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How Hard is Too Hard?

Reuben from No Moss Studios talks about how the decisions that went into balancing a game that was intentionally trying to be hard. Where is the line between hard and frustrating?

No Moss Studios, Blogger

May 22, 2018

5 Min Read

How Hard is Too Hard?

For somebody that hates the Dark Souls games, I really like difficult games. Specifically, the feeling of accomplishment that you get when you put so much effort into overcoming a completely engineered problem, and how satisfying that can feel.

People have talked about the innate psychology of people that leads this to be so satisfying (here’s a good video on it by Errant Signal), so I’m not going to talk about that. I’m going to talk, specifically, about the balance decisions that we made to balance intending the player to fail a number of times before they finally beat the first boss in Beam Team.

Let’s cover the basics first. This prototype for Beam Team was made in 8 days. The target is for two players to work together to overcome a planet-sized boss which is fighting back against them. Beating the boss takes about 2 minutes of continued gameplay, survival mixed with offense.

Start with Too Hard

Since the prototype was made over such a short amount of time, it meant that we only had about a day to play with the balance of the game. We started the game out as much more difficult than the final balance. Since the goal of this game was to be difficult, we felt that starting hard and making it easier as we balanced was the right way to go about it. Of course, our initial estimates were WAY off. We had obstacles spawning on average 2–3 times faster in the first version than the final version of the prototype. But, even this had an upside.

For a difficult game, there is nothing less satisfying than being able to beat it immediately. Imagine how little fun Dark Souls would be if you could just kill everything in your first attempt. Balancing from difficult to easy means that we’re much more likely to end up with a game that is just easy enough to beat eventually, rather than just hard enough to fail once.

How Hard is Too Hard?

As the developers of the game, it’s easy to overestimate first time players. We had spent a week with the game, building it out, and we knew how all of the systems worked. We were able to consistently get up to the second stage of the game, and would beat it every once in a while. Because of this, we felt that the game was at the right level of difficulty.

We were wrong.

When we had out playtesting session midway through our second week of development, not a single player managed to beat the game. About 50% didn’t even get to the lava stage. It’s hard not to see that as anything but a balancing failure.

There is a silver lining though. Players would team up and play the game for up to 2 hours (of a 3 hour or so session) trying to beat it. It was compelling to lose, even if nobody managed to get past that. We even had some players give feedback that the level of difficulty was perfect (even though nobody beat it).

Still, 2 hours is too long. This is meant to be the first boss of the game, and so my estimate would be that players should spend about 15–20 minutes being stuck on it before picking up the game enough to be able to beat it. As you progress further through the game, the planets should get harder and harder, capping out on one that takes around 2 hours to master before you beat it (hopefully).

The Con is On

There’s one more thing to touch on. Beam Team is a game that we’re developing to be unveiled at Pax AU, later this year. We have to be very careful about how we’re balancing this game to give a satisfying con experience.

At a convention, our goal would be for each group of players to spend about 5 minutes at the booth. Because of this, we need to figure out a way to balance the game so that players can have a satisfying, self-contained experience, within 5 minutes.

This is a problem that we haven’t solved yet. Do we make it easy enough to beat in 5 minutes? Do we allow players to fail and not have the resolution of the game? Do we make an “easy mode”, which allows players to breeze through the game?

We’re not sure, but you can trust that we’ll keep you posted with the answers we devise to this solution. Watch this space, for more news on Beam Team.

Reuben is lead programmer at No Moss Studios. They’ve recently committed to developing Beam Team into a full game. Stay tuned with development through Twitter.

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