I have a game with 4 difficulty levels (or levels of AI) and I'm wondering what to name them instead of the boring Easy, Normal, Hard, Impossible.
Naming is one of those things that people can spend a lot of time tossing around. A little comedic value always makes it more memorable - for instance, the difficulty levels from Rise of the Triad were more descriptive phrases that gave it a little more character.
Sean's advice is spot on too - theme them after something related to your game. Here are some examples:
Street racing game using import tuner-type cars:
- I use auto-only
- Where's third gear?
- There is no speed limit
- The Flash eats my dust
The intended audience is probably the type of kid who likes cars but can't drive yet, so a little attitude to goad (I mean, encourage) them wouldn't be out of line.
Puzzle game using blocks:
- First time on the block
- Blocks are my friends
Here I use some fairly simple tie-ins with the puzzle type and the descriptions.
A simple way to have the user correlate difficulty with the size of the animal. Much more memorable than "easy" etc. You could sneak in an unlockable "There is no cow level" if you feel snarky enough. This goes back to one-word descriptions too, if you're sticking to that limit.
Side-scrolling platformer with very wacky theme
- Magic fairy
I'm thinking of something like Earthworm Jim, although I don't think there were more than 2 difficulty levels and I don't remember if they had names either, but this is with that in mind. In this one, my idea was to be completely nonsensical, and try to use names for which there ARE NO correlations to difficulty. The desired affect is to make it more memorable by being silly, and if the players talk to each other, they know immediately what they're referring to which makes it an inside joke and thus more memorable.
Anyway, from these examples hopefully you get idea how to approach it. If you're really stuck, grab a thesaurus and find synonyms for "easy", etc. At least it would be different. =)
I'd say match it to the way you want your game to be perceived. If you want it to come off as a casual game, name them something like casual, normal, tough, hard, etc. If you want the game to come across tougher, name it like gears of war--casual, normal, insane, etc. It's really up to you. Keep in mind that how you name your difficulties will also somewhat affect how the player feels after finishing them. It's much more rewarding to complete "insane" than "hard".
I would avoid "Easy" as that has a negative connotation, and some people who really should choose that setting will avoid it because they don't want to think of themselves as poorly skilled. (Mega Man 2 named its difficulty levels "Normal/Difficult" instead of "Easy/Normal" for that reason.)
Themed level names (as others have mentioned) work in some game contexts, typically when you're working in an established genre where you expect players to be familiar with conventions like difficulty levels. This can backfire if you're not careful; for example, I could never remember which one was easier in Viewtiful Joe's "Child/Adult" difficulties (is Adult harder because adults are older and more skilled, or is Child harder because children always seem to kick their parents' butts at video games?).
I think it's been mentioned several times, but theme it around your game. It could be all nice and inventive to have 'Dumb, Normal, Smart, Genius' but not so great for a racing game.
If you want to go generic, try using a thesaurus to find symonyms:
Casual, Easy, Basic, Child's Play, Simple, Pushover.
Normal, Fair, Medium, Mediocre, Passable.
Hard, Difficult, Tough, Challenging, Not-So-Easy.
Insane, Very Hard, Very Difficult, Impossible, Extreme.