When I started writing role-playing games for a living, I had a lot of ideas for how an RPG should be. Many of those ideas were good. And quite a few were stupid. This post (like a similar post a few weeks ago) is about one of the errors I've made in the past. And error I've made again and again, with increasing energy, until I finally went way too far in Avernum 6 and made a resolution to never, ever to do it again.
It's like this. I have long thought it was cool to, in any given area in a game, place one encounter that was far harder than the stuff around it. It would be some special named or boss with tougher abilities and better loot. These little nuggets of toughness were always optional and always had special text warning the player that there was a really nasty foe here.
The basic idea behind this was that it gave the player a challenge. A place to stretch his or her abilities. Something to come back and try later to test your strength and see how much power you have gained. Sure, it'll slaughter you the first couple of times you run across it, but it will give you the motivation to work harder and prevail! It's a hardcore gamer way of thinking. This sort of thing is something I think is neat and has a place, if you're very, very careful about it.
But in Avernum 6, I went way, WAY too far with this. There were way too many encounters that were rough and meant to be returned to later. I actually had one bandit dungeon where the boss was super-tough. "Ah," I thought, in a moment of exhaustion and idiocy. "This will be cool. The player will kill the early bandits, get some lewt, and then see that the final boss is an entirely different sort of character and back off and come back later."
How sadistic and stupid is that? To let the player fight through a dungeon and not give the satisfaction of finishing it off. To add one more item to an ever-increasing list of things to remember to return to. To doom most players to several attempts to kill the boss and getting slaughtered before they figure out that they have to return later, wasting their time and goodwill.
I just patched Avernum 6 and removed a bunch of those dumb encounters, but the structure of the game means there are a few that have to stay. That really aggravates me. But, at last, after fifteen years, I think I have finally learned the main lesson:
Difficulty In a Game Should Have a Curve With As Few Bumps As Possible
When you are supposed to enter an area, you should be able to handle all of the encounters and quests in that area. Want to put in something tough? Save it for the next area. Seriously.
There is no way around this. If you put in a little nugget of difficulty, most players will still try to take it on. And they will fail and be frustrated and hate you and not play your next game.
When you suddenly make the game's difficulty jump without warning, you aren't playing fair with the player. And if you give a warning, most players will ignore it. I swear, I put in "OMG this room ahead is megahard guys srsly!!!" warnings all the time, and nobody ever listens to them. Nor should they. Characters in games tell them how lethal the territory ahead is all the time, and then they enter it and prevail. No reason to think things should be different here.
If there's an unexplored area, people will enter it. And, if they get killed, they won't remember that they were warned. They'll just hate you.
Also, making players go back to already-explored areas is bad form. People have enough to worry about in their lives as it is without remembering where they left behind some giant they need to go back and kill. Some games pad out their length by making you paw over old dungeons looking for secret goodies (and Batman: Arkham Asylum and Shadow Complex do manage to make this fun), but, unless you handle it really well, most of the time it's best to just let the player go on to cool new stuff.
Of Course, There Are Exceptions
There's no need to be absolute about it. Putting one or two badasses in your game can be all right, if they're cool. A perfect example is in Dragon Age: Origins. There's this valley with a dragon in it. When you enter, you see the dragon sleeping there. Then you find a gong. And, if you ring the gong, the dragon wakes up, flies over, and hands out the pwnage. You can beat it, but it's really tough.
This is a perfect example of how to handle a difficulty spike. Totally optional. Very clear that it's there. And, if you get yourself killed, you totally know you deserved it. And it's the ONLY encounter like that. So that's OK.
But outside that? Players hate to lose. You're in the Adolescent Power Fantasy business, after all. If the player has every reason to expect that they should be winning, you should let them win. Or, at least, have a very good chance of not dying.