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Designing Difficulty



I see a lot of talk these days about difficulty in games. Specifically there is a lot of discussion about whether games that are designed to be difficult can or should provide ways to make them easier for players who might be frustrated by the difficulty.

I find it hard to nail down my own opinion on this subject because I don't think my enjoyment of a game is effected JUST by its difficulty. There are games I have bounced off of (I've never made it more than a few hours into a Dark Souls game) and other games that have really sucked me in (I must have nearly 100 hours in Spelunky) and I don't think I can honestly say the difficulty alone accounts for my love or dislike of either. 

This has got me thinking about how difficulty could be adjusted in a racing game. My current project (Tokyo Light Cycle) is racing game, but has some particular quirks that make it a little different from typical racers where the goal is to beat opponents, sharing mechanics with games like Race the Sun or Thumper that are about avoiding obstacles and mastering timings.

TLC is a simple game, but there are still a number of elements that could be changed to alter difficulty:

  • Player health
  • Death mechanics
  • Movement Speed
  • Level Design
  • Time Limit
  • Other random thoughts

Player health
Current Default: Player loses health when they collide with obstacles. Player can survive approximately 4-5 collisions depending on severity.

Making things easier:

  • Give the player more health so they survive more mistakes.
  • Allow health to regenerate under certain conditions (such as at a check point or via pick up).
  • Since TLC is all about earning and then maintaining speed, could allow player to "cash in" their top speed for a chunk of health.
  • Turn off health entirely so player cannot fail by dying.

Making things harder:

  • No health. One hit kill. 

Death Mechanics
Current Default: Once health reaches zero, player is dead and must start again from the beginning.

Making things easier:

  • Dying sends the player back to the last checkpoint instead of the start.
  • Old fashioned "lives" mechanic where player gets multiple chances.
  • As with health, dying could be disabled completely.

Movement Speed / Level Design
Current Default: Speed and level design are intrinsically linked with speed values currently set so that it is possible to make it around the main course more or less always at top speed, but with shortcuts presenting more challenge (narrower road width, more severe corners). All "main" route roads are navigable at top speed just by managing use of brakes. Shortcuts and alternative routes require more nuanced management of speed (for example setting the speed lower than the max available)

Making things easier:

  • Reduce speed values.
  • Make roads wider.
  • Make corners less sharp.

Making things harder:

  • Increase speed values.
  • Make roads narrower.

Unlike other elements, level design and speed feel like they cannot easily be changed in an options menu. You can imagine the player being able to toggle between some of the other difficulties listed but adjusting difficulty through the level design feels like it would be very challenging.

Time Limit
Current Default: One hour time limit on completing the whole game. I've made the decision that the game should be fairly easy to finish in the time limit, with the challenge being more about surviving all the way to the end. Still, I can see that a timer could be stressful for some players and that being able to disable it could make it feel easier for some.

 Making things easier:

  • No time limit.

Making things harder:

  • Current plan is to give players a different ending depending on their completion time so in a way there is already build in difficulty to the time limit.

Other random thoughts
I've had a couple of thoughts about features that could make things easier that don't relate directly to game play but are more helpful information.

  • World map: I've always planned to have a large map available in the menus to show the player the city and especially where they have been and where they haven't to assist in discovery of shortcuts.
  • Demo mode: Watch the game play itself perfectly.

So there are my thoughts on how the difficultly of Tokyo Light Cycle could be tweaked by the player to suit them.




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