The difficulty of difficulty 4

If there’s one thing that I take pride in when I offer humble slices of gaming pie to oh-so-hungry colleagues, it’s my ability to carefully consider the difficulty level. Whether I’m making a run-and-jump platformer or a purely cerebral puzzle game, I always live by the same basic mantra: give the player a helping hand.

The average gamer is not a very patient individual. In this day and age, players are spoilt for choice and don’t tend to “work at games” in the same way that they used to. If, after 30 seconds of playing, your audience is confronted with a big fat “FAIL” sign because they fell into the dastardly Spike Pit of Doom™ halfway through your tutorial level, chances are that they’re going to move on and not look back. Yes, you can call them petty. Or lame. Or heathens, even. But that doesn’t change the fact that you just lost yourself a potential fan.

There are plenty of “deeper” players out there who will look beyond the first two minutes of a title and persevere, but if you want to garner yourself a wider audience in an arena where every player counts, it would probably be a good idea to read up on these oh-so-easy rules:

Rule Number One

You are, without fail, the best at your own games. Sure, your baby brother may kick your ass at Street Fighter, and your grandmother may have an understanding of Counter-Strike that you just can’t quite grasp (hey, mine does). But when it comes to something that’s crafted from your own blood, sweat, and tears, you’re guaranteed to be a freaking fully-accredited grand master.

Not only do you know every rule, trick and special hotkey combo in your game, but you’ve designed it with a built-in ability to be beaten by you. Have you ever made a level which you couldn’t test properly because you couldn’t even get halfway through it? Unless you’re one of those twits who doesn’t check their own stuff before releasing it, I’d hazard your answer to be “no”.

But while you may inherently know that the Horrible Floobigub Beast of Naxxor Vuu has a particular hatred of fire-based spells, your player does not. And unless they put in the hours to get better, your audience is always going to be miles crappier at your game than you could ever fathom. Plan accordingly. Better yet, get people to play your game, and watch them play it. Look out for the places where they stumble and consider adjusting the experience if they get stuck for too long.

Another method of judging difficulty is playing through the game with a handicap. Try going through your action platformer without using any powerups, or using only basic combos. If you can’t ace your game while blindfolded and hopping on one foot, chances are that new players are going to struggle even with the full arsenal that you’ve offered them.

I’m not exaggerating, and I’ve personally fallen prey to this more times than I care to mention. Last year, I built a Flash prototype for a local competition that required entrants to make concept games for cellphones. Players were meant to use a combination of keys on the numpad to attract spaceships with gravity, navigating them past various obstacles towards the level exit.

When it came to the judging process, it turned out that my game was actually way too difficult. This news came to me as a considerable surprise – especially since I’d tested it while running at twice the speed using only a touchpad mouse!

Put yourself in the player’s shoes. What concepts are they going to understand easily? Has your game suitably encouraged them to use those Grenades of Doom pickups? Or are they going to plough ahead without them, and will they still be able to finish the game anyway?

Rule Number Two

Play nice, and give your player the information they deserve. A few games out there are enhanced by their mystery and the need for players to discover core concepts by themselves. Most of them aren’t.

I can’t count the number of occasions where I’ve come across a new prototype that was literally impossible to decipher. Short of smashing every square inch of the keyboard in a less-than gracious trial and error attempt, the option simply didn’t exist for me to play them properly. Even if they humbly presented a help panel for basic controls on their title screen, other aspects of their gameplay caught me completely off-guard: how was I expected to do a triple-backflip sprintjump onto the back of a moving vehicle while blazing away at enemies if I still wasn’t comfortable with hopping onto a stationary block in the middle of an empty room?

Again, play nice. You don’t have to introduce all of your most lethal traps in the first level. Rather stagger your game elements: introduce players to new ideas one at a time. It’s generally accepted that the average gamer only has the capacity on one, sometimes two, new game concepts at any given moment – and that isn’t an insult, that’s just how we work!

If you’re fair enough to give the player enough time to adapt to individual concepts, then you can freely combine multiple ideas later on to create greater challenges. And those are the sort of things that you can leave for the player to figure out.

On the flipside…

Remember that while making a game too difficult is possibly one of the quickest ways to drive players away, making it too easy also has its drawbacks. In general, people play games for the challenge that they offer: squish these goombas, kick those turtles and fight your way to victory against the final boss. Bam! Gamer satisfaction.

Players making their way through wave after wave of enemies without taking a scratch, on the other hand, will invariably start raising their eyebrows. Eventually, the tedium will urge them to put down their controllers.

Even if you plan on following the advice of Rule Number Two by making your game steadily more difficult as it progresses, beware of “Slow Tutorial Syndrome”. Players who spend too much time learning how to pick their own nose while moving Block A to Point B are going to get bored long before you ever introduce them to your ultra-cool room of fiendish wonders.

It takes some skill and a surprising amount of thought to get a properly-paced tutorial into your game. Always do your best to balance the introduction of new concepts with the necessity to move forward, and weigh this up against the game’s complexity. Scattering tutorials throughout your game instead of cramming everything into the beginning sometimes solves this problem.

Finally, don’t forget that your games can be struck down by critics for being both too easy and too difficult at the same time. This sounds like an impressive level of failure to achieve, but it can bite you when you least expect it: at one point, a “whodunnit” game of mine was reviewed on IndieGames and lambasted for a ridiculously trivial “Easy” setting and an impossibly difficult “Hard”.

I sulked for a good while after that (I’d made that bugger in 24 hours, after all) but the lesson stayed with me: stick to one difficulty level and refine it. Multiple difficulties may sound like an elegant workaround at first, but you’ll need to keep tabs on every single setting that you create. It’s more work for you, and a potentially weaker experience for your players.

That, and it will probably earn you a crappy IndieGames review.

Notable exceptions to all this stuff

While this advice is generally good for the average dev to follow, it is possible for you to start bending – and even breaking – the rules once you’ve gained a little more experience.

Take Trilby: The Art of Theft, for example. Art of Theft is a pretty damn difficult game. Two out of every three people I have ever approached on the matter have dropped it before playing past the first stage, and yet it’s still sitting pretty as one of the best freeware indie games of 2007. Why? Well, players who perservered soon discovered why it had to be so difficult, and once they got used to the controls and ideas behind the game they were treated to an incredibly satisfying cat-burgling experience.

Spelunky is another good example. I reviewed this game a short while back and noted that while it was rather difficult at first (the tutorial alone managing to kill me twice – oh the shame!), dedicated players soon learned to take this in stride and found themselves diving into an incredibly deep game.

In the end, the question of what makes a good difficulty for games is always subjective. Some people like easier titles. Others have a masochistic streak. You may want to steer towards one or the other and even totally ignore most of the points I’ve mentioned here. That’s your prerogative.

But if you haven’t yet tried to dev by the rules outlined in this piece, I suggest you at least give them a shot. The best way to know when to break rules is to learn them first, and even then it can never hurt to give the matter of difficulty a little thought. It’s easy once you try.

About Nandrew

Rodain Joubert is a South African game developer based in Cape Town, currently working for QCF Design. He likes his job. He likes being opinionated on the Internet. He likes fighting evil with his heat ray vision. And he also likes cats. [Articles]

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