by Bob Reinhard
When the discussion of video game difficulty comes up, there is a lot of talk about how games aren’t as challenging as they were “back in the day”. There is a longing for the “quarter-eating” difficulty of classic game development. But one of the things that surprises me is the complete disrespect for games that don’t provide that kind of challenge at all. And it had me thinking about a concept I’ve noticed a lot of games have used well in order to provide difficulty without abandoning accessibility that comes from an easier game.
The obvious example I use whenever this conversation comes up is the Kirby franchise. Since it’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite franchises of all time, it’s one I find myself coming to the defense of quite frequently. There is an animosity towards Kirby for it’s child-friendly development philosophy that I think drives many gamers away from the series all together. Which is a shame, because if you peel back the cute nature of it and it’s accessibility, many Kirby games provide an added level of optional challenge and difficulty that even veteran challenge-hungry gamers may appreciate.
Now, I’ve talked about that plenty, but it is an easy launch pad into the concept I wanted to discuss today: the use of layered difficulty.
It’s easy to figure out what “layering difficulty” is just from the name I’ve given it. Placing layers of increasing difficulty on top of a game’s basic structure. It’s something that can be very hard to develop for, but a lot of games maintain a solid fanbase because of this.
I’d like to state that I am NOT talking about “difficulty levels”. While having an Easy mode and a Hard mode work for what they are, I’m talking about something that allows games without these difficulty levels to achieve the same thing within their one and only difficulty level.
The first way you can add a layer of difficulty comes from obvious challenges added to a game. Time trials, collectibles in hard-to-reach places, the many things that go into achieving a “100%” at the end of a level. Most of these are completely optional, and most of them require a bit more mastery of the game’s systems to achieve.
Take, for example, the bandages in Super Meat Boy. The game itself is already challenging, but it’s forgiving nature can allow you to get through it eventually. The bandages are a more intensified version of that difficulty without being completely removed from the structure of the game itself. They require just that much more skill to reach, and the added satisfaction drives players towards revisiting the game and pushing themselves just a bit harder.
But what’s the point? Players need motivation to achieve these higher difficulties. While some gamers simple like challenging themselves, others need a reward to push themselves into the more rough territory of “hard” challenges. And that’s where reward comes in. Good games provide not only the sense of achievement for taking down the optional difficult tasks for those that just like harder gaming, but also provide a reason for those less inclined to seek challenge to give it a shot. One of the easiest ways is to simple throw in a few extra bonus levels.
Games like Donkey Kong Country Returns manage this perfectly, especially since those bonus temple levels are added difficulty in and of themselves. Which in turn unlock an even more hidden level that’s even MORE challenging. Layers of challenge. Throw in mirror mode and you’ve got an even tougher level of challenge that only the most skillful can reach. Layer after layer of different challenge keeps the game accessible to those who don’t want a ton of challenge, but provides just enough to keep more challenge-hungry gamers satisfied.
So how do game designers build their game around this concept? Does every game need collectibles and time trials and hidden levels? Of course not. This is simple one way to add layers of difficulty to a game. Trophies and achievements can be used as another way to add layers of difficulty by giving players quantifiable tasks to work that much harder for. Things such as Saints Row the Third’s Challenges list or inFamous’ “Stunts”, which requires you to explore the many different mechanics of the game, can also be used to add an extra challenge to the game without forcing it on the player entirely.
Layering difficulty is only one style of game design. It’s not necessary for every game, nor is it “better” than any other kind of challenge or accessibility. It’s simple something to look out for when making a game that you would like to reach a wider audience. It’s something more and more game designers are keeping in mind as games become expensive and the gamer audience becomes more robust and full of different people. In the future, I expect to see even more kinds of layering difficulty to pop up as game designers push to find ways to draw in the most people and satisfy everyone.