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. Certainly “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. People who have been playing longer are more likely to want a harder game. So it partly depends who you’re targeting.
The sweet spot that often gets talked about is easy to pick up, but hard to master. Super Smash Brothers is a game that’s really great at this, although others games don’t succeed as well. 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.
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 whole bunch of debate about why that game took off, but I think it’s because the game was darn hard and also felt fair. People loved the challenge, because if you got a good score, it felt amazing. And if you died, it felt like it was your fault. 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. That game is a perfect example of making something so easy it’s just outright boring. I played the whole first world and not once did I feel even remotely challenged – I can’t even remember if I lost health. Next game please.
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. I can’t even 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 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.
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.
I think you want to be careful of 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 Roguelike 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 they had to pause and think about the answer to those early puzzles, even if just for a moment, they were satisfied, so long as the next puzzle was harder, and the later puzzles challenging enough for everyone.
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.
So to summarize the key points of this article:
- Too easy is boring
- Too hard might be off putting
- If you’re going to make it hard, make it feel fair, and also possible
- Lean towards more challenging over easier, as challenge breeds interest
- Target the difficulty to your specific audience
- 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
Now good luck making some challenging games.