Design: Elements of Difficulty

I want to talk about different types of difficulty. A lot of times, people will describe a game as difficult without really looking deeper, which feel misses a lot of potential for analysis. I want to break down the concept of difficulty into a few different sliding scales:

Skill Window: The raw difficulty of completing a challenge in the game. The amount of skill with which you must interact with the game’s mechanics. These skills could be reflexes, accuracy, strategy, perception, and so on.

Simple vs. Complex: The amount of mental processes the player has to keep track of while playing. The amount of considerations the player needs to make, and the distance they need to plan into the future.

Forgiving vs. Unforgiving: How many allowances the player is afforded.

Low Stakes vs. High Stakes: How much can you lose (in terms of progress and/or resources) when you fail.

Recoverability: Do you have a chance to recover from your mistakes? How hard is it to do so? How many opportunities do you have to do so?

Readability: How much information does the game provide you. When you do something wrong, do you know exactly what it was? Do you know how to fix it?

Short Term Consequences vs. Long Term Consequences: How long does the effect of failure last. Does the player simply go back a few minutes and try the challenge again, or does the failure continue to negatively affect the player hours later?

Positive Feedback Loop vs. Negative Feedback Loop: Is it hard to recover from failure, and easy to push success forward, or is it easy to recover from failure, but hard to maintain success.

Alright, with that out of the way, let’s look at some examples and see how they fit along these scales:

Difficult indie platformers such as VVVVVV and Super Meat Boy: These sorts of games focus mainly on high skill and few allowances. The levels require quite a bit of dexterity, as well as a good plan, to complete, and a single mistake means returning to the last checkpoint. Note, however, that these games have low stakes and very short term consequences: you usually go back to the beginning of the current challenge, and once you succeed at the challenge, there are no lasting effects from your previous failed attempts. Because of this, there are also no positive or negative feedback loops present, since success or failure don’t effect your future chances of success or failure. It doesn’t matter if it took you 1 or 100 tries to beat a level, the next level will start the same way, and you’ll be in the same condition. Complexity is also fairly low, in that you generally only have a couple modes of interaction with the world (run, jump, wall jump, ect…). The only real complexity comes in from how many obstacles there are to keep track of and plan around in the level.

Dark Souls: Dark Souls is interesting not only because it’s fairly famous (infamous?) for being difficult, but also because many people who have played the game extensively will, with a straight face, tell people that the game actually isn’t all that difficult, and I think that dichotomy is worth exploring. The main issue here is that the game is not as high-skill as it seems: the game moves fairly slowly and most of the time you have fairly large windows in which to act. However, the game is very unforgiving, and a mistake could cost you very highly depending on the circumstances. If you miss an attack, the long attack animations leave you open for enemy attacks, which can then stun you and leave you open for more enemy attacks (Note that this would be a short-term Positive Feedback Loop). However, if you survive an encounter, you have a limited resource in the form of Estus which you can use to recover.

Because of the long space between checkpoints, the stakes get higher and higher until you reach the next bonfire. There are also a lot of situations where player mistakes are somewhat opaque, and require the player to try various things until they find one that works. For example, when I first started playing Dark Souls, I had trouble with the Parry. You have a fairly small window to parry, and if you fail, it’s hard to tell if you parried too soon or too late. (The game got a fair amount easier when I stopped even trying to parry). The game is fairly complex as you have to keep track of your surroundings, maneuver to get the best position, be aware of how long various actions take, and be careful not to make mistakes. It’s also worth noting that there are positive feedback loops that extend for longer than just one encounter, in the form of Souls and Humanity. You get these resources by battling enemies, and you lose them by dying, then dying again before you can recover them from your corpse. If you die once, the stakes are raised to include the resources you had gathered, and if you are doing really poorly and die twice, you lose those resources, constituting a positive feedback loop. If, on the other hand, you are doing really well, you will continue to accumulate Souls and Humanity (which in turn increases the amount of items you find) which serves as the other side of the possitive feedback loop.

Megaman: Megaman is a fairly high-skill game. The encounters are fairly simple, but you need a good plan and precision to get through an encounter. You’ve got enough health that the game will forgive a few mistakes (unless you fall down a bottmless pit), however, because of the skill level, if you keep throwing yourself at an encounter that you haven’t figured out the trick for, you’ll quickly eat up your allowances. The game has limited lives: your stakes are either a small amount of progress and one life, or, if you’ve run out of lives, an entire level’s worth of progress. However, other than lost progress, there are no long-term consequences to failure. You can recover some health with items that enemies drop, but you don’t really have much control over it. The game is very readable. Everything is very up front about how it works, and encounters can be solved by observing enemy patterns and having good control over your own movement. There’s also an interesting game-wide positive feedback loop: each level you beat provides you with a weapon that will make further levels easier.

XCOM: For the sake of convenience, let’s focus specifically on the recent XCOM: Enemy Unknown, although much of this would also be true about X-COM: UFO Defense. The game takes quite a bit of skill (which, in this case, means tactical ability, since this is a turn based game). You have to be very careful in choosing moves. By the standards of a tactics game, Enemy Unknown comparatively simple. Your characters have a limited moveset, enemies act in fairly simple ways, and a lot of the game comes down to positioning and proper use of cover. However, the game is fairly unforgiving: your units don’t take many hits, and if one of them dies, it can set off a positive feedback loop through your units panicking that will wipe out your squad. The game also has long-term consequences. Units that die in battle are permanently dead and failed missions will reduce your support. Losing a mission doesn’t end the game, but they can lead you to ultimately losing the entire game (Of all the examples I’ve listed in this article, this is the only one where actually losing the game, rather than losing progress, is a possibility). On the other hand, success will raise your units’ levels. As far as recoverability: on the small scale, you can heal wounded units and revive unconscious units with a med kit. On the larger scale, it is very hard, and often impossible, to recover from a failed mission or a mistake in development, and because of the nature of the game, the actual game-over could come a while after you’ve sealed your fate. The positive feedback loops in the tactical portion of the game can be rough, but the positive feedback loops at play in the overarching game are absolutely brutal.

The point of all of this is that difficulty is a very multifaceted element of game development. The idea of difficulty and challenge is so fundamental to game design, I think it’s important to fully analyze what makes a game difficult, and establish a vocabulary to describe the different ways in which a game can be difficult. This article is by no means comprehensive, I’m sure there are modes of difficulty that I’ve left out or haven’t thought of. But it should provide a starting point for discussing difficulty in more detail than “this game is hard/this game is easy.”.

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Bandits and Bounties on Kickstarter

Hey, everyone.  I recently launched the Kickstarter for my upcoming Spaghetti Western Action-RPG Bandits and Bounties.



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Design Quick-Thoughts: Optional Puzzles in Metroidvanias

I just finished playing through Super Metroid, and a thought occurred to me.  Something that is both a strength and weakness of the “Metroidvania” style of game is that sometimes you see an object out of reach, and don’t know if you can actually get to it with the items you currently have, or if you need to come back later.  In many cases it’s obvious: there’s a colored door or marked block that you don’t have the weapon to open, but many times it’s not as obvious, and you have to solve some sort of navigation puzzle to reach the item.

Why I think this is ultimately a strength is it creates the possibility, but not a certainty, of an unsolvable (for now) problem, which is a rarity in games.  Games are designed around the player, and thus every problem is made to be solved.  There’s no reason to give up on a puzzle because you know there’s a solution.  But with this, you get ambiguous situations where there is a chance that the problem is insoluble for the time being.  Giving up could be the correct option, and because of that, it means more when you figure out that a problem can be solved and you don’t give up.

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Ninja Outbreak Trailer

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Emo McGothington Halloween Spooktacular

It’s Halloween and that means Emo Mcgothington has more candy to fight than ever!  When they made a deal with the devil, the people of the candy kingdom asked for treats, but instead they got tricked! Help our maudlin mercenary save the Candy Kingdom with this 65% off sale~

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Design: General and Specific

Today I want to talk about the relationship between specific and general elements of games. It’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. But first I should define what I mean by specific and general.

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Design: Can, Can’t, Should and Shouldn’t

The key, I think, to understanding games as an expressive medium lies in the following:

Claude Shannon once famously estimated the number of potential chess games as being at least 10 to the 120th power, which, as the cliché goes, is more than the estimated number of atoms in the observable universe. However, in all of these games of chess, there is not a single one in which the two sides come to a peaceful solution to their conflict, or in which the pawns rise up and overthrow their own king, or in one of the bishops converts the opposing pawns to switch sides. There is not even a scenario in which one side grows their ranks; the best they can do is maintain their numbers, and the likely outcome is a steady reduction in pieces over the course of the game for both sides.

In addition to this, there are many themes which reoccur, perhaps not in every single game, but in most well-played games. Using your pawns to shield your more valuable pieces, sacrificing pieces in order to pull your opponent into a disadvantaged position, using multiple pieces in tandem to push the opposing king into a corner. None of these things are explicitly stated in the rules, but they are behaviors that are implied by the rules. The rules make these behaviors beneficial to winning the game.

The crux of all of this is that, despite the often near-infinite numbers of permutations games can have, they still make a statement through what the player can do, what the player can’t do, what the player should do, and what the player shouldn’t do.

Many people talk about designing using “verbs”. In other words, thinking about the actions the player can perform in a game. Run, Jump, Talk, Shoot, Trade, Swim, and so on. But it’s as important to think about what the player can’t do, and it’s also important to consider which of the actions that are available to the player are incentivized and disincentivised.

As a developer, it is important to understand how the cans, can’ts, shoulds and shouldnt’s form the core of the narrative of the game. To go back to the chess example, the narrative of chess could be said to involve class hierarchy, strength in numbers, sacrifice for the greater good (or, one might argue, sacrifice of the lower class for the benefit of the upper class), zero-sum warfare, the importance of thinking ahead, setting and avoiding traps, and so on.

Take, as another example, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and how so much of the core experience comes from the fact that the player can’t fight back against the monsters. In addition to that, they are incentivized against looking at the monsters for too long, which helps make them more frightening. Also, players are incentivized towards scouring the level for items such as lamp oil which causes them to keep themselves in an uncomfortable position for longer. All of this combines to create the atmosphere of fear and helplessness that is at the core of the game’s experience.

Or, to take the example in another direction, think about how, in Megaman, the fact that you can’t shoot in any direction other than horizontally is such a core part of the challenge of that game. Think about the way you’re incentivized to complete the levels in more-or-less a certain order because of how the boss weakness system works.

Remember as a developer how much control you have over the overall experience. Anything the player can do is something you’ve (either intentionally or unintentionally), allowed them to do, and sometimes what you don’t allow them to do speaks as loudly as what you do. And within the bounds of that experience you’ve created, the way they play will be informed by what you have decided is beneficial and detrimental. In this way a game can have a consistent theme or narrative or meaning or whatever you want to call it, even if the events change from playthrough to playthrough.

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Level Design Primer Part 18: Emergent Objectives

We’ve talked so far about goals mostly in terms of specific objectives which you’ve placed in specific places for the character to reach. But what if the systems in your game interact in such a way that the player ends up needing to do something which you did not specifically design or anticipate.

First of all, something I want to address. As the designer, even if something emerges from the system rather than being explicitly put there, you still can have some awareness of it and anticipate common (and uncommon) emergent events that are possible from your system. You can have an overall awareness of the possibility space defined by your ruleset, and thus most emergent objectives can be prepared for. You might not know exactly when they will emerge, but you can have a good idea of what they’ll be when they do.

For instance, if you put an ammo system in your game, you can expect that a potential situation that might emerge is the player running out of ammo. At this point, their goal is to find more ammo.

Knowing this, you can create challenges around goals which the player may or may not need depending on the circumstances. The way these differ from optional challenges is that, in certain situations, they cease to be optional, and become necessary for the player to make progress.

Early on in Super Metroid, there’s a series of rooms where the goal is a device that will refill your missiles. Blocking the player’s progress is a door which must be opened with missiles. If you are at full missiles, this side-challenge is basically useless to you. If you aren’t at full missiles, it gives you a small reward but is all-together optional. If you don’t have enough missiles to open the door, this challenge becomes a necessity.

One of the largest examples of this sort of design is the curse mechanic in Dark Souls (before they patched an easier solution into the game). Some enemies inflict a “cursed” status ailment. If they manage to completely curse you, you are at half-health until you can become uncursed. There were only a couple of ways to do this and they both involved massive treks through dangerous areas with only half health. The player had been given an goal through a system in the game, and the designers put that goal behind obstacles. The designer doesn’t know that the player is necessarily going to be cursed, but they know that if the player does get cursed, they’re going to have a challenge ahead of them.

The moral of this story is that, as the designer, you should be aware of the needs the player might be given by the system you’ve designed. You can use this awareness both to insure that the player never gets completely stuck by making what they might need available to them, and also allows you to create challenges around those needs.

As a final note, this also accounts for the level-design feature of the “boss fountain”. This means either putting a lot of items up right before a boss, or putting an object that spawns a constant stream of low-teir enemies which drop items, so that the player can replenish their stocks before a major fight. Remember, you might not know what exactly the player needs at any given time, but you know the sorts of things the player will need in general.

Thanks for reading.  If you enjoy this series, please consider checking out my games here: or buying something from my page. You can also follow me on twitter or tumblr.
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GIFs: Bandits and Bounties, Ninja Outbreak

Here are some animated GIFs of my current projects:

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Level Design Primer Part 17: Tension and Release

The idea of tension and release is a common one among many art forms. In music, ascending scales and dominant chords can build tension, while descending scales and returning to the tonic chord can give a sense of release.  Dissonance resolves to consonance. A story will build tension through conflict before finally resolving the conflict, creating release. It’s something which is core to our experience of art and entertainment. We want the catharsis that comes with building and releasing tension.

So how do we apply that to level design?

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