Ever played a survival game only to find that it becomes too easy once you’ve passed the initial stages? Or does the game’s focus shift from survival to base-building or another aspect?
This is due to poorly designed difficulty curves. There are many (extremely popular) survival games like this.
What Are Difficulty Curves?
A difficulty curve is the progression of challenge from beginning to end.
There isn’t a “perfect” difficulty curve, but there are many flawed ones, especially when it comes to survival games.
Poorly Designed Difficulty Curves
Most survival games have one of these difficulty curves:
1. Decreasing Difficulty
This is one of the most common (and flawed) ones - seen in games like 7 Days to Die, Don’t Starve Together and Hobo: Tough Life.
You start off with nothing - or very little. You’re desperately trying to scour place to place to find food/water to survive.
Life is a living hell as you’re living from paycheck to paycheck.
But eventually you find enough food to settle down a base. As your base grows, it becomes easier and easier to survive. You build things that greatly aid your survival: Things like farms, weapons, armor etc.
The problem with this: Players lose interest as the game becomes too easy over time.
2. Increasing Difficulty
This is the opposite: The game becomes more difficult as time passes.
It’s a “how long can you survive for?” type of game like Yet Another Zombie Defense.
It’s a “can we make it to the end in time?” type of game like Distrust.
I personally prefer this over the first, as I’ve had generally better quality experiences with it.
Still it has certain flaws such as: players having to restart from square one, players finishing the game and leaving and lower play-time in general.
3. Stagnant Difficulty
The difficulty is stagnant throughout the entire game. It’s always hard, always easy or somewhere in between.
Examples of this are: Minecraft (always easy), Raft (medium) and Project Zomboid (depending on the settings used).
If a game is always easy, players will get bored. If it’s always difficult, players will get sick of dying.
Generally speaking, the focus of these games aren’t about the challenge, but more about base-building or story. There can be some leniency for these games.
The “Ideal” Difficulty Curve
This is what I believe to be the “ideal” difficulty curve should look like:
The difficulty should alternate between difficult and easy.
There should be moments where players can relax and focus on things like base-building/crafting.
Then there should be moments of high danger (such as the appearance of a giant boss).
This is where you use your creativity to brainstorm whatever sort of conflicts you can throw at the player.
Note: The starting point is arbitrary. It can start as easy, difficult or medium, but the difficulty is always changing. The “peaks” and “dips” can also be modified to higher or lower.
Example of a Fun Gameplay Loop
Imagine this example zombie survival game:
1. Difficult: You start off with nothing and it’s a struggle to find food/water to survive.
2. Mildly challenging: You manage to learn how to avoid the zombies better and stash a healthy amount of food in your backpack.
3. Easy: You find an axe and begin chopping wood to build your base.
4. More Easy: You’re engaging in base building, crafting, setting traps and learning how to avoid the zombies. You have weapons that make it easier to kill these zombies. Zombies can’t break into your little hideout. Things are going your way. You’re feeling good!
5. Difficult: All of a sudden the difficulty increases: a new wave of zombies appear that are faster and stronger. Or a boss appears. Or electricity/water stops working. Or winter approaches and a blizzard appears. Or a new disease appears. It’s a struggle to survive all over again.
The cycle repeats: They overcome the first obstacle, fix their base, strengthen their defences, feel safe and sound, and a new obstacle appears.
This is how you keep players engaged for long periods of time.
A game doesn’t feel good to play if it’s always ultra difficult and often leaves the player feeling frustrated.
If the game is too easy, it’ll become stale quickly and the player will quit the game.
The best way to strike a balance is to have a cycle of both. There should be moments of comfort where the player feels their work is paying off and they are powerful.
Then there should be moments of struggle where all their hard work are about to take a big hit or disappear entirely. After all, “a life without challenge is a life not worth living.”
4 Ways to Make Fun Survival Games
Here are 4 more ways to make a fun survival game:
1. Add an End Goal
Giving players an end goal to work towards is generally a good idea. Even if you want your game to be endless, these two aren’t mutually exclusive.
The game “Eco” has a great example of this:
Eco is a minecraft style survival game where an asteroid is going to impact earth in 30 days. You must work together with others on the server to set up an economy and research technologies to stop this from happening in time.
Even if you’re successful, the game can continue.
Another example is Hobo: Tough Life - as a hobo, you must survive through the upcoming “calamity” in Winter by setting a shelter with warmth and plenty of food.
2. Add Story or Event Progression
Not every game will have an overarching story, but it always helps to provide players a sense of progression.
Stardew Valley isn’t a survival game, but they do a near perfect job of this.
- Overarching story + goal
- Every month has 2 unique, special events marked on the calendar. These might be festivals, competitions, halloween or something else.
- Every season also has unique plants which you can farm.
- Character progression system.
- Random events and side stories.
- Unlocking new locations.
Stardew Valley has nearly 450K reviews on Steam with a 98% positive score - the best I’ve ever seen.
Another game that does this well is Raft.
In Raft, the world is destroyed and you have no idea why. You’re stuck in the middle of the ocean with a 1x1 square raft and gradually you have to collect garbage from the ocean to build up your raft.
As you progress through the game, you explore new locations, try to figure out the mystery behind the world and attempt to find survivors and “paradise.”
3. Add Different Modes
Ultimately, there should always be a “sandbox” mode and a “standard (main)” mode. To prevent the “standard” mode from becoming like a sandbox, there needs to be infinite scaling enemies once the end goal has been achieved.
Yes this turns the game into a “how long can you survive for” type of game, but if there’s no more challenge, players will get bored and leave anyways. By having 2 modes, the game will cater to both hardcore and casual players.
4. Allow the Player to Control the Difficulty
Although Project Zomboid is a flawed game, one of its best aspects is allowing the player to finetune the difficulty curve. They get to control dozens of settings including:
- Exp growth
- Food spoilage rate
- Item rarity
- Spawn rates
- Zombie strength/speed
- Zombie numbers
- Zombie growth multiplier
- +Heaps more
This is the main reason I put so many hours into the game.
Too many survival games have very flawed difficulty progression that makes the player’s time feel wasted. If a game markets itself as a survival game, it should be focused on survival. And that aspect needs to be challenging.
As always, there’s going to be exceptions to the rules. Not all games need to be focused on challenge. Some can engage players through other ways such as story or short & long term goals. And those are fine too.
I’m personally a huge fan of the survival genre and hope this guide can help developers make smarter design choices.
These principals should also apply to most other genres too.
Since it’s a big and important topic, in the future I’ll also write a guide on how to balance this difficulty curve properly so really good players don’t feel the game is too easy whilst beginner players don’t find it impossible.