This week, I would like to tackle the subject of difficulty in games. Recently, I started a new play through on a turn-based tactical RPG on the highest difficulty. Having only played on normal mode before, I found it very interesting how the game made itself more difficult. In this blog, I want to go over some mechanics games use to raise the difficulty, and how I think they should be applied.
The first change usually seen in a harder difficulty, is the increased number of hit-points an enemy has. Hit-points are essentially the enemies health, when the number of hit-points reach zero they die in a sense. It’s fairly easy to see how this increase of health could make a game harder. If an enemy is hitting your character and you’re hitting back, the more hit-points an enemy has, the more they can strike you. Another example, is how a small increase can drastically change the game. Let’s say the number of hit-points haven’t raised much, and the enemies can only get one more hit on your character. If there are many enemies, that damage adds up.
However, I find that the mechanic I just mentioned, although the easiest to implement, can be the trickiest to balance. People play games to escape boredom, so what happen when you’re spending five minutes on a single enemy, trying to whittle it’s hit-point’s down to zero? That’s boring and the process of dispatching enemies can get old fast, the gameplay becomes repetitive and stagnate. If people get bored or become frustrated, they will stop playing the game. Increasing the hit-points of enemies does make a game harder, but it doesn’t make the player think. There is no added layer to this increase in difficulty, as it just wastes your time.
In order to add that extra layer of gameplay, the developers may give the enemies a new feature they didn’t have before. What do I mean by this? A new feature can be rather broad, but generally they change up the way a player approaches a situation or make the player think about their actions. For example, in an FPS the developer could give the enemies grenades when they otherwise wouldn’t have them in a lower difficulty. It would make the player think about the type of damage or penalties grenades could inflict, and possibly have them reconsider entering cramped areas where grenades would be most potent. Adding new spins on a level the player has explored before, can turn the level into a completely new experience.
Unfortunately, there is also a point where adding too many new features can work against a game. Sometimes the developer will add a completely new feature, and it might be unintuitive or detracts from the core gameplay. For example, in a level of an FPS your goal is to clear out all the enemies. In the more difficult versions of this level, the game may also have you protect an objective for a bonus. Suddenly because of this entirely new feature, the goal of defeating all the enemies becomes protecting this objective. Even though the objective is still to clear out all the enemies, the player becomes distracted.
The final way to increase the difficulty of a game, would likely be to change the enemies priorities. For example, instead of having enemies wait until you approach them, allowing you to pick them off one at a time, the enemies could rush you all at once. This kind of change, makes you drastically change how you approach a level. Instead of the player going on the offensive, they’re now on the defensive. The great thing about this change is that it makes the enemies feel more intelligent or aggressive, and this is without the game feeling unfair due to hit-point increases or gaining a new advantage over the player.
The downside to this kind of change, is how the game can potentially feel a bit too unfair. The game can never be on the same level as the player, so it compensates with more enemies. However, if they all advance towards you at once, the player will be overwhelmed. Another example, is if a boss with an incredibly high amount of hit-points is healed even turn by some sort of healer. It would make the level feel utterly impossible to defeat the boss. What needs to happen in these instances is a check or a flag of some kind. In the former example, perhaps the boss and a few enemies won’t advance unless approached. In the latter, the healers wouldn’t heal unless the boss was under a certain threshold of hit-points. With these restrictions, the game become much harder, but still gives the player a fighting chance.
Overall, all these changes to the gameplay will increase the difficulty. Of course some mechanics are better than others, but none of them are perfect. Each has their own flaws and when taken too far can ruin a game, this is already seen with the term bullet sponge (an enemy with an absurd amount of hit-points) being thrown around constantly in FPS games. Rather, I think a combination of all three mechanics makes for the best kind of difficulty, a game mode that makes the enemies more intimidating and causes the player to think more.