Game Design 101: The Difficulty Curve
So today I’m going to be fulfilling one of my original intents for this site, and that is talking about game design for a bit, and there’s a reason for that. I want to make video games, I know a bit about video games, and chances are those scammy game design courses at colleges are only going to teach you to make woke visual novels about how your dad is a bitch and doesn’t approve of your testicles being cut off. It’s like art school at this point IMO, you could go to a profession in college that would likely get you further in the industry, or you could get some “education” where instead of teaching you how to do art, you can just draw scribbles on a page and get an A+ for it. Seems great right?
The problem is, that doesn’t tell you how to make good games. If you’re an avid gamer though, you’ll probably learn what makes games good, and you’ll play a lot of games. If you’ve played tons of games like I have, you’ll know many of the basics, the basics needed to make a good game that doesn’t suck. Perhaps one of the most important things in any game is what I like to call the difficulty curve. Now the most important goal of a game designer is to “hook” the gamer, to get them interested in the game and to keep them playing, to keep them sinking hours upon hours into said video game. A gamer isn’t going to be some jobless loser willing to sink in 5-10 hours into some game to get to the “good” part, they want to get in on the action the minute the installation finishes on their game console or the Steam download finishes. I was once in a college class and I asked a classmate what they thought about Bioshock, and they hated it because it didn’t get them hooked on it.
Single Player games: Endless Frustration
With single player games, there’s a long long history of developers trying to make every dollar count. During the early days of console gaming, developers would take the arcade route of trying to make the game harder so you’d play the game longer, and maybe sell a few game guides here and there. Games cost a lot of money, yet were short, and in a place like an arcade this made sense. You had arcade games that would try to munch your quarters, rewarding the player with the chance to get further in the game, and similar to pinball machines the games would last forever as you’d rack up points…or until you got to the “kill screen” where the game would stop working due to programming errors from developers who assumed you wouldn’t get that far anyway. Eventually after the North American gaming crash and as hardware got more advanced, arcade games evolved, usually keeping the difficulty but featured both higher production values and the rise of the “continue”, a feature that’d allow operators to make more money as one could pump in quarters to beat the game, increasing revenues.
As consoles got more and more advanced with the rise of the CD, new game genres popped up as games tried to get more cinematic, first with FMV games with little gameplay that thankfully died off quickly, and later with games slowly getting longer and more cinematic. The PS1 was when the industry finally got the grasp of the CD format and games that tried to exploit the CD went from point and click games or FMV games to role playing games that had pre-rendered 3d cutscenes and could stretch over to 4 discs at times. Even stealth games like Metal Gear Solid or horror games like Resident Evil started becoming multi disc games, and this trend reemerged during the Xbox 360 era when games like Mass Effect 2 and 3 became multi disc titles as well, and many of the final games like Metal Gear Solid V or Grand Theft Auto V were multi disc as well. The gameplay format shifted as well, ditching lives and replacing them with checkpoints especially as some games started handing out lives like candy, only to become a frustration when you’d finally die…and get a continue option to start further back anyways. Developers would then balance difficulty and offer difficulty settings in mass market games, that is before the current gen where the FMV game mentality reared its head again as games like The Order 1866 or anything developed by David Cage felt like you were merely playing a real time rendered movie with areas you could make decisions at.
Some niche games tend to be the opposite of games that play themselves though, and this ends up turning off potential players. Case in point: the shmup genre. Shmups don’t sell quite well and for a good reason: They’re engineered to be quarter munchers. They are designed and engineered to be as difficult as possible, so you have to memorize them and each level to beat them, and the difficulty is designed to progressively get worse. Furthermore, if you want a high score or to beat the second loop, you can’t use continues and many times to get to a second loop (if there is one) you need to beat the game once and clear specific objectives. Technically they’re usually quite good, with high production values typical of arcade games and a OST that holds up well. Gameplay on them is another story, and if anything, they’re famous because of how brutally hard they are.
Do people actually play these games outside of the core demographic? Not really, and Touhou is a great example of this. Look up Touhou and you’ll get millions of views on YouTube for remix videos that are memes essentially.
Look up the games themselves, and you’ll see videos of streamers reacting to the games, maybe a playthrough, and some remixes and “behind the meme” type videos, all with fewer views.
What if we look at a game that’s well known in said genre but not so much outside the core demographic? Well, it looks even worse.
You can see that more people looking up this obscure game just want to crank up the YM2151 chiptunes on their smartphone Bluetooth speaker than they do playing the game itself or even watching people beat the games. Ouch. Or another great example, SNES launch title Gradius 3:
I think you can tell that more people are interested in the aesthetics of these games than actually playing them and it makes sense. I mean look at Battle Garegga, great music and art direction but good luck passing level 1 without smashing the 5 key on MAME. They’re fun to watch, fun to jam out to on your smartphone plugged into your 2003 Kia, but not so much to play. They’re either frustrating, or too easy because you used continues. They’re what I like to call spectator games, they’re dull as hell when you play them but if you’re watching some pro autist who wasted hours of his life memorizing it play it, it can be fun in it’s own way, especially if there’s a streamer adding commentary and screaming when he beats it.
Sometimes these games become sleeper hits due to their perceived difficulty. Demon’s Souls and later Dark Souls was a good example of this, it was a sleeper hit and became notorious for it’s difficulty, based on memorizing levels, a clunky battle system, and streamers struggling with it. It was a high budget version of that “hardest game ever” you’d play on school computers if miniclip wasn’t blocked.
A game that’s balanced on the other hand you can pick up and play, it has some difficulty, and yet it doesn’t hold your hand or play itself. It’s good, fun, quality entertainment to waste away your free time after your day at school, when your parents are out of town or your single mom’s working or getting wasted again, or you got back from your mentally grinding high stress job that made you take up smoking. It has a difficulty selector likely and doesn’t feel too frustrating. Getting stuck in a game isn’t fun at all, unless you’re watching DSP get stuck.
Multiplayer games: “It’s a good game but don’t go online”
I don’t like modern multiplayer games as much as I used to years ago. The quality has gone down, and the main mentality of people who play multiplayer games is “I’ll buy what’s hot on Twitch/what was advertised at GameStop”. Multiplayer games this gen are launching without features that were standard on the Xbox 360 or PS3 era of games, and I miss when games would have voice/text chat, social features, dedicated servers (on the PC and some console games like BF4), and even tie ins to a website as well. Furthermore, a lot of gamers nowadays I tend to notice are broke, especially in my age bracket when rent, car breakdowns, and medical emergencies land you in the hospital again. Either that or they’ve bought a generic multiplayer game on Steam to play with their friends, played it only a handful of times, then went back to playing the same old same old game (or whatever hyped up game is popular this month), even if you ask them to play the game you want to play they probably care more about playing CSGO, GMOD, Fortnite, Siege, or some other cookie cutter multiplayer game. Now multiplayer games are barebones experiences, with matchmaking instead of player run servers, some titles even lacking game mode selection, voice chat being nonexistent, and text chat being crippled, either with a phrase selection menu or worse, word filters in the game. At least with single player games they don’t have the issue of “you have to play what everyone else plays”.
Back when multiplayer games were good, back when games were about having fun, and back when everyone wasn’t writing Kotaku articles because someone called them gay online, you’d have a skill curve in many of the popular titles, especially the mainstream Xbox 360 or GameCube titles where anyone could pick them up and play them and be decent enough with not too much playtime. They were balanced in a way where someone with zero experience with the genre or game itself could pick them up and play them, yet these games took some skill and time for a player to truly get good. A lot of GameCube era Nintendo titles were like this before getting gimped with the Wii versions, or popular Xbox 360 shooters like Halo 3 or Call of Duty. You could invite your friends over and have a good time, or go online and actually have a good time while unwinding from the local indoctrination center… er sorry I meant public school or your mediocre job working retail/fast food that you absolutely can’t stand.
The skill gaps were narrow enough to the point where it didn’t feel like you were playing a slot machine, a game so random that you’d feel like anything that happened in the game was a result of luck or RNGs favoring poor players in order to make them feel like they were badasses yet weren’t wide enough to the point where you’d lose interest fast since every online match ended with you losing, and this is a good thing. If the skill gap is too narrow in order to favor people who are bad at video games, well better players will catch onto this and lose interest. Modern Nintendo games with blue shells you can’t dodge and mechanics being nerfed or removed is a good example of this, and how can we forget Smash Bros Brawl and the infamous “tripping” mechanic that made the game so despised. Or better, how about Halo 5’s developers even admitting that the game has auto aim, with the developers saying that if they’re doing their job right you’ll feel that badass.
On the flipside, you have the genre of games I see being marketed exclusively to “pro gamers”, or tourneyfags as ED calls them. While games like Halo 1 or Smash Bros Melee might have been designed as party games, certain mechanics in them led to them gaining a competitive community organically. Then you have games being marketed to the esports crowd, since it’s the new hot trend in gaming. These are games with extremely wide skill gaps, engineered to be the exact opposite of pick up and play games. These games have very high difficulty curves, where just like those single player games you can sink in hours upon hours of playing them and still not be remotely near good. Counter Strike and RTS games (including MOBAs) fit this category, for example Counter Strike might have very crude shooting mechanics lifted straight from Half-Life and even CSGO tries to emulate the gameplay of the original, but it has a big pro scene. You only get one life per round, and once you die you wait for the next round to begin. It’s worse with multiplayer only games because at least on single player games like Starcraft, you can play a story mode. This gives RTS games a distinct reputation, the reputation of “This game is good, but don’t go online. You’ll get your ass kicked by pros and Koreans.” You can play multiplayer, but unless you’re playing with your friends who are likely playing CSGO again you’ll be getting your base destroyed while you’re still building it time and time again. It’s not something you want to play if you want to have fun.
I’ve felt like I’ve wasted money on games that I’ve only played a few times because the online is a mess and full of people like that. And don’t get me started on the whole “experience” system you find in newer games where you can only get the good items if you sink in hours of the game or grind up like crazy. There’s nothing like getting your ass handed to you by a high-level player who has all the good items while you’re stuck on the basic stuff, look at GTA Online (Shark Cards: the game) or any F2P game for a good example of this mentality at it’s worst. Many older games on the other hand either had every player on the same level playing field or in the case of games like Call of Duty, even a low-level player with few unlocks can still do well.
But those older games had the perfect balance, and that’s why they hold up so well to this day. Those “esports” games on the other hand become irrelevant when they’re declared obsolete by the game developer, when the community moves on, and they’ll have limited appeal to gamers playing them during their heyday or when they’re big, the gaming version of those teenagers who tried to get on the sports team thinking they’d be a ball player, only to eventually move on when they don’t make the cut and go back to pursuing their college dreams. They’re more fun to watch people play in awe, as you ask yourself how many hours they wasted to get good at a video game.
Don’t make a game too easy, don’t make a game too hard. Hard games can be frustrating and boring (and only attract diehard gamers), easy games can be boring. Here’s a semi-related video worth a watch about diehard gamers who spend hours gaming.