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Feature: 'Difficulty is Difficult: Designing for Hard Modes in Games'

In this in-depth article, designer Daniel Boutros takes a close look at difficulty in games, asking how creators can add unique, high-end challenges which exci
In this in-depth article, designer Daniel Boutros takes a close look at difficulty in games, asking how creators can add unique, high-end challenges which excite, but don't frustrate skilled players. Boutros offers several suggestions, along with working examples and potential issues, that designers can keep in mind while tuning their game for harder difficulty modes. His list of possible tweaks include increased AI aggression, resource stinginess, and HUD restrictions. Another element of gameplay that designers can adjust to provide a more challenging experience is checkpoint distribution: "Checkpointing can polarize players' opinions, when points are spread further apart as a measure of difficulty. Some feel that it's more "hardcore" to play through a large number of acts, for a longer period of time than normal, and eventually succeed. Others feel that save and checkpointing should remain a convenience mechanic and be offered generously, with an "every 5-10 minutes" philosophy at the core. The truth is, wider checkpointing tests patience and memory as much as it does skill, which can frustrate and put off players. Call of Duty 2 had the best checkpointing implementation I experienced in the new generation, which was expanded even further with Call of Duty 4. Not only was each intensely exhilarating section in veteran mode beatable within 5-10 minutes (in Call of Duty 2, specifically), players would also get save-able checkpoints which appear before and after a cut-scene, saving players from classic tedium moments such as the 'Look at all dat juice' scene from Gears of War. This infamous portion of Gears of War placed players against a group of the tough Theron Guard enemies as they laid siege to a pumping station. Dying in battle restarted the player a long walk back before the action began, replaying a verbal scene in which one of the characters utters the immortal line, 'Look at all dat juice.' Repeating this became annoying after a while." Boutros also suggests input complexity as a way to reward expertise in a game, noting Street Fighter II as one of the first games to create a risk-reward relationship between input complexity and onscreen actions: "For some time, Zangief's spinning piledriver was the holy grail of hand-eye coordination, requiring a full circular movement of the joystick followed by a punch in close range, which would reward the player by depleting almost a third of the opponent's energy bar. The risk was getting in close to the opponent, coupled with the fast spin of the stick, which if done too slowly or out of range, would cause Zangief to jump and leave him vulnerable. In comparison, Ryu and Ken's fireball motions were simple, requiring only a quarter circle motion and press of the punch at any distance. The by-product of using input complexity as a difficulty barrier is that it doubled additionally as an entry barrier for new players, meaning an instantly limited audience, though culturally, its relevance changed gaming for the next ten years." You can now read the full the full feature, which includes examples on how designers can create compelling difficulty modes without frustrating players (no registration required, please feel free to link to this feature from other websites).

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