With all games in which you play a campaign against the computer itself (as opposed to human opponents), the game should have some semblance of a difficulty curve.
The difficulty curve is how hard your game is at different points in the game. Ideally, your game should get harder as you play through it. Most people, for instance would put something forth that looks a bit like this:
The player has to learn faster and faster to keep up with the game that is working to beat him. This is a very simple curve, but in my opinion, not the most ideal, ESPECIALLY not in RPGs.
I would suggest you try to hit a difficulty curve that looks a bit more like this:
And here is why:
Match Difficulty to Story Tension
In most cases, the tension in a story will wax and wane as you build up and resolve situations the players face. By matching your difficulty to the tension of the game, they compliment each other to create a much more tense situation for not just the characters, but the players, too.
Take for example, Borderlands 2. SPOILERS AHOY, DON’T READ IF YOU DON’T WANT THEM There are three points in the game where I think the difficulty spikes up pretty hard:
- Rescuing Roland from the Bloodshots
- Infiltrating the Bunker
- The final mission
OK, these opinions might center around my hate of Constructors…
All three of these points are also where the storyline also ramp up:
- Roland is captured by the Bloodshot bandits and BOOM halfway into rescuing him, Hyperion Loaders bust through the wall and take him from the bandits. You have to race to the end of the dam and stop them before he is taken to Handsome Jack (OK, in gameplay you can take as much time as you want, but that is the story)
- You’ve collected all the things you need to infiltrate the Bunker, grab the Vault Key, and prevent Jack from taking control of the Warrior.
- You’ve discovered where the Vault is, and you have to get there and save Lilith stop Jack from awakening the Warrior. (which doesn’t quite succeed, but I guess the Warrior isn’t all he was cracked up to be, huh?)
By making the difficulty on these missions high, it cranks up the tension, making it feel much more epic than if you were rolling over the enemies without even trying.
Try to think of what is happening in the story, and match the difficulty up with that.
RPGs, almost by definition involve characters gaining more and more power throughout the game. Which is fun! Most players enjoy “playing with the new toys” that they are given. Having dips, usually after big events such as major bosses, lets the player feel like his characters are powerful as they more easily storm through the next “challenge”.
It should still be more difficult than the last dip, but easy enough that with the new powers and increased skill of the player, they get a bit of a breather after the last peak.
Things to look out for:
Quadratic Heroes, Linear Enemies
I’m borrowing a bit of terminology from D&D fandom (Quadratic Wizards, Linear Fighters) to express one of the issues I see with the difficulty curves of some games.
In the game, the character’s power grows up and out, giving them both higher stats and crazy new combos of powers. On the other side, enemies only seem to gain power in one category. Or don’t take advantage of the second.
A strong example of this is Final Fantasy Tactics. The player gains stats from levels, and gains more and more powers to combo together, creating nearly gamebreaking units.
Add in a touch of Blade Grasp, and some Bravery/Faith Shenanigans, and you have walking gods.
Enemies on the other hand, never seem to grasp any real power combos. They just keep using basic builds while the player’s party becomes more and more unstoppable. A game designed like this will, contrary to what you generally want, tend to be HARDEST at the beginning, and get easier as the game goes on.
We’ve all played that one game. Where we are chugging along, no problem, little bit of challenge here or there, but nothing to bad. Then you go into a new area, or go to fight a boss. And BOOM. You are wanting to throw your controller through the screen.
Running headlong into one of these hurts.
You go online and find out there is all this crazy bit of strategy that all the veterans seem to know, all these little details of the mechanics that you never used. And why would you?! The game never eased you into all this stuff being necessary. You didn’t have to slowly learn to tighten down your skill, instead it made you have to learn 80 things at once because you are going to need all of them to overcome this next part.
Its not about hard games. Hard games are fine, but you should be easing your players into the difficulty. This kind of difficulty wall is usually when you start getting players calling the game cheap, ridiculously hard, etc. Train the player to use all the tools at his disposal FIRST, before tossing him into the deep end.
Do you have any thoughts on difficulty curves? Maybe something I didn’t think about when I wrote this? Or maybe even just a question? Join us in the comments section below.