Why Discuss Difficulty
By the time a developer is nearly done with their game, they have played it thousands, perhaps tends of thousands, of times, and have practiced its controls and puzzles since they first took shape. What’s an appropriate level of challenge to a new player may be boring to the game’s designer, and what entertains the designer is going to be ridiculously hard to a newcomer. In making the game the appropriate difficulty, though, it is important to ensure that attention isn’t just given to it’s degree of difficulty, but that the right types of difficulty are adjusted.
If the source of newcomer difficulty isn’t properly identified before being addressed, no amount of variable tuning will compensate for it, but attempting to address it the wrong way will introduce other problems to the game’s entertainment value.
Types of Difficulty?
Although this entry is focused on the ways that a game can accidentally be the wrong type of difficult, it’s helpful to distinguish between a few intended types of difficulty to free up thinking about sources of challenge-
Myst is a hard game.
Street Fighter II is a hard game.
Final Fantasy is a hard game.
Anyone familiar with those franchises recognizes that those are three very different statements. Roughly:
In most cases, Myst makes it easy to do what you’re trying to do, but hard to figure out what to do.
Street Fighter II makes it easy to figure out what you’re trying to do, but hard to do it.
Final Fantasy is time consuming, and how easy it is to do what you’re trying to do is a function of how much time you’re willing to spend leveling up.
The Importance of Hard Games
Before we delve into the different ways that videogames can be “hard”, it’s worth spending a minute clarifying why it’s desirable to keep a videogame “hard” in any sense. In making the videogame easier, it’s important to not overshoot that goal.
The movement that led to major publications writing at an 8th grade reading level has been spreading into the videogame industry. The argument, which makes sense at face value, is that content is made to reach people, and when a few adjustments can make it accessible to older people, younger people, less patient people, and busier people, both the developers and players benefit.
The problem, if I may use hyperbole, is that fundamentally different things happen in the kiddie pool than in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
My concern is that whereas hard videogames can train a person to hone their ability to apply strategy, determination, practice, patience, cooperation, and properly dealing with frustration, an easy game teaches someone that success is merely a matter of sticking around long enough. (I went more into this point a few months ago about the value hidden in videogames.)
Un-tunable Difficulty Sources
And now, we’ll look at some of the various ways that a game can be hard that aren’t particularly fair. Most of these sources of difficulty cannot be addressed by adjusting hit points, power, or speed. A fix likely requires rethinking and redesign. The extremes of the sources of difficulty identified above – too unclear what to do, too difficult to perform important moves, or too much time repetitive required to make the game winnable – will be skipped in the list that follows, for having already been mentioned.
Testing without Teaching Schools don’t test material before teaching it first. Doing this frustrates and infuriates people. And unlike school material, there’s no chance that someone knows the nuances of how your videogame works until you’ve communicated it to them. Ideally it’s helpful to think about game mechanics being introduced in the order of Introduction, Study Opportunity, then Test/Challenge. But at the very least, that introductory teaching is essential before expecting someone to excel at it.
Expecting Mind-Reading If something looks like it should have multiple solutions, but the puzzle or battle is contrived such that it can only be completed as the designer intended, the game is setting up the player for getting mad and saying “that should have worked.” The appearance of multiple solutions should translate to multiple solutions, or affordances should be carefully rethought to steer the user toward the intended solution.
Victory Relies on Unexplained Emergent Behavior Most games with even moderately complex input offer some unintended combinations to jump a bit higher, run a bit faster, move puzzle pieces while others are falling into place, etc. In Doom and Goldeneye 007, it’s possible to run ~40% faster by strafing while running forward – the velocity vectors get added together. These and other subtle time/health saving tricks will seem just as natural to the designers as the core interactions after so many hours of practice, but need to be introduced explicitly to the player if they’re required for success.
Snags in Unexpectedly Steep Difficulty Ramps Assuming your game isn’t the first time a person has played a videogame, they will likely be cruising along undefeated for awhile before their first setback. If it takes too many replays to cross that first hurdle, your game is going back on the shelf, probably forever. A player in this situation, going from no replays to replaying the same section many times without progress, is more likely to blame the game’s makers for unreasonable tuning or inadequate instruction rather than think it’s from an issue with their own ability.
Poor Affordance Affordance is a design word referring to how something’s shape, structure, or style suggests its proper usage to a user. A handle affords pulling, a dial affords turning, a button affords pushing, and a spiky floor affords not-touching-or-you’ll-die. The classic example of proper affordance in videogames are the weakpoints on bosses – glowing red areas or otherwise particularly vulnerable areas (brains, eyeballs) that were where the boss needed to be attacked.
Poorly designed affordance becomes an issue in videogames when the character in the crowd that the player can speak to doesn’t “pop” visually in the scene (may be a matter of layout), if it’s difficult to tell a door you can open from a door that you can’t until you try (leaving handles off doors that can’t be opened), or the player can’t able to identify where a wall is fragile enough to be destroyed (hinted by cracks, rubble, significant discoloration).
Insight Puzzles An insight puzzle is a challenge that doesn’t provide feedback for near success, such that getting it right involves a non-trivial shift in thinking, a leap between the data provided and the solution. In everyday life these come up in riddles, in school they come up in advanced proofs. In a videogame they take the form of needing to realize that the mirror isn’t really a mirror but a window, that badguys can be thrown onto spikes and used safely as a bridge, or that arrows will become fire arrows when shot through a torch.
Where possible, proper affordance (see previous item) like a giant ice target being near the torch, or a subtle hint, like letting the player witness a badguy walking harmlessly across spikes, can make the difference between the player feeling clever by getting it right and thinking it’s their idea, or the player getting stuck.
What is Fair?
At the end of the day, the videogame is being made for game players, and it will be played without explanation or demonstration.
Consequently, the best way to check for fairness is to sit down a few testers, separately, that haven’t worked on the game, and haven’t seen it played by anyone. If they can beat the part in question with a little practice and no outside explanation or hints, it’s probably fair.
If they can’t, then investigate whether it might be one of the above sources of difficulty; if it’s definitely not related to those, consider retuning some of the variables involved. Then find a fresh batch of testers – like bulls with bullfighting experience, they’re dangerous if reused.
Special Note About Starting Difficulty
There’s an old rule from the early days of Atari that it’s impossible to make your first level too easy or too short. By sheer virtue of the player’s mind catching up to the new setting, new controls, new characters, new dynamics, and new audio, the newcomer’s brain is overloaded and challenged even without difficulty added into the gameplay. They temporarily overlook the overload, searching for an answer to whether this investment of their time will pay off. Meanwhile, getting them out of that short, easy, dumbed down setting into real gameplay fast is critical to not losing the player’s attention by creating the impression that the game’s activity is too shallow.
It’s easy to lose the player by overwhelming them with a performance test given too soon. This can scare first timers into believing they can’t handle the game’s difficulty.
It’s easy to lose the player by boring them by ignoring the core gameplay for too long. This can lose first timers from a sense that the game isn’t very compelling.
Meanwhile, the immediate reward of progress serves as an appetizer into the game’s main course.
It’s impossible to make your first level too easy or too short.
(Originally posted as GameDevLessons.com Vol. 6 Sec. 3)
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