Opinion: EA's Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment tech is impressive, but worrying

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News broke a few weeks ago of EA successfully being granted a patent that featured Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment (DDA) technology. The clever technique measures player performance through numerous parameters and will adjust the difficulty based on how a player is performing. 

Score too many goals against a team on FIFA, and you might find the opposing team is suddenly a touch harder to beat. Adversely, should you end up being beaten a lot by the opposite team, DDA will balance the odds slightly more in your favour.

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It certainly isn’t a new concept. Developers have incorporated dynamic difficulty into games for years. The likes of Resident Evil 4, Crash Bandicoot 4 and Left 4 Dead all used dynamic difficulty settings with fantastic effect, but the technology by EA works at a server level instead. 

Players are measured during gameplay and data is sent back and forth between the cloud. With the technology working within the cloud, and most of EA’s titles playing off a few different engines, it should be something that is reasonably easy for servers to implement. However, while it may be easy from a technological standpoint, ethically it gives this writer a great concern for how it could be used in future games from the company.

Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment

According to the patent, EA’s primary reasoning behind the technology is increasing player engagement. In the patent, EA mentions the desire to increase players' engagement and avoid burnout due to difficulty. 

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“Often, games that are too difficult or too easy will result in less enjoyment for a user. Consequently, the user is likely to play the game less. Thus, one of the challenges of game development is to design a game with a difficulty level that is most likely to keep a user engaged for a longer period of time.”

It’s a reasonable goal. Creating games that dynamically adjusts the difficulty without alerting the player essentially leading to the same feeling of reward. The player doesn’t feel like they’ve taken a shortcut or cheated, which results in EA having a more engaged player base. 

The patent features a number of diagrams and examples of how the technology works in action: 

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A significant amount is just vague patent talk, ensuring EA can use the document to its advantage in a number of situations. However, generally speaking, Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment recognises data on three different fronts. It identifies clusters, seeds and players all at once.

Clustersare groups of gamers who fit into a specific profile of ability, making it easier for the AI to assign difficult settings. Gamers are just that, gamers.

Seeds are batches of difficulties associated with individual games, which are measured from player data.

DDA will assess each gamer to see whether they are a fit for the clusters or whether their information can be used for a seed. Merging the three together, EA will create a network of data to dynamically assess player ability and game difficulty, before adjusting it to fit gameplay. 

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It’s an impressive system, and one that could be used to make gaming more accessible to a wider audience of gamers. So why does it concern me? 

Money, Money, Money

If there’s one thing EA is known for, it’s rampant monetisation. FIFA, Madden, and even Battlefield all have at least one monetary attribute which is designed to encourage players to spend their hard earned cash. In the sports games it’s Ultimate Team, in Battlefield it's shortcuts and XP multipliers in the multiplayer modes. 

EA has already come under fire, after three players in America filed a class-action lawsuit against the company claiming it was using the DDA technology in the Ultimate Team mode across FIFA, NHL and Madden NFL. The lawsuit was ultimately dropped after EA provided an inside look at the technology to lawyers and the three players. While EA may not have implemented the technology in such a way so far, this doesn’t mean it may not do so in the future. 

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There’s one segment of the patent that gives me cause for concern, which is section [0031]

“In certain embodiments, systems disclosed herein monitor user activity with respect to one or more video games to determine a user’s preference regarding game difficulty and user’s skill level with respect to playing video games. This information may be determined based at least in part on factors that are associated with a user’s engagement level. For example, a user who plays a video game for an above average length of time and who spends money while playing a game may have a higher level of engagement than a user who plays a video game for a short period of time”.

This portion of the patent tells us that EA is almost definitely measuring players on whether they buy into video game economies. Based on its own definition, the technology measures and adapts to play behaviour, so it wouldn’t be too difficult for EA to use this system to encourage spending from players by changing in game difficulty. Consider how predatory many of the in game monetary systems are in many games. And how games like FIFA can prey on those with addictive personalities and gambling issues, this technology honestly scares me, and it should scare you a little as well. 

Only time will tell, but when it comes to trusting big game developers not to use something that could result in more profit, I do not have a lot of faith. 

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