on Mar 1, 2006
A while back I wrote about the difference in skill between the experts and the newbies when it comes to first-person shooters. Although I was talking about FPS games, this is a conundrum nearly every game designer needs to consider, and it leads back to the original Rampant Coyote post that started all of this: Should you make the game accessible (and thus far, far too easy for the “hardcore” player) or should you aim your game at veteran players (and thus make the game almost impossible for the newcomers)? Keep in mind that the more casual players are a larger audience, but it’s the hardcore that write the reviews.
You can alleviate this problem by making lots of difficulty levels. This will broaden the range of gamers that can play your game, but it’s a less-than-perfect solution. Most people, even newbies, don’t want to select “easy”. That’s like admitting you suck. Some people just don’t know that they suck. Some people know they suck but don’t want to admit it. So, lots of people will select “normal” when they should play on easy. But even if they know what skill level they are, and even if they are honest about it, the whole difficulty scale is still very subjective. The entire scale is likely calibrated by people who – because they made the game – are masters at it. So even if I know I’m a mediocre player, should I pick “Easy” or “Normal”? And there is another problem: What is the difference between “normal” and “hard” anyway? Is hard, “You will be frustrated and die sometimes”, or is hard, “you have no chance at success”?
The upshot: Everyone has different skill levels, and they also have different preferences for how much challenge they expect to face in order to have fun. Designers, being experts at a particular genre, have a whole different scale for what makes a player “average”, and they also often have a different idea for just how much frustration the player can endure before they are no longer enjoying the game.
This is a miserable problem, but some games can sidestep all of this completely. Of course I’m talking about RPG’s.
- “I’m an Elf, and I’m going blast this monster with a fireball!”
- “I’m a human, and I’m going to stab this monster with my sword!”
That’s pretty much the whole game, and you’ll notice there is very little playing of roles going on there. Nevertheless, from here on when I refer to RPG I’m talking about this sort of game where you have stats, powers, or abilities that grow over time as you defeat enemies and accomplish goals.
RPG’s can avoid this issue altogether by simply giving the player lots of freedom to move around and play the game at their own pace. Getting bored slaughtering weak foes? Then hurry ahead in the game to where the challenge and the rewards are greater. Having trouble or feeling frustrated? Then just take things slower, and grow in power before moving forward.
With a system like this in place there is no need at all for any sort of difficulty system. Everyone will, without prompting, find their own skill and comfort level that offers the right mix of challenge, risk, and payoff. Let’s take our two most extreme examples:
Grandma decides to play one of these new-fangled computer games the kids are going on about. So, she starts a new game of “Middle Earth Rip-Off IX: Ultimate Hack’nSlash” and creates a new character. The game suggests that “fighter” is the simplest character to play, so she picks that. Then she has to choose her race. She picks “elf” because he looks so friendly and likeable. She has no idea that the Elf’s low strength makes him a poor fighter. Then she has to allocate her skill points. The Elf looks like a very smart and affable guy, so she dumps ALL of her points into intelligence, charisma, and the remaining points into wisdom. What a fine fellow! He is so comely and smart, he’s sure to be a great hero! She has a few more options that control her character’s backstory and family origin, but those look confusing and don’t seem to matter much anyway, so she ignores them.
As she plays the game, she picks armor and weapons that look nice. Battleaxes are ugly. Metal armor looks bulky and uncomfortable. Her elven avatar looks much better in leather armor with a short sword.
Francis fires up the same game and he also creates a fighter. He knows instinctivly that a Half-Orc is the best race for this sort of character. He dumps all of his attribute points into Strength and Constitution, and then pulls a few more points out of the other stats and puts them into Dexterity. He’s read the strategy guide, and he knows that if he selects “Tribal” background and then “Son of the Chieftan” for his backstory, he will get several good bonuses to his combat abilities. He looks at the other options, does some back-of-the-napkin calculations, and comes up with the optimal choices that will maximize his power in the game. He now has the strongest possible fighter character that anyone could hope to create.
Before he starts the game, he sets up a few hotkeys and makes sure he’s familiar with the various armor types and which ones compliment the weapon type he’s chosen. He cares nothing for asthetics; only performance matters.
So now both characters are embarking on their quest, only Francis has a highly optimized fighter that is going to go through the foes in this game like some sort of Orcish lawnmower, and Grandma has a fine, handsome young elf who would lose a fistfight against Stephen Hawking. And yet, both of them can have a good time if the designers didn’t do anything stupid. The game doesn’t need to self-balance by making enemies weaker when the player is defeated. It doesn’t need to force the player to choose how good they think they are before they start playing. It doesn’t need to increase the strength of the monsters when it sees the player is highly optimized. It just needs to provide a series of areas with steadily increasing challenge level, and allow the player to spend as much time in any given area as they like.
Sure, Francis will burn through the whole game in eight hours, and it will take Grandma three times as long, but each one will find the game offered the right level of challenge. Grandma will hang around each area and farm experience to the point where she is nearly eligible for government experience-farming subsidies. Her character will level up many times before she moves on. On the other hand, Francis will pass quickly through areas because he knows he can earn money, items, and XP faster in the next area. Sooner or later he will hit a point where the game naturally starts to push back, due to his low level. He will get to a point where his skill at optimization and mastery of the hotkeys cannot overcome his relative strength deficit, and he’ll have to slow down until he has a few more levels under his belt.
Everybody plays. Everybody wins. (Everybody except for the monsters, of course.) The system is elegant, intuitive, and automatic.
Final Fantasy and Diablo are two games that have this going on. The games are very different in nature, but what they have in common is this self-balancing dynamic. Both games are also mega, mega hits. I don’t think these facts are unrelated.
What surprises me is the number of outfits that make these sorts of games that have no clue how the games really work or what makes them fun. Way too many designers regard this wonderful self-balancing dynamic as some sort of shortcoming that must be “fixed”.
A few examples:
- Freelancer had “pilot levels”. The higher level pilot you are, the better the ship you could fly. This is stupid and arbitrary (like, what? The dealership won’t SELL you the ship? Are we supposed to pretend this isn’t nonsense?) but the real problem arises when the game won’t let you level up until you complete certain tasks. Tasks which are hard. Tasks which would be easier if you were allowed to buy a better ship. Ships that you can’t buy until you level up. In short, they had a self-balancing system and then deliberately thwarted it.
- Dungeon Siege would have this dynamic, but there is a fixed supply of enemies. Once you pass through an area and kill them all, they are gone forever and there is no way to fight more. So, the game becomes very one-dimensional.
- Morrowind spawned enemies suited to your “level”, which sort of defeats the purpose of leveling up. The more powerful you become, the stronger every monster in the world is. It was still a fantastic game, but it was so in spite of this.
Self-balancing gameplay is highly desirable, and yet a majority of RPG’s thwart it. That’s just stupid.
Now I am wondering: Will Hellgate: London have it? Many of the developers from Diablo are making this game, but they are doing so from within a different company. It will be interesting to see how this turns out.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.