Higher difficulties are a common lure to pull a player back into your game. Still, how do you make your game harder in a way that's interesting? Make the player less durable and give the enemies more health? Is that all there is to it? Danilo Dias, main programmer at JoyMasher, didn't think so as he created Odallus: The Dark Call's new Veteran Mode. He wanted "A new challenge - familiar, but at the same time, different. A harder challenge for someone that already knows how the game works and wants more."
This meant making drastic changes to the sidescrolling action game - more than just fudging health numbers. This meant changing enemy placements, adding in new stages to boss fights, and shuffling items around. It meant creating new enemies to stop common tricks used by skilled players. It meant taking a long, hard look at what Dias had already created and seeing how it could be repurposed to really push a player to their limit. It wasn't about making a player execute the same tactics as they did on the normal mode, but about making them completely rebuild their strategies and playstyles.
"Adding a harder difficulty level to this sidescrolling action game wasn't just about tweaking health stats. It was about making players completely rebuild their strategies and playstyles."
"I took inspiration from Ninja Gaiden Black. When you start a new game on a harder difficulty, the game changes enemy placement and adds new, more powerful enemies. It makes the main quest into a new game because all strategies that you already knew do not work anymore," says Dias.
This was important to Dias. Creating a harder mode that just inflates enemy health or decreases player health is still, essentially, the same game. Maybe you can make fewer mistakes or have to execute the same patterns against enemies for longer periods of time, but the game has not changed. The same skill set is required even if the amount of times you have to repeat a given pattern or strategy is different. It doesn't add a whole lot of new challenges for players as the game is only asking that they play the same as they always have. You don't play the game any differently - you just have to play as normal for longer periods. It tests patience instead of skill.
Dias wanted to create an entirely new, more challenging experience for skilled Odallus players with Veteran Mode, which took several steps. "First thing was to get enemies from late stages and put them in earlier stages. After all, the player already knows how to deal with them, and fighting them with lower stats than the normal game would be a nice challenge," says Dias. Many players would have only fought these monsters near the end of the game while holding the majority of the game's best equipment. By moving them to the beginning, Dias forces players to create new strategies to fight them with. Already, the player is learning to look at the game in a different way.
Dias didn't just shuffle enemies around, though. He wanted some new challenges for players to face, and that meant looking at enemies he'd previously cut from the game. "During the development of Odallus I made lots of enemies - maybe too many. Some of them were simply too hard to be put in initial stages and I left them to be used later. But then the later stages had too much variety already," says Dias. "I left them out of the main game, and during the last week of development I was talking with Thaís [Thaís Weiller, Director of JoyMasher] and we decided to make a harder mode with these enemies that stayed behind."
Dias already had concepts in place for some challenging enemies that ending up getting cut from the main game due to an overabundance of monsters. They were a perfect source for new challenges for the game's Veteran Mode, as he'd already done the work to create them and they could easily get worked into the game's harder mode. This was great, from a development side, as it meant otherwise unused concepts could be used, making for little wasted time and work. He already had a menagerie of monstrosities to pull from, giving him a head start on this new mode.
Some enemies were specifically created for the game's harder mode, though, which were built around beating common player strategies and tactics. "I've tried to create enemies that can affect the player in more ways, like enemies that you cannot just double jump over when you're already too strong. One of them is an enemy that I made based on the Lost Souls from Doom - a flaming skull that pursues the player during the stage. The only way to deal with it is killing it!"
This addresses some holes in the normal game's challenge. Dias recognized that crafty players with end-game gear could bypass many of the enemies using double jumps and dashes. While the base mode required that some enemies be beaten to open doors, it was an inelegant workaround to the problem. This time, Dias set out to create some enemies that would keep players from getting away or avoiding combat altogether. They would either follow the player or have moves that countered end-game equipment, meaning players couldn't just flee.
The bosses posed a whole other challenge for Dias. Each was created to suit a level's given theme, so moving them around would not make much artistic sense. He had to look elsewhere to increase the difficulty in those fights. In the end, Dias decided to see how well the player could juggle multiple tasks. "I gave the bosses the power to summon enemies to help in the fight. I really liked this idea because you already know how to beat them, but are you good enough to beat them WITH extra enemies to handle?" says Dias. "The player cannot take time anymore - they HAVE to master how to beat the bosses and then multitask it."
With the bosses, similar strategies to normal mode could be used, but they had to be used while also dealing with basic enemies. You would need to know the boss' abilities inside and out to know where to position yourself and when to attack while also keeping yourself safe from the other foes. Also, if you don't know the boss patterns very well, there is little time to actually watch and learn them, as common enemies will be constantly dogging you. You can't take it easy and play defensively while you design a strategy - you must quickly react with skill and knowledge.
Despite adding challenging new enemies, increasing the number of tasks during boss fights, and making the game get harder earlier on, the challenge could still be overcome with smart item use. Players can gain health, armor, and better weapons throughout the course of a typical Odallus playthrough - most of which don't require you to finish levels. You can pick up items and then die or otherwise exit the level, keeping what you found. A clever player with a good memory could easily just gather items until they were strong enough to endure Odallus' challenges.
Dias didn't quite want to throw that plan out the window, but he did intend to make that a little more challenging. "As Thaís suggested, I changed the relic order to break the original game strategy. The player was now forced to try a new stage order to beat the game because the relics changed places, as did the puzzles."
By changing where the items were, Dias kept clever players from building up an arsenal of weapons from memory and beating the game with them. Not only that, but players would be forced to re-explore the game world, experiencing it as something new due to the altered item hiding spots. It refreshed the exploration aspect of the game and added new challenges there, which was important to Dias. "The game is not only focused on combat, but also on exploration and puzzle solving."
For his more challenging mode to be fully realized, he would need to make the exploration and puzzles - core aspects of the game's development - more difficult as well. While combat was a big part of the game, exploring the world and solving its mysteries was just as important in Odallus' creation. Dias wanted Veteran Mode to be an entire new experience created to challenge experts, and that meant overhauling every aspect that was key to the game's themes. Exploration, items, and puzzles were part of that, and Dias found ways to make them all more challenging again.
Dias and the JoyMasher team could have just played around with enemy and player health. It would have still made for a harder game. That's not the kind of experience they were shooting for, though, instead striving to create something that would truly challenge a skilled player. What would push someone who loved their game to their limit? How could they remix their existing game into a whole other experience for its best players?
"When I'm playing a simple, pure action arcade game, I'm always replaying it because it's a short game and it's cool to test your skills with a harder difficulty setting. However, I always felt bored with exploration games that only offered more resistant enemies and more damage as a new game mode. Even new game with your old equipment and with harder enemies felt just lazy and boring," says Dias.
Dias and the developers at JoyMasher took a hard look at every aspect of their game, asking themselves how it could be used to challenge a skilled player. With careful thought, they redesigned enemy encounters, item and puzzle placement, and boss battles to create a challenge that demanded new strategies. They wanted the player to experience a whole new Odallus: The Dark Call - not the same game taking longer periods to play as you whittle through enormous amounts of enemy health. Veteran Mode is not just a harder difficulty, but an entirely new world as a gift to those skilled enough to earn it.