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 Super Meat Boy 's McMillen Explains 'Why So Hard?'
Super Meat Boy's McMillen Explains 'Why So Hard?' Exclusive
April 21, 2010 | By Edmund McMillen

[In this analysis and historical retrospective, Super Meat Boy co-creator Edmund McMillen discusses approaches to difficulty in games, and explains how his game addressed the difficulty problem.]

Difficulty in a platformer is usually established by a very simple formula:

(Percent chance the player will die) X (Penalty for dying) = Difficulty

It's pretty basic stuff: The higher the chance the player will die and the bigger price they pay for dying, the harder the game will appear to the player.

This is a formula that's been around from the start, but the one thing that's changed drastically over the years is the "penalty" aspect.

Penalty for dying in video games started in the arcades where the major penalty was adding a quarter.

This worked very well when it came to getting money from kids, but once home consoles became the norm the player no longer had the ability to add credits with coins and the formula had to change. The goal of achieving a high score was replaced with progression to completion, and the major penalty became going back to the start.

This is also when the "risk/reward" balance was heavily established. Risk/reward was a way for the designer to give the player a way to gain more credits by taking bigger risks. In Super Mario Bros., the risk was collecting coins and exploring to find extra lives.

The Mario formula was solid, but as video games tapped into a more mainstream market, penalty for losing had to become less frustrating, and penalty equals frustration. Companies wanted more people to be able to complete their games, and by the early 90s most platformers added a "continue" option.

As time has passed, lives systems and penalties have almost vanished from most games due to the amount of frustration they caused, and difficulty has become watered down to the point of it no longer being a significant factor.

By the mid-2000s, the independent video game scene started to use a more direct and simple formula.

Removing lives altogether lets the designer base difficulty more on the actual level design and challenge and less around the penalty of losing lives and restarting. In doing so, the formula for difficulty changes. The player no longer has to worry about dying, and the penalty for death basically turned into the amount of time you took to restart after death and the length of the current level.

So how could we take this existing formula, refine it, and apply it to Super Meat Boy?

How could we make a seemingly aggravatingly difficult game into something fun that the player could get lost in?

When starting the development of Super Meat Boy, these were the big questions that needed answers right away, and this is what we came up with:

1. Keep the levels small

It was very important that the levels in Super Meat Boy be bite-sized. You could think of most of them as "micro-levels," thrown at the player in rapid succession, much like the micro-games in the Wario Ware series. If we keep the levels small enough for the player to see his or her goal, it lowers the stress of not knowing what's coming and the distance necessary to re-traverse after death.

2. Keep the action constant

It was imperative that the action never stop, even when the player was killed. The time it takes for Meat Boy to die and respawn is almost instantaneous. The player never waits to get back into the game, the pace never drops, and the player doesn't even have time to think about dying before being placed right back where he left off.

This same idea was applied to the level progression. Players never leave the action until they want to, the levels keep coming as fast as the player can beat them, and all the complete screens, transitions, and cut-scenes are sped up to maintain the fast pace of the game.

3. Reward

The player should always feel good about completing something hard, so what better reward then a reminder of just how hard that level was? Early in development, co-developer Tommy Refenes implemented the replay system, incorporating a mode that upon level completion would show the player's past 40-plus attempts all playing at once. This simple visual reward for taking a beating not only reminds the player of just how hard he tried, but also shows a timeline of how he learned and got better along the way.

With our basic outline and a hardcore platformer geared towards our horribly spoiled ADD generation, how could we stay true to the extremely high difficulty par set by games like I Wanna Be The Guy, Jumper, and N+, yet still be accessible enough for someone who was new to the genre to pick up and enjoy?

Was there a way to make something accessible and still hardcore?

This is where the "dark world" system comes into play. The dark world is an expert mode set parallel to the main game. As the player completes levels they will unlock expert versions in the dark world if they complete the level under a set par.

The dark world's difficulty starts where the main game's difficulty leaves off. You could say level 1-5 in the dark world is almost as difficult as level 3-5 in main game.

The goal was to create a system that allowed expert players to start the game experiencing high difficulty right off the bat, yet not require those levels to be finished to complete the main game.

The dark world system allows for Super Meat Boy to become two full games. There are more than 150 main game levels for the average gamer and more than 150 expert levels for the hardcore gamer, but they are set up in a way that an average gamer who completes the main game can easily transition into the difficulty of the dark world levels. For those players, the game will unfold even more.

Video games are exercises in learning and growing. The designer acts as the teacher, giving the player problems that escalate in difficulty, hoping their course will help them learn as they go, get better, and feel good about what they achieve.

When you are trying to teach someone something, you don't punish them when they make a mistake. You let them learn from it and give them positive reinforcement when they do well.

[This analysis was originally posted on, which has more information on Edmund's upcoming IGF-nominated XBLA, WiiWare and PC action platform title.]

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Robert Morris
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Very interesting thoughts you've shared with us, I enjoyed reading the article though I feel opposed to a few of your ideas.

(Percent chance the player will die) X (Penalty for dying) = Difficulty

I have mixed feelings about this equation. Your game concept merely introduces the exact same variable, you merely cloaked it with a change of gameplay mechanics a "suspension of disbelief" as it were.

You say risk reward is a concept acquired during the console area. I highly disagree. Its always been there, Galaga, you could risk losing your ship to a boss galagas tractor beam, thus allowing the player to shoot said boss and attain two ships doubling the fire power.

Arcade games have always offered risk reward, much of it was as simple as you die, you pay up. Others were subtle in their design of letting the player attain bonuses and bonus lives for risky moves, for example, the closer an enemy got in some games, the higher the score do to the risk of a player dying.

To dissect your thoughts with my own

1. Keeping levels small

Levels as massive as they seem, have always been small, rather then physically making them tiny, we put checkpoints in. Halo is an expansive game where you travel from place to place, yet if you took each checkpoint and separated those into individual levels, are they not then considered the small pieces of the entire pie that is level 1, 2, or 3?

Bioshock does this as well, each "Level" separated by a regenerative vat, when the player died, they merely "restarted" this level by being revived.

2. Keep the action constant

So you merely removed the pause in between death, and resurrection. You increased the speed of the level completion screen. Sure this keeps action constant, but do you know why their are pauses? (Course you do :3 )

The idea behind pausing a game is just like in a book, you can only keep the action going for so long till the player is stuck in a repetitive motion of do a, then b, then finish c. Pauses are both a game mechanic as they are a story mechanic.

I'm glad to at least see that you don't criticize pauses in games. Your idea of a game is somehow no different to arcade games, you die, your back in the action, the only pause was that of the game over screen, or level completion.

Your replay system is a neat idea, letting us see our failed attempts, more than a learning experience, I see this as a mere tool to show off some hilarious deaths to silly music (you tube anyone?)

3. Reward

Its a mechanic we use to lure our players into the most dangerous of situations, risking themselves and their time to obtain something nigh impossible.

Your reward of being shown a replay, isn't what I would call reward. A lot of games are offering replay systems, Marble Blast Ultra is a good example of a game where you could watch your replay as well as that of other players. Rather I think your replay merely gives us a good laugh as we see our self destructive attempts at completing levels. Something for friends to sit down with and cringe+laugh at!

Overall, I found super meatboy to have some nice visuals, and the gameplay was rather enjoyable.

Here is a question though, if the game didn't have the extreme gibbing of the hero, would it still have been just as fun? Just a thought!

Keep up the fun, hope to see other games and thoughts you put out!

Mike Caudle
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Maybe you have overlooked the average gamer? Or maybe I think of the average gamer as someone who doesn't play video games except maybe a level here or there. Someone who has not even deveopled the hand eye coordination that is required for a fast pace game.

For instance, I watch my friend play God of War. She will get stuck at points that seem almost common sense to me. I understand she cannot acheive my mindset of a video game (what do I want to? test it. did it work? try again). I think she is so overwhelmed by the action, level size and puzzle scernarios. The idea of seeing the whole level is a very good it original? Nah. But still a good idea, none-the-less. I have not played the game, but I assume the fast pace action is not too fast. Again, don't want to overwhelm this new player's expeirence. I find that most new players give up so easily and think all games are difficult or hard to understand. This is something all developers should look into as we move into the age where video games become standard...just like movies and TV shows. But hey, don't leave us hanging...push out more games like Demon's Souls.

Ismael Escandon
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I never understood why alot of people thought Demon's Souls was hard till today.

@Mike thanks for the answer I never thought of, exactly what you said answered it.

"I watch my friend play God of War. She will get stuck at points that seem almost common sense to me. I understand she cannot achieve my mindset of a video game"

I guess my years of experience with gaming made me see Demon's Souls in another way and made it easier to me then people who haven't really played as much as me or played hard games like me.

Loved the article thanks for the read and thanks Mike for you comment.

Robert Morris
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Actually Mike, nothing towards average gamers, the most I put was just a thought. I know that most gamers are like snow flakes, that no two are the same.

As well for difficulty of games, I don't mind difficulty, and trying and trying again. The problem I think that has come about with console games, is so many console games held our hands through many of the tough difficulties, while few other games made sure to provide a difficult challenge.

Lemmings had a massive learning curve I think, as did the game Vikings, sure they were simple concepts like meatboy, but by the mere tweak of the gameplay mechanics they provided an intense challenge.

As well, taking most of our younger gamers, many of the games the younger generation has been attached to are those of the ps1, n64, saturn/dreamcast (rest in peace)

So many of the 3D adventure games have become more and more simple in certain aspects. The mere difficulty in them is done so by raising health or speed of the enemy.

:3 Again there are the special exceptions! Brothers in Arms I found was rather difficult yet in a realistic way, just as I found Jak and Daxter to be both challenging and enjoyable!

To me the average gamer is someone who owns at least a console or a gaming PC rig and has at least a small collection of games in different variety.

As you've said, video games have become a standard, looking at any game forum, or even apps like Steam, we see a lot of gamers and we see what the average is, and that average in terms of gaming is rather expansive.

This is why I separate the different genres of gamers now and then. Casual Gamers, Hardcore, family gamers, so on so forth ^^

Mainly I've learned not to underestimate Average, remember they are the middle ground and all and all, they make up the gaming population!

Any who thanks for the small discussion, I'm always enjoying these!

Kevin Reese
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Makes a great deal of sense. Good article.

Joe Rheaume
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Super Mario Bros. actually had continues, but they were "secret", activated by a cheat code after you got a game-over.