Thursday, February 10, 2011

Three Rules For Difficulty In RPGs

As I put the final touches on Avadon: The Black Fortress, I am finally wrapping up the most touchy, painful, contentious part of the game: play balance. Should it be harder or easier? Is this particular fight fair? How many players will wash out halfway through the game and be forever angry at me for my suckitude?

The fans of role-playing games are a pretty diverse bunch. Some prefer stories. Some fixate on stat-building. Some want to beat everything easily, and others are irritated if there are no challenges. It's a pretty amorphous blob of interests, and nobody can satisfy them all. I just try to appeal to as much of the blob as possible.

Over the years, I have made three observations regarding game difficulty. These are the ideas I always come back to as I decide how tough a given section or encounter will be. I think these guidelines are, to the extent anything can be in a creative endeavor, The Truth.

Observation One: There are two sorts of fights in an RPG: Fights that are supposed to be easy and fights that are supposed to provide a challenge.

In other words, first, there are fights that will almost never ever kill a player, also known as trash, or trash mobs. If your trash mobs are frequently killing the character, your balance is messed up. (Early versions of Avernum 6 had a big problem with this.) Most of the time, the vast majority of the fights in a game will be this sort.

Then there are fights that the player can possibly lose (mini bosses, bosses). And, of course, for fights that can kill the player, there is a spectrum of how likely that end result is. Some bosses will only kill you if you really aren't paying attention. Others require actual skill and strategy, and maybe a few tries to get your tactics down.

Observation Two: In an RPG, you have to have some of both sorts of fight.

RPG fans expect a lot of trash to slaughter, so they can be a badass and Conan-like and so they can collect experience to get strong and get new spells and swords and stuff.

The trickier part is understanding the need for tough fights. Very often, players don't like to be seriously challenged. They hate to lose. They hate to lose repeatedly. Sometimes, the temptation to just give up and have every fight on the default difficulty be easy peasy is overwhelming.

But you still need to have tough fights, for several reasons. A game full of only easy fights against trash is monotonous and dull. The suspension of disbelief in a role-playing game is delicate, and, if a dragon is only as tough as Goblin #0145, it just feels wrong. And because the adrenaline rush of achieving something difficult (be it slaying a demon lord of winning a game of solitaire) is one of the great pleasures of computer games, and you just can't lose that.

So, you might ask, why don't I just put in tough fights and really carefully balance them so that everyone can beat them in just a few tries? That brings us to the third observation, which is both subtle and vitally important.

Observation Three: If a fight has any chance of beating the player, there is a percentage of users who will NEVER be able to beat it.

It took me a long, long time to realize this. Too long. But it is vitally important to understand the difficulty of doing game balance.

Everyone has bad days. Everyone has blind spots. Some people who reach your tough fight will have used up all their healing potions, or refuse to use the healing potions, or forget that they have healing potions, or never have realized that healing potions are potions you can drink that heal you. Because of this, whenever people reach a tough fight, there will be a few of them who just can't beat it. They just can't. You can adjust the percentage of people who lose, but it will never be zero.

(By the way, along these lines, if you put any puzzle or riddle in a game, there is a percentage of users who will never figure it out. This is why I've drastically reduced the number of puzzles in my games. Arguably, I have reduced it too much. It bears thinking about. However, this is my rationale for doing it.)

When someone loses to a fight more than three or four times, they will almost always be angry, and they will always blame you. Some of them will temporarily lower the difficulty, get past the fight, and move on. Some will gut it out and prevail. And some will ragequit and you will never sell a game to them again.

I try to appeal to a wide group of customers, but there is one customer I can never appeal to: The gamer who can't beat a fight and refuses to lower the difficulty. I get e-mails from this person all the time, expressions of hurt and betrayal and rage, accompanied with the promise that they will never buy another one of my games. A promise I believe, by the way. I hate getting these e-mails. Everyone does. It's like a punch in the stomach. But I suck it up, send a nice message back, and move on. It's like death and taxes. It's part of the biz.

But, with every difficult encounter, I eventually have to plant my flag and say, "You must be at least this badass to go on this ride." If you aren't sure why I do this, please consult with the reasons accompanying Observation Two.

Of Course, These Aren't Universal Laws

I expect that the standard swarms of hair-trigger internet nitpickers haven't read this far. They went to the Comments to excoriate me based on some minor point about Observations One or Two, or they want me to explain how Shadow of the Colossus can be a good game with only boss fights. (Answer: Not an RPG.)

But role-playing games are a genre. Genres have conventions. That's what makes them Genres! I can go along with the conventions or fight against them, but, either way, they are part of the DNA of the games I make.

Role-playing games need trash and they need bosses. Put both in, and never lose sight of what makes trash trash and what makes bosses bosses.


  1. One thing about play balance that annoys me is when a game designer decides that his balance decisions should override my ability to tune the difficulty. For example, if at the beginning I decide that I want to grind a bit so that I'm just a touch ahead of the leveling and cash/materials curve, because I'd rather waste a bit of time up front than micromanage resources and fights later, and I'm mostly enjoying the story, then please let me do so. If I spend a few hours grinding, only to find out that not only has the designer autoleveled the trash (which isn't so bad, as those fights should be easy) but also autoleveled the boss fights, my most common response is to curse at the game and uninstall it, and find a different game whose designer doesn't waste my time like that. And no, a selectable difficulty switch is not an adequate replacement for this - psychologically it's much different, and in most cases the difficulty switches are nowhere near fine-tuned enough.

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  2. Observation Three is particularly astute, and I am sure it applies especially to puzzles. A great issue with puzzles is that the more interesting is, or rather the more it requires lateral thought (as opposed to, say, fitting tiles together or solving a Sudoku), the higher the probability that even a clever player will simply lack the piece of insight or knowledge required to solve it. To wit, I've played action games and RPGs where I've had to replay a fight even dozens of times, and as difficult as it may be, I know exactly how to succeed: I need to reduce the enemy's hitpoints to zero. Because of this I have learned that, if I really want to, I can complete nearly any action game on its highest difficulty.

    On the other hand, if I am playing a game which makes puzzles an integral part of its gameplay (such as Silent Hill), or especially if it consists entirely of puzzles (such as Riven), I can pretty much rely on needing to consult a walkthrough at least once or twice, or I can be stuck for literally years without any discernible way to make progress, apart from clicking every pixel on the screen. (3 in Three, much as I love it, did take me about six years to beat).

  3. I'm not sure that all RPGs need trash mobs. Look at something like Demon's Souls. I think it's quite obviously an RPG, but there's really no such thing as a totally easy fight. There is always a really good chance that a given encounter will kill you, at least the first time through an area.

    Once you know an area and it's monsters, you can breeze through, but the first time is always dangerous.

    I would love to see more RPGs along these lines, with fewer throwaway fights, and more constant danger. I'd also like to see less fighting overall.

    I enjoyed the Avernum games, but there were many easy but tedious fights. The encounters in that game tend to take a while, just because of the design, so I would have been thrilled to have fewer of them, as long as the ones that did happen were meaningful.

  4. Great post on a tricky problem.

    I think the "Super Guide" in Wii Super Mario Bros is a elegant solution to this problem. If you die eight times on a stage, it makes a button appear that you can press that will make an AI Luigi auto play through the level. You can take back control at any time. Luigi takes the most boring route, skips all extras, and you only get partial credit, you have to go back and play the level yourself it you want full credit. It's described on gamefaqs as, "Basically the Super Guide is kind of like handing the controller to your friend or sibling that can get past the tough parts in the game before handing it back to you." But the key thing is, if you get stuck it's a way to keep progressing on the game anyways. And, importantly, it happens within the context of the game, you don't have to pop out to a difficulty menu or anything. It's also a form of tutorial -- by watching AI luigi you can learn gameplay.

    By adding the super guide they were able to make SMB wii much more difficult than they would have otherwise. This pleased the hardcore players, and didn't bother the casual players.

    It would take some doing to adapt this to an RPG but it might be a good tactic. Especially if you could go back and retry the battle later.

  5. @Nat:

    3 in Three, much as I love it, did take me about six years to beat

    If it is any consolation, the creator of that game has spent far, far longer on making the sequel to Fool's Errand.

  6. There's definitely a place for cheat codes and walkthroughs to get you past the tough stuff in a game. I don't feel like I've really cheated if I do either one.

    Sometimes the game flow is about a story flow - how "Then my character did this!" and so forth. When I as the player get stuck, it interrupts that flow. I guess that's why I generally play games on easy mode so I can enjoy the flow of the story, or on super hard mode so I can enjoy the challenge of the obstacles being presented.

  7. @Skip: I noticed you were talking about a game designer wasting your time.
    Let me see if I understood what you're saying: somebody sits down for like a year or so and writes a game that will take you between 30-60 hours of your time to complete. In essence this person is telling an interactive story, hoping you might like it. And you are actually complaining how he dares not catering to your special needs of difficulty-independent micro-managemement-mania not doing precisely what you want at any given time? And you call that wasting your time?
    Either you've never had anything remotely like marbles to lose or you are just a sorry... ah... just fill in whatever suits you.

    After following discussion on the forums I have to wholeheartedly agree that there is absolutely no chance whatsoever to meet everybody's demands. For what it's worth I always thought your games were pretty well-balanced for a casual gamer like me. I enjoy being caught off guard every once in a while, not anticipating a foe, or even having to reload in order to win a fight. I also think that your games had more dangerous, potentially lethal encounters in the past than there are now in earlier parts of the games. But this may well be some nostalgia-driven yearning for times past. Your games are still awesome.

  8. Outstanding blog post, JV. Concise + TRUE.

    I especially agree with the sidenote that you've lowered the amount of puzzles in your games too much (to basically zero). The puzzles in A3 were badass and ridiculously challenging (Golem Factory), and that is why its my favourite game.

    Just one man's opinion of course, but if that's your instinct, then I say go with it.

  9. This article is great, I like the feeling when you're having trouble with a fight that you're at least progressing.
    EG. There's a lavawave that takes out the left side of the platform, so you have to get to the right. You'll get that right next time and that'll make the fight easier.
    Perhaps a cool idea in a game is to give you a temporary difficulty lowering button, that makes the game easy for the next one fight.
    Same goes with puzzles, show that you're making some progress and I'll keep on trying.
    Usually if I drop the difficulty in a game, I end up playing it on Easy from then on.

    If I hit a fight I can't beat after a few tries, I will just put down the game and never usually play it again (even for games that I've paid like $50 for), because it's too much of a challenge and frustrates me, I just put it down.

    Keep up the good work Jeff :)


  10. The difficulty levels in your games have always seemed well balanced to me. I never got into the Avernum series (no offense, but I liked the Exile series too much) but Geneforge always seemed to have a good mix of obviously near impossible "challenge fights", bosses that required thought and planning and trash that you had to pace yourself properly to clear. I find it to be tons of fun to see how many Scorpions or whatever I can kill without have to return to town. Death is just the games way of telling me I'm not doing it right.

    On a somewhat related note, as a younger individual, I thought the Day 160 event in the Tower of Magi was a really great moment. It was insanely challenging for me, but I always found someway to make it work in the nick of time (and without using the editor). Same with the Fury Crossbow quest; challenging, but doable. Anyway, I'm looking forward to trying your new game.

  11. Adding optional content that is more difficult to than required elements is one of the best ways to deal with the problem of skill disparity between players. Hardcore gamers don't mind seeking out their additional challenge, while casual players won't mind bypassing it. By designing a game with this in mind, you can please more people.

    (I wrote so much more but fortunately the character limit stopped me from posting that long-winded nonsense, as this one paragraph gets the point across fine)

  12. Yup, I meant exactly what I typed, locmaar. I buy a game for the story. So I'm buying that 30-60 hour storyline. When the game designer makes it so that I can't experience that in a fun manner, but does so in a way that it's not apparent for several hours, yes, he has wasted my time.

    I'll give you a concrete example of what I'm talking about - I'm playing game , and I'm not min-maxing, I'm just taking skills/spells that sound fun and interesting. I could name , as a number of games have fit this pattern, but the specific game isn't really all that important. Anyways, at a certain point things start to become difficult, I'm quaffing health potions like candy and constantly having to run back to town for more of them, and constantly on the edge of being out of money as a result. This is what's known as 'not fun'. This probably happened because the game designer tuned for min-maxers. So I stop, go grind out a level to have just a touch more health and mana, and then go back to where I was before, and now all the trash mobs have leveled with me? At that point I have two options - reroll and start over and min-max, or dump the game and pick something from the pile from a different shop.

    I have an absolute _ton_ of games in my 'to be played' pile, so option 2 will almost always be the choice. And in both cases the game designer wasted my time - he promised a storyline but designed his game in such a way as to make it unlikely that it would actually be delivered.

    Now you might say that the problem was the game balance designing for min-maxers. But then if you make it designed for non-min-maxers, the game will be way too easy for those guys, and hence not fun.

    So what about the difficulty settings? Well, many games don't have them, and the ones that do are usually very blunt intstruments. Like, 'oh, this orc will have 8 hp and not attack on easy, 34 hp and use all his abilites on normal, and 80 hp and have 90% resists on insane'.

  13. Well said. In my upcoming RPG Planet Stronghold I have both easy/hard fights, but I provide a way for the player to always pass them, if they want to wait, beside 3 difficulty levels.
    In practice even the most clumsy player will be able to win if he can wait long time to build up a stockpile of Grenades to use on the enemies XD

  14. I agree with the approach of optional quests. There can be puzzle quests, exploration (read: time consuming) quests and high reward/tough enemies quests. You then have the option to skip any or all of these types. I, too, am a fan of E3/A3, and it had all three of these types.

  15. @locmaar:
    ...somebody sits down for like a year or so and writes a game that will take you between 30-60 hours of your time to complete. In essence this person is telling an interactive story, hoping you might like it. And you are actually complaining how he dares not catering to your special needs of difficulty-independent micro-managemement-mania not doing precisely what you want at any given time? And you call that wasting your time?
    Either you've never had anything remotely like marbles to lose or you are just a sorry... ah... just fill in whatever suits you.

    As unromantic as it may be, the amount of time it took to develop a piece of media is usually not relevant to the quality of that piece of media. If a game is poorly-made, it is poorly-made whether the author created it over the course of three years or three weeks.

    Furthermore, publishing any sort of media is tantamount to opening it up to criticism. This is as true in games as in films or books or music. If I create a game and distribute it publicly, I am essentially saying, "I have created something good enough to show to you." If you disagree, it is extremely reasonable for you to say so. If I create a game and sell it to you, I am saying, "I have created something which will be worth $50 to you". If you later decide it is not worth $50, then you have every right to say so, provided you do so in a logical manner (and not as merely yelling).

  16. Puzzles, as in moving light beams, tiles, boxes, or pushing buttons are the worst part of any RPG in my opinion.

  17. Re observation 3:

    I think the "Super Guide" idea has a lot of merit, and deserves being explored in the rpg genre. That said, there are other solutions that could be used instead of (or in addition to) it.

    My personal favourite is the following: include challenges, even really difficult ones, but let the players finish the game without beating them. The most obvious approach is making them optional, as part of a sidequest; an example that comes to mind is Ultima Weapon in Final Fantasy VII, which had nothing to do with the plot whatsoever - it was just a big dumb boss wandering around a zone, which happened to hit absurdly hard. The problem is, you can only use this trick so many times with boss battles. On the other hand, you can have pretty much any number of optional puzzles related to bonus treasures without hurting the plot too much.

    Another way to present challenges without blocking the plot in case of failure is the non-lethal fight. The most recent example of this that I can remember came up in Dragon Age: after a rescue mission, you got ambushed by an absurd amount of city guards, in what was one of the toughest moments of the game. Sadly, the fact that this battle wouldn't kill you wasn't communicated well enough, to the point that I 'lost' it half a dozen times before finally defeating it... yet I never realized the guards just sent you to jail, until I read a faq after the fact! See, as a RPG player, my impulse after losing a fight is reloading immediately without waiting for the end screen - so this is a bit of a design trap.

    Incidentally, Dragon Age also provides a good story about observation 2. In my playthrough, I found that the game had two types of fights - but they were 'challenging', and 'very challenging'. Now, I enjoy a tough fight as much as the next rpg fan, and it was not like I weren't progressing through the game (even if it took me far more reloads than I expected)... but the encounters that should have been thrash just took too much effort. I just wanted to relax and enjoy the filler fights while playing in autopilot, but the game wouldn't let me. I almost abandoned it halfway because of this, until I though about lowering the difficulty. It's far from an intuitive move (to this day, this is the only game where I remember doing such a thing), but it worked wonders: it let me plow through most of the long dungeons without concentrating too much, and left me free to enjoy the exploration and story.

  18. Observation 1 is flawed. There shouldn't be any fights that don't pose a legitimate threat. The point of view you have professed here is the one which creates the "grind", and it's a significant problem in these games. All fights should be able to kill the player, otherwise your decisions don't really matter and the gameplay is not interesting.

    Observation 2 is flawed because there shouldn't be *any* of the "easy kind" of battles. It's also flawed because it implies that just because RPG fans "expect" something, it's justified.

    Observation 3 is true, but is kind of obvious. Sadly, it's less and less true, since games are so unholy easy now, requiring nothing but the ability to follow simple instructions. The problem is, games shouldn't be about COMPLETION. This is the problem you're struggling with. If your game isn't about completion, then it's OK that the player doesn't beat a certain boss. Look to roguelikes for an example of much more sensible design.

    Role-playing games do NOT need trash. All fights should be significant. The only reason to make any fights easy is to ensure that the player sees all of your content. This is not a valid reason to rob them of a fun experience.

  19. @Keith Burgun,

    What if a player--or a particular subset of players--has more fun seeing content than they do fighting difficult battles?

  20. How about this:
    if difficulty is easy or normal and player got killed by boss two or three times in a row then:
    make boss die from heart attack as soon, as it sees player ("your rage of thousands blazing suns overwhelms %boss_name% and it dies") or weaken it greatly by some kind of accident ("astonished by your persistence, %boss_name% tripped and wounded itself with it's own sword ") or do any other 'heavenly help'.

  21. This is an excellent post and I think I'll respond to it.

    I'm an old school pen and paper rpg player. I started with D&D in the 80's.
    Now, in a pen and paper rpg, dead is dead. Yes, some of them have rules and spells that allow resurrection or cloning or similar but in general your character is as precious to you as your own life. You've invested time and effort, imagination and many many dice rolls getting them to the point where they can face the big threats.

    I have transferred this attitude to computer rpg's. I don't like to die. If I die it ruins my belief in the character and the story. Yes, I do reload and continue but a tiny part of me has died along with that character. If a character dies repeatedly then I really start to lose interest in them. They aren't the great hero that I want them to be anymore.

    That said, I do like a challenge. I wouldn't class myself as a min/maxer but I do explore every corner of a game to ensure I haven't missed anything and I do spend some time ensuring that I have a balanced character/balanced party and ensure that I don't set out for a dungeon crawl with only a packet of crisps and a bottle of whiskey.

    Now, going back to pen and paper rpg's, obviously there's a human being behind the game and he/she can at will change the rules of the game/fluke a roll/change a decision if they determine that things aren't going quite as they planned. This can often keep you alive when you really should have died by the rules of the game. Such GM fixing is generally few and far between and should be as again, it interferes with immersion, but it is there.

    As a roleplayer, I like a mix trash mobs and boss fights. I like a computer game to be cinematic or literary. Using an analogy from a favourite novel of mine. In the Shannara series the weapon master Garet Jax cuts through trash mobs as though they aren't there and I love that idea, the hero that makes fighting seem easy. However, does this translate onto the computer screen? Only if you have the imagination to allow it to. I sit and I watch my characters slice through trash and I'm living the fight and imagining the character as they cut through these temporary impediments to their progress. Other people are no doubt thinking "Another bunch of trash mobs - boring!". So, it's down to your persepctive I guess.

    I'm not a computer games designer - to be honest I wish I was and I know what I would do if I was to address this problem. I'd ask the player before they even started. The questions would be along the lines of.

    "Are you happy for your characters to die?"
    "Are you bored by trashmob fights?"
    "Do you like puzzles?"
    "Will you put this game down if you get stuck?"
    "Will you put this game down if it's to easy?"
    "Do you wish to know the challenge on an encounter before you start it?"


    Based on the answers the player gives ( and most players know what they want ) they then have the game playing exactly the way they want it.

    Just my two penneth.


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  23. I wonder how you ever manage to balance fights to be easy or hard?

    Since it is a RPG some players are going to be wildly different in their stats and abilities.

    Do you do any thing to try and prevent some builds that seem to work, suddenly becoming impossible to beat a section of the game with?

    For example the Diablo 2 Blizzardess that is a great character except vs the ice immune monsters.

  24. @Nat: I have no problem with criticism. Nor do I have a problem with people saying bluntly what they think of any given piece of art or craft. What I am having issues with is people accusing somebody who has invested loads of time, love and energy (and probably money as well) to create something that this somebody has been wasting their time. I feel a designer who creates something that's just not any good probably wasted a year of his life doing so. It's a shame that no good came from it, yes, but to accuse him of wasting my time seems to be a very brattish attitude.

  25. @Skip: I totally agree, that's why I wholeheartedly hate games with auto-leveling mobs: they make leveling simply pointless! As well remove the levels altogether. It's a lie from the developer to the player: you think what you are doing matters, while it actually does NOT. This is very wrong: everything you do should matter, and you should never be fed up lies.

  26. (By the way, along these lines, if you put any puzzle or riddle in a game, there is a percentage of users who will never figure it out. This is why I've drastically reduced the number of puzzles in my games. Arguably, I have reduced it too much....)

    I hate to punch you in the stomach, Jeff, but I hated the second Avernum trilogy, although I loved the first one, specifically because just about the only challenges were combat-related. (Another issue was that the games just seemed smaller--it looked like there was less space to just wander around and explore. I suspect there were just as many squares on the map and this was an illusion created by the fact that cities and dungeons were on the same "scale" as the rest of the map, rather than little dots on a larger map that opened to new locations.)

    As far as observation three is concerned, I like the Super Guide idea and Ilya's, but my thought was maybe it would help to integrate difficulty settings into the "You're Dead" screen: If you die 3-4 times in the same area, that screen could ask you, "Is this too hard? Click here to make it easier." Similarly, if I spend a lot of time working on one puzzle, you could start offering me hints, up to and including a link to a walkthrough. In both cases, I think you'd need to provide an easy way for hardcore gamers to shut off the offers of help.

  27. Apropos of nothing, but:

    "And because the adrenaline rush of achieving something difficult (be it slaying a demon lord of winning a game of solitaire) is one of the great pleasures of computer games, and you just can't lose that."

    ...I really do think there should be a Demon Lord of Winning a Game of Solitaire.

    (Yes, yes, I realize it was just a typo. It struck me funny, is all.)

  28. I generally agree with this post. I'm none too fond of trash mobs, but I recognize that they have their uses. Also, let me say that I'm really glad that Spiderweb games have adjustable difficulty settings, and ones that really matter, unlike in say, KotOR or Fallout 1. More games need those.

    On the apparent non-existence of RPGs without trash: what of Final Fantasy 13? I don't think its design philosophy applies all that well to Spiderweb games, because of the differences between console and PC RPGs, but it's at least interesting from the perspective of theory.

    Aside from the early 'kid gloves' segments of the game, FF13 has very few trash mobs. The distinction between mooks and bosses still applies, but for most of the game even the mooks are fairly challenging. Even the weakest require one to at least pay attention, and the harder ones are practically bosses in their own right.

    Now, in most RPGs, especially console ones, this would be heinously frustrating. FF13 averts this in two ways: first, the party heals fully after every fight. Second, on a game over the player can restart from immediately before a fight, rather than having to reload from the last save point. Thus, instead of having to burn through a king's ransom in consumable items after hard fights, or slog through the same half hour of dungeon over and over because of game overs, one can start each fight fresh. And it makes makes each battle feel important, since the player has to be competent and attentive at all times.

    This approach isn't without its problems: game overs still damage immersion, and there are some boss fights that are just bloody frustrating. Overall, though, I find it a good way to avoid boring trash fights.

  29. I suppose it depends on what you mean by "trash mob." Is it the fight that is mathematically capable of posing a threat, but that threat can be negated altogether without subjecting your thinking muscle to more strain than a mild tickle? Is it the fight that can't kill you at all but will cost you precious resources? Is it the fight that you can literally just hit Attack a few times to win without effort?

    The rate at which the player must devise slightly different tactics greatly affects how well-received trash is.

  30. I really hate the trash/boss distinction. I accept that there are *some* people who like this kind of game, and so one cannot say that it is a *wrong* way of designing games, but I strongly object to the assertion that it is the only right way to build games. It comes down to the distinction between strategy/skill players and experience/fun players. If people are playing a CRPG as an interactive story, then having it be only occasionally challenging (or never challenging) is good. If people are playing a CRPG as a challenge, then having most of the game be completely non-challenging is not good. Both kinds of players exist and both kinds of games have merit. I have never before put my finger on why I never have enough interest to stick with Spiderweb games, but I think this blog finally explains it. I just don't play the games where you have to do nonchallenging stuff over and over to finally get to the parts that are at least somewhat challenging. I guess this means I'm not an "RPG fan" in Jeff's lexicon, but I do like RPGs, just I have a different set of criteria to judge them by.

  31. My personal nitpick is that aiming for the blob is what all devs do, and the players on the periphery are always disapointed.

  32. Jeff, thanks for sharing your experience with all of the community. I'd like even more in-depth posts about your way of making great games.

    I think you omitted an important, yet obvious, observation. Balancing the game's difficulty has to consider target audience and player's expectations. Expectations apply both when developing sequels and when you build up hype with released info prior to a new IP/game being released.

    As the comments to the post make it shine, different kind of players approach a never played before game with some kind of expectation. You already pointed out this in your post, but the main point here is: what kind of player the game is trying to satisfy the most?

    Of course a designer is going to try to make the game so that it caters to the most diverse kinds of players as possible, but for a game's balance to be successful, I think one should "set a goal" in those terms.

    The last part of the observation is, what are my players/fans expecting to pull out with this game?

    EG. Blizzard can safely afford to state that the upcoming D3 is going to be almost piece of cake on normal difficulty (ofc this doesn't mean you won't face challenging fights) without the fanbase going mad about it. This because of the Diablo series' established conventions. Players expect the game to be forgiving/easy on your first playthrough, but progressively harder as you play the higher difficulty levels.

    In the end, the distinction between "Trash" and "Challenging" fights is only a convention the designer (or Game Master for p&p games) uses to clearly identify different fights in the designing process. Regardless of how much easy trash fights and hard challenging ones are, it is still important to interleave relaxing moments (for the player to feel comfortable and experiment with his tricks) with skills-pushing ones (where all he learnt has be put in practice to beat/survive a threatening situation).

  33. I haven't played an Avernum game in many years (at some point I was a beta-tester in Geneforge 2, I think?) But I'm going to grab on to a minor detail of something you mentioned and opine:

    The presence of a "Difficulty setting" is a failure of game design.

    Games, just like movies and books, have pacing. The primary job of the game designer is to create an experience that moves along at a certain pace. Whether or not a player likes a game should have more to do with whether they enjoy the pace of that type of game than with "skill" (which is kind of a goofy concept: "How good are you at pressing these levers, rat? YOU WILL BE JUDGED. THERE WILL BE A TEST.")

    It's the responsibility of the game designer to create a game that notices when the pace has bogged down, and force it to move along. No difficulty lever required.

  34. @peterb: Whether or not a player likes a game should have more to do with whether they enjoy the pace of that type of game than with "skill"

    Give me a break! Different people play games for different reasons, and enjoy different things. There is no reason that people "should" like what you say they should like, rather than what they actually like.

    For *lots* of people, the intellectual challenge of games is just as important to their enjoyment, or even more important, than "pace" or "experience".

    Your position is like insisting that you can build an obstacle course, and have the same obstacle course be equally interesting and enjoyable for an elderly person with a walker, as for an Olympic athlete. Different people have different skills and abilities and inclinations. If you don't adapt the game to the player's abilities, then you're necessarily writing off some large fraction of your potential market, because there's just no one difficulty level that can possibly be right for everyone who might want to play the game.

  35. P.S. The Disgaea games are another good example of games which succeed (on their own terms) without a trash/boss model as described above. While you can grind at low levels if you really want to, in normal play the game is designed to be constantly challenging.

  36. Trash mobs serve an important ecological role - resource draining. They aren't just there to stroke the player's ego by jumping on his blade and crying pitifully, they are there to make sure the player only has 1/3 of his health left and half his spells wasted by the time he meets actual opposition.

    Naturally, when "the party heals fully after every fight" paradigm reigns, there is no resource management nor resources themselves. Press the button, something awesome happens :yawn:

  37. Trash mobs don't drain resources. The whole idea is that they help the player get stronger (accumulating experience and loot). Read Jeff's post again.

    The question is, should trash mobs be challenging, so that playing better means you can beat them more easily and quickly at less cost and accumulate resources faster, or should they be nonchallenging, so that players who don't want to be challenged don't get frustrated? I agree with Jeff that it's awfully hard to please everyone, especially if you aren't willing to have multiple difficulty levels.

  38. "Trash mobs don't drain resources [...] you can beat less cost"

    Does not compute. What costs are in there if they don't drain resources?

    Oh, and if they don't, they shouldn't be there period.

  39. Wow, their are way too much strict opinions here.

    Don't any of you play enough games to realize you cannot have strict rules that are the same for all of them.

    Trash mobs AKA non boss monsters in any RPG are sometimes meant to drain resources and sometimes meant to be easily beaten to raise stats and farm items.

    Their is not point of discussion here, this is not a theoretical debate. Their are games that exist that use trash mobs in pretty much every conceivable way.

  40. Jonathon, my point is that I agree with you, that there are many valid approaches to RPG design, but the games that you are talking about violate Jeff's "Truth" about RPG design. He's arguing that fights should either be easy, and serve the purpose of just making the player feel good and become stronger, or difficult, and serve the purpose of marking plot points and providing satisfaction for the player who defeats them. He seems to be excluding whole ranges of the design space, such as games where no individual mob is too difficult but the cumulative ability to fight through them is difficult. I think he's right that games like this have become less popular over time, precisely because they may be "too hard" for the casual player. But that doesn't mean they don't have a place.

  41. When we designed Legends Arcana an android action RPG. We did a couple things to address difficulty. First all dungeons clearly state their level. Instead of a difficulty switch, each time you die the game gives you a couple more hit points, we do this with out telling the player it has happed so they think they got through on their own. The final bosses are always a few levels below the max level. So if you cant get through an area you can always complete a side quest or grind a level or two. We also made sure to make some uber equipment available. Most people will never need to buy the equipment but its there if they need it.

  42. "They hate to lose repeatedly."

    Amen. That just gets boring and I quit the game.

    "(By the way, along these lines, if you put any puzzle or riddle in a game, there is a percentage of users who will never figure it out. This is why I've drastically reduced the number of puzzles in my games. Arguably, I have reduced it too much. It bears thinking about. However, this is my rationale for doing it.)"

    At least with puzzles there's always a walkthrough posted to explain it if need be. With battles, a walkthrough doesn't help so much if you haven't built the character right. Puzzles can add a nice dimension I think, and make you think you are smart, as well as tough.

  43. Great post.

    I got to the PC gaming craze a little late around the Pentium II era PCs. I was a big fan of Elder Scrolls games for being wide open but before then, I played console RPGs which should all be called Final Dragon Warriors of Mana. As a person who devoted too much time to the effort, I became aware that Interplay tended to make games that were harder than I liked and I just began avoiding the games. I know who they were making games for and I'm glad those games were made. I simply opted out after fighting through Stonekeep. Final Fantasy on the other hand was a numbers game. I would try to fight the end boss on a low level and most of the time I had painful losses and two hour fights when I won. But I could always resurrect myself and level up a little more if I failed to often.

    I don't mind as much playing games I can't beat if I can at least understand what is being asked of me and it doesn't feel too unmatched. As an example, the first time you play Metal Gear Solid, the controls are weird and you die a lot. But I get that once I understand the controls, I have the tools to solve the problem even if I decide to give up.

  44. The article is absolutely clever but it drops a new light on the "massification" that many games/genres faced, especially when ported on consoles.

    If you want that most of the players will finish your game and won't get stuck in it, you'll be easily ported to balance the game more on letting people "enjoy the ride" and less on "making it a real challenge.

  45. Easy dragon killing being wrong and there having to be an adrenaline rush is something I don't really disagree with. It's perfectly possible to make an RPG where the battles are easy peasy and I don't think the game would suffer for it... since that's all it is. A game.

  46. So I just beat Avernum 5 (I know a bit behind the times), five minutes ago. I found myself changing to easy difficulty about 2/3 of the way through the game, because I had badly used stat points at the beginning. Anyways, I found the fight with Dorikas much too easy. Just hours ago, I had fought Dervish Tholmen and was challenged, it taking me four tries. But the fight with Dorikas, despite the fact I did it straight away, was tremendously easy, not leaving any of my characters below 25% health at any time. All of that to say that I think on easy he needs to be a bit stronger because the fight was very anti-climactic.

  47. Observation 3 is why I avoid consumables in RPGs. Yeah, there will be people who use too many or too few healing potions, wands, etc. Someone who stocks them up for the final boss will find the boss to be much too easy. Someone who takes the approach that they're abundant and uses them at will, will have so much more trouble getting through. And then there's the HP inflation factoring in - some games like to put in light potions, medium potions, etc, where the light potions become useless at level 10 or something.

    A lot of hardcore gamers also have the habit of loading a save game when they get hit hard, rather than using a potion. You may design your game such that they will use their potions or healing spells or that resurrect scroll on the occasional streak of bad luck, but they'll just load the old game instead. Some other less experienced player will use the resurrect scroll every time a char dies (after all what else are they for?), and have trouble when their chars start getting wiped out by a late game boss.

    So, IMO, it's so much easier for both the designer and player to avoid consumable items. You can still adjust other things, and have things like spells that do run out, but can be regained at certain checkpoints. So much easier for game balance when they know they can give it their all, and not suffer 10 levels from now.

  48. Yeah, I agree. Avernum 6 was kind of hard.

    Go here for more info:

  49. @Muz: So, IMO, it's so much easier for both the designer and player to avoid consumable items.

    What do you mean by "consumables"? There's not a problem with potions that can be restocked just by buying them, right? You can always grind a bit to generate cash to buy up more potions. Are you only talking about items that are in a fixed supply throughout the entire game and need to be saved for when you need them?

    Those only work well in a certain type of game, those that are relatively short and designed to be replayed, imho. In classic games like Rogue the whole idea is to conserve scarce items until you really need them. But I agree this isn't a good design for games that have a strong role-playing component and you only play through once.

    P.S. Too bad about the comment spam that's been showing up here.

  50. @David desJardins: P.S. Too bad about the comment spam that's been showing up here.

    That's from me isn't it?

  51. As stated before, I no longer play seek out rpg's but love your blog.

    When I was younger I did enjoy careful leveling, building, and plowing the trash - being rewarded for my careful preparation. Now, random trash encounters feel like my toe encountering into a table leg. I just want to get on with the actual game, not this time-wasting aside. I seek the boss fights, but I get tired of them when they drag on ( ).

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