Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Design Theory 02: Difficult Design Decisions.

First things first, this is the game over screen for Blast O Nauts!  The asteroids carry the same motif of being buttons, so the three big ones will have text in the final version.  On to the discussion!


A games difficulty is of huge importance.  Some genres come with a certain level of inherent difficulty (shmups and rougelikes for instance) whereas others can run the gambit from easy to soul-crushing.  Other genres can have a mortality rate of 100% built into the design itself (arcade games) or not have a "losing" condition at all (Harvest Moon).

With this in mind, you'd think that most people would realize that the difficulty of a game should not be based on a gold standard.  You hear a lot of crotchety "old" gamers complaining about how easy current gen games are, and a lot of people that play a game like Henry Hatsworth or Demon's Souls and say it "ruins the game" for them when its too difficult.  Fact is, depending on what the overall design is like, "hard" games can be great, and "easy" games can be too!

Let's go back to Demon's Souls here, just because its the most current.  Now, by my own admission, I don't know that hard is the correct adjective for Demon's Souls.  I think "strict" is more apt a descriptor.  Once you know the levels, and the enemy strategies, most of the game can become pretty easy (the boss fights are another thing entirely though...I'm looking at you New Game++++++ Maneaters), but should you mess up, thats where the "strict" part comes into play.  You die, your health is cut down by 1/4-1/2, and then you have to survive all the way back to that point to get all your souls back.  Thats harsh, but again, once you get the strategies down, you learn to deal with it.  If the game was easier, would you be playing it your 6th run through the game? Not likely, you'd find no challenge and put the game away.  The fact that even a high level character can be defeated in 3-4 strikes from most enemies is a challenging prospective.  In this case, difficulty keeps you playing the game after the first playthrough.

But heres the thing, in order to play a game with the sort of risk/reward inherent to Demon's Souls, I need to be mentally ready.  If I'm stressed or tired, Demon's Souls is not the game I pick up from the shelf.  I will be destroyed, because quite simply, its a stressful game and you will not do well!

So what about easy games?

We'll, what about the Lego games? Lego Star Wars, Lego Batman, Lego Indiana Jones, etc.  These games are easy, obviously marketed to a younger audience (thought they certainly fit the "fun for all ages" category) but they are still a lot of fun.  Theres virtually no death penalty (the player respawns quickly thereafter, but drops a percentage of "studs" or in-game currency) and the player can complete any stage through sheer determination.

The key to the Lego games is the content. The lego games have tons of collectibles, so the game design is more about exploring, less about combat.  The stages are minimalist, allowing the lego parts to stand out even further, and the player keeps playing to unlock more content.  It certainly doesn't hurt that drop-in/out co-op is a major feature of the game, since theres nothing more fun than beating up baddies with friends.

So my closing point is this: Difficulty doesnt make a good game bad or a bad game good, but if used correctly, it can help a game find its audience, and keep them playing longer.