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Doing Difficulty Right: Modes and Multipliers

The most and least time consuming methods of implementing variable difficulty into your game, what are the advantages and pitfalls of each, and how do they mix with Consumable Items?

The following article contains my Extended Thoughts on "Difficulty" discussed in the Gameology podcast with my co-host Mathew Falvai. You can listen to the Podcast via RSS, on iTunes, Google Play Music, or watch the episode in video format:

Doing Difficulty Right Part 1: Keeping Players Informed

Doing Difficulty Right Part 2: Consumable Items

Last week, I talked about how players can use Consumable items to modify a game's difficulty on the fly. Aside from item-use, you can give players other means of altering the difficulty of their experience with the use of Multipliers and Modes.

Multipliers

Multipliers apply a mathematical increase or decrease to the given difficulty of an experience. If on "Normal" difficulty given enemy attack deals 4 damage to the player, on "Easy" difficulty it deals 2 (4 x 0.5) and on "Hard" difficulty it deals 8 (4 x 2). You should make absolute certain that difficulty multipliers are not applied when the player is not aware of them because it leads to a core inconsistency; if the player gets used to playing on a specific Multiplier, they will find it jarring when an attack that they are used to surviving suddenly leaves them KO'd. Multipliers are the easiest method of difficulty modification which can be added to a game; once you have it in place you can create as many different levels of difficulty as you want, simple increasing or decreasing the multiplier as necessary.


Multipliers can also be tied into the points the player earns while playing at increased or decreased difficulty levels

Modes

Difficulty Modes represent core changes to the game experience. This could mean altering the number or type of enemies that spawn, removing hazards from the game environment, or adding in extra power-ups. Due to the nature of these changes, it often makes it difficult (if not impossible) to swap a difficulty Mode once a game session has begun. After all, if you have the Mode set to Normal, then toggle over to Easy where there should be fewer enemies, how is the game to decide which ones should de-spawn? What if the player is standing in a space where a Hazard would exist when they decide to bump up the difficulty? This is why choosing difficulty Modes is typically set in stone at the beginning of starting a new file, or in the game's main menu before starting a play session, it allows a fixed experience to load in and avoid all the issues just mentioned.


Be careful; if a game's difficulty "Mode" cannot be changed after the player has selected it, they may have to scrap an entire file and hours worth of play time when they hit an unexpected wall of difficulty

By contrast, Multipliers are the easiest to turn up or down at a moment's notice since they aren't changing anything core to the game layout. Although creating alternate Difficulty Modes presents a significant design challenge, it also presents a number of different ways for a player to experience the game and solves the issue of maintaining consistency that Multipliers struggle with. Indeed, consistency is an especially great aspect of Modes because should a player choose to play through the game a second time on a harder difficulty Mode, all the experiences of the previous play-through will still be relevant.

Mix and Match

Including all three modifiers would give a lot, perhaps too much choice to the player. If the user is playing on the "hardest" Mode, but the "easiest" Multiplier, is that appreciably different from playing on the "easiest" Mode and the "hardest" Multiplier? Consumable Items, on the other hand, mix nicely with both Modes and Multipliers, giving players all they need to finely tune an experience to their liking.


Want your game design questions answered? Submit a question or comment to the Gameology podcast on BluishGreenProductions.com, and check out the Extended Thoughts articles while you're there. You can find me on Twitter @BluishGreenPro

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