Designing for Difficulty

Two games that I have recently been playing a lot are Celeste and Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy. I highly recommend them both to anyone reading this. Something that each of these games are renowned for among the gaming community is their intense difficulty. These two are definitely not alone in that regard. Dark Souls, Geometry Wars, Super Meat Boy, N++, Spelunky, and a lot more have grown immense fan bases in part because of their unrelenting difficulty. Yet, conventional logic dictates that the harder you make your game, the more you will alienate large sections of your audience who don’t have the patience to master its mechanics.

Most people (including me) credit good design as the reason for the success of difficult games. It’s a lot easier to keep playing a level over and over if the next check point is right in front of you despite requiring impeccable timing to get to it. If every time you die, you respawn half a second later without requiring the click of a button, you feel a lot more hopeful about your next run. Some games, however, are an exception even to this logic. Since I’ve been playing his game recently, I’ll talk about Bennett Foddy. This guy is known for creating difficult games using a very different method. Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy behaves almost like a puzzle. It doesn’t feature checkpoints, levels, or any of the other crutches that make hard games bearable. At the same time, you can’t die. If you mess up, you will fall back down and lose a substantial portion of your progress. So why does this work? Well, aside from the profound consequence of failure, the game is actually relatively easy.

Wait, hear me out. If you have played the game and are scowling at me, try to imagine what it would be like with consistent checkpoints. For every hard obstacle that requires mastery to get over, you would just have to thrash around and get lucky once. What really makes the game so difficult is that once you do overcome an obstacle, you will undoubtedly need to overcome it over and over and over again every time you fail at the next one.

Creating good difficulty is really a two part process. Once you have shown a player their goal, the first step is to make that goal hard to reach. This is where obstacles, limited mechanics, dungeon layouts, and good old fashion level grinding come into play. The second step is to create consequence. When the player fails to achieve their goal, how far will it set them back? Taking these steps to their extremes reveals a lot about difficulty. As you can imagine, a game with a goal that is insanely hard to reach and also has incredibly dire consequences would be laughable to all but perhaps the world’s best speed runners. Imagine if Super Mario Bros was just one giant level, and dying at any point sent you straight back to the beginning. On the other side of the spectrum, a goal that is easy to achieve and has no consequence for failure would make for an incredibly boring experience, unless it’s sole purpose is to deliver narrative (side-glance to Telltale). What the majority of successful hard games do is set a difficult goal to reach, but minimize the consequences of failure.

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