Friday, October 18, 2013

Game Difficulty

As a byproduct of Steam trading cards, I have been playing a number of games to get the free trading cards and to make myself eligible for free card drops. As I  have a bad habit of buying lots of bundles due to the cheap price, there are a lot of games I haven't played. Some of them are games that I am not particularly interested in but as there was a game I wanted in the bundle the other games in  the bundle are "free" games. Getting trading cards have motivated me to at least try the game long enough to get the cards. I have heard that you don't even have to play the game but simply need to have the game running to get cards but I really don't see the point in doing that.

This has resulted in me realizing how poor a lot of game tutorials are. It also reminded me that if you can't quickly capture a player's interest in a game, you will probably lose that player as there are lots of games to play. The biggest obstacle to keeping a player playing is the difficulty of the game. I am not talking about how hard a game is, though that certainly is a factor, but how hard it is to figure out how to play a game. Far too often I have seen potentially great games overwhelm the player with far too many things all at once.  In some cases, such as 4X space games (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) it is understandable that there is so much complexity as there are so many elements to the game. Even then, however, it should be possible to create a tutorial campaign that automatically handles the bulk of things for the player and slowly gives control of them back to the player as they work their way through the campaign.

This leads to the game-too-hard issue. It seems that far too many games seem to expect the player to have played similar games. The person who doesn't play these games all the time, or have never played that type of game before, are not going to have the skills or knowledge that a regular player of a genre has. Not allowing non-hardcore players into a game due to reliance on skills learned in other similar games only results in a genre shrinking and eventually dying. It is important to make a game accessible to newbies. The trick is figuring out a way to do this without boring the hardcore players.

Difficulty levels are one way, but far too often a easy level only gives the player  more health, it does nothing to ease players into the more complex game mechanics. Foe example, in a platformer have extra blocks that only appear on easy difficulty that prevent players from falling all the way to the beginning if they fail a more complex jump. If you have a section with a time-limit, perhaps the easy level should have a longer limit as people playing on easy probably aren't good at the precise jumping needed to reach the target in time. And any game with boss fights should probably give the player a way of bypassing the fight after the boss has trounced them a dozen or so times. I am sure some people are looking at my suggestions and saying "but games are too easy" without also noting that I am talking about games set to an easy difficulty level. People playing on an easy difficulty level are probably not that good at that type of game otherwise they would be playing the game on a harder difficulty level.

Of course there are cases of the opposite. Too much handholding is annoying, but I personally have never given up on a game because it has a tutorial that goes overboard. That said, if I am playing a game on a hard difficulty level, I probably don't need hints. Creating a tutorial that eases new players into a game while not being overly handholding for vetran players is a hard challenge that few games manage to do. Still, games like "Plants vs Zombies" and "Portal" prove that it is possible.

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