Something about difficulties and how to vary it up

  • Kylaila
  • 08/11/2019 01:32 PM
What is "difficult"?

There are many approaches to this, and many people experience different degrees of difficulty or ease in games. Some people do well in some genre over others as well. Me, I suck at puzzlers and real-time strategy. I suck really bad.

Difficult is whatever needs some sort of good use of the game mechanics/knowledge to win the game. Which also means there is a lose-condition if you fail to meet that expected skill-level or knowledge. If you can go the path of least resistance and still win, you will keep it up, and you would call it easy. That often also involves the use of the mechanics being more impactful than grinding. In other games, though, it might also require grinding to catch up with the next boss. Good difficulty is something that can be overcome one way or another, and feels satisfying to complete. Good difficulty makes you feel powerful, or proud or both. Difficulty is also varied. There are various ways in which one can be challenged, and a game can be deemed easy or difficult looking at different aspects of it. In the end, most games that are deemed difficult are either geared towards a specific target audience, or just present a lot of challenges and learning experiences for the player (aka, they first fail before winning). Being able to handle these hurdles and to navigate challenges is what makes it satisfying.

For RPGs especially, this approach also means that if you cannot gleam that necessary knowledge from what is available in the game and observation, it becomes less difficult as it becomes frustrating. The moment I need a full-guide to explain to me how I can beat a certain boss something went wrong somewhere.
Similarly, the need to grind and spend more time training needs an investment and is a mixture of the two. Because while you do know how to counter it and use it in the game-knowledge aspects (more levels = more raw power), it is a mixture of frustration as well as it halts your progression. It is best used as an alternative method to give you an edge, or need that little extra, or that one next spell. If leveling up gives you access to stats and recruitment, it might even force you to learn to use that system. However, used as a choice, grinding allows one to complete a build or goal the player set for themselves, but it will not be seen as difficult by any stretch of the imagination.

To give an example, the Shin Megami Tensei games are largely perceived as difficult games when the combat system mostly revolves around using elemental weaknesses. They net you extra turns, and you lose extra turns if you do it wrong. Some people find that easy, and some do not. The difference, however, is that if you do not use this system to its fullest and exploit what you can in how you split up your turns, you are doomed to have a horrible time with battles, even if you are high in level. That is what makes them difficult - you can lose them, and you can lose them even if you grind. I remember playing Devil Survivor where I saw a forum peep struggle in a certain fight with parties around lvl 30 when I did fine with lvl 15 on a replay. This gap shown through in-game experience is what I would call "difficulty". Does it mean you need to be incredibly smart or have incredible reaction times to beat them? No. It does mean you need to consider and think about your choices, though, lest you fail. Lastly, concentrating "only" on the battle screen hides what other difficulties there are over the course of play, and there are many that contribute to this "gap" - if you have a poor set of team members, even the best strategy can't save you because you lack the necessary options.

Types of Difficulty

There are many types of "mechanics" that can make the game difficult or not, and those also determine who finds it difficult and who does not. On one hand, there are some trained responses and skills you simply cannot grasp all at once. Think of rhythm game or the precise quick building in real time strategies. In most rhythm games, you just hit that start button, select a song and do the best to conquer what's thrown at you. You can know all you need to do, but if your hands/brain can't keep up with the speed, you can't perform well at the game. But once you can, you can apply it to different games of the genre. To accommodate all kinds of players in these games they are either targeted at specific target audiences, and/or give a range of difficulties to slowly work your way up and get used to the mechanics and movements. On the other hand, most RPGs do not have these physical requirements. Instead, RPGs have some of the most varied mechanic-compilations you can find, because they usually allow enough time to interact with them. They may at times not be the most intricate or detailed, but definitely varied. And because RPGs are most able to mix them all up, a lot of other genres are copying such systems to engage the player in more layers, and with a lot of game feedback, as RPGs track most things you can do. There are things you can plan beforehand, there are certain characters you can/can't use, there are story events affecting your setup and environment, there are things you can plan for in the long run when it comes to building skills and spells, and at the same time you need to use all you have in immediate fights.

Ignoring those possibilities would be tragic, and incorporating different ideas into a coherent blend is what makes RPGs so great.
I suggest three major categories for how different mechanics split up and make for a satisfying experience. There are different mixtures and some games focus more on one than the other, others mix them all up. There's active involvement, in-depth strategy and long-term strategy. All of these revolve around needing to use the options at your disposal effectively, although you have different time spans to work with.

1. Active Involvement AKA Reacting

I would like to call the first active involvement, it keeps you on your toes and focused on what is going on in the game. It means reacting to what you see and what is happening. It demands your attention.
The difficulty in this is that you have no time to prepare or lay out plans for this particular situation as you didn't directly anticipate it (ideally), and that failing to make a right choice when prompted can make you win or lose the fight/objective/event. It's the type that is most likely to give the player a rush of adrenaline.

Most obviously, real-time commands or other quick time actions fall under this category, such as the Shadow Hearts series employed. It might also look like simply healing after being critted. But it also involves reacting to what enemy group you encounter, what spells they use, if there are messages about the enemies (usually bosses') behavior such as THE ENEMY IS CHARGING FOR AN ATTACK, and just other things that are impossible or hard to predict. It could also mean reacting to changes in the dungeon (like the exit being blocked, or some tiles hurting you, or poisoning you) and you trying to react to it accordingly, or making sure you conserve your items instead. The list is endless, and that's already excluding action RPGs like Monster Hunter that made this rush their trademark.

In RPGs "Elemental Weaknesses" keep you on your toes because you need to always be aware of enemies weaknesses and choose your spells accordingly. It is a simple pattern, but the fact you need to consider it means you are more involved and looking out for your enemies than you would be otherwise. Of course, if the impact is minimal all of this may become more of an afterthought, instead.

Following that train of thought, large health bars are an all-too common and major crime to satisfaction derived from active involvement. Why? Because those health bars aren't moving! I am not just talking about needlessly long boss fights here, I am talking about games where the party can survive 10+ hits before needing a healing spell/potion. Worse, I have seen this happen especially often in games with longer dungeon portions. Sure, these dungeons will eventually wear you down to the point where you will need to heal, but you can heal whenever is safe and convenient to you in that case. Aka after combat. That's a routine, not a reaction. Even if the system remains the exact same, having smaller character HP bars will make a game much more engaging because a critical hit will then have actual consequences and become something to worry about. It will also lead to "I can't believe I just barely survived this" moments, and a player wanting to "heal up in advance" (as in, either healing up to full HP so as not to get accidentally killed in a crit when 50-60% HP, or in healing so as to mitigate a strong charged attack of the enemy, provided that enemy attacks before you heal). With smaller HP bars falling below in HP to a point where it's a risk occurs far more often, and in less predictable ways.

If there is nothing react to, then this means that a lot of the active gameplay is dull, boring and certain things just become a means of getting somewhere else. It'll be routine. One might accept this, but then other areas will need to make up for it.

2. In-depths Strategy AKA Analyzing and Exploitation

In-depth strategy on the other hand is not just about the immediate situation at hand - say, a fight you are in, but in thinking in a more proactive larger sense of understanding the game and being able to make better, informed choices. It could also be observation, or mechanical depths offered by the system. It's using the system to its fullest, be that because the player failed before, or because they want to win harder.

This could be identifying enemy patterns, trying out different spells and comparing damage, trying out how to most effectively kill certain enemies and so forth. Many times I at first completely missed such patterns. And then once I noticed them, I was able to counter or at least anticipate them in enemies, and set up enemy kills most effectively. It may take an active process to really look out for patterns.

It can be planning before the fight, like taking the proper spells for a dungeon or boss with you (if you have the option to change them out), or it can be chaining spells together for maximum effect, timing them so they are most efficient. Are there debuffs? Synergies, cooldowns? Are there any balancing issues, for example, is magic weak or strong in this game? It can be thinking of what party members you need to take with you for a particular fight. If you can switch party members - when do you do that, and for what reason?

This, I find, is most often emphasized in terms of difficulty, as it requires noticing and analyzing patterns, as well as using your abilities to maximum effect. It's using your smarts while fighting, especially after encountering a too hard to beat foe and doing it again, just better this time.
The key is that at this point, and in the game as a whole, your decisions can change the outcome. If the wall is too hard to climb that even after utilizing the system to the fullest you don't feel any closer to the goal, it can become very frustrating. If leveling is the only way to proceed and stats triumph all, this area of difficulty is neglected. Likewise, if there is no difference between barely winning a fight and owning it mechanically, this might make it less fun to try hard. This is where different mission rewards come into play, and a fast fight, or keeping civilians in SRPGs safe from harm might earn you extra money. That, or the simple fact you saved mana and resources for later thanks to your brilliant tactics.

3. Long-term strategy AKA Customization and Preparation AKA "I am building the OP"

This ties in with number two, but I make it into a different point, because it is a different execution of the same ideal - make things work well, long-term. Real, real long-term. Of course, you are most able to do this effectively you need to analyze the system, but there are more choices involved here, and this is an area that most depends on how much freedom the game gives you.

Long-term strategy involves setting up the party that you will be fighting with for the entire game. There are various things that later on you cannot change anymore! It could be conserving strong items for when you really truly need it, and might also include saving up money NOT gearing up, because you know there is yet stronger gear to come that you may not afford if you do spend it now. It means stocking up on supplies, getting new gear, setting up new spells, crafting, you name it. A lot of these you are set with once you are in the middle of a dungeon, and you cannot adjust them later - or only later after finishing the portion you are on. Once you are in the dungeon you cannot really fuss over your equipment or skill trees. You just use them.

Outside the dungeon, you can think about this all you like and many games and certain genre specifically give you countless options to make this happen. Be that in distributing stat points, having different skill trees, or thinking about different party constellations. Persona 3 for example has you select the party to go into the dungeon with before you go, and the other party members are waiting outside - making switching midway impossible! And while this takes away options while in the dungeon, it emphasizes the decisions you made outside of it and beforehand.

This can be just picking the characters you like, or going for a certain strategy (like buffing physical attacks between each other), or having a healthy balance to be able to handle any type of situation. It could be selecting a party that is apt at boss fighting (and needs you to rush through the mobs to get to the boss quickly).
Often, especially if the system allows a lot of customization, it could be a trade-off between being weak for now, but being destructive later. For example, in Fire Emblem this could mean retaining classes that literally perform worse than new ones you unlocked, just so you can finish mastering that old class and receive a special bonus or skill that you will carry with you FOREVER. This literally increases the difficulty of the next fight for you, and it's a risk the player takes knowingly. Long-term, though, fights will become increasingly easier.

This is a really interesting factor, as - depending on how important these options are, and how many you have - you need to commit to a certain plan of action even before encountering any monsters, and even sometimes before entering the game world. If your party is good at magic, and bad at physical attacks, you will ideally need to adjust the way you play. With so many different "plans" being viable for different purposes, there need not even be the "right" or "perfect" choice. Dungeon crawlers tend to capitalize on this, as do a lot of Strategy RPGs, and even fancy action games like Grim Dawn/Diablo 2 etc. do it, even if it is as simple as picking a build and sticking with it until it works the way you want it to.

The difficulty in this is that while many viable options exist, you may also completely miss out or make a mistake setting things up. You might realize the way you have been distributing skills on a character is making him weak or even useless. You might realize sticking to that one party setup you chose is making it much harder for a particular boss, and that that previous focus has left the rest of your party underleveled.

It changes the way you behave and can act in the battle portions, and adjusts your difficulty in there for better or worse. "Poorly" planned parties with bad synergies can make the end game incredibly difficult, while others can easily destroy everything. Of course, if you have all the options outside of combat, and in combat you only have an attack button left, combat might feel stale or boring no matter how much tweaking you can do, but the satisfaction of building a functional party cannot be denied.

The Result:

Rather than thinking about how difficult, or how easy your game or your system is, I would like you to consider where it's difficult, and if other areas are lacking. Incidentally, you might notice that none of the points necessarily require to be all that difficult. At times they might even be easy decisions to make, but they contribute to a sense of necessity for those decisions. All these areas contribute to an engaging experience at different times and different levels of a game, and that to me is what difficulty should be used for.

Here's a short review list:

1. Active Involvement

- short HP bars
- heavy hitting enemies and party
-> enemy/party weaknesses
- events during explorations
- surprises, ambushes
- irregular enemy behavior
-> messages in-fight or in-dungeon
- real time events (extra damage or dodge mechanics)

2. In-depths Strategy

- combat systems
- enemy patterns
- enemy/party weaknesses and strengths
- party formations
- spell and equipment selection
- item use
- health/mana management
- buff/debuff use
- may utilize rewards for special combat/world achievements
-> acknowledgement or "titles" work too

3. Long-term Planning

- item and money management
- training, upgrading units/classes
- skill tree systems
- spell learning/training
- stat distribution
- party formation/character creation
-> e.g. put together a party to play with at the beginning
- varying character aptitudes
- quest and time management

All of these contribute to game engagement and difficulty, and players who excel at long-term planning will automatically have an easier time with all other aspects of the game, seeing how their options become stronger. I suggest to look at the many ways your game challenges the player, and would urge you to make sure the Active Involvement doesn't suffer from the systems you are implementing. I hope this list helps in identifying ways to make games challenging and fun, and that it helps to identify ways that games challenge the player beyond the battle screen.


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Yeah, I totally agree. We all have our preferences. That's why games that try to pander to all different kinds of players are often times hit-or-miss (see, for example, all the shooter games that tried too hard in years past by trying to be Diablo and Fallout at the same time). Rather than incorporating as many elements as possible, it's more important to design these elements flawlessly, which includes difficulty. Nowadays, most developers at least warn (potential) players - or advertise - about their games being "unforgiving" (my unforgiving stance is, as a rule, to avoid these games).

Since JRPGs are complex amalgamates of features, most JRPGs can't give me everything I want. There are always "missing" or "unwanted" features that directly influence the difficulty - to name a few:
- Random encounters (can lead to wars of attrition, but can also make the game easier if the player uses the opportunity to fight many battles)
- Linear dungeons or dungeon mazes (a matter of attrition and plot progression)
- Absence or presence of mini map and/or quest log
- Puzzles and mini games (can be serious roadblocks if they're too hard/obscure or require godly reflexes)
- Scarcity of money and (free) healing items (you gotta "love" these games in which necessary grinding doesn't net you enough money for one full party healing)
- Steal mechanics (completely change fighting procedures, especially during boss fights when the player tries to not get slaughtered while stealing the boss's items)
- Monsters drop or don't drop equipment (this can make all the difference in terms of difficulty)

Referencing your example: If you want to crawl dungeons including lots of exploration, then you'll probably shy away from JRPGs with linear dungeons and compressed (world) maps. At least such a game, which severely limits the player's options, shouldn't be too hard (in more ways than one). ;)
Why, thank you : )
Oh absolutely! That's why there's so many flavors of games out there to begin with.

I mean, I find most quick-time-events horrid, but I admit to really enjoying Shadow Hearts combat-hit-spinning-circle-thing. Most of the time I don't even think it's the mechanic itself, but the fact it's just randomly tossed into a pool whether it makes sense or now.
I quite like low-HP enemies for this one (me loves some dungeoncrawling), and figuring out how to most efficiently defeat a new group of enemies is a lot of fun to me. Some people find it the most boring thing in the world - me? I really like it, and exploring new corners of the map just as much.
Interesting article, even written by a fellow-countryman - it's a shame I didn't notice it sooner. Thanks for your hard work.

I think many of the aspects related to "Active Involvement" are also a matter of preference. While I'm certainly able to handle real-time events in JRPGs, I'm just not a big fan of them, so I tend to avoid games that rely too heavily on them (I only want to play turn-based JRPGs after all). The same applies to design choices that I deem artificially restrictive or annoying, such as mission structures and/or (too many) one-time-only dungeons etc., day and night cycles, low level caps and so on. In this regard, I definitely prefer routine over reaction and innovation. If I want constant excitement while "playing", I'll hit the streets and provoke some random dudes. :D
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