如果游戏要求玩家拥有不可思议的特技，让他们去做超出自己能力范围的事情，那就不好玩了。旧版《Ghosts and Goblins》就属于这方面的典型，这款游戏对玩家技能要求甚高，除了高端的硬核群体之外，它无法取悦任何玩家。
篇目1，The Difficulty of Difficulty
by Dylan Woodbury
Difficulty in games is a very confusing topic. All designers must know how difficult they want their game to be before the design process even begins. It decides what kind of audience you are shooting for. Casual vs Hardcore.
There is a major misconception that in order to please the most hardcore, the difficulty needs to be raised, shutting out a large part of the market. The alternative to this would be to make the game so easy that anyone can beat it. In fact, companies have been cheating lately. In Super Mario Galaxy 2, Nintendo allowed the player to skip over challenges the player deemed to difficult. NO! Bad designer.
Cheating is the enemy of gaming. Allowing the player to cheat is the designers not doing their job. In school, some teachers are always “curving” test scores, getting rid of problems that most students missed (pretty much extra credit). This “curve” is the teacher acknowledging that the teaching was not good enough, and that the students should not be held accountable for it. If they are required to use these skills that haven’t counted, that they have not correctly learned, they are going to fail. In a video game, being able to skip challenges, which are designed to test your skills while teach/train your skills, leads to you missing out on important concepts and such, not to mention the terrible feeling the player has inside.
The same goes for online walkthroughs – they ruin the satisfaction that the player is supposed tofeel. Many skills are learned by trial and error, and the player may miss out on important things by just reading the solution to the challenge online. Although this is a very big pitfall of video game design, it is a very important signal.
If a player absolutely cannot solve the challenge, to the point where they give up or look it up online, it is a signal that there is a gap in the learning curve. Something is not clicking, and the player is not able to draw on a skill or piece of knowledge that is required of him/her. How do we solve this? More challenges.
Example: In Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, there was a small challenge that gave me trouble. Goal: get to floor below ground. Obstacle: the two holes one can use to get to bottom floor are covered in spider webs, making them impossible to go through. I tried everything I could think of – shooting my boomerang, arrows, and slingshot at the web. I tried shooting my boomerang from the torch on the wall to the web, hoping to burn it. I tried rolling onto the web, hoping my weight would break apart the web. Nothing worked.
I didn’t want to do this, but I eventually had to – I looked at the walkthrough online. I am ashamed to say it, but there is a point where you become so frustrated with a challenge, that cheating is the only thing that can keep you engrossed in the game, as not doing so would lead to you not being able to play it anymore. The solution: pull out your lantern and roll onto the web – the fire will break open the web.
For some reason then, I was frustrated with this solution. I did not understand why at the time, but I think I do now. In the game, they taught you that swinging your lantern (by shaking the remote) infront of a web in your way will break it. There were enough challenges here and there for the player to remember this throughout the game. In the entire portion of the game before this challenge, the player was never required to roll to solve a challenge, nor was the player required to use a lantern in a way besides shaking the remote in front of a web.
So some people may have figured out, maybe right away, but there was not enough training beforehand to make that challenge reasonable for many. How could they have solved this? How about a couple challenges prior to this one that require rolling to complete the challenge. This doesn’t make the answer obvious, but it doesn’t take much away from the player who found the solution and felt awesome afterwards. It simply gives the player the complete skills they need to figure out the solution – it may be to much to ask from the player, figuring out both new skills and how you can use them to solve a new problem.
Much of these problems are found by just testing. Designers should find out which challenges are too difficult or broken, why they were too difficult (to the point where the player gave up, now completely unabsorbed, or looked up the answer, hurting his/her experience in the long run), and how to help this by training the player better beforehand.
Challenge’s difficulty should arise from their problem solving, pattern recognition, and lateral thinking (amond others), with a given set of skills and tools to work with. Challenges should not arise from solving a problem with a skill that has not been well established yet (Twilight Princess example). Challenges should also not require the player to use a skill that has not been used in quite a while (people are forgetful).
An example of this is seen in Half Life 2: Episode 2. Near the end, at Black Forest, the player was thrown into areas that required him/her to make use of the steam valves, which had not been utilized in quite a while. The designers through in a mini challenge before the real action started, requiring the player to get from one side of a pipe shooting out steam to the other. One cannot get through the steam, so the player would see the big red wheel, interact with it, and what do you know, the steam is shut off. Suddenly, the player has learned a lot about a certain skill, recalling from memory. Instead of the player having to figure out the corrollation between the wheel and steam and such during the heat of battle, he/she is taught it beforehand, makingfor a more pleasurable, and rewarding, challenge.
This example shows my point well, and leads me to another important point. Challenges should either be about solving a challenge or learning a new skill (with a very easy challenge, like the Half Life 2 example) – not both… usually. When a player is given a challenge, he/she is going to try to solve it, and usually, he/she will not figure out a new skill (a new use of a tool/asset), as he/she expects to be able to solve the challenge using only what he/she knows already – it is the way our brains work. A player could learn a skill if it is obvious (like turning the wheel to stop the steam), and these type of challenges tend to be very rewarding. These kind of challenges require the most testing (be prepared to change or throw them out).
Now to finish my point – difficulty should not include only button mashing, quick timing, etc. The difficulty is reliant on using skills to complete challenges, with the occasional new skill introduced to open up new kinds of challenges. When you get a new tool in Zelda, you are given a VERY basic challenge to learn the basics of that skill. When given the hookshot, you are in a small room, and must shoot the hookshot at the red dot to get out of the room. Just like that, the player knows a new skill, and many challenges that require this skill can be thrown at him/her.
The relative difficulty of the game, surprising to some, should remain about the same throughout the game (it does not get 10X harder – in may even be harder in the beginning). As you play through a well designed game, you get better and better at the skills it quizzes you on. You tackle new skills constantly, always improving on old concepts for new ways to tackle solutions. The absolute difficulty of a challenge at the end of the game is very hard – a brand new player would have a extremely (it is almost impossible) hard time with it. But, if the relative difficulty is about the same – a player playing the game all the way through that point will have about as hard of a time as he/she did solving a challenge from way back to level 3.
Designing a game’s series of challenges is very difficult – each challenge needs to reinforce skills, open the player’s mind to using skills in new ways, teach the player to combine certain skills, or learn entire new skills. The skills/knowledge a challenge requires must be well taught through previous challenges – the difficulty lies in using these tools (whether you use them in a different way, or in a more difficult way).
The level of difficulty can be suitable to both the casual and hardcore audience, and still be wildly fun for both, if the learning curve and individual challenges are not broken.
篇目2，Examining Subjective Difficulty: How Plumbers Can Fight Demons
by Josh Bycer
In my previous article on Darwinian Difficulty, there was a brief look, relating to Demon’s Souls, at the concept of Subjective Difficulty. However, the concept of Subjective Difficulty is not restricted to brutally hard titles, and one of the most famous and accessible franchises of all time has been an example of this since 1996.
Before we continue, it’s important to define two terms for the sake of this article:
Subjective Difficulty. Designing a challenge so that its severity is based on the player’s skill level.
Safety Net. The degree to which the player can mess up and still succeed at the specific challenge.
Technically, we can argue that any challenge in a game is subjective by skill; someone who is a grand master at Street Fighter is not going to have the same problems with arcade mode as a player that has never touched a fighting game before. The key component in Subjective Difficulty, however, is that specific challenges are designed for different skill levels at the same time.
To achieve this, the player must have access to all (or most) of the available mechanics from the get-go. In order to design levels that allow different levels of skill to work, the player must have the option to use all the mechanics. If the levels are only designed around using one or two of the available mechanics, then it’s not Subjective Difficulty, as both the novice and expert players are limited to the exact same thing.
With that said, there are a few considerations to understand about Subjective Difficulty. First is that unlocking mechanics as a form of progression is not considered Subjective
Difficulty. If you have ever played a Metroid game, or the latest 2D Castlevania titles, there are always paths or sections along the main route that are blocked or inaccessible. As the player explores the game, they’ll fight a boss or find a power-up that unlocks a new mechanic that can be used to enter the previously inaccessible area.
The point of contention is that it’s not the player’s fault that the area could not be reached, but the designer limiting the mechanics available. An expert player in Castlevania, no matter how good they are, will take the same path through the game as someone who is brand new.
Second is that the traditional use of difficulty levels is also not an example of Subjective Difficulty. Going back to the concept of the safety net, when the only difference between
difficulty levels is stat-based (i.e., on “easy”, enemies do less damage, but on “hard”, enemies do more damage) then all the designer is doing is raising or lower the safety net based on the difficulty setting.
Subjective Difficulty Levels: God Hand
However, that doesn’t mean that difficulty levels aren’t a factor. God Hand for the PlayStation 2 has two forms of difficulty. At the start of the game, the player chooses a difficult level; this in turn affects the second layer. During play, at all times a meter in the bottom left of the screen displays the current difficulty level.
The difficulty of the game can fluctuate between Level 0 and Level Die (or 6) based on the player’s performance. Taking significant damage or dying will lower the meter, which will drop the level down. The more the player avoids damage while continuing to make progress, the higher the level will rise.
The level of difficulty affects two things. First, it affects how aggressive the AI is. The lower the number, the less likely enemies will counterattack, attack in groups, or use their stronger attacks with the opposite more frequent at higher levels. The second detail is that at the higher levels (specifically Level Die) more (and more difficult) enemies will show up in the levels, forcing the player to adapt. Going back to the initial difficulty level at the start, the only things it determines is the starting level of the meter and how high it can go.
Playing God Hand, the game attempts to match the player’s skill level by raising or lowering the difficulty. Both a novice player and a skilled player are going to take the same path through the level, but what a novice player will be facing will be different compared to someone who is consistently performing well.
Another form of Subjective Difficulty is providing different variations of the same challenge. Games like Tony Hawk’s Project 8 or Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts each feature challenges with basic, advanced and expert goals.
Every challenge in the games has a bare minimum to complete to get a bronze medal, which is the easiest way to finish it. There are also more difficult ways to attempt challenges, which could earn players a silver or gold medal. For example: in Project 8, completing a race while placing at least 5th would be a bronze award, placing 2nd gives silver, and placing 1st while finishing the race in under 2 minutes awards gold.
These harder considerations are always available to the player to try if they want and be awarded accordingly, but getting the bronze (or silver) award is good enough to check that challenge off as being “completed”.
This system is also popular in many smartphone games. A variation on it in the popular Cut the Rope finds players striving to capture three stars in each level — which are not essential for completion, but are necessary for completists.
The Mario franchise has been going strong since the NES era. When the series transitioned to 3D with 1996′s Super Mario 64, the game design changed profoundly. Before, every level was completely linear in its approach and mechanics; with the move to 3D, nonlinearity was introduced in the form of open levels.
The Super Mario Galaxy series and Demon’s Souls are two sides of the same coin.
Obviously, that statement needs to be clarified. Both games give the player access to all of the core abilities of the character from the start of the game. In Mario, the plumber’s abilities are movement-based (running, jumping) and his spin attack.
In Demon’s Souls, the abilities and mechanics revolve around combat: attack, defense, managing stamina, and counterattacks. (It’s worth noting that the player will unlock power-ups in the Super Mario Galaxy games, but these are usually confined to specific levels or gameplay scenarios.)
Now, the deviating point between the two series — and why Mario is a better example of Subjective Difficulty than Demon’s Souls — has to do with the level design. In Demon’s Souls, the player has access to all the available mechanics from the start and from the first stage is tested on all of them. In Mario Galaxy, the player has all the available mechanics and is not tested on all of them, but can use them if necessary.
Referring back to the concept of Darwinian Difficulty, the player is introduced from the very beginning of the game to all (or at least most) of the mechanics and is then tasked with using them effectively. Here is the difficulty chart from the previous article, as a point of reference:
In both types of games, the player has all of the gameplay tools from the outset. In a game with Darwinian Difficulty, the player is asked to use them all; in a game with Subjective Difficulty, the player may or may not use them at any time during the game and still play effectively. The difference between the two allows different skill levels to experience the same content, but handle it in different ways based on their expertise.
The first level in Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a perfect example of level design built around Subjective Difficulty. About halfway through the level, Mario has to use ascending and descending platforms to climb up a hill. Expert players can use a combination of Mario’s triple jump and wall jump to get up the hill in a fraction of the time a novice might take.
There’s another example near the end of the level. The player is tasked with maneuvering over bottomless pits by traversing moving platforms. A novice player can get through this entire area using nothing but Mario’s basic jumping ability, and be tested with this design. However, an expert player can simply bypass the entire area by performing a long jump across the pits.
Both the novice and expert player have the same challenge, but handle it differently based on their skill levels. Unless the novice player has read the manual or played Super Mario Galaxy, at that point they probably have no idea how to perform a long jump, and that’s perfectly fine. The first mention and test of using the long jump ability comes later on, at the same time Mario gets the cloud power-up. The in-game introduction to each of Mario’s abilities is signified by a signpost showing the player how to perform the mechanic, followed by a simple test.
The following graph shows the difficulty curve of a subjective game:
For the sake of the article, this chart only represents the normal content of the game; we’ll touch on post-game content further on. As you can see, for the novice player, the game’s difficulty curve follows the normal progression — a steady progress higher across the chart with a few dips here and there. Meanwhile, an expert player starts out lower on the curve and makes a continual progression.
Now, you may be asking, “If the expert player is taking a harder course, shouldn’t the curve be higher than for the novice?” The reason it isn’t goes back to the concept of Subjective Difficulty. Even though the expert player is doing something harder, their skill level at the game makes it easier for them. For example, if we ask someone who has never lifted weights to lift 40 pounds, and a professional weightlifter to lift 60 pounds, the novice is going to struggle due to their inexperience. However, the weightlifter, used to lifting much heavier loads, wouldn’t even sweat.
As the game progresses there should come a point where the difficulty curves converge indicating two things:
1. The novice player has reached the same skill level as the expert player.
2. The game is now challenging both groups with the same content.
At the end of the regular content in Super Mario Galaxy, players are expected to fully understand Mario’s move set, and are tested on it all in one final stage. The same philosophy of designing the levels is still used, but now the game is more akin to Demon’s Souls, expecting the player to make use of all of Mario’s abilities to win.
Novice players who do manage to beat Super Mario Galaxy will find that the game has changed for them. Now that they understand all of the different abilities Mario has, they can now use them anywhere in the game. It’s similar to how in an RPG, a higher level player can return to a once difficult spot and utterly demolish it — but what’s leveled up is the player, not the character.
Handling Optional Content
Before we talk about the pros and cons of Subjective Difficulty, we need to take a look at how post-game content worked in Super Mario Galaxy 2, and how it plays off of the concept of Subjective Difficulty. Fitting into the theme of developing level design for different skill levels, there are special coins hidden in each level, most often placed in harder-to-reach areas.
Each coin found will unlock a comet challenge, which sends players back through older levels with modifiers to make them more difficult. For example, in the first world, the comet challenge requires the player to run through the first level with a timer counting down, requiring the player to use the shortcuts to win.
Novice players will not have access to these challenges, as they are not good enough yet to reach the special coins, but the expert players should find them relatively quickly. The comet challenges aren’t required to beat the game, as players will earn more than enough stars through regular play to reach the final stage, but they are there for expert players who want more.
As novice players become more skilled at the game, they will start to find the hidden coins and unlock comet challenges. Like with the regular game content, novice players should eventually reach the same point as the expert players, allowing them to tackle the additional challenges. Expert players, however, don’t have to wait, and if they are good enough at the start of the game, they can begin comet challenges relatively early in the game.
The Advantage, and the Challenge, Of Designing For Subjective Difficulty
The advantage of Subjective Difficulty revolves around accessibility. Games like Super Mario Galaxy allow the designer to have their cake and eat it too, in a sense.
On one hand, the game starts out simple enough, easing new players into the game without throwing them right into the thick of things. On the other hand, this design style allows expert players to be rewarded with areas suited for them from the beginning, and offers additional content to test their skills.
Now, the problem is that Subjective Difficulty is that it’s hard to pull off and requires a different kind of design. In a normal game, the designer will look at each challenge progressively, with one group in mind. You know that a challenge in the beginning of the game is going to be easier than one found later on, but Subjective Difficulty is different.
Essentially, the designer will have to design each level for different skill levels at the same time, requiring more time to create the content. Because of this, there are usually more shortcuts and hidden areas in games with Subjective Difficulty which allow gamers to fully use the mechanics. Creating this additional content requires an extensive understanding of the mechanics of the game, to set up challenges that can be handled in multiple ways at different levels of skill.
As a designer, you also need to rank your mechanics in terms of complexity to understand the best order for the player to understand them. Going back to Super Mario Galaxy 2, the designers slowly introduced each mechanic officially to the player through set challenges, giving ample time for the player to understand one mechanic before introducing another. This leads to asking questions like, “What is more complex to use, a triple jump into a wall jump followed by a spin jump, or a sideways flip, into a spin, followed by a wall jump?”
Subjective Difficulty, like Darwinian Difficulty, requires an expert touch to achieve. When pulled off, it allows gamers to enjoy the game regardless of skill level, while seeing improvements in their skill over the course of the game. By keeping multiple groups of gamers engaged, the game will attract a larger audience without having to simplify the design of the game. Ultimately, the goal of Subjective Difficulty is that the novice players should achieve a full circle of play, after finishing the game they can replay the game again, but using their improve ability to see the game in a different light.
篇目3，Hard Mode: Good Difficulty Versus Bad Difficulty
Every gamer and games journalist will invariably end up talking about difficulty when discussing a video game. This often takes the form of a comment saying it’s “too easy” or “too hard”, but
it’s a topic that deserves to be looked at in much more depth, as the way it is handled can completely reshape a player’s experience with a game. In this article, I’ll look at extremely high difficulty in video games, what works, what doesn’t, and what we can learn from it.
Easy to Define
So before we start talking about high difficulty, we need to make it abundantly clear exactly what difficulty entails.
Difficulty refers to the amount of skill required by the player to progress through a game experience, with higher difficulty obviously meaning more skill is required. The distinction worth noting here is that skill doesn’t only refer to the typical physical aspect of playing a video game, i.e. reaction time – it can also refer to many other aspects of playing a video game, such as
memorization and strategy.
This definition of difficulty isn’t very complex, but it’s important for us to be on the same page about what the term means before going any further.
It Can’t Be That Simple
At its core, high difficulty in video games comes in one of two forms: artificial difficulty and designed difficulty. I’ll admit that I just made up these terms, so let’s take a look at what I mean by them.
Let’s start with artificial difficulty: the type of difficulty achieved by altering the statistics of the elements of a game with lesser difficulty.
This sounds complex, but it’s really just the type of rote difficulty increase you typically see when you switch a game from “normal” to “hard” mode. Common changes include increased enemy health and damage, more stringent time constraints, fewer lives, and reduced resources like money or ammunition. Most importantly, the core of the experience, things like level design, enemy behaviour and puzzle solutions does not change.
This type of thing is artificial difficulty.A great example of this kind of system can be seen in both the first and second Dead Space games. On normal difficulty the games present a fair difficulty curve and a reasonable challenge. The more difficult modes, on the other hand, do not feel nearly as fair, with the player simply having less health and ammo, and the enemies being much stronger, while everything else in the games remains the same. This is what I class as an artificial difficulty increase.
Designed difficulty, on the other hand, is difficulty baked into the very systems of the game – things like the aforementioned level design, enemy behaviour and puzzle solutions.
This can take all types of forms, from enemies with complex or nuanced attack patterns all the way to levels which are basically elaborate mazes for the player to get trapped in. This idea can be a bit tricky to explain, so let’s take a look at a game that employs this type of difficulty.
Dark Souls might be the perfect example of designed difficulty, as almost everything included in the game seems to have been made the way it is simply to make the player’s life miserable. The game is incredibly unwelcoming from the start, with a tutorial that offers almost no explanation of the systems behind the game, which leaves the player struggling to figure out where they are supposed to be going and what they are supposed to be doing.
At least it looks cool when you fail.Combat is also very difficult in Dark Souls; extremely strong enemies are often placed very close together forcing disadvantageous group battles. To add insult to injury, dying is punished as well, with all of the player’s resources being dropped on the ground upon their death. They can only be recovered if the player makes it back to where they died without dying again, since if they do their resources are lost forever.
There are also small things in Dark Souls that add to the difficulty, such as non-hostile NPCs who murder other useful NPCs without the game giving any indication, or the fact that it is entirely
possible to just plain never find a large amount of the most useful items in the game. Dark Souls is a game that lives and breathes difficulty, and was clearly designed around the idea of being
challenging; this is what I call designed difficulty.
The Bad and the Good
Now that we’ve established the difference between artificial and designed difficulty, we’ll take a look at the ways in which these two very different systems affect the player’s experience.
At its core, artificial difficulty is shallow, providing a level of difficulty that is neither satisfying nor enjoyable for the player, often feeling cheap and unfair. In contrast, designed
difficulty typically offers the player great satisfaction once conquered because the challenge presented felt organic and fair. To look at why this is you need not look any further than the two
examples given above.
Dark Souls is a very hard game, but this is only notable because the game forces you to play it this way. Objectively, if you play Dead Space on the highest difficulty level, it is every bit as
hard as Dark Souls. However, when played this way, Dead Space isn’t any fun. This is because it increases the difficulty artificially, as stated above, and this has terrible ramifications on the
Every video game is designed around a set of systems, and these systems are tuned and tweaked to work together to create the overall game experience.
Every video game is designed around a set of systems, and these systems are tuned and tweaked to work together to create the overall game experience. On normal difficulty these systems are usually balanced perfectly, allowing the player to experience the game with a fair amount of challenge, testing their skill in navigating these systems. With an artificial difficulty increase these systems get out of whack.
In Dead Space, for example, the normal difficulty mode is perfectly designed so that when an enemy jumps out at the player from the shadows, they have time to be startled, compose themselves and then tactically dispatch the enemy by removing its limbs. The is the game’s core gameplay loop, and its proper execution is where most of the game’s fun originates.
However, with the difficulty cranked up, this pattern doesn’t really work any more: the enemies are too strong, and the player is too weak to dispatch them if they get startled. Instead, an enemy jumping out at the player from the shadows often means near-instant death, so foreknowledge and trial and error become the only reliable ways to complete the section. This type of system can be very frustrating for most players, leaving the game feeling like a grind, as trial and error based progress can often feel unfair and contrived.
For this reason these extreme difficulty modes are usually included for the sake of completionists who have already played through and enjoyed the game once and are looking to get more out of the experience. In fact, the hardest difficulty in both Dead Space games requires the game to be beaten once to unlock it.
Expect to see this quite a bit.In contrast to this philosophy, we have Dark Souls, a game which shoves crushing difficulty down its players’ throats from the moment they turn it on, yet somehow manages to be fun and never feel unfair. This is because the core gameplay loop in Dark Souls is designed with difficulty in mind. Everything in the game, from the persistent enemy placement and behaviour, to the checkpoint system to the online functionality is designed around the idea of trial and error. Difficulty is fun in Dark Souls because, unlike in Dead Space, it doesn’t break the core gameplay loop.
Why Should My Game Be Hard?
We now understand the difference between good difficulty and bad difficulty, in that good difficulty isn’t just a slider adjusting some numbers, it’s a core design tenant of your game. But why make a video game difficult at all; why make your players work harder then they need to?
Well, there are many things difficulty can bring to the design of a game beyond just offering something for masochists to beat their heads on.
First off, conquering a difficult section of a game has the potential to give the player an immense feeling of satisfaction. When something is difficult, overcoming it feels like a real triumph and this feeling can really add to a player’s experience with your game. However, you need to be very careful, because there is a fine line between doing this right and doing this very wrong.
This doesn’t look possible to beat the first time you see it.In Dark Souls, the player often encounters overwhelming and seemingly impossible obstacles and conquering them feels like a true
testament of skill. This is because though the challenges may seem impossible at first glance, with repetition players will see patterns arise in the chaos and find that things aren’t so difficult after all. Rarely does Dark Souls demand incredible skill from the player; it only asks for patience and understanding of its trials. In fact, playing through Dark Souls a second time through isn’
t that difficult at all once you understand its challenges.
What isn’t so fun is when games require incredible feats from their players, often demanding they do things they simply aren’t capable of. The old Ghosts and Goblins game is a perfect example of this; it’s a game that is too demanding of its players and is simply not entertaining to anybody but the hardest of hardcore.
More than just satisfaction, difficulty is also an incredible tool in building immersion in your game. When something is difficult, progress is often slow and methodical, giving the player time to
truly soak in and understand every aspect of your game, including its narrative and thematic content.
You don’t want your game to elicit this type of reaction in people.Though Dark Souls is low on exposition, the atmosphere of desolation and abandonment of its world still shines through because the player spends so much time experiencing these feeling first hand due to the difficult gameplay. The intricate design of the levels is also made all the more apparent because the player will invariably commit every shortcut and secret path to memory as they traverse the levels on their umpteenth try at success.
This does not mean that every game should be difficult. I can’t give any strict rules, but difficulty needs to make sense within the context of your design, and needs to be able to bring something worthwhile to your experience. Difficulty for difficulty’s sake has ruined many games.
At its core, the difficulty of a game should be baked into its very design. It should be indispensable to the experience, something that works symbiotically with the rest of the game’s systems to
reinforce and improve the core gameplay loops of your title. This is important, because it’s very easy to make a game that will only be frustrating and annoying, and for most gamers, that just won’t do.
篇目4，Motivate Me: Crafting Better Game Difficulties
by Taylor Bair
I snapped. Guys with armored vests kept blowing holes in me with shotguns; snipers with floating red dot sights scattered my precious cranium meat on the stones; that Aztecan death music looped endlessly in my addled brain, and I just snapped. I opened the Uncharted 3 menu, scrolled down to difficulty selection, and did the unthinkable.
I took a deep breath and clicked “Very Easy.”
It troubled me then and it troubles me now, but for very different reasons.
You see, this isn’t just a question of video game difficulty levels – if they’re superfluous or essential. It’s a question of motivation – both from a developer and gamer standpoint. It’s about what motivates us to play games, and ultimately, it’s about what motivates us psychologically – in relationships, in decision making, in life.
The traditional model of difficulty selection communicates and triggers something in the mind of a gamer, and that has harmful effects not just for the player, but for game design. So in looking through this issue for a development of my own, I stumbled upon some far reaching implications for game designers and gamers that could change the way we not only create games, but enjoy them.
It all comes back to motivation – our desires for the future, beliefs about ourselves, and the very meaning of improvement. So we turn first to the traditional system of difficulty selection and what it says about us.
The Road Most Traveled
Game developers are plagued with a host of fears. Most hide below the surface, bubbling up at night while we lie in bed after a particularly long, stressful day. Because our lives are variable, we want guarantees. And the greatest guarantee we can get? That our game can be all things to all people.
But we can’t all be GTA V, so devs must get a little creative. We understand that some gamers want a solid story, some want a bone-crushing challenge, and some just want whatever we’re giving them.
Hence difficulty selection was born. A series of modifiers, relatively easy to implement, that can be changed at the push of a button. Everyone wins.
Or maybe we all lose.
The reason why lies in understanding player motivation.
The Heart of Player Motivation
What is a man? Well, if you’re Dracula, we’re miserable little piles of secrets. But I’m not Dracula (so put away the stakes); I’m just a miserable little pile of desires.
That’s why when I approach a video game, I want something. Enjoyment? Sure. Entertainment? Almost certainly. A time sink? Likely.
But we’d be mistaken to think that’s all we want. We want riches, titillation, companionship, jokes, explosions, tears, escapism, and a miserable pile of other things.
And at the heart of these desires lies motivation – the impulse that keeps us chugging along. It feeds us a constant supply of desires and desire fulfillments when done correctly, and we stop playing when done poorly.
The key to all this is simple: we’re motivated in different ways, and those motivators affect our response to challenges. Psychologists have subdivided motivations into core categories (see here and here for more on that if interested), and two categories are of particular interest to us:
This motivation stems from our perception of self, and you can see it at work when the player justifies decisions with phrases like, “Well, I only really care about the story” or “I don’t have time to screw with these stupid shotgunners rushing at me” or “You know, I’d like this game way better if I had more patience.” And it usually leads to a person turning the difficulty level down.
The person who turns the difficulty up? Similar concept. They say, “I like a good challenge” or, “I’m a rabid completionist” or, “That platinum trophy is calling my name.”
The common thread in all these statements: they are about us, not the game. The player is central. We have to know ourselves or form opinions about ourselves to make them.
You often find this motivator in any game with difficulty level selection, and that’s because this type of motivator is actually encouraged by including a difficulty level selection. We as the player, and not the developer, are now responsible for deciding how we fit into the game’s challenge, which turns us internally.
This self-evaluation takes place before we even begin a game. We’re asked to decide – am I hardcore enough? Am I casual? What niche do I occupy in this space? – and that question constantly recurs as we struggle through the game. The choice is always present, and so is the self-reflection.
Operating on the opposite end of the spectrum, improvement motivators are progress and skill based.
Players experiencing this sort of motivator will make comments like, “I’ve got to figure out this attack pattern,” or “With a bit more money I can get better armor for that boss,” or “So this time I snuck around him and put a sword in his gut and took him out.”
You often see this motivator in skill and memory based games (and so much of skill is just muscle and pattern memory) or games with RPG elements. Especially now, the two are bleeding into each other. These motivation tools target complex parts of our psyches, including how we weigh risks and uncertainties, work through puzzles, and how we measure short-term gains in the interest of long-term goals.
Long story short, improvement motivators make us think more, and in complex ways. Just as a sword fighter has to gain years of experience to be truly proficient, improvement motivators target repetition, skill, and stat improvement to give us the video game equivalent of experience.
And there are inherent advantages of this kind of motivator over the nature-of-self variety, which we will consider by looking at a few games that utilize them.
Shining Examples of Challenge
You may have heard people say a certain game isn’t difficult, but challenging. While largely a matter of semantics, it reveals something inherent about which motivators a game targets.
Nature-of-self motivators (and having selectable difficulty levels by extension) tend to make players reactive and games more static experiences. Instead of rising to meet a challenge, players will have the nagging feeling that they could, if worse comes to it, just bump the difficulty level down. This may self-validate the player’s current view of themselves and their desires, but it doesn’t challenge them in a way that will actually lead to self-improvement.
Here are some games that do, however, and the means by which they manage it.
Bloodborne (Souls Series)
Ever wonder why From Software’s games are so popular? People say the Souls series and Bloodborne are incredibly difficult but fair, and that’s largely because it uses improvement motivators.
A common scenario in Bloodborne runs like this: you die and lose all your progress. It’s sorta terrible, really. But hey, you think, at least I opened a shortcut and learned if I shoot this enemy in the gut, it’s a one-hit kill.
So you run back through, hopefully using that wisdom and that shortcut to further your progress. But if that fails, you can always gain an advantage by improving stats or buying better equipment.
These are both improvement motivators at work. They don’t give you an option of selecting a difficulty level, but they do give you an option. And that’s key. The option here is more complex – multiple paths of improvement – and it depends on the developer creating systems that allow players to gain the advantage in creative ways.
That challenge is at the heart of From Software’s games, which means they create their games around that framework – planning and intense testing are required. But it also fosters a better player response – namely, deep satisfaction. It actually informs self-image rather than draws from it, which quite literally makes us better people.
Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes
So you’re not into RPGs and the stat-boosting craze of recent RPG-inspired games? No problem, because there are still skill-based experiences out there that allow us to approach things in multiple ways, the difficulty as variable as the approaches.
I dare someone to try MGS:GZ, say, “I’m terrible at stealth,” and quit. Why? Because it kind of expects that. I’m that guy, the one who plays previous MGS games and just wants to pull out a gun after 4 hours of crawling like an idiot on my belly and mow every person down in sight.
And MGS:GZ is totally cool with that. But more fascinating? It makes stealth so damn fun that you’ll probably prefer it. For the first time I gladly crawled on my belly, pumped round after round of knockout darts into hapless guards, and pulled out binoculars to mark everything that moved.
The reason is simple: it has such inventive rewards for every style of play. Stealth is rewarded with bonus weapons, ammo, and conversations. But run and gun is rewarded with sheer volume of hilarious. Rocket a guard in the face, close-quarters-combat a poor bloke into submission, or set intricate C4 charges in a line and lure everyone into your wall of flame. Either way, you’ll get unlockable bonus missions and backstory cassette tapes to fill out even more of the characters and setting.
And while MGS:GZ has selectable difficulty levels, it hardly needs them (and the hard mode is blocked anyway until you complete it on normal). That speaks to the strength of the game Kojima has crafted – pure challenge that requires players to improve, always rewarding that improvement in spectacular ways.
The End of Improvement
So the question then becomes, what does this mean for us?
First, what it does not mean: selectable difficulty levels are not bad. They have existed, arguably, since Tempest released in 1981, and they serve a necessary function. Namely, they give people an excuse to come back for more and developers one less thing to focus on. I understand that developers have limited resources, and sometimes tossing a selectable difficulty level into the mix is the clearest, quickest way of achieving a goal.
Life is full of long, arduous roads, and I wouldn’t hold it against someone for taking the path of least resistance (God knows I’ve done the same), but I do think we rob ourselves of something when we do.
Make no mistake, the path of improvement is tough. It requires developers plan challenges and multiple paths to success ahead of time, and constantly re-evaluate throughout development.
But the end of improvement is always better, because it strikes at the heart of overcoming adversity. It makes the game a stepping-stone to moments of euphoric air punches, of howls of victory, of deep, soul-satisfying joy.
Instead of just reflecting our preconceptions, it changes them, and that’s powerful. We as developers have a chance to make challenges that scale as players scale, pushing them to improve – yes, even those who play on easy.
Because if we don’t give them the choice of easy, medium, or hard, we give them a greater choice – the choice to rise to the occasion their own way.
And that’s what life is really about: making us better, one trial at a time.
篇目5，Easy Mode: When Easy is Okay
Nintendo Hard Mode: It Was Acceptable in the Eighties
Every gamer and games journalist will invariably end up talking about difficulty when discussing a video game. This often takes the form of a comment saying it’s “too easy” or “too hard”, but it’s a topic that deserves to be looked at in much more depth, as the way it is handled can completely reshape a player’s experience with a game. In this article, I’ll look at the many ways low difficulty can affect a game experience.
Definition of Difficulty: The amount of player skill required to progress through a game experience. (From my previous article.)
The Accessibility Trap
As I stated in the previous article of this series, difficulty is (or at least should be) baked into the very core of any video game’s design. More specifically, we talked about high levels of difficulty, and the benefits great challenge can bring to an experience.
However, this doesn’t mean all games need to be difficult. In fact, there has been a growing trend in game design over the last few years for easier and easier video games, mostly in order to appeal to a more casual audience who developers seem to think aren’t capable of enjoying more difficult games.
I don’t know about you, but this is how I game.This situation has brought up an interesting debate: is an easier, more accessible game capable of reaching a wide audience of players better than a more complex, difficult and nuanced game that fewer will be able to understand and appreciate? I personally believe that both types of experiences have their place in the gaming landscape. Problems arise, however, when developers try to make their game into something it isn’t, trying to increase its accessibility when that is not appropriate in the context of the game’s design.
Perhaps no modern game series is more guilty of this sin than the Assassin’s Creed franchise. These are very complex games, with rich worlds to explore, nuanced storylines spanning multiple instalments and a plethora of different game mechanics to grasp and understand. These are the types of games casual players don’t play; these games are designed for the hardcore.
Unfortunately, every single Assassin’s Creed game suffers from the same fatal flaw which threatens to break the very core of its functioning: the games are just too easy.
The Assassin’s Creed games hinge on three basic gameplay pillars: combat, free running and stealth (although the latter has taken more and more of a back seat to the others as the series has progressed). Other than a few key distractions present in the more recent games, such as naval combat or tower defence, everything you do in Assassin’s Creed can be boiled down to one of these three pillars, or a combination thereof, though there is a noticeable emphasis on combat.
There have been many criticisms thrown at these pillars of the franchise over the years, with the stealth often being called frustrating and the free running cited as being overly automated. However, for the sake of this article we will look at the most prominent of the three: combat.
Combat in Assassin’s Creed is an exhilarating affair, filled with brutal executions and flashy combos, but it’s entirely too easy. It’s almost impossible to fail during a combat encounter in any Assassin’s Creed game, no matter how many enemies you are fighting.
There are a multitude of reasons for this, but it mostly comes down to the fact that you are simply overpowered, sporting the ability to instantly kill most enemies and take a ridiculous amount of hits before you are downed. Since the vast majority of stealth and free running sections can be completely avoided by turning around and fighting your pursuers, the ease of combat often serves to trivialize the experience.
Five versus one? Come at me.In Assassin’s Creed 3, for example, it’s difficult for the player to feel like they are training to become a master assassin when their character has proven capable of winning fist fights against bears as a teenager. Other scenarios simply feel like a waste of time, such as waiting for a snowstorm to use as cover to infiltrate a British outpost when your character can easily defeat the entirety of the red coat forces armed with nothing but a rabbit snare.
Bolero of Boredom
Another great example of a game getting caught in the accessibility trap is the newest Legend of Zelda game, Skyward Sword. The game is filled with many devilish puzzles that would be tons of fun to solve – if only you were given the chance to.
Unfortunately, you are burdened with an overly helpful companion who feels the need to give you the solution to puzzles proactively, often telling you how to unlock that pesky door at the end of the room before you even had the time to notice it was locked. You do not need to listen to her advice, but she will keep reminding you that she has something to say until you do.
This type of helpful partner has been a staple of the Zelda series since its 3D début, but never have the companions been as overbearing as the one in Skyward Sword.
Now before anybody runs around calling me names because I’m ragging on some very well received games, let me say that Skyward Sword and the Assassin’s Creed games are all quality products. All I’m saying is that their level of difficulty, or lack thereof, is not appropriate in the context of the mechanics or the mythos, and the experience is definitely hurt because of it.
Being a badass assassin is still empowering, and Skyward Sword’s dungeons are still as elegantly crafted as one would expect given the series’ history, but they aren’t without flaw, and difficulty is one of them.
Wow, aren’t you a smart cookie.
So Easy Games Are Bad?
What we’ve just looked at are games that are too easy, or rather games who were hurt by their overall lack of difficulty. This however does not mean that there is no place for less challenging games, and it also doesn’t mean that any serious “hardcore” game experience needs to be difficult. What it all boils down to is something that risks becoming a theme in this series: keep difficulty in mind when designing the core systems behind your game.
Essentially I’m saying to not make hard games easy or easy games hard. The games we looked at stumbled because their mechanics and themes did not mesh well with their lack of difficulty. They were simplifying the “play” part of gameplay, diluting the interactive element to the point where the rest of the experience no longer fit.
Who Does It Right?
Let’s now look at a game that takes advantage of all the benefits of being easy, namely providing an experience without frustration, without interruption of narrative or thematic flow because of difficult sections and with extreme accessibility to a less skilled or determined audience. This game is thatgamecompany‘s Journey.
Journey, for those of you who don’t know, is a about beauty and personal interaction between two strangers. The game is short, lasting only a couple of hours, and basically consists of walking towards and then scaling a mountain. You can fly a little bit depending on how many collectibles you find along the way, but these are entirely optional.
There are also no time limits, it’s impossible to die and there is only one instance where it’s possible to harm yourself in any way, though the repercussions can only really be considered sentimental as they have no impact whatsoever on progress. The game goes beyond even being easy: it practically plays itself.
LamouraGames’ video walkthrough of Journey. Contains spoilers (as far as such a game can have spoilers).While I don’t think the aspect of human interaction and difficulty can’t really be properly delivered through watching somebody else play the game, I do think videos express very well the beauty and serenity on display here.Unlike what you would expect, though, it’s not boring at all, because everything in the game is so breathtaking. The graphics are unbelievably beautiful (just look at the screenshot below) and the musical score will sweep you away into another world. But none of this is really the point of the game; what really hooks you is the other players.
As you traverse the world you will encounter other players, you will not know their online IDs, and you will have no means of communicating with them other than a few small chirps your character can make. Yet somehow, because of the way everything in the game is designed to support cooperation, you will travel together and you will become attached to this person you know absolutely nothing about, and it’s beautiful.
This. This is beautiful.But I’m not here to review Journey and all of this does have a direct link to difficulty. Basically, Journey wouldn’t work if it wasn’t stupidly easy. The game focuses on human interaction and on taking in beautiful vistas and sounds, and none of these things would be improved by a more difficult gameplay experience.
In fact, if the game were more challenging, players wouldn’t necessarily be interacting with each other on the basis of what they wanted to do, but rather on the basis of what they were capable of doing as gamers. If Journey was filled with complicated puzzles, someone who might want to help their partner come up with a solution might not be able to and the interaction between the players would then be governed mostly by the game’s systems rather than by the players themselves. By keeping things simple, Journey manages to avoid this pitfall, letting players interact with each other on their own terms. The difficulty in Journey is trivial, but it only exists in service of the core design tenants behind the game.
The lesson here is exactly the same as it was in the last article: keep difficulty in mind when designing the core systems behind your game. Do not wonder if your game is too difficult to be accessible. If you want a game that anybody can play, regardless of video game experience, then design an experience that suits that goal; do not try and shoehorn in accessibility when it doesn’t fit with the core design of your title.
However, do not think that difficulty and accessibility are one side of the same coin, though they do often intersect. Remember, even the most complex and engrossing games can be very easy and the most simple of games can be incredibly challenging. What’s important is that your game’s difficulty level makes sense within the context of the overall experience.
篇目6，Four Tricks to Improve Game Balance
by David Maletz
Balancing a game’s difficulty can be tough. Different players will enter the game at different skill levels depending on whether they’ve played similar games or not. Their learning curves during the game will be varied as well, making it tricky to decide how difficult to make the game without making the game too difficult (frustrating), or too easy (boring).
Above is an approximate graph of balance zones based on the player’s skill and the game’s difficulty. As player skill increases, the difficulty must also increase to keep a balance. The balance zones are as follows:
•Frustrating – Too difficult to be fun.
•Hardcore Fun – Really tough, but some people like that.
•Challenging Fun – For people who like to overcome challenges.
•Balanced Fun – The goldilocks zone (not too tough, not too easy).
•Casual Fun – Nice and easy, never a challenge, but not mindless either.
•Mindless Fun – They just want to play, they don’t want to think.
•Boring – I could play this in my sleep… in fact, I’d rather sleep.
While it requires testing, balance and player feedback to really balance a game, this article will cover four tips and tricks for designing game difficulty, which I’ve learned through my game development experiences.
1. Know your audience.
Knowing your audience is important in almost every aspect of game development, and is also important for game balance. Who do you expect to play your game? What games will they have played before yours (and how similar are those games to yours)? Knowing the answer to these two questions will help you guess what skill level the players will start with, and which balance zone they prefer. A casual game should assume that the average player has a low skill level, and doesn’t want to be particularly challenged. A niche game should assume that the average player enjoys that niche and has played many similar games before, and so has a high skill level and enjoys a challenge. Having a good read on your target audience gives you a starting point to balance the game, and will make your initial balancing more accurate.
The takeaway point here is that the better you understand your audience, the more you can cater the game to that audience – and that applies to a lot more than just the balance of the game.
2. Underestimate the player’s learning curve.
The player’s skill will increase throughout the course of the game, and so the difficulty of the game has to increase to compensate. However, overestimating the player’s learning curve is worse than underestimating it (and most developers tend to overestimate their players – not everyone is as good as you!). If you overestimate the player’s learning curve, players who learn quickly may get a good balance, but the rest of the players will not be able to keep up with the curve and the game will continue to get harder and harder until they can’t continue. Whereas if you underestimate the player’s learning curve, players who learn quickly will still enjoy the game even if it’s not as challenging for them (they will simply feel that they are awesome), while the rest of the players will still be able to keep up with the game difficulty.
You’ve probably played a game you liked a lot in the beginning, but then it became so difficult that by the end it was no longer fun to play. The final boss was impossibly frustrating, and you probably resorted to walkthroughs or outright gave up. This is a situation you want to avoid at all costs. A player is far less likely to quit because a game is too easy.
The takeaway point here is that it’s easier to lose players by making a game too hard than by making a game too easy. So, when in doubt, underestimate the player’s learning curve (actually, it’s good practice in general to underestimate your players).
3. Don’t reward skilled players by making the game easier!
There are a lot of games that reward their players for doing well by giving them more upgrades. But what this is basically doing is making the game easier for players who already found the game easy, while giving nothing to the players who are struggling. A lot of these games try to compensate for these upgrades by increasing the difficulty. While this may balance the game for skilled players, it makes the game even more difficult for the players who were struggling and didn’t even get the upgrades. This is a very fast way to lose players. Really, you should “reward” players who do well by making the game more difficult, and “punish” the players who do poorly by making the game easier, in essence dynamically changing the difficulty to suit the player. While this seems like an oxy-moron, there are ways to make higher difficulty feel like a reward, and lower difficulty feel like a punishment. For example, I’ve seen games that, if you do well enough, reward you by giving you access to a second ending. The gameplay to get the second ending is a lot more difficult than the first ending, but the reward is that you get the second, perhaps better, ending.
You can also hide the fact that the reward is making the game more difficult. For example, you could give the player upgrades if they do well, but increase the difficulty even more than the benefit of the upgrades (and don’t change the difficulty for those who didn’t get the upgrade). While this seems like cheating the player, most games that give upgrades increase the difficulty to compensate – this is the same idea, simply limiting the increased difficulty to the players who got the upgrades.
The takeaway point here is that while it’s important to give rewards to players, making the game easier to a player who is already doing well is not really a reward in the long run.
4. Allow players to change the game’s difficulty.
It’s impossible to balance a game perfectly for every potential player. So, giving the player a choice on how difficult they want the game can help widen the audience. Players who want casual fun can lower the difficulty, and players who want a challenging experience can raise the difficulty. If the player can adjust the difficulty in the middle of the game, then they can even compensate for their learning curve. Just be certain to never punish a player for lowering the difficulty. It is a choice they are making to improve their gameplay experience. They may already feel bad about having to lower the difficulty, you don’t need to rub it in their face with a punishment. If you do anything, reward players who increase the difficulty.
The takeaway point here is that players (sometimes) know themselves best, so letting them choose the difficulty can help balance the game to suit their personal needs.
Testing and tweaking are still the most important methods of balancing a game. No matter how well you balance the game yourself, unless you are the sole audience of the game, you will need to know what it’s like for others. Getting friends to play and comment on what they found easy and difficult is a great first step. A beta test that gets comments from the actual target audience of the game is even better. But these four tricks can improve the balance early on, and in doing so help focus the design of the game.