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!


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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Case Study: Research – London Underground


In this article I am going to do something a bit different; I am going to show you a sample of the sort of research that you should do when researching a level design idea. This will show the basic process I follow when i am planning a level. I will start with the idea, expand it and research the topic. Once I have some general research, I will begin researching some of the key details of the environment I am creating.

The Idea:

Taking inspiration from the disused station of the London underground, I am going to create a level based upon York road station, a London underground station from 1906 until 1932.

The player has found themselves stuck in the remains of the old station and must find a way out of the level, by exploring the station and eventually progressing to the next open station on the line; Caledonian Road. The level will be set at soon after closure and be in the estimated state and look the stations where in at the time.

York Road Basic Information:

The following information was found from the following reference: Jim E Connor, 2001. London’s Disused Underground Stations. Edition. Capital Transport Publishing

York Road Station circa 2010

York Road Station as it appears now.

  • Opened 15th of December 1906 by Great northern Piccadilly & Brompton Railway between Kings cross and Caledonian Stations.
  • A Street Level Building on the corner of York Road (now York Way) and Bingfield Street; Clad in ruby-red tiling, with raised lettering signs.
  • Booking hall was connected to the platforms by emergency stairs and a single 23ft lift shaft containing two electric lifts supplied by Otis Elevator Company, with a rise of 89.49ft. The Lifts descend directly to the platform level.
  • Westbound Platform length of 351.9 foot, with the east bound was 350ft exactly. Both platforms are constructed from concrete with a width of 10ft.
  • The Parallel tunnels had a diameter of 21ft 2.5 ins and where tiled white with patterns of red.
  • Ventilation by a fan.
  • The street level building occupied by ‘The Victor Printing company’ after closure until 1989.
  • Street level building featured arched windows, ornate metal light fixtures, metal shutters and striped tiles
  • Platforms featured tiled walls, wiring, standard underground signage, painted ‘York Road’ and a signal box at the Finsbury Park end.
York Road Station plan

The plans for York road station

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Level Layout Types


In this article I am going to tell you about some of the types of layouts you will see in level designs regularly and now they are used to benefit game play.

I am going to discuss different ‘Flow Types’ in level design so you can learn how to examine your own levels to see if you have made the correct decisions about how to control player movement.


A Linear flow model is the most commonly seen type of level flow model.

The Player starts at one end of the level, progress through a single linear route and finishes at the opposite end of the level. Along the route, the designer will have created specific interactions that the player is required to do, to continue progressing through the level, such as kill the enemies, unlock doors, solve puzzles and more.

Linear Game Glow Diagram

The Linear level design is often seen as a negative when the game is being reviewed, however linear level design does still have its place in the current generation of games; used correctly it can show some real strengths over other flow models.

Linear flow means that the designer will know where the player will be and where they will be coming from; This allows the designer to build a strong narrative and exciting set-pieces for the player to witness. Some games rely on the linear design to create very powerful, story driven game play. An few example of this would be the Call of duty games, Half life Series or SOCOM: US Navy Seals.


Bottlenecking flow model works very much like a linear level, however the designer can build multiple paths throughout the level, giving the player a few options as to which route they take. Each path will lead the player towards the end of the level, but each path gives the player different challenges and experiences.

At certain points in the level, where the player is required to complete an objective or action, the paths will converge into a linear path again. After the required action is completed, the path can split again.

This gives the player a feeling of choice and gives them an incentive to play through the level more than once to experience the different challenges of each path.

Bottleneck Game Glow Diagram

While this Flow model allows the player to feel like they have more choice, it is not without its drawbacks; if it is poorly designed, it can create a level which is confusing to players. The branches need to be a clear choice and you must make sure the player doesn’t get turned around and mistake a previous path as a new branch, otherwise they will end up returning to the start and getting annoyed with the confusing layout.

One choice is to make sure the entrances to the bottleneck area are one way; don’t allow the player to back track, but this can be irritating to players, if they left a health pick up in-case they needed it later.

A great example of bottleneck design is Deus Ex.

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