Difficulty in gaming

Difficulty of a game, how hard or easy it is and in what way, is an extremely important factor in game development. This is something good to keep in the back of your mind in nearly all stages of game development, including brainstorming, prototyping, implementation, and testing.

It’s easy to think about difficulty in simple terms (e.g. “This game is easy”, or “This game is hard”), but it’s actually much more involved than that. In this article I’ll discuss some of my ideas about difficulty in games.

Types of difficulty

Rather than a purely linear continuum, there are different types of difficulty that are good to be aware of, especially when deciding on your target audience. It’s pretty rare to find a game that just involves one of these – usually you get a mix of two or more.

A common type of difficulty in many games is calculational. These types of games challenge you to think ahead several steps and predict the outcome of a combination of events. A classic example of this is chess, and the ability to calculate ahead a few moves (along with a few other factors) is one of the keys to being a strong player. A related type of challenge is tactical, where players have to think about the relative positions of friendly and enemy units (ships, planes, tanks, whatever), and predict what the outcome of a battle will be.

Reaction time is another type of difficulty which can be seen in many popular mobile games like Mr. Jump or Alto’s Adventure, the latter of which is currently the #1 paid app on iTunes. In these types of games, besides being able to respond quickly to changes in your environment, you also have to estimate things like distances and paths you will take.

Memory difficulty is one that is less common in mobile games, though having a good memory may make it easier to remember common patterns to solve puzzle games. A good example is the class board game “Memory”. A language learning game that tests your knowledge of words using a flashcard-style interface is another example.

Another one is endurance difficulty, which means that you have to survive a long time in order to pass a certain point or level in the game. An example of that is many RPG games where bosses can take 30 minutes or longer to beat. The placement of save points (or some other mechanism to save state) is an important factor here. One of my pet peeves is games where you die after one mistake, putting you back minutes or even longer.

One final one to mention is system difficulty, which can also be called learning curve. By this, I mean the time required to learn the basic rules of the game before you can actually make any progress. A game with good tutorials reduces this type of complexity, otherwise it can take the user much experimentation to figure out what to do. I’ve played a few mobile games that seemed really great at first, but I lost patience and gave up before I got the hang of the system.

There are many others, such as deduction, but I think I covered the most common ones here.

Satisfaction and actual vs perceived difficulty

For a straightforward game like chess, the difficulty is obvious and there is no effort to convince the player otherwise. For other games, like the famous mobile game Candy Crush, there are a lot of distractions to take your mind off the basic gameplay elements. Candy crush has sound effects, exploding animations, and messages that pop up now and then to complement you (for example, “Sweet!”). As a result, you could tap somewhat randomly and feel like you are doing an awesome job. (Confession: I have not played this game for more than a few seconds, so I can’t claim to be an expert on it’s gameplay)

Ultimately, what’s more important than the objective level of challenge is the satisfaction gained by the player when he or she makes progress. If the game can fool you to thinking that you did an awesome job at the “difficult” task of randomly tapping, then great.

Difficulty ramp-up

How difficulty increases in your game is another important factor. Is there a bunch of levels with similar difficulty until you get to transition point when things become suddenly harder? Or do things gradually get harder as you progress? The user will quickly create their own expectations after playing your game for a few minutes, and if you betray those frequently that are liable to give up.

Another important factor is how/if you notify the user about the difficulty for each level or area. Is there a big sticker that says “HARD” on certain levels, or a color scheme? Is hinted at from the name of the level?

When you do increase the challenge level midway through a game, consider giving them several options. For example there could be three stages, from which they only have to beat one to move on. Forcing users to beat a certain stage which is extremely hard, with no other options, is one way to quickly alienate your users.

All or nothing vs optional goals

Rather than requiring perfect performance to complete a level, a common technique is to allow getting through the level somewhat easy while including optional goals that give extra points. For example, some mobile games will show you one, two, or three stars, indicating how well your performance was on a certain level. You can usually replay any level to try and get a better score, and replay value is always a great thing for games. This is another way to reduce the chances of users getting frustrated and giving up on your game.

Interpretation of difficulty

Ultimately, difficulty is a very subjective thing and varies between users. One game I might think is a piece of cake you might think is a nightmare, and vice-versa for a different game. Users may be less inclined to worry about the difficulty if the game has nice visuals and enough feedback (like the Candy Crush example above).

For seasoned gamers, each genre has it’s own expectations dictating what is reasonable. For example, many console RPGs from the 80s were known to have hours without a save point, and those who beat them got bragging rights. Users will be comparing your game to others in the same genre and if you deviate too much it may catch them off guard. For example, a puzzle game where the first few puzzles each take roughly 3-4 hours would be pretty unorthodox and scare away many players.

Because of the subjective nature of challenge, doing proper beta testing with users from your target demographic is extremely important to a successful game. Ideally, you would watch while they play, observing where they got stuck and where they blew through effortlessly. Ask each of them how they felt about the difficulty – was there any surprises and was it satisfying enough?

Using only main developers for gameplay testing is dangerous because they have a very biased view of game, with prior knowledge the basic rules and tricks. Until you show someone outside the team you’ll never really know how difficult and intuitive the game is, and the more people that playtest the better.

In fact, one can get a good feel for the difficulty of a game before the visual polish is complete, so consider making quick prototypes of the basic gameplay and having your testers try those at an early stage in the game’s development.

(Image credit: http://www.gratisography.com)