but your companions are not included in this calculation. One easy(-ish) way to win is to collect powerful allies and pets, and have them do all the work for you.
  • Eiyuu Senki: The World Conquest rewards the player for conquering regions outside of the game's recommended order with unique and useful accessories while also raising the strength of the remaining regions as a result.
  • Depending on which marriages you choose to pursue in Phantasy Star III, gameplay can have a difference of several hours, with different challenges being met between playthroughs. Having Rhys marry Lena will give his son Nial access to an artifact called Laya's Pendant, letting him and his own son (either Adan or Aron) skip dungeons connecting the worlds, while also fighting weaker monsters in the castle holding the Pendant. If Rhys marries Maia, his son Ayn goes questing in the opposite direction, so it's up to his son (Crys or Sean) to find the Pendant in a reasonably tougher dungeon. Adan and Aron also both start with an extra party member, while Crys and Sean both need to recruit Laya and Kara as part of their quest.
  • Epic Battle Fantasy 5:
    • All optional dungeons have Level Scaling for its enemies and bosses.
    • The Devourer gets a boost in stats proportional to the amount of optional content the player completed, though it doesn't level scale. New content from updates only adds to the potential stat boost.
  • Even For Eternia: Downplayed. The enemies of Machina Wastes scale to the player's story progress rather than levels. However, the main boss of the area, Wraith Saturn, doesn't scale and is balanced for a level 45 party.
  • Soaring Machinariae: Every time a dungeon boss is defeated, all enemies get stronger. This is to allow the player to beat the dungeons in any order they want while maintaining a level of challenge.
  • Once you defeat the final boss of the PLATO computers dnd game, the levels of the enemies you fight increase ten to a hundredfold just to make your final run through the dungeon that much more difficult.

    Rhythm Games 
  • Guitar Hero 5 has a battle mode called "Momentum", which increases the difficulty every 20 combo (starting at medium), and drops you back down after 3 misses in a row. Warriors of Rock adds "Momentum+", where it increases every 10 combo instead, and automatically drops the leading player back down to beginner difficulty if Star Power is deployed.
  • ''DJMAX Portable'' increases the current scroll speed as the player's Fever (score multiplier) goes higher.
  • Featured in Rocksmith.
  • beatmania IIDX has Step Up mode. First, your current dan rank dicatates the initial pool of charts you get to play; the higher your rank, the harder the songs you'll start with. Second, as you clear songs, the the game gives you harder charts to play, while failing songs will decrease the difficulty of charts allowed. To accommodate this feature, Step Up guarantees three stages, even if you fail your first two.

    Shoot 'Em Ups 
  • Xeno Fighters has this as of v0.10 in the form of a rank system similar to that of Battle Garegga.
  • Raiden, Raiden Fighters and Fire Shark are notorious for this, frustrating would-be 1cc players in the form of the tank/gunboat enemies. If you do well enough (survive long enough, amass loads of points, get lots of powerups/bombs), the tanks/gunboats that initially have poor reaction time as well as Painfully Slow Projectiles start shooting you with faster and more accurate shots as soon as they come onscreen.
  • Battle Garegga has a unique game mechanic in which the game exponentially increases in difficulty by increasing enemy aggressiveness and health due to a number of factors, such as picking up too many items you don't need and shooting too much. The only way to reverse this? Dying. (Especially effective if it's the player's next to last life.) To make matters worse, every time someone plays the game, the starting rank (difficulty) goes up, and each time the attract mode loops the starting rank decreases. The idea is the more people are playing it the harder it gets, so it can eat more quarters, but if people stop it backs down so a new player will have an easier time and get hooked. However, people figured out that resetting the arcade game also reset the rank. So Raizing fixed this in their next game, Armed Police Batrider. The rank at power-on was the maximum possible starting rank instead! This is a (very infamous) trade mark of Shinobu Yagawa, the programmer of Battle Garegga, Battle Bakraid, and Batrider. These traits are in his later games with Cave, Ibara, Pink Sweets, and Muchi Muchi Pork.
    • Those are just outlying elements of his style (perhaps a result of working things out), but his style generally punishes typical shmup habits (hording bombs/lives, grabbing all power ups, firing at all time), but people found that by stragetically dying at times (often down to almost no lives left), they can keep it manageable. That and bombs are used to score well (to get more lives to strategically lose). While not super popular, his style of games has a cult following.
  • In modern Shmups, this is known to fans as "Rank," and is very common. This has been a feature in shooters since the Japanese release of Zanac in 1986. That game had artificial intelligence that adjusted itself to your playing style. However, the AI wasn't all that bright, and could be subverted by simply firing less. Zanac for the NES got this ass-backwards. The AI level decreased if the player could defeat a boss within the given time limit but increased if the player could not defeat a boss within the time limit.
  • Triggerheart Exelica calls this the VBAS (Variable Boss Attack System): basically, this means that the more point medals you collect during the level, the more forms the boss of that stage has and the harder it is. If you have enough, you even have to face an Optional Boss afterwards.
  • In Darius Gaiden, getting a shot powerup will increase the difficulty to the stage's default difficulty.
  • Touhou has this is the 4th to 6th games. It gets remarkably less complicated each game. In the 4th game (Lotus Land Story) pretty everything that could be considered playing well raises it, but the opposite is also true, meaning that letting point items fall off the screen makes the game easier. The next game (Mystic Square) has fewer things increase the rank, but the only ways to decrease it are dying and bombing. Embodiment of Scarlet Devil has the rank just keep going up over time and can only normally be decreased by dying. And for some reason it resets to the middle level with each stage. None of the other games use rank, though Imperishable Night lets you start with more lives if you keep continuing.
  • DonPachi:
    • In DoDonPachi DaiOuJou, there is a unique Rank System involving the Hyper mechanic. Whenever you unleash Hyper Mode (which causes your ship to fire much more powerful bullets and a bigger laser), this will cause enemies to fire much faster for the duration of the Hyper. When it wears off, enemies will fire slightly faster than they did before your Hyper, and they will spew more bullets. The more Hypers you use over the course of the game, the more bullets will fill the screen, and the faster the bullets will get. Dying or using a Smart Bomb is the only way to lower the Rank.
    • In DoDonPachi Dai-Fukkatsu Black Label, you get a new Super Mode known as "Red Mode" in which continuously using it will gradually crank up the difficulty, indicated by a special gauge off to the side of the regular HUD. Red mode is required for certain score bonuses to activate.
    • SaiDaiOuJou has a visible numeric Rank Meter, which also corresponds to the Hyper System. Like with DaiOuJou, it lowers every time you die or bomb (bombing lowers it by 1 Rank Point, dying decreases it by 3). However, getting it high enough is one of the requirements to fight either Hibachi or Inbachi.
  • Tumiki Fighters makes the game harder if you try holding on to a large number of enemy ships (thus maximizing your score). If you lose these ships, the bullets immediately thins out.
  • Warning Forever adjusts to the player's tactics. If a player focuses on destroying a particular segment of a boss, the next boss will have that section reinforced. If the boss manages to kill the player, it'll have more and better guns of the same type next time.
  • The faster you destroy groups of enemies and mini bosses in Ikaruga, the more enemies are generated. The screen is also cleared of bullets when you die, and dying also decreases the difficulty of certain bosses, especially Tageri. The third boss's difficulty is unfortunately bass-ackwards, as it spins faster the longer the fight takes (although it times out after a while).
  • The RAY Series also does this. Especially the third game, where the enemies become more abundant and tougher the lower your Encroachment percentage.
  • In Chaos Field, if you switch from the Order field to the eponymous Chaos field, your weapons become more powerful, but the bullets greatly increase in speed and density.
  • The difficulty of the bosses in Rez increases depending on the player's skill in shooting down enemies.
  • Daioh has a difficulty rank system that is basically designed to punish typical shmup evasion tactics:
    • Collecting items will raise the rank, as does clearing the stage.
    • Repeatedly tapping in one direction will raise the rank by 1 per tap. Making a continuous lateral motion in one direction and then back the other way will reduce the rank by 1, but beware: Doing this four times will spike the rank by 48.
    • Hoarding bombs will cause a "bomb retention timer" to tick up, and if this timer reaches a set amount, it will reset and 64 rank is added.
  • Giga Wing: The game's overall difficulty gradually increases until your first death; some players will exploit this by committing suicide at the very start of the game.
  • A common variant is to spawn extra enemies (primarily Mooks) if the player finishes off a Mid-Boss quickly, which also doubles as a reward (more mooks means more points, more item drops, and/or a longer Kill Streak) as well as a way of filling the time while waiting for the background scrolling and/or Mickey Mousing music to resync with the level again. The Touhou series does this a lot, as well as DoDonPachi Daifukkatsu and Ikaruga.
  • A more subtle example in Heavy Weapon. The better you do, the higher your score, and thus the higher your rank. The higher your rank, the more often your airborne foes will drop bombs on your tank.
  • Gradius games tend to increase in difficulty the more firepower you have. This is most notable in the original game, where at minimal firepower and no Options the Big Core will fire slow and easily dodgable lasers, but at maximum firepower the lasers practically break the sound barrier.
  • BLUE REVOLVER has five levels of rank, with the difficulty level chosen at the start of the game determining the range of levels that the game will go through. Normal keeps the rank clamped to levels 1 and 2 (the lowest two), Hyper allows the game to use all five levels, and Parallel locks the rank at level 5 for the duration of the entire game.
  • Most games developed by Platine Dispositif feature a "Phase" system, where higher phase levels increase the number and speed of bullets the enemies shoot at you. Getting hit or using bombs decreases your phase level, while defeating mini-bosses (or bosses) increases it. Demonic Mode, which is Harder Than Hard, starts you off at the highest phase level, and it never decreases.
  • Crimzon Clover:
    • In the original doujin version, Simple mode is meant to be an "easy" mode, but point-blanking enemies will cause them to drop small stars, and collecting enough of these stars will cause enemies' bullets to move faster.
    • This trope is the core of Boost mode in the arcade and World Ignition versions. When you fill the bomb meter, you automatically enter Break Mode and a timer starts ticking up. The higher the timer goes, the more points you'll earn but the more difficult enemies will get. Dying or firing a bomb will end Break Mode and drop the timer to the last multiple of 30 seconds, putting a pause to the difficulty increase.
  • Hellsinker shows your current rank as the Stella gauge, which levels from 1 to A (10). Higher Stella means a better scoring experience.

    Simulation Games 
  • After Burner Climax adjusts its difficulty depending on how many enemies you shoot down in a level. If you get more than 50%, you'll earn a star (up to five). Dying brings the star level down by one, and using a continue resets it to zero. More stars = more enemies bombarding you with missiles. However, if you have a full set of five stars when you reach specific stages, you'll access an "S" version of that stage instead of the main one.

    Stealth Games 
  • Yandere Simulator refers to its dynamic difficulty as "school atmosphere". When students discover dismembered body parts, puddles of blood, corpses, and unexplained suicides, the school's atmosphere begins to drop. As it drops, students become more paranoid: their line-of-sight increases, they become harder to sneak up on, they react faster to finding unusual and grotesque things, and they become more scared when they catch Yandere-chan acting dangerous. A week of peace will help restore the atmosphere back to normal.
    • There's also an example in the game that combines this with Video Game Cruelty Punishment. So the Student Council are being a pain, catching you on their patrols and pepper spraying you into submission. It's possible to stealth-kill them, but in doing so, the atmosphere drops to its lowest-possible level and never goes back up. Not only this, but the surviving Student Council members' already-large detection radius is doubled, and they react to suspicious behaviour almost immediately, in addition to metal detectors and security cameras appearing around the school. It's like turning the difficulty up to the highest setting and then breaking off the knob.
  • In Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, enemy soldiers will adapt their tactics to counter yours. As you cause enemies trouble without being detected, they will begin to install surveillance cameras, proximity mines, and decoys to trip you up. If you use noise to distract and misdirect enemies, they will start ignoring any strange sounds they hear. If you go for headshots, they will wear sturdier helmets. Going for body shots? Body armor and riot shields. Fultoning enemies away? They will react more quickly and employ sharpshooters to take out any Fulton balloons. Prefer CQC? They'll bring in shotguns. And so on. The player can send soldiers from Mother Base on missions to disrupt the transport of tools used to get the better of you, but the enemies will start using those tools again after a while

    Sports Games 
  • Wii Sports:
    • The AI opponents in baseball combine Dynamic Difficulty with Rubberband AI. Get enough home runs, and they start to make it harder to do in subsequent games, for instance.
    • Golf will switch out the set of possible hole positions for more tricky ones if you are doing too good.

    Third-Person Shooter 
  • Resident Evil uses this, formally calling it "Adaptive Difficulty" or "Game Rank", and it's been a part of several major games in the series.
    • In Resident Evil 4, playing well will increase the amount of spawned enemies and improve their AI; conversely, playing poorly and dying frequently will reduce the number of foes and make the enemies dumber. How severe this is depends on the difficulty selected at the start of the game, with Easy reducing the upper and lower bounds, and Professional locking the difficulty to the highest level and keeping it there no matter how many times you die. Ammo and health item rarity is also affected by how well you are doing, with both dropping more frequently if you're low on either one.
    • Resident Evil 5 has a similar dynamic difficulty mechanic to Resident Evil 4, which has been discovered to use a hidden points system. Basically, the game has 11 separate "sub-levels" for the difficulty level, changing how much damage enemies deal, and how much damage they take from your weapons. Attacking and killing enemies adds points in small amounts (anywhere from 2 points for each hit you deal, to 100 points for a critical headshot), while taking damage or dying subtracts points in larger amounts (from 400 points for a small hit, to 1200 points for dying and continuing). For every 1000 points added or subtracted, the game shifts the difficulty up or down one level. Each of the four difficulty modes (Amateur, Normal, Veteran and Professional) has a minimum and maximum setting, and although some of them overlap, Professional mode is in a league of its own. At the lowest setting, enemies deal half as much damage to you, and take 2.5 times normal damage from your weapons. For the sake of comparison, Veteran mode's highest setting is the second-highest overall, where enemies deal three times normal damage to you, and take 88% normal damage from your weapons. The highest setting, which Professional mode stays at all the time, makes enemies deal ten times normal damage to you. The official guide had an entire section devoted to this system, and how to game it.
    • Resident Evil 2 (Remake) follows a similar difficulty dynamic with the previous games. Aside from the general difficulty settings (Easy, Normal, and Hard), the game also fine tunes the current difficulty based on your performance. Doing well and conserving ammo will have enemies become more resilient and ammo pickups will yield less bullets. Getting injured a lot and/or running out of ammo will have enemies do less damage, become easier to kill, and ammo pickups give more rounds. Dying also lowers the difficulty some and dying too much will have the game offer the chance to permanently drop the difficulty by one level; if you died a lot on Normal for example, you can choose to switch the difficulty to Easy.
    • Resident Evil 3 (Remake) uses pretty much the exact same system as the Resident Evil 2 (Remake).
  • Max Payne does this in addition to three difficulty levels: doing exceptionally well would have enemies react more intelligently, do more damage, and take more damage (to the point that a headshot might not kill them), while doing poorly would have enemies behave more suicidally, have worst accuracy, do less damage, and be easier to kill. The easiest difficulty level, Fugitive, restricts the difficulty to a lower level, and makes it harder to increase. The medium difficulty level, Hard Boiled, restricts the difficulty from reaching the lowest level. And the hardest difficulty level, Dead on Arrival, locks the difficulty to the maximum level at all times. However, the implementation is somewhat broken (it's supposed to be tick down upon player death, but a death is only factored-in if the death animation is watched in full), making the game far harder than intended.
    • The trope is more obvious in Max Payne 3, where the player receive extra painkillers if they die several times in at the same checkpoint.
  • Kid Icarus: Uprising lowers the difficulty every time you die, unless it's already at 2.0 or lower. The hearts invested in the difficulty increase are lost however, and weapons found in the level correspond in power to the difficulty you end on. It doesn't scale up during a level if you do well, but the recommended difficulty for the next level corresponds to how well you did last level.

    Turn-Based Strategy 
  • XCOM lets you select a difficulty level to begin the game at, and then moves it up or down a notch once per in-game month. This is rather undermined by an unfortunate bug which resets the difficulty to the lowest level when you load a saved game. Since the game is made up of two executables, it has to save and quit each time you switch from a land battle to the world map (or vice versa). In short, it's impossible to play more than one battle before the difficulty resets to the lowest level unless you patch the game to fix this (using, say, XcomUtil), or use the Windows-based re-release.
  • The Super Robot Wars series has Battle Masteries, which are optional, and occasionally difficult, goals to reach in a mission. Depending on how many Battle Masteries (also known as Skill Points) you have at certain points in the game, the difficulty will scale back to Easy, or up to Hard mode.
  • Sting Entertainment's two flagship GBA games, Riviera: The Promised Land and Yggdra Union: We Shall Never Fight Alone, reduce enemy Hit Points and other stats (notably, the Rage bar in Riviera) when the player loses. In Riviera, if you lose enough, you won't have to fight the enemies at all (although this doesn't work on bosses, for obvious reasons). Yggdra Union just scales down until a certain minimum point, and then stops (although practically, the player is getting stronger all the time because of how the game handles experience).
  • Early in the Wing Commander series, there was supposed to be an adjustment of AI skills, in the games before Difficulty Levels. However, for many there's often little to no notice of much of a difference, in any of the games where this trope was in effect.
  • CPU-controlled Jugger from Advance Wars: Dual Strike has this as part of his C.O. Power "Overclock", along with an increase to his positive and negative extremes of his luck modifiers. He has two separate AI scripts in the game, a quite stupid one that he uses normally, and a much smarter one that he follows when his power is active. Of course when you're playing as Jugger, all you get is the luck modifiers. Your DS can't make you stupid when you're not using your CO's powers, after all.

Non-Video Game Examples

    Live-Action TV 
  • On the Japanese game show DERO!, the Bomb Room round worked this way. All questions were multiple-choice, and each time the team gets a question wrong, the number of choices on all subsequent questions was also reduced by one. If you did poorly enough, you'd end up facing 50/50 choices, albeit for relatively paltry potential rewards. Some of the other rounds seemed to do this as well, albeit in a less obvious manner. For example, in the Block Word Quiz section of the Beam Room round, a team that was doing especially poorly would often get puzzles with answers only 2 characters long instead of 3.
  • Many game shows have methods to adjust the difficulty of the game to match the budget, especially in the Bonus Round:
    • When the producers want to make Wheel of Fortune harder, they use shorter puzzles in the main game, and the bonus round will usually be a short puzzle and/or one with many different vowels and/or uncommon consonants, e.g. "OAK BUREAU" or "ZOO".
    • In the daytime version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the writers are fond of asking about arcane details of the lives of celebrities and historical figures, often from before they became famous, e.g. asking what Jon Stewart's part-time job was in college, or what George Washington named his dogs. These questions reliably stop contestants dead in their tracks, and they appear to be placed higher or lower on the money ladder based on how much under/over-budget the show is.
    • The Fast Money round of Family Feud will have questions with one or two very popular answers that easily come to mind when they want to give away the money, e.g. "Name a yellow fruit" (banana, lemon, maybe pineapple) or "An animal with three letters in its name" (dog, cat). When they've gone over budget, they switch to questions with a wide spread of answers, often numerical, e.g. "On a scale of 1 to 10, how X are you?" or "At what time do you usually eat lunch?"
    • The Price Is Right has easy games and hard games. If they've gone over budget in previous shows, they'll bring out That's Too Much or Range Game, which contestants have historically been bad at. Individual pricing games can also be adjusted, e.g. in a "put the digits in the correct order" game (Ten Chances, Safe Crackers, etc.) a 0 makes the game easier since it's usually the last digit, and it obviously can't be the first.
    • Press Your Luck would switch to easier-than-usual questions if not enough spins were being earned. For the audience at home, there was a tell for when this happened; the light bulb on the host's podium would blink to prompt him.

  • Most pinball tables have a setting to dynamically adjust the replay score (which awards a free game when a player reaches it) based on how well players have scored in previous games. That said, this is only really in effect in a business that uses pinball games to make revenue, as there's no mid-credit advantage for hitting the replay threshold. Unless game is set to give an extra ball for hitting the replay or replay levels.
  • Most games offer some sort of "mystery award" feature, which gives a random award — usually points, feature completions, or even lighting extra balls. If you're having a poor game, it's much more likely to award a lit extra ball — on the other hand, don't expect more than a small point reward if you're doing well. In multi-player games, when not in "competition mode", it may give better awards to players who are behind.
  • Gottlieb's Caveman was a Pinball table with a built-in Video Game. The difficulty of the video game would change based on how well the player did on the pinball board.
  • In Star Wars (Data East), shooting the ramp several times lights the Extra Ball shot. The number of shots needed would adjust over time based on how well players did.
  • In Safe Cracker, the difficulty of the bank vault board game changes according to how well you were on the pinball playfield and the game's set payout percentage (there are two roms for this on does not have any percent-based payouts due to legal issues).

  • Dungeons & Doodles: Tales from the Tables: Lampshaded on a few occasions. When the party in Episode 7 attempts to bypass all the traps the Game Master has worked hard on setting up, he decides to replace one of the chests with a mimic.
    Eriawynn: What was that feeling of dread just now?
    Angela: Is it just me, or did the Challenge Rating of this room suddenly change?

    Real Life 
  • It is not uncommon for automated tests to use a binary branching system to determine what the next question will be on a test:
    • Registered Nurse (RN) and Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification exams both involve branching difficulties. Because of this, if you correctly answer enough questions at the beginning of the exam, they will pass you without requiring you to finish.
    • The computerized Graduate Record Examination (GRE) branches, though you do need to finish answering all the questions; it just impacts your final score.
  • In academic institutions, grading "curves" are these; the instructor may adjust the score requirements for each letter grade based on how well their students are doing, usually if they feel that they were initially too hard on their students. And depending on your performance throughout the academic period especially on the final exam, the instructor may just bump your grade up accordingly regardless of what the preexisting scale says.