As someone who has played games since their Dad used to kick ass on the Intellivision, high game difficulty is always something I’ve yearned for. A game being hard just to be hard isn’t what I mean however but rather one that can teach a player a skill, then increase its hurdles to help hone that skill further, and push them to their limits. My problem with most games recently however is that they don’t seem to understand the proper way to balance difficulty vs. enjoyment, or rather, how to scale your game properly to keep it fun while increasing the difficulty.
Typically, when we say scale, we are looking at games that have various levels of difficulty to choose from. The way the game scales is how it adjusts its options and features based off of what difficulty you choose. Games are typically broken up into “easy, normal, and hard” modes, with another mode unlocking after the game has been completed. However, with games like Dragon’s Dogma, the mechanics and AI don’t become smarter but rather, tend to do more damage and usually instant kill the player. This is an example of incorrect scaling as they are manageable on easy and normal with encounters still being entertaining.
The second you scale the game to only “increase damage” then the challenge becomes more about changing the way you fundamentally play the game and limiting the way the player can enjoy the game. Say the player enjoys melee combat and sneaking up on foes. If the game’s AI at easy and normal allow for this play style, but then at hard completely become unable to sneak up on, doesn’t that ruin the experience for the player? You may say, games don’t tend to do something exactly like that, but Dishonored 2’s hard mode actually makes the awareness of enemies so high that sneaking doesn’t work anymore. It essentially shuts down an essential part of the game and therefore ruins enjoyment. So how can you avoid this? How can game developers push themselves to create a more difficult experience for hardcore players while not ruining the general experience of the game?
For a perfect example of scaling done right, a recent RPG I played, Tales of Zestiria scales by limiting experience while increasing monster level. That may seem odd but let me explain. Basically, the game difficulty scales similar to the following.
- Easy – Battles that are not too challenging and allow the player to continue through the story unhindered. Experience is gained at a high value but gold gain and item rarity is lowered.
- Normal – Battles are of decent challenge and players must overcome some menaces to complete the story. Experience is gained normally as is gold. Item rarity is also normalized.
- Hard – Battles are challenging and players must become skilled to complete the story. Experience is lowered but gold and item rarity is increased.
Basically, ToZ uses its difficulty as a way to give players of different play styles ways to change how they approach the adventure at any time they want. Players seeking just the story have easy mode that allows them to breeze through and enjoy with the added reward of winning battles. Players who want to see some of the cooler gear but still not struggle can pick normal mode and players who feel like the game is too easy can play on hard, while also being rewarded with items that are far stronger than the ones from the other two modes. This creates a reason to play on the other modes and, from my experience, it plays the same no matter which mode you’re on. The increased monster levels actually help your exp continue forward in hard mode so you still get around the same exp while also having more challenging fights. Although, in ToZ, those fights were often against enemies 20 or 30 levels above your own.
Challenge in games or game difficulty, is subjective but the games that people love often have recognized exactly how to scale their games appropriately. Super Mario Bros and Halo may be the best examples as they both use smart scaling to push the player without changing the fundamental core of their respective games. Super Mario Bros does it through progressively harder level designs and new concepts being mastered throughout each and every of their games. Halo does it by tweaking the intelligence of the enemies, increasing their numbers, and making head shots / understanding of weapons far more important.
Game difficulty is a very intricate part of any game design and one of my favorites to think about. However, it’s crazy how incorrect scaling can completely break an otherwise perfect experience for those masochist players out there like myself.
Andron (or Ace as he likes to call himself) is the so called "Head Honcho" of Bombchu.com. He has a deep passion for video games primarily RPGs, Fighting or Adventure. When not gaming, he's furiously typing on his keyboard or coming up with new schemes.