The Difficulty Curve and RPGs

in Tips and Tricks

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:

CurveThe 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:

waveAnd 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:

  1. Rescuing Roland from the Bloodshots
  2. Infiltrating the Bunker
  3. The final mission
OK, these opinions might center around my hate of Constructors...

OK, these opinions might center around my hate of Constructors…

All three of these points are also where the storyline also ramp up:

  1. 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)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Character Power

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.

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.

Difficulty Walls

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.

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.

11 comments… add one

  • Mark T. March 4, 2014, 8:47 pm

    A recent good example of the second graph, I feel, is Bravely Default. That game could get CHALLENGING, but it was well-balanced and I never felt something was impossible.

    On the other hand, I actually kind of love Final Fantasy Tactics’ approach, too. That game can just beat you down the whole way through unless you want to put in time and effort, and the you can become a walking god. It was always super satisfying to me (which is part of the reason FFT is my all-time favorite game).

    Really nice blog post, though. Really, at the end of the day, I think any curve could work, but it could be totally dependent on the type of person who is playing. I think that the curve represented in the second graph is the safest bet, and can be a total blast when done well.

    • Nick Palmer March 6, 2014, 10:54 am

      I haven’t had a chance to play Bravely Default yet. My wife has a 2DS and the game though, but I haven’t been able to pry it from her hands because she has been playing Animal Crossing 24/7.

  • Seth.D March 5, 2014, 3:46 am

    “(OK, in gameplay you can take as much time as you want, but that is the story)”

    Actually, if you take too long, the W4R-D3N will flee to Friendship Gulag, where you’ll have to travel all the way there and kill the bot too free Roland. :P

    • Nick Palmer March 6, 2014, 10:53 am

      … Really, I must not have ever waited that long… Man just looked it up and you are right. I’ve always been so pumped up in that mission that I ran all the way to the end at breakneck speed.

  • Craig March 5, 2014, 9:55 am

    I think RPGs in general, should be more sweat-inducing. When it comes to the party’s overall combat ability, I love it when both the player and enemies have that same scale of power. Yeah sure, your fighter may have that sweet, dismembering level 50 attack, but the final boss may have a nuke which would destroy your entire party! The fact that enemies grow with you(or there are stronger, more threatening enemies awaiting your challenge) makes me excited the more I play a RPG.

    Some RPGs have some dysfunctional difficulty curves. Like for example, in certain old FF games, they don’t tell you that you had to be at a certain level(to learn one skill) to have an easier time beating an early boss. But here’s the thing: the alternative is wasting your time as the boss was… really, REALLY HARD!!! I eventually found out, that I wasn’t even halfway through the game when this occurred. But up until that point, the game was generally easy, so I wouldn’t expect to all of a sudden grind 5 hours on a task that wasn’t even relevant to the story(I got to this plot point at say, level 27 but the skill was only learned at level 40+ I believe). If you wanted to avoid this, you HAD to grind for hours after every plot point as soon as you started the game! I didn’t finish that particular FF RPG(think it was 2? not sure).

    Personally I think Xenogears was the only RPG to have a nice diffficulty curve with a smart failsafe. The boss battles were quite challenging and in some cases, a single accessory(equipped or not) decided your fate. Even then, you were faced with impossible odds even with the best equipment. Since you were forced to use Gears(alternate “characters” which couldn’t level up), the game was difficult, but balanced as even the most hardcore grinders couldn’t roll over bosses – they had to deal with the same challenges everyone else did.

    When I was using RPG Maker 2 for PS2(black sheep of the series, but I thought it was the BEST RPG Maker EVER!), I made a game in which the difficulty curve was pretty low and got steeper as the game advanced. You were never at a complete disadvanage but bosses would give you a rough time if you were unprepared, and the chances of you winning would drop based on how unprepared you were. Seemed fair to me at the time.

    However, what I think made the game difficult but more manageable, was that there were items and sidequests scattered throughout the game but hidden away in plain sight. These items would range from the usual healing items, to valuables you could give away for extra cash. Anyone that took detours and completed these sidequests or found these hidden items would be at a better advantage, but would NOT allow them to breeze through the game. At the time, my mindset on balancing the game was “Give the average player JUST enough to survive.” Only the intelligent players would have the privilege of breezing through the game, as they’ve earned it. I’ve never found a RPG that challenged the player, but didn’t assume they’d just browse the internet and purposefully make it overly complex/difficult. I suppose I’ll have to make one myself! :)

    • Nick Palmer March 6, 2014, 10:52 am

      The original FF games have weird walls. And yes, Xenogears has a pretty well done curve.

  • Julien Brightside March 5, 2014, 1:41 pm

    Ooh, I like this blogpost.
    It makes sense to me.

  • CDX March 22, 2014, 2:59 pm

    2 words: Dwarf Fortress.

  • RyokuHasu June 4, 2014, 2:48 pm

    Difficulty wall to the EXTREME!

    So I was playing Agarest Generations of War and I was Chugging along perfectly with my OP DLC sword I got for purchasing gold edition. After looking up my Ideal path for my descendants I realized that my 3rd Generation couldn’t use the OP sword because he was the only one in that lineage that was a Mage. If i could just beat that part without my OP sword and actually rely on Combos and the Party then I would be back on track for God Like Stats and Using my OP sword again.

    Point is In Agarest you can hit a wall pretty hard if you over-rely on the main character and him using 1 OP weapon you built of have. but that’s part of the fun of that game.

  • skyblaze August 11, 2014, 3:17 am

    I am just wondering why its should be accepted that there is a difficulty curve at all? Apart from bosses everything should be relatively easy (interuptions to storytelling because of pointless NPC grinding battles is not recommended) – if you are grinding to level up groups to face similar level enemies the difficulty is the same – unless the game introduces a variant of the battle system your gameplay is still the same – example fighting Sephiroth at the end of FF7 is still basically the same as the beginning enemies

    • Nick Palmer August 13, 2014, 10:39 am

      Difficulty isn’t about grinding, its about decision making skills. Later in the game, you are going to be better at leveraging your characters abilities, therefore, the enemies should be more difficult to beat to remain a challenge. Games are not JUST a storytelling medium. If you don’t care about the game part, you probably should be writing a book, a comic, or a screenplay of some sort.

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