I don’t know about you, but there’s something incredibly satisfying about beating a difficult game. I’m talking a hard game that is reserved only for the players that are willing to take the time to learn every facet of the game, take their time with learning how to play the game properly, and learning new skills that will aid them in ultimately beating the game. It’s one of the things I love about Dark Souls (despite getting killed time after time) – whenever the player overcomes a certain challenge, it truly feels as if they earned it.
Yet, there’s a difference between designing hard games and games that are hard due to poor design choices. One type of ‘hard’ game is difficult by design, the other is difficult because the design flat out stinks. It’s the difference between Dark Souls and the original E.T. for the Atari 2600: one game is difficult and rewarding; the other is difficult and awful. Whether you want to design an indie game that is purposely hard or you wish to design an indie game with a normal difficult level, it doesn’t matter: use these tips to ensure your indie game is not difficult due to poor design.
Throwing players straight into the fire
Have you ever been in the position of taking an exam that you forgot to study for, only to find that the material in the test was quite foreign to you? It’s happened to me on a few occasions, and like you, the test infuriated me to no end. If there had been a way to stop taking the test and get at least a barely passing grade, I would have done it in a second.
If you throw your players directly into your indie game before you teach them the basics of your indie game, the game is going to be much harder than it needs to be. Even the best, most difficult games in history teach players the basics of what they need to do in order to play the game. Take Crusader Kings II for instance. It’s one of the most difficult strategy games I’ve ever played, but it at least features a handful of tutorials that help players to learn the basics of the game.
You don’t have to teach your players everything about the game before they begin. Rather, simply teach them the fundamentals and let them learn everything else about the game the more they play. A properly balanced game will teach the player more about the game the more they play, so ensure your game is balanced and teaching the skills needed appropriately.
‘If I can understand it, so can everyone else’
Never assume this. How many times have you played a puzzle in a game that seemed to have a logical answer, only to find that the answer seemed so illogical that you were left scratching your head in disbelief? This has happened to me on many occasions, and I’m usually left with looking up a walkthrough written by some schmuck that had to figure out this puzzle on their own just to keep progressing through the game.
This shouldn’t happen at any point throughout the game. Players having to look up a walkthrough to beat a certain area due to sheer difficulty is one thing, but to be forced to do so just because one instance of your indie game’s design is flawed? That’s a different matter altogether. Flawed design that makes it difficult for your players to continue progressing through a game will make them stop playing your game and move onto another game with better design in a heartbeat. It’s another reason why playtesting is so important. Remember: logical answers need to actually be the answer. If it isn’t? You’re going to lose players – it’s as simple as that.
The difficulty wall
Another problem that can make games harder than they need to be is the difficulty wall. You know the problem: you’re coasting along playing a game, when all of a sudden you meet a challenge that is seemingly impossible to complete. One minute you feel as if you are God himself breezing through the game, the next? You feel like your hands are tied behind your back and there’s no way to progress forward.
It’s the difficulty wall, and if your game has this problem, trust me: it’s harder than it needs to be. A well-balanced game allows players to become more skilled naturally, so when the time comes that you come across a challenging task, you will be ready. Nothing angers players more than the difficulty wall, so again, ensure your game is balanced perfectly to avoid your players giving up on your game altogether.
There are many ways that your indie game could become difficult for arbitrary reasons, but the main thing to take away from today’s post is this: ensure your indie game is well-balanced, and you will eliminate most of these problems. Difficult games can be fun, but when they’re difficult as the result of poor design choices? They’re just not fun. Avoid these design woes, and your indie game will be difficult for the right reasons.