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  • Guest Post: The Difficulty of Difficulty

    Posted on November 16th, 2010 IndieGamePod No comments

    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.

    Caual or 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 to feel. 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.

    Zelda web

    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, making for a more pleasurable, and rewarding, challenge.

    half life 2 episode 2

    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.

    portal challenge

    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.

    Dylan Woodbury lives with his family in Southern California. He runs http://dtwgames.com, a game design website that posts intriguing new articles every week, both beginner’s tutorials and theoretical ideas. He also has an interest in writing, and is planning his first novel. His primary goal is to change the world through video games.


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