Fact check: Is an EA paper on Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment evidence that DDA is in FUT?


EA recently patented a concept called Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment. Is it evidence that scripting is real or is it something else?

In a recent Reddit post, a research paper written by a team of EA employees was brought into the search light of the community. The paper, titled ‘Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment for Maximized Engagement in Digital Games’, presents a new approach to dynamic difficulty balancing, which we already discussed several times here on the blog [1][2][3].

The aforementioned Reddit post raises the question whether Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment perhaps is used in online game modes:

“It doesn’t say explicitly that this methodology applies to FIFA, or whether it only affects certain modes – but a lot of it is consistent with my own experience and that of others.”
(– WalrusFIFA on Reddit)

Not surprising, the basic notion that Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment exists somewhere in the EA universe immediately nurtured several other ideas: That Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment is used in FIFA, that it is used in multiplayer game modes and that Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment is the true reason behind claims about scripting, handicapping and momentum.

As usual, we do the fact checking.

What is Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment?

Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment is a technique for adapting a game to make it easier or harder. Typically, the game difficulty will be adjusted once undesirable player states (e.g., boredom or frustration) are observed. In the article, the authors describe a particular Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment concept which serves the aim of maximizing a player’s engagement, i.e. make players play more by ensuring that they neither get bored nor frustrated.

The paper describes the results of EA’s own research into the effects of this particular concept. EA has tested the concept on a group of players while other players were used as a reference group, thus allowing EA to measure the effects of Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment on player engagement. And just to make it clear: EA tested the concept on a mobile match-three game. The article doesn’t mention FIFA in one word.

According to the article, the result was a 9 % increase in player engagement.

Is Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment a money machine?

In the community, it’s the perception that EA is all about the money. This might be somewhat correct, but Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment isn’t a money machine. In fact, the Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment concept implemented by EA didn’t generate extra revenue:

“Last but not least, we also compared the impact on monetization between the control and the treatment groups. This comparison is critical as a monetization objective might contradict engagement maximization. Our Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment treatment group had a neutral impact on monetization. No statistically significant difference on in-game transaction revenues was observed between two groups.”
(– Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment for Maximized Engagement in Digital Games, page 470)

So, why would EA bother to implement a concept like Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment? As already mentioned, player engagement is a fully viable motive in itself. A franchise like the FIFA series depends on people buying the game again and again. If people get bored after a few weeks, the risk that they won’t buy next year’s edition increases drastically. So for that reason alone, it might be worth pursuing technologies that deliver extra player engagement even if they don’t deliver extra revenue from micro transactions.

Would it make sense to use Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment in FIFA?

Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment makes sense in a lot of games. As a consumer, I like appealing games. There is nothing worse than having spend €100 on a game that isn’t fun after 2 hours.

In addition to that, EA must have invested a considerable amount in developing and patenting of their new Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment concept.

So why not use this brilliant, new engagement optimization concept in FIFA?

And, following that apparently rhetorical question, is it possible that they have used it already for several years, and could this be the reason why people over the years have been complaining about matches being allegedly manipulated?

For multiple reasons, the answer is a clear NO.

Is Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment used in FIFA?

It is likely beyond any real doubt that FIFA uses a similar concept, Adaptive Difficulty, in certain offline game modes. We have seen various code snippets carefully dug out of encrypted settings files suggesting this. On top of that, the game has dialogues which explicitly state that “the difficulty level will be auto-adjusted”, as per the picture above.

This is however single player FIFA. And there is a fundamental difference between single player and multiplayer FIFA when it comes to controlling the difficulty.

In a game where the predominant difficulty factor is the capability level of the opponent, it is difficult for a game developer to actively change the balance between the players. Unlike games like Battlefield 1, EA can’t all of a sudden bring in extra equipment on the losing side. And they can’t all of a sudden bring in a UFO to steal the ball or tilt the pitch.

So, the best way to make sure competitive matches in a multiplayer football game is through the match making concept. And, as we talk about in another article, EA did in fact patent a new matchmaking concept – Engagement Optimized Matchmaking – on the very same date that they patented Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment.

Engagement Optimized Matchmaking, unlike Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment, would make every bit of sense in FIFA, and when you read the research paper on Engagement Optimized Matchmaking, it is quite likely that the empirical basis of said paper is simulations run on FIFA!

The lack of conceptual fit between Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment and multiplayer FIFA is however not the most important reason to reject the notion that Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment equals scripting:

  • Empirically speaking, we can reject the notion that matches are being leveled. We have tested this theory in multiple ways, and nothing indicates that matches are being made level in the way that they would if there was a match leveling mechanism like Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment.
  • Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment is an engagement optimization concept. It’s meant to cause less frustration and less boredom. If EA implemented and found that it nourished the kind of frustrations surrounding the scripting debate, it would make absolutely no sense to keep it in the game as it would be directly counter productive.
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