Welcome to Game Breaking. A weekly column that looks at the various components that make up the video games we all love. By breaking down games to their base mechanics we can learn a lot more about how the finished product and just how it can improve.

This week we’re taking a look at one of the many intrinsic concepts that help to make up the world of gaming as we know it, and that is Difficulty. So many of us have been subject to that moment of rage that comes when we just can’t beat the boss, or get past another level. The moment when the nerd rage takes over and you’re ready to curse bloody murder at the developers for making a game that is clearly broken or unfair. It’s difficult to reign in that anger once the red mist has settled, and as you get angrier and angrier it makes the game yet more difficult as you lose focus, and every new mistake you make is just more fuel for the fire raging inside. So why do developers insist on inflicting this mental torture, or better yet, why do gamers insist on subjecting themselves to this only to blame the developers?

Games such as Dark Souls, Ninja Gaiden,and Battletoads are renowned for the challenge that they present to their playerbase. Meanwhile we deride the overall state of gaming, complaining that games have gotten less difficult as the years have gone by, and yet whenever we are presented with such challenges then we are already set up to fall into our own rage.

Now, there are a number of factors that make up how challenging a game is, but I feel that the anger at being unable to do something in a game comes down to dissonance between the player’s desires and the developer’s intentions.


Warcraft 3 - Difficulty Selection

Select your difficulty


I like to think that there are two major schools of game difficulty, each with a very different approach to keeping the player tuned in.

The first of these two groups is one that most of us can familiarise with, and that is Testing The Player. This covers anything that particularly pushes the limits of what the player knows/can do in the game, and challenge their skills on a variety of levels, such as the ubiquitous boss fights and platforming nightmares that keep us on our toes.

Whenever a game is Testing the player in this manner, it is to push the player’s skills further yet, or to teach them new ways to use tactics from earlier in the game. The developer wants to know how fast someone can clear a level, or how many enemies they can slay to earn their in-game likeness safe passage, and then up the ante somehow to bring out more from the player. Progressive difficulty in games is one of the more common methods, with enemies having increased health or breaking out new attacks, meaning that even as the player-character progresses through the game, there is always a fair fight around.

When you’re building mechanics to Test your player, you need to take two things into mind: The inherent and progressive skill of your player. What they should be able to accomplish after learning the game mechanics is their inherent skill and how they use those skills to accomplish more difficult feats within the constraints of the game itself. Games such as Far Cry 3 employ these kinds of mechanics. Teaching you skills that will allow you to progress through the game, but placing you in challenging situations that will call for you to try and string together skills for fast-paced combat.


Far Cry 3 - Screen



The second group of mechanics is what I like to think of as Punishing the player. This is a rather nasty group of mechanics that are almost the opposite of the Testing group. This is a mechanic group that is designed to force the player not to fail at whatever it is they’re doing.

Whereas the Testing group is all about a player’s skill, the Punishing group are more about the player’s knowledge. Rushing too far ahead without saving your game, not knowing the layout of a level or where/when sudden pitfalls or traps might show up, equipment and gear breaking or needing repairs on your death. These mechanics are all about taking away from the player in order to make them rethink their strategy. A fantastic example of this would be Demon’s Souls, where not heeding warnings from other players could mean a death literally seconds later.

These mechanics are built around putting the player in their place. Think about early Sonic the Hedgehog games when you’d rush through the level without any idea of what was to come, only for you to fall into a spike pit. It seems like bullsh*t and from the player’s point of view, it certainly is. However the challenge that the developer is trying in this example is to see how fast you can complete the level despite those sudden traps, so you need to memorise level layouts with multiple tries or slow down and learn the layout as you go. Many of these games don’t actually inform the player of what they’re doing in order to let the player run into those traps without any forethought.

Random chance is another way of Punishing the player in this matter. Have you ever run into a boss fight that was a rare spawn only to have it completely annihilate you? Suddenly you’ve lost progress if you didn’t save recently, or at the very least you’ve lost a life or damaged some gear. I can’t count the number of times that happened to me in The Last Remnant. I just couldn’t prepare for that in any way since I had no control over the spawns of enemies.


The Last Remnant - Battle

I don’t know if I’m leveled for this fight yet…


These two factors may not encompass all of the myriad aspects that go into game and level design, I do think that they are the most ubiquitous, and the most essential to building an enjoyable experience for the player. It’s important to draw on both schools of thought, as relying too heavily on either one alone can create imbalanced situations. It’s never as much fun for the player if the adventure they’ve embarked upon is constantly Punishing them. Similarly, if they are always being Tested, then they may feel like they have no real challenge to overcome beyond proving themselves to the next batch of enemies.

The player is constantly in a state of learning new skills and facts, but if they’re never given the opportunity to utilise that newfound knowledge, then they’re more likely to grow bored with the game than invest themselves in it. Making things too easy, and not inviting them to use that expertise, feels like the game is trying to spoonfeed the player, similarly putting them off. Forcing the player to trudge around a level in order to learn all of its ins and outs before they tackle it properly also takes away from the overall experience, since it leaves the player feeling like they’re studying for an exam, and it’s important that they feel like they’re playing a game and enjoying it. These elements need to be blended together carefully to get the balance right so that people stay invested and continue to play, otherwise all that’s left is a game on a shelf and a bored player.

Games such as Spec Ops: The Line, and Far Cry 3, make great use of both of these influences. The player spends most of their time acquiring new skills or knowledge, then is dropped suddenly into situations where they need to apply that in new ways. Both are games that aren’t afraid of quickly switching tempo in order to keep the player on the edge of their seat. Since you never know what’s coming next, you always need to be ready for anything, and ready to try out anything lest you get stuck.

About The Author

Raised by keyboards to be the ultimate warrior in the war on syntax.

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