The subject of difficulty makes for interesting debate. There is a trend these days of making easier games to reach wider audiences. Is that a good thing? Back in the days of the Nintendo NES and SNES, games were much harder as a general rule, particularly when talking about modern Nintendo or casual games – although there are plenty of challenging games out there, still.
To a certain extent, difficulty depends on your target audience. “Newer” gamers, people who haven’t been playing for years and don’t have a high technical skill level with video games, are going to be happier with an “easier” game, but that doesn’t mean they want no challenge, either. People who have been playing longer are more likely to want a harder game.
To some degree difficulty depends who you’re targeting, however, as we’re going to look at, making a game easy isn’t necessarily the right way for mass audience appeal at all – in fact it may be the opposite.
The sweet spot that often gets talked about is easy to pick up, but hard to master. Arguably the new Smash Brothers is much easier to pick up and play for a new gamer than Mario Kart – I know because I’ve tried it out on my non-gaming friends.
In making The Nodus, I tested puzzles on both veteran gamers and people who never played games before. If the puzzles were too easy, they all got bored. If they were the right level of challenge, victory was satisfying. So regardless of skill level, everyone likes a challenge.
Interestingly, the level of challenge that I used for The Nodus in the end catered well to both new gamers and those highly experienced with puzzle games. I think that was mainly due to how my game taught through design, which I will discuss more later in the article.
How do we define the right level of challenge? Let’s explore this.
Hard But Fair
Ever played F-Zero GX? It was my favourite F-Zero game, and also one of the hardest games ever made. When you lost, it felt fair, because it felt like your mistake. Because I told myself, “If I just practice more, I’ll win,” it kept me wanting to play, even though it was hard. Feeling fair is very important.
Think Flappy Bird. There was a lot of debate about why that game took off, but I think it’s because the game was darn hard, and felt like, “I can do better next time”. That’s a powerful feeling to create. High difficulty means getting a good score feels amazing. If you die, it’s your fault, so it feels fair. Never underestimate the power of satisfaction that comes from completing a good challenge – this is why battle royales are so popular.
Too Easy Is Boring
Kirby on the Gameboy was one of my favourite childhood games, so when Nintendo said they were bringing out a new Kirby game for the Nintendo Switch, I got excited. Turns out that was premature. Kirby on Switch is a perfect example of making something so easy it’s just outright boring. Kirby on the Game Boy, however, was a decent challenge – I never beat the final boss.
One would assume they made Kirby on Switch easy to appeal to a younger and wider audience, but I think this is a mistake. In fact the original Mario games were quite hard and had wide appeal, and younger players are often highly skilled at video games, seeking greater challenges.
Is the “easy” direction the right way for mass appeal? Thinking back on the orignal Mario, Sonic, Zelda and Flappy Bird, I don’t think so. They should have looked at ways to train players to take on continually harder challenges, while also starting at a reasonable difficulty. The Mario games often do this quite well, so I’m not sure why Kirby failed so hard.
Risk Vs Reward
When I make games, I love thinking about the issue of Risk Vs Reward. “If I take this risk, I might get a big payout”.
That’s why Kirby on the Switch was so boring – there never felt like there was any risk to me. It’s also why I struggle to enjoy the modern Pokemon games, they are so darn easy, and there’s no real consequences to losing. I can’t imagine kids enjoying them in terms of challenge – I mean, kids play Halo, and Apex Legends, and whatever else their big brothers and sisters are playing. They don’t want or need easy games.
The only way to for me to enjoy Pokemon is the challenge of playing against other players, and that’s why I think Pokemon has survived, as well as the addiction of collecting.
The best example of Risk Vs Reward is Battle Royale. Have you ever played Apex Legends? You should. That game is amazing. It’s darn hard to learn, but the feeling of winning is amazing. If you haven’t played a Battle Royale, basically if you die, it’s game over. You have to be the last survivor out of 100 or so other players. Dying sucks, but winning is amazing – there are few feelings like winning a game of Apex Legends.
On the other hand, Apex Legends doesn’t let you start with guns. You can land in a low risk area with few players and guns, or a high risk area with lots of player and guns. If you manage to get a gun, you feel amazing. But if you die before firing a shot, you feel awful, especially when you have to wait for another game – this may cause some players to quit.
In a way, Apex lets players choose their own difficulty dynamically, because they can choose to go to easier area’s and hide – although to win, they will still have to fight.
I think you want to be careful how much you punish players. Having consequences for losing is good. A heightened fear of losing makes winning feel that much better, but if you punish players too hard, they might give up and quit. You don’t have to have consequences for losing, but they definitely make victory feel that much sweeter. That’s why Battle Royale’s became an entire genre.
The whole Rogue-like genre is similar to the Battle Royale in that if you die, you have to start again. That’s not so bad because you’ve invested less than an hour in the game. However, if you had invested weeks in the game, and then your progress was suddenly all gone, I think that would be too much for players and far too punishing. Find a balance.
What’s Too Easy?
For a lot of games, unless it’s player vs player, you want the game to start easy and then gradually get harder. How do you find the balance of knowing what’s too easy at the start and what’s too hard?
A lot of this comes down to play testing, but here’s a golden rule I learned through my puzzle games:
If they feel like they had to work for it, even just a little bit, they will feel satisfied.
Puzzle games like The Nodus are tricky because if the early puzzles are too easy for veteran puzzlers, they will give up. If the early puzzles are too hard for non-gamers, they will give up. What I found is, though, that if players had to pause and think about the answer to those early puzzles, even if just for a moment, all players were satisfied.
If they can solve it without thinking, that’s when people get put off. Make them feel like they had to work for it, even just a tiny bit. This principle is universal across all genres of games – make players feel like they have to work for it.
Teach Your Players
In fact the challenge ramps quite quickly in The Nodus, and the later puzzles are challenging for almost anyone, so it was interesting to find that the difficulty I chose in the end worked for all skill levels.
The worry, I think, with making a game harder, is that not enough people will be able to play it – that too many players will get frustrated. This, I think, is only an issue when you haven’t designed your levels right so as to teach players how to play your game.
When you play through The Nodus, without realizing it, you are learning new skills continuously. Each new puzzle not only presents a new challenge, but teaches a new skill that later levels require. It is the job of a designer to not only increase challenges, but to help prepare the player through good design to be able to overcome the later, and greater, challenges.
Part of this is by how you design your levels. If possible, introduce one new mechanic at a time. To have wider audience appeal, I find designing the earlier levels in a more guided way is helpful, but then gradually pull back. You might take a bit more of a guided approach in teaching a new mechanic in later levels, however, if the mechanic is a bit abstract.
Above is the “tutorial” for the prototype of The Nodus. It tested well. There is not text. For players who have never played a block pushing puzzle, they can only move in one direction, and are forced to push the block down the narrow passage, teaching them the block pushing mechanic.
Also, to teach the skill of pushing blocks from multiple sides, and using corners and the level to your advantage, I force people to have to back track and push the block from the other side to get the block to the cross. When the block reached the cross, a positive reinforcement sound effect played, with some fire works, to reinforce to players they did the right thing.
Having the first level designed in this way, with only one way to go, helped teach all players the basic mechanics (push the block to the cross), without text, and the success rate of later levels, as well as player enjoyment, was much greater. It’s basically just a tutorial without text, disguised as a level.
If you teach your players well, through design and not through tutorials, then they will learn how to play the game without realizing it, and they will be equipped with the right skills as you ramp up that difficulty.
The second level for The Nodus prototype was easy for most players, but you still had to stop and think, and it taught two important things. One is that the blue blocks are obstacles – you don’t have a specific goal to push them to, they’re just in your way.
Two is that sometimes you have to shuffle the blocks around a bit, so you push the orange block first, so that you can get to the blue block, to move that out of your way, to then get the orange block on the cross. In this puzzle it’s quite simple, but that mechanic is re-used in various ways throughout the game, and again, this helped equip players for the later challenges.
So to summarize the key points of this article:
- Too easy is boring
- Make losing feel fair (players mistake, rather than designers), and winning feel possible
- Challenging is generally better than easy
- Risk Vs Reward – having consequences for failure makes victory sweet, but don’t punish too hard
- If players have to work at the solution just a tiny bit, it likely won’t feel too easy – so long as you keep raising the difficulty
- Instead of making a game easier, look at how to teach players to play your game
- Teach players the skills they need through the design of your game, so they can take on the later, and harder, challenges
Now good luck making some challenging games.