Hey, folks! Happy Holidays, if that’s still something people say.
I’ve been getting a hair more gaming done, with the holiday season in full tilt. Not to turn this into a “What We’re Playing This Week: Isaac’s Lonely Edition”, but two games I’ve been spending a deal of time on are Darkest Dungeon and Starbound. Really being able to feel the life-extinguishing pillow-over-the-face difficulty of Darkest Dungeon made me decide that it was time to talk about the difficulty curve in games. Remember, folks: real games have curves <3
The Difficulty Curve
The difficulty curve… “What does that even mean?”, you ask plaintively. It’s basically how the level of difficulty increases as the game goes on. What’s important is not how difficult it is at any one point, but how steeply it arrived at that point from an earlier, easier point. It’s important, both from a player’s and a gamedev’s perspective, because each player is unique in how steep they like their difficulty curve: if it’s too shallow, then many experienced gamers will pan the game for “holding their hand” or “being a 23-hour-long tutorial” *cough Final Fantasy XIII cough*. If it’s too steep, inexperienced players will hate it, and won’t explore the content lovingly created by the sadistic developers of Dark Souls.
Dying and the Curve
It’s important to realize that the difficulty curve is more than simply a question of, “How difficult is it to get from this point to the next?” How heavily you are punished for dying is incredibly influential, because it affects how frustrated you get at your failures. Let’s use two examples of games, one which I already mentioned: Dark Souls and Hotline Miami. You die a lot in both games. In Dark Souls, you spawn at your last save point, often quite a ways back, especially if you die in a boss fight.
Depending on which Souls game you’re playing, you might lose gear, stats, maximum health, experience points, or abilities. You always lose your cash. It’s very rough, because it makes getting back to the place you were even more difficult, when you have already shown the game that you failed at that particular point in the first place. If Dark Souls had not been lucky enough to make a franchise and a trope out of being the most difficult game, this would be as fatal to the quality of their games as it is to the players playing them.
Hotline Miami is (arguably) equally difficult, in that you are very squishy, enemies are usually smart, and the odds are always overwhelmingly against you. However, dying and respawning takes less than a second, and gets you back into the action, where you will almost certainly meet death quickly once more.
The difficulty curve on both of these games is tremendous: your hand is not held, you die often, and death holds no benefits for future progression through the game. However, Hotline Miami is a great example of good difficulty progression, because it trades off how heavily you are punished for dying by how often you do it. Dark Souls, not so much.
Choice of Curviness
Many great games (especially puzzle games), like Portal and Braid, have meticulously planned difficulty curves, that continually introduce new concepts, test creativity and build on previous knowledge to increase the challenge. Other games, however, let you pick how much resistance you want to have when progressing. For example, Super Metroid (another gold standard in my book), opens the world up fairly early, enabling the player to explore, get more weapons, max health, and special abilities to more easily progress through the game. The amount of stuff you need to actually beat the game is laughably small, but anywhere between that minimum and getting every item is a level of difficulty that nearly anyone could be happy with. Most Final Fantasy games explore this option as well, allowing grinding to higher levels, side quests to get ridiculous gear, and the learning of abilities to utterly wreck even the most dastardly of bosses.
Another way people open up choice of difficulty is by allowing players to bypass easier sections of the game. Saints Row will open up extremely challenging missions at an early stage, and if you decide to take them on, you’ll have your work cut out for you, but that’s the difficulty you choose for yourself. Megaman games allow you to take down bosses in any order, allowing players to exploit the weaknesses of bosses, or do a buster-only run. Chrono Trigger famously allows you to tackle the final boss halfway through the game. If you want to go that route, you can, regardless of its suicidal odds.
I won’t say that a game has to have this level of customizability, but boy, does it help make a game more accessible to the masses.
Skill Cap and Ugly Randomness
I could go on about this for ages, but I’ll boil it down as simply as I can. The “skill cap” is merely a measurement of how good you can possibly be at a game. For many games, it’s ridiculously high, meaning that there’s a nearly limitless amount of refinement and precision that can go into playing a game more skillfully. Super Smash Bros.: Melee is a competitive game with an impossible skill cap, which makes it so appealing to players: you can always get better.
Skill cap is important when feeling out a difficulty curve, because if a player can’t possibly get any better, they had sure as heck better be able to beat the game with relative ease. Most players will never play the game as skillfully as humanly possible, so if your absolute best player is struggling with a particular part, it could be due to… *dun dun dun* UGLY RANDOMNESS. This is a term I just made up because any other description would involve profanity. Ugly Randomness is when random elements of a game (enemy placement, boss attack order, critical hits) come together to completely screw a player out of victory that their skills indicate they deserved. If a boss summons deadly spikes in such a way that you can’t possibly dodge, and you instantly die, then Ugly Randomness has come to bite you in the rear.
Most good games keep this to an absolute minimum, because it has nothing to do with difficulty. Some developers will use the element of randomness to create a false sense of difficulty (Candy Crush, much?), but it has nothing to do with the actual curve of difficulty because saying it is “difficult” implies that the player has some control over how it turns out. If you are in a position where randomness is the determiner between victory and defeat, you are not playing any game besides a fancy version of Russian Roulette. Boy, folks, Russian Roulette sure is difficult!
For this reason (and some of the others above), I put Darkest Dungeon squarely in the “extremely crappy difficulty curve” category. Its death system is punishing, and by itself, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. I only ever had a complete party wipe twice in my many hours playing the game, which is to say that complete failure is a relatively rare circumstance. If it’s rare, punish away! However, if you combine that with the pervasive, maddening element of randomness present in the game, then it goes from being punishing to merely abusive. The players must enter the final dungeon armed completely to the teeth with maximum level characters, decked out in the best armor, with the best weapons, the highest abilities, and most effective trinkets. With all of that, you still stand a very good chance of dying. You’ve hit the skill cap, but the randomness of difficulty can screw even the best players. When that party dies, all of their gear, all of their abilities, all of their trinkets, and all of the time you spent assembling them dies with them. For the sake of a roll of the dice.
That, my friends, is when you ragequit and don’t look back. In games like Dark Souls, punishing as they are, randomness plays a relatively small role in the events leading up to your inevitable death. You die a lot, but feel like you deserve it. Quitting a game like that is a statement: “This is a difficulty curve that’s too steep for me to enjoy.” And that’s okay.
Quitting Darkest Dungeon also makes a statement: “I’m going to stop gambling with the lives of my characters and go play some goddamn Minecraft.”