The go-to methods that designers use to make games difficult have changed in the last decade, but are these methods the correct way of addressing the issue? 

I've never personally been a fan of difficult games myself. I surmise that this stems from what I grew up playing. I cut my teeth on the GameBoy Color where the hardest thing I played was Mario and even then that game was something I only popped in when I was excessively bored. I was much more inclined to play one of the original Pokemon games, to enjoy the easy to pick up mechanics, self personalizing gameplay, and short but interesting injections of story.

Skip ahead to the present and I still rarely crank up the difficulty to the hardest level. I consider it occasionally, I've been tossing around the idea of an Insanity playthrough of Mass Effect 2 lately and I previously played solo all the way up to the last segment of the last level in Halo: Reach on Legendary, but in most cases I still have no desire to go anywhere near the hardest difficulty setting on many of my favorite games. I don't think that's for the same reason as when I was a kid getting stuck in Mario though.

When I was a kid I didn't do well in Mario because I was bad at it. I was not skilled enough to actually tackle the game. I wasn't losing due to any fault of its design. It wasn't cheating me. The thing just got to a point where it was genuinely hard. I get the sense that many games in the current market don't follow that standard though. Developers seem more than content to take the easy road in so far as difficulty is concerned, especially in the action and shooter genres. How so you ask?

Take a game from your collection, perhaps Call of Duty, Uncharted, or Mass Effect. Place it in your system of choice or boot it on your PC then set it to the hardest difficulty possible. Take a good few minutes to really examine what it is that makes the game harder than the lower settings. I'll wait, don't worry about it. 

More than likely you'll notice a similar change in all of these games despite them being all fairly different from each other. Enemies take more damage and deal more out. They recognize you faster and move more aggressively. While this is all fine, it stops there. The player is given no alternate strategy, no more complex options to win, they must simply trudge through it. Each of the games I've mentioned is an extremely popular Triple A title and all employ the same concept of making enemies in the environment brutally punishing in place of making changes that test the user.

In Call of Duty all enemies on screen will immediately turn to you regardless of your position as long as there is open space between you an them. If you can see the enemy they will turn and shoot at you. In Mass Effect, already difficult enemies become brutally powerful while taking hardly any damage from your weapons. There isn't a different strategy to beating them nor do you have to be more precise, the answer is to simply hit them more and get hit less. Uncharted shares the same problems as Mass Effect with enemies flanking on you while you're pinned, and ignoring allies, to appear behind you anywhere you've taken cover to blast your back with a shotgun. 

Why do I bring this up? It's simple really. While these traits were initially limited to the hardest settings they are starting to become the norm when it comes to adapting difficulty. As such these traits are leaking into the lower levels of newer games. On top of that, it simply doesn't make for a fun experience and maybe even more disturbingly it's starting to seep into other genres.

I don't want to play a game where my enemies are omniscient. Where if I set off an alarm suddenly everyone for the rest of the level can see me through walls. If I alert an enemy and flee, break line of sight then move to a new position they shouldn't automatically come running over to a place that they shouldn't even know I'm at. I don't mind if enemies are tough, but they shouldn't be tough because I only have one option for defeating them. They should be tougher because the window I'm given to enact a winning strategy is small. I want them to test my reflexes, challenge my intellect, and strain my focus... not simply make me wait for a chance to pop out and get in another hit before running away to hide. In many ways the higher difficulty settings on many games don't make them any harder, it just makes them more tedious while further highlighting any annoying or flawed mechanics that exist.

This isn't to say that there aren't games out there that do difficulty right, because there are plenty, just that the act of simply changing values in the code governing a game's mechanics is becoming a more and more common choice. As a person who aspires to be a game designer it gets under my skin to see people avoiding design in their solution. I want to be challenged by my games, not punished or bored to death because the designers didn't take the time to implement a more creative answer to changing difficulty. What's the point of playing on a level that's supposedly harder if the extent of what it provides is a pervasive sense of frustration and desire to put the game away in the place of feeling like you've accomplished something?