Back off, I’m right on the edge.
In my sickness enforced downtime, I spent a lot of time with the Playstation 2 classic, Persona 3: FES (It’s still awesome. Go check it out). I recently ran across the mid boss, Sleeping Tables, (Enemy names are still ridiculous. Still go check it out.) who proceeded to annihilate my party. After several attempts resulting in my quick and ignominious death, I consulted online guides who helpfully informed me that he was going to murder me. Sleeping Tables is an example of a poorly balanced boss fight. He does tons of damage, ignores previous strategies, and has no effective means of dying except luck for the players. This got me thinking: what are some of the challenges in balancing difficulty?
The first and most difficult problem is player skill. Players come from a wide variety of skill levels that don’t align on a single scale (good to bad), but reflect the player’s competencies at a number of tasks. Some player’s may have excellent twitch skills while others are great at formulating strategies. Double Fine’s recent release, Hack n’ Slash, relies on coding ability beyond the average gamer’s experience. When building a game, it’s hard to imagine what the typical gamer looks like in terms of jumping, dodging, attacking, puzzle solving and the tons of other tasks that games ask the player to perform. This gets even more complicated when the developer tries to modify these skills along the previously mentioned sliding scale. Inherent in the concept of an easy, medium, or hard mode is the notion that, what each mode changes, specifically addresses the skills of players. If easy mode allows players to take more damage, then it might have zero effect on a player who dies to instant death jumping puzzles. After all, absorbing ten extra bullets doesn’t save the player from falling into a chasm of doom.
Past decisions also matter in establishing difficulty. Many games allow player decisions to carry across sections of gameplay. In some of the grand RPGs, player actions may result in the death of a character or the developing of a certain skill tree. If that character is then vital to defeating a boss or the skill tree is weak against an enemy, then the player is boxed in by their previous choices. Developers must account for the many ways players play their games and be even more cautious with end game material that could require the player to replay the whole game if they made the “wrong” choice in the beginning. This also effects the smaller decisions. Standard FPS games, not known for carrying choices across the game, still have smaller decisions that can have major effects on player difficulty. Everything from gun choice to positioning on a map can make a game harder or easier. Getting pinned behind a wall make one fight unwinnable while taking a sniping position atop the rafters make the same fight a pathetic turkey shoot.
Size also matters. The longer a game is, the more likely the developer is to include new elements that test the player’s skills and strategies in new ways. This creates ever more scenarios that the developer will need to test to ensure the appropriate difficulty. Size of the game also makes the difficulty harder to test. In the original God of War, one of the final stages had the player climbing up a series of pillars with blades attached. The pillars rotated and the goal was to both climb up and avoid the moving blades. Unfortunately, the God of War developers ran out of time and were unable to test that section. As a result, an impossibly hard challenge made its way in, much to the chagrin of many a God of War player who was staring enviously at the end. Of course, the developer should have fully tested their game, but the size of the game makes it hard to check every aspect of it, particularly with limited resources.
Finally, developers and testers have a deeper knowledge of a game than the vast majority of their players. Not only do they program every aspect of their creation, but they also play it to test out these changes. This means that developers and testers are approaching their game with far more practice and knowledge than their players will have. It’s hard to divorce yourself from your knowledge and easy to forget that an “easy” jump wasn’t so “easy” the first 20 times you tried it. By the time a game ships, that jump has probably been tried thousands of time.
There are a ton of challenges when trying to balance a game. It helps if the developer can a) get fresh eyes on near finished code and b) has a clear understanding of their target demographic. Fresh eyes allow the developer to understand how a new player would approach a game without the benefit of many playthroughs. Understanding the target demographic gives the developer an idea of who will play their game, and what level of skill they bring to the table. Even then, it’s hard to get the difficulty just right.
….but Sleeping Tables is still going to die.