The Difficulty With Difficulty

In between bursts of Rogue Process work, right now I’m poking at a couple of really cool games: Shovel Knight, a Nintendo-fused platformer that looks and sounds just gorgeous, and Ori and the Blind Forest, a more graphically complex affair but just as lush and beautiful as Shovel Knight. Both games trade on being quite challenging to play, and even though I really like hard platformers it’s tricky to walk the line between difficult and frustrating. It’s gotten me thinking about how difficulty works in games, and how I want it to work in Rogue Process – let me tell you about my plans!

One of the biggest problems with difficulty in games is how simplistic we are about it. In Deus Ex: Mankind Divided I can map every keyboard button to my own control scheme, I can tweak graphics settings like SSAO or MSAA with only a vague idea of what some of those letters even mean, but the game difficulty, the thing that actually affects how the game plays, is just three or four vague options like “Give Me Deus Ex”. There’s so many different things in the game you might have trouble with – sneaking around unseen, aiming guns, staying in cover, doing the hacking – but it’s hard to know which of those, if any, the difficulty level actually affects. In games like Civilisation V I often only need help with a few areas of the game – like balancing my economy, say – but enjoy more challenge in diplomacy or city management.

For a game like Rogue Process, where you’re asked to mix a lot of different skills together, it’s highly likely people find some bits of the game much harder than others. So to combat this, Rogue Process will have a lot of fine-tuned difficulty settings that let you change bits of the game while leaving others unaffected. The most recent one I’ve added controls the length and complexity of network node names, which are the phrases you type to hack things. Turn it up, and you get longer and longer codewords like “neurowinter” or “sheherezade”. Turn it down and you get simpler words and usernames like “net” and “punk”. In the future I’ll be adding settings that control how much time slows down when you’re hacking, how long alarm timers last, how plentiful resources are, and anything else we stumble across and think would be useful.

In Derek Yu’s amazing book about Spelunky he explains why he never added difficulty settings into the game, so that players would overcome their own desire to make things easier and learn to get better at the game. It’s a philosophy that has definite advantages and seems to work for Spelunky, but I think it sacrifices some things in order to get there. Giving customisable settings for a game does more than just let people ease their frustration. It gives more accessibility options to players who might need some aspect of the game streamlined or removed so they can play the rest of it, for example. It lets people design unique difficulty settings to set challenges for each other (I’m pretty sure the game is impossible with real-time hacking, but I’m excited to be proven wrong!) I’ve seen similar ideas in games like Invisible Inc (which has a perfect customisation system for its game modes) and Towerfall (which has similar accessibility motivations for some of its options too).

Everyone wants something different from their games, and difficulty is not just about challenge: it’s about ease of use, it’s about how much time you have to spare, it’s about how you’re feeling that day, it’s about whether you’re playing after a 10am coffee or just before midnight. We trust players to customise almost every aspect of their game experience, from modding to graphics to hooking up Guitar Hero controllers to first-person shooters. I think it’s okay to trust people with the game design too. Thanks for reading. Let me know if there’s something you wish you could turn up or down, on or off in games, and I’ll see if I can add it in! I have a bunch of things to tell you about Rogue Process this month, so come say hi on Twitter if you want to stay up to date, and I’ll see you in the next blog post!


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