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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:
Whether you're building a narrative game for players to get invested in or something simple to pass the time in public transit, the nature of difficulty in your game will play a large role in the sort of players you attract. While it is easy to make a game hard, it is very difficult to ensure that the game is challenging in the right way. One significant pitfall to avoid is designing experiences which are challenging due to a lack of information given to the player.
Experiences where difficulty is crafted correctly keeps players coming back, rather than just rage-quitting and rage-rating your game 0/10
If you've ever encountered a situation In Real Life where you are under-informed or things are happening out of your control, you'll know how incredibly frustrating these situations can be. Games should be serving as a respite from this frustration, giving players all the information they need along with a fair chance at whatever challenge they are presented with. One easy way to get this wrong is to create a scenario which relies on trial and error, and an easy way to make this worse is to penalize players with death and loss of progress. This can be anything from hazards that are undetectable to the player, invisible paths, and worst of all; inconsistent rules. If you create two game assets which look identical but behave differently, you are putting the player into a situation where they cannot trust what they see, and the patterns they are trying to construct in order to get better at the game fall apart. Another situation which frequently arises in 3D games is "what did that switch I just stepped on do?". Basically, when the player cannot tell the result of the action they just performed, they will not know how to proceed in the game. In this example, one common solution is to have the camera track from the player's position over to the mechanism which the switch operated to show it opening, then move it back before returning control to the player. Simply jumping the camera over to the mechanism isn't always enough, as it doesn't give the player any spatial context for where the mechanism is relative to them. By keeping the player informed and presenting clear and consistent rules, they are far more likely to have an enjoyable play experience.
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