Designing difficulty in role-playing games

Difficulty isn't just about adjusting numbers for "Easy," "Medium," and "Hard" mode. Three developers share tips on how to use difficulty to make an RPG more deep, flexible and engaging.

Veteran designers know well that “difficulty” encompasses a lot more than scaling numbers up through “easy,” “medium” and “hard” modes. It’s a powerful tool to teach players about managing physical power and spatial relationships, and engage them more deeply by giving them agency over how they overcome challenges.

To get some insight into wielding that tool, we reached out to designers to ask about how they grappled with specific difficulty issues in their games. How do you incentivize players to master sophisticated maneuvers? How do you craft a role-playing game that can accommodate players who struggle with combat? And how do you structure challenging encounters in an MMORPG in a way that goes beyond making stats gradually increase? 

How they responded to these challenges provides key insights you can take with you for your next RPG. 

Using difficulty to deliver an experience

When working out how to conceptualize difficulty in their game, many designers align it with the experience curve. Difficulty doesn’t merely represent discrete challenges to be overcome by perfect execution of skills, but rather it gives the player a satisfying loop that makes them gladly assume the role that the game is putting them in. 

This is designer Zoey Wikstrom’s preferred way of designing games. Working at Blind Squirrel Games, a company that does contract work for titles like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Evolve, Disney Infinity 2.0, she frequently works and thinks about difficulty design (primarily on her internal and personal projects. - ed) Wikstrom lays the groundwork by using difficulty curves to teach players how to accomplish the more elaborate tasks a game lays out for them, cementing the base layer for a fantasy or imaginative experience, separating "hard" from "an obstacle worth overcoming."

"Many young developers start to design an encounter by saying, 'This is what I want the creature to do.' You should actually start with, 'What do I want players to do?'"

“When working on these problems on, say, turn-based games," she explains, "we want the combat to be tactical and difficult. But we have to pinpoint what it is that testers find difficult--whether it was an obtuse interface, or the challenge of taking enemies out. How do we get players to that point?”

This isn’t entirely a question about tutorials. It’s about breaking down the components of the desired action to see what’s worth interacting with, and setting the challenge bar for the interactions to make the maneuver worth it. “It becomes a matter of asking testers ‘okay, do this maneuver,’ and then seeing how long it takes them to execute it, graphing it out, and seeing where the points move," Wikstrom explains.

Going forward, difficulty then becomes about pulling layered executions of those maneuvers out of players. “Hopefully by X hours, that interface isn’t a barrier to interacting with things," she says. "The best way to give them a bit more challenge is to throw more things things at them at once.”

This layered groundwork becomes a foundation for letting players give you data on what sensations or actions are "easy" and "hard" for them in your game. In RPGs then, the next step is to let the player figure out which challenges are worth overcoming, and which they will want to temper themselves against. 

Tweaking difficulty through player-given tools

Freelance designer Rick Ernst, currently contracting at Riot Games, has worked on everything from the Neverwinter Nights expansion Shadows of Undrentide, to Clive Barker’s Jericho, to recent free-to-play mobile games like Blade: Sword of Elysion. His design work has taken him across a variety of genres, but his Neverwinter Nights experience gives him a lot of ways to explain difficulty with top-level play strategies in mind. 

Since NWN has a fully codified ruleset developed by Wizards of the Coast and Bioware, his difficulty work likewise came from thinking about encounter placement and tracking player skill and experience. He found it best to design encounters backwards.

(Image via Mobygames)

“In Neverwinter Nights, when you set up an encounter, you knew the difficulty of it, because you knew the power level and experience level required for a party of a given size," says Ernst. "You work in reverse--you do the final encounter. You say 'we want players to make it to level 18-20, and then at the halfway point they need to be around level 12, and then work back and say 'they're starting at 1.'”

The biggest difficulty, Ernst says, is that you have no idea what party combinations players will bring to a given encounter, or what skillsets. That doesn’t mean encounters need to be blandly defeatable by any given party composition though. It just means you need to seed out encounters that will go differently for different types.

If one player builds out a Rogue character/group that specializes in quick attacks, one fight might go well, while another might prove more challenging. And that works out okay, so long as they have the ability to change their tactics and strategy for the situation. 

Like Wikstrom, he’s not a fan of letting the player select “easy” “difficult” or “hard” when playing a game. In Neverwinter Nights, Ernst could use player choice during gameplay to ease or raise the difficulty curve depending on the desired experience.

“Take persuasion, for instance” he says. “Persuasion in Neverwinter Nights could let you skip some combat scenarios, or get extra items like fire resistance rings or healing potions. Those helped keep players from getting hosed when they entered required combat scenarios. It’s essentially allowing players to adjust the difficulty based on their character build.”

But Ernst cautions to make sure your build trees don’t wind up working against the fun parts of your own game. “If the player likes hacking, and puts their points into a hacker build, the hacking minigame could become too easy and therefore too boring," he notes. "What that player should be doing is, since they don’t like high combat, they put all their points into combat, so that becomes the cakewalk instead of hacking.”

In a poorly tuned build-based difficulty curve, players wind up encouraged to put points into the things they don’t want to spend time doing, so that it can be ignored and difficulty focused elsewhere. 

Designing difficulty with monster moves

With the new Guild Wars 2 expansion Heart of Thorns introducing raids and raid bosses to the Guild Wars 2 ecosystem, game director Colin Johanson is able to explain how his game’s general design philosophy gets refined and honed from encounters that scale for player groups of various sizes.

As Johanson explains, in normal Guild Wars 2 group encounters, difficulty is scaled based on the number of players who’ve entered the zone and are in fighting range of the encounter. The game takes this number, increases the number of monsters in the encounter, then swaps out certain enemies or gives them different abilities to put pressure against the increased player base.

Since all classes have access to abilities and builds that let them damage enemies, control enemies, or support other players, they use new abilities and counter-strategies centered around these three core skill types to force players into adapting the skills they’ve already mastered or trying out skill combinations they hadn’t thought of before. 

But Johanson says that this all changes when fixed 10 player raids enter the equation. “We have a giant list of mechanics available to us that our creatures can use, and the way we set up our encounters is we say, ‘for this encounter, this is the combination of mechanics we want to use, and these are the player skills that will counter them.”

To test difficulty of these encounters, Johanson's colleagues at ArenaNet set up raiding parties that take on his team’s encounters. He and his team set the planned difficulty as high as possible by implementing a given set of boss abilities and timing, then they study how long it takes that raid group to take down the boss, and with what strategy.

For the Gorseval, aka the "Tongue Boss" shown in the Heart of Thorns raid announcement trailer, Johanson says that setting three core mechanics to overcome---using a hang gliding mechanic, burning through a wall of thorns, and interrupting a superpower--created a difficulty wall his team wasn’t happy with, both for how high it was, and for the strategy needed to overcome it.

“We called this the bramble boss at first, with the idea of 'let's make fire and burning a huge part of this encounter.' What happened was, there's a handful of professions that are really really good at burning, and we started seeing party compositions heading for that. Testers made sure there were X number of burners in the party. And we didn't like what that meant for our encounters. It's not meant to be that specific with who you need to bring.”

(The Gorseval, via ArenaNet)

The fix was to make turn the fire-vulnerable bramble wall into an energy field anyone could damage. For encounters like this, Johanson also stresses how designers benefit from adding mechanics that no professions have traditionally had available to them. “That’s when you have items dropping out of the sky that anyone can pick up that help you overcome that specific challenge. Or ghosts flying in to finish off downed party members, and their teammates have to finish them off before they normally would.”

So in Johanson’s mind, he’s kind of done scaling numbers up as a major form of difficulty management--he's rather use monsters and their magic. “We found that's just a much better method of difficulty scaling then any of our other levers. When it changes the way you play, that's awesome. When it's just numerical, that's not interesting. And so more and more, as we go for, we're trying to find creative ways to scale as you play our game.”

And for up and coming RPG designers, he has one specific word of advice: “I think a very common habit I've seen in young designers is that they say, 'this is what I want the creature to do,' and that's how they design an encounter. I think that's the opposite of how to design a great encounter. You should start with 'what do I want players to do?' How will they interact with us? Once you start there, the creature comes out of that.”

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