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.

Peaks:

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.

Valleys:

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.

 


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