Planning the Difficulty

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Planning a game is always about the challenges and the difficulty of what you require the player to do. From the broad overall view of the entire game, down to individual sections of the levels, there will be a ‘difficulty curve’ that the player faces- and it will be obvious to them when the difficulty curve is wrong.
As a game or level designer, it would be easy to get the difficulty curve wrong as it is a very fine line you are trying to tread; not so difficult that the player will be frustrated, but not so easy that the player will breeze through the game.
You are trying to find the sweet spot that challenges the player just enough, but does not feel to daunting or impossible.
When a game is incredibly easy, how much fun is it? play a game with cheats on, or on the super easy difficulty and you will find that, while its fun at first, it will quickly become dull and repetitive. Now try a game on the hardest possible setting. How much fun is it now? you will likely find the game frustration and quickly feel like the game is unfairly balanced against you. This is why you need to get the right level of challenge.
The difficulty of each part of a game is a culmination of numerous different factors:

  1. How far in the level the player is.
  2. How far through the game the level is.
  3. the objective the player faces.
  4. The flow of the game.

Obviously, the further into a game the more challenging it must become to remain a challenge as the player will be getting better at the game as they progress; even down to how far they progress in a level; each level should have its own difficulty curve that builds the difficulty the further a player gets.

The flow of the game will also effect the difficulty as some section will be designed to be more hectic or challenging to make the game flow differently (More on game flow later).

With these different aspects to difficulty you are probally able to see that, as hard as you try, the difficulty curve of a game will never be a perfect curve. Every game will have peak and dips in the difficulty; This is even down to each players skill and ability.


Any game has parts that feel more difficult than others. The changes in difficulty are what give a game a bit of variety and keep a player interested.

In older games these peak where normally found with boss battles and very clear dangers; but in more modern games the difficulty peaks can happen anywhere and at any time.

Look at games such as modern warfare; a level can be relatively simple, but you’ll suddenly be thrust into a situation where you are surrounded, or where the enemies have a distinct advantage over you.

Its this change in the difficulty curve that adds a level of interest to the game flow; but you must be aware not to make these peaks to huge as the player needs to still feel like they have a chance of beating it.


After a difficulty peak, there needs to be a drop in difficulty; allow the player to recover from the battle, regroup and pick-up some items they may have lost during the battle.

The player needs to have breaks from the difficult combat. A game without these breaks would be very tiring for the player and they would quickly get bored of the game constantly feeling difficult. You need to give the players some rest periods; even more so if your game is going to feature ‘recharging health’ like halo or gears of war. If the player can’t be left alone for long enough for their health to recharge, then the whole health system will be broken.

Non-action difficulty:

So your game is not an action game full of guns and explosions? well you still need to consider the difficulty curve of your game.

Think about a game as far away as you can from an action FPS game; As an example, lets say Puzzle agent. This is a puzzle game where the player needs to solve different puzzles to progress through the story.

when you start the game, the initial puzzles are remarkably simple, but as you move through the game they get progressively hard, with a few really challenging ones placed throughout to really streach you. This is the exact same sort of difficulty curve you would get in your normal FPS action game, but it works just as well in a puzzle game.

Next time:

In part 2 we will look at more difficult scenario’s such as difficulty curves when developing a game sequel.


New project

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Hi everybody!

I’m sure you where beginning to wonder if this site has had a sudden death.


Basically, i began this site as a project while i was unemployed and looking for work. I recently found a job (Yay!) but that has limited my free time to post on this blog.

But fear not my friends! I am going to continue posting and writing on this site. I am currently aiming to post a new update this weekend – ideally Saturday AM, so look out for it!


In other news i have begun another new project (I like spreading myself as thinly as possible!).

I am going to develop a new game concept i have been thinking about for the past 3 weeks as a full game. not a mod. not a map. a full game!

I am planning to make use of the UDK to create a full 3D 2D side scrolling shooter game. (wow, so original!) but i have some pretty nice concepts in mind and am hoping i can make it something a little different to the standard side scrolling shooter games out there.

I will not go into much detail, but expect to see many tutorials and blog posts inspired by my new game project!

Cheers everybody!


Source SDK basics

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I covered the process you need to go through to access the unreal engine editor in my post ‘UE3: Your first level’

In this Tutorial I am going to show you how to access the editor for Valve’s Source engine, for games such as Portal, Left 4 dead and Half Life 2; The editor is a set of tools called ‘Source SDK’


As you are using a copy of one of valves games, it will not surprise you that you can access the source SDK via the steam window.

Open up you steam games list. (Games > View Game library)

This is where steam will list all the games associated with your steam account – installed ones in white, non-installed games in Gray.

At the top of the list you should see a search bar and a drop down menu. In the drop down menu, select ‘Tools’ to show a list of tools available to you.

This is where you are able to install the SDK’s and editors for a range of games available on steam – only useful if you have the game in question!

We are looking for the Source SDK.

Currently you will see a few available ‘Source SDK’ options. Just choose ‘Source SDK Base’ Double-click or right-click and choose Install.

Steam will then begin to download and install the program for you.


If you can’t see any ‘Source SDK’s’ in Tools – If this is the case then steam doesn’t think you have any Source engine games. Re-install your source engine games and try again.


Once the SDK is downloaded run it like you would with any game or tool from steam > double click or right click and choose play game…

This will bring up the Source SDK.

If a full screen application starts, with a menu like in half life 2, portal etc… you are running one of the updated SDK base’s which is just a stress tester.

The source SDK will look like the following image:

Source SDK window

Source SDK window

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Directing the Player (Part 1)


In this article I am going to lead straight on from player flow models, to looking at how exactly you can subconsciously inform a player where to go / what to do. As I discussed in the Level layout types post, a level may end up with branching paths and this can become confusing for the player, causing them to back track through the level. With the techniques I am now going to discuss, you can avoid this, by directing the player subconciously.

One of the vital tactics that Level designers must master is how to direct the players eye; This is very important for single player campaigns or any sort of level with big set-pieces. What is the point in spending a long time developing a big set-piece if the player won’t see it? and how frustrating is it if your playing a game, and you hear the end of a set-pieces and turn around just in time to see it finish?

‘Leading’ the player is using design features to attract the players attention, and draw their attention in a specific direction.

Movement leading the players eye:

One of the most effective techniques is to use movement to attract the players attention. The Human eye is very effective at noticing small movements, and using these small movements you can direct the player to look in a specific direction.

Players are used to looking out for movement in a level as it typically will be an enemy or something important.

A good example of this would be the Half Life 2 games, specifically Half life 2: Episode 2; Near the beginning of the game. Once the player has escaped the Mines,the designers wanted you to catch glimpses of the ‘Hunters’ which are miniature Strider’s, which become a major threat throughout the game. (See foreshadowing)

As the player is entering the new area, the is a Hunter perched on a rooftop across the yard from you, but it would still be easy to miss this peek at the enemy. To draw your attention the designers added a small flock of crows, to fly up as you approach. While this is not a flawless techniques, most players attention would be drawn to the movement and they would follow the birds movement, leading their eye directly to the hunter, which quickly disappears out of sight.

Half life 2 episode 2 screen capture

Birds movement guiding the players eye in Half life 2 episode 2
Image source

This set-piece not only alerts you to the enemy, it also foreshadows coming events, makes the following scene tense and, in a way, quite scary.

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UE3 Custom Static Meshes


In a slight change to plan I am going to move the subject of player direction to tomorrow, and today I am going to be giving another tutorial in Unreal Engine 3; Namely how to Export a 3D model from 3Ds max and import it into a Unreal Engine 3 game.

Again I am going to be using Unreal Tournament 3 as my UE3 engine game, but this process is mostly the same for all UE3 games.

3Ds Max:

I will go over some basic tips of 3D modelling in 3Ds max at a later date; In this tutorial we are simply going to export our model from the program. For this we need a model.

I have built a Box and used the UVW mapping tools to create a layout for my texture, creating this:

3D Model

Its not especially pretty, but it will let us go through the procedure and check that it all works and the mesh saves the material co-ordinates.

I now have a 3D model and a .TGA image file which i have built as a texture for the model.


With the box selected, go to File > Export > Export Selected (in newer versions of 3Ds MAx the ‘File’ menu is now accessed by clicking the Max logo in the top left corner of the screen).

Choose a file name, select to save the file in ASCII Scene Export(.ASE) format and save the file somewhere on your hard drive; Once you click save you will get the following dialogue box appear:

ASCII Scene export dialogue box

The ASCII Scene Export dialogue box

This step is the most likely point to make a mistake; you need to be sure you are exporting all the correct information to your new .ASE file; duplicate the settings in the image above if you are unsure.

Important Note: Make sure you have ‘Mapping co-ordinates’ ticked in Mesh options. Without this selected, your mesh will loose all its texture data and you will be unable to apply a material correctly to it once you have it in Unreal Engine 3!

Once you have the settings sorted out, click ok. Max has now exported your 3D model into a file that Unreal Engine 3 can understand. The next step is to import the model into the game.

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