Custom Difficulty Gives an Honest Challenge—and Leaves Time to Rally

I move through the stages of difficulty in a sports video game like the stages of grief. Expert, Pro, Hard, Medium and Easy might as well be named Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. In the past, I've started somewhere between anger and depression before moving on to acceptance.

A couple weeks ago, Forza Horizon's brilliant Rally expansion put me into the same period of mourning. It is demanding. You're taken from the laid-back car culture of a festival run on smooth Colorado asphalt and launched off the loose dirt of a rally course, often straight into an uphill switchback. The opposing racers' times gave me fits. I could win one, maybe two of five stages in a rally. In the others, grazing a tree or drifting slightly off the perfect line would see my split time drop from third to 15th as the next marker shot by.

Fighting the humiliating memories of training wheels, water wings and tee-ball, I finally went into the game's difficulty menu and adjusted just one thing: the opposing driver AI, which I dropped back to easy. Everything else remained the same: My vehicle's speed, mass, braking and traction, the course layout and surface, all of that. All I did was give myself a little extra time.

I then drove faster and better than I ever had before.

"What we sometimes forget is that we were all new to a game or a genre at some point," said Martin Connor, lead designer at Playground Games, the maker of Forza Horizon. "Variable difficulty settings allow people to not only enjoy, but also master the games that they love."

I reached out to Connor and Playground this week to be sure of what I'd done. He assured me the time I'd driven against easy AI would have been no different had I'd driven the same way against medium, hard, anger, denial or all the other stages of opposing driver grief.

All I had done was give myself a few seconds of cushion to relax. The course and my car's handling of it remained 100 percent the same. I simply drove faster and more confidently when I felt I should be winning, as opposed to how I drove when I thought I was over my head. It was almost an epiphany. Instead of hurling myself at an insurmountable goal simply because it was named respectably, I came in with a personal best by asking more from my strengths and forgiving my weaknesses.

"I notice two distinct player types when watching people play the game," Connor told me by email. I was falling into the first category: "Those who, when playing on a higher difficulty, tense up, gripping the controller more tightly, and therefore sacrifice their fine control over their car, leading to poorer lap times."

It's for this kind of high-pressure, high-intensity, failure-averse gamer that difficulty settings, in Forza Horizon and in other sports titles, have moved away from an all-controlling one-to-five scale of past years, and now allow gamers to adjust the difficulty of their components. If one feels belittled by a "rookie" or "amateur" difficulty label, you can now create a custom difficulty setting, to challenge your real strengths and ease up on your sorest weaknesses. I think it's the best thing about sports video gaming.

In my case, with Forza Horizon Rally, variable difficulty provided me with a real sense of a challenge without patronizing me to one extreme, or crushing my will to compete at the other.

MLB The Show has long been a standard-bearer in this realm, allowing me to pitch against Hall-of-Fame difficulty while hitting against Veteran, for example, and even automating other tasks at which I'm terrible. If I was locked to one difficulty for both phases, I'd either lose every time or win every game 12-0. This mix compensates for the under-developed phases of my game (too much time spent pitching only in Road to the Show, none of it fielding or baserunning) while presenting a respectable challenge to my best areas.

NCAA Football 14 just added new variable difficulty settings this year, too. Now you can split the opposing difficulty for your offense and your defense, and have a third different difficulty for human-against-human games. Many players find it easier playing against the computer in their online dynasties. This allows them to beef up that challenge while still staying competitive against a buddy.

Forza Horizon might be called, primarily, a racing game but its structure adopts this now-common approach of sports video gaming, too. The harder you make each component of driving—from braking and steering assists to manual shifting and opponent skill—the more you will be rewarded in experience points in the game's career mode. Forza Horizon, and games like Tiger Woods PGA Tour—in which you are an individual performer, not part of a team—are best suited for this. Ideally, it allows the extremely talented golfer or driver to advance at the same pace, against their optimal level of difficulty.

"With Horizon, as with all Forza titles, customization is a key part of the game," Connor said. "We appreciate that when people buy the game, they want to be able to play according to their own strengths and weaknesses. These vary from person to person, so we wanted to expose each of the components that comprise our high level difficulty settings."

It deepens the experience, too. Most racing games, I've found, depend so heavily on course knowledge and driving at top speed through every turn that the opposing drivers blatantly rubber-band—artificially speed up or slow down—to provide the meat of the challenge. As I said in my review of it, there is little of that in Forza Horizon. I've seen it only rarely—in point-to-point boss races in the career mode. For the most part, if you legitimately put an AI racer away early, he is back there for good. And if you're doing that so much the game becomes a breeze, you can notch up his talent without setting yourself back in the process.

Forza Horizon Rally, the downloadable expansion released in December, is different because there are no other cars on the course. Your opponent is the course, and it does a superb job of trying to throw you off. Even on the 100th try, even when you know what's coming—even when I hear my co-driver squawk "200, hairpin left, cut"—there's no guarantee I'll hit that corner at the perfect speed and angle. It takes full concentration from start to finish every time.

"Rally is a more intense, lean-in racing experience," Connor said. "Our opponent times come from real people playing the game pre-release. The times these people can achieve fluctuate with level design throughout development, and therefore the difficulty fluctuates in response."

In that case, Rally was very well served by the foundation laid in the main game that preceded it. Words like "accessibility" are often considered the training wheels of video games, implying they're made for unserious people. Across-the-board settings—shooters in particular do a good job of belittling you, assigning their difficulties ironic names, from babying to macho—not only restrict access, they restrict advancement.

But in games like NCAA Football, or Tiger Woods PGA Tour, or Forza Horizon, where I race on a de facto Hard setting except for automatic shifting (hey, I couldn't drive a stick until I was 17), I can take on the challenge in steps. I can grow into this game, rather than be faced with jumping in the deep end all alone. Or putting on water wings.

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Sundays.