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Unknown Mode: Difficulty in Open-Ended Game Design

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Gift

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This post is part of a series called Difficulty.
Easy Mode: When Easy is Okay
Nintendo Hard Mode: It Was Acceptable in the Eighties

Every gamer and games journalist will invariably end up talking about difficulty when discussing a video game. This typically takes the form of a small comment like simply saying it's "too easy" or "too hard", but it's a topic that deserves to be looked at in much more depth, as the way it is handled can completely reshape a player's experience with a game. In this article, I'll look at how player choice and freedom can affect a game's difficulty level.


Choose Your Own Destiny

These days, video games are all about choice. Phrases like "player choice", "freedom", "open ended design" and "limitless possibilities" are buzzwords that are now thrown on almost every big production the industry creates.

The result is that a large portion of games have now taken on a much more open-ended nature. This doesn't mean every game has become a massive open-world RPG like Skyrim, but many games genres now boast player choice, even if it's something as simple as choosing between playing stealthily or going guns blazing in the newest shooter.

All of this change has been mostly positive, allowing player immersion and design creativity to hit an all-time high. But nothing is perfect, and there is one area where all of these changes have proven to cause some trouble: difficulty.

When developers don't know where the player is going to be in their world at a given time, how strong they will be when they get there, and what skills they will have acquired as players through their potentially many hours of play before reaching that point, fine-tuning difficulty becomes a precarious task that is often blundered.

I can't claim to know a perfect solution to difficulty balancing in games, but let's take a look at some of the more open-ended games that have come out recently (except one) and see how they dealt with this problem.


The Scale

Level scaling is the most immediately obvious solution to consistent difficulty when not knowing the player's strength. Basically, level scaling is a practice used in many RPGs where enemies will always be roughly the same level as the player. Higher level enemies have more health, take less damage and do more damage.

At first glance the system seems to work fine. No matter what the player does or where they go there will always be a consistent challenge waiting for them. Perfect, right? Wrong, very wrong. Let's take a look at probably the most famous game to ever use this system and see where it went wrong.


The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Everybody loved Oblivion; it's an incredibly huge roleplaying game with hundreds of hours of content to dive into. However, there is one thing everybody hated about it, and that's the level scaling. In Oblivion, enemies scale in strength and gear to your level almost perfectly which really cripples immersion and the feeling of player accomplishment.

In Oblivion it was not uncommon to exit a massive dungeon after gaining a few levels and finding a really awesome piece of glass armor only to get slaughtered by the very next bandits you see on the road who are now decked out in equally awesome gear. You can also find your high level character entering into epic and closely matched duels with mud crabs. Though this is entertaining, it does not lead the player to feel they have grown any stronger throughout their journey, which is one of the primary appeals of a game like Oblivion.

There are very few upsides to doing difficulty balancing like this other than the fact that it's very easy to implement. Luckily Oblivion had a lot of stuff going for it outside of combat.


The Semi-Scale

This system is a refinement of the one found in Oblivion and happens to be used in its sequel, Skyrim. In Skyrim, enemy scaling is approached in a much more organic manner that it was in Oblivion. Most zones are given level ranges for the enemies they contain, and the specific levels of the enemies are selected when the player first enters the area. From that moment on the levels of the enemies will stay fixed in that particular area.

This system marks a vast improvement over direct scaling for a number of reasons. First of all it allows the player to out-level areas, giving them the ability to return to a previous area as an all-powerful god if they so choose, clearly cementing the players progression. It also helps with immersion because of the higher control the developers have on the difficulty of specific areas.

If an area is supposed to be difficult and thus has a higher level range it may be populated with mammoths and giants instead of wolves. Though these enemies will scale to the players level to a certain degree they will overall be tougher than weaker enemies in other areas. This makes logical sense and adds a nice difficulty curve to the experience.

Oh mudcrab, no longer will our battles be so fierce.
Oh mudcrab, no longer will our battles be so fierce.

Skyrim is thinking about the late game too, and allows some areas to scale almost directly with the player's level allowing dungeon raiding to remain interesting at very high levels. Unfortunately, this system isn't perfect and at later levels large swathes of the land in Skyrim become complete jokes filled with enemies of laughable strength. It makes perfect sense within the context of progression, but once your save file has hit 85 hours the game can start to be a bit of a drag.

The semi-scaling system is elegant and works quite well, however it is extremely complicated (I just outlined the broad strokes of how it works here) and takes quite a bit of work to get right.


The Wall

The wall is what I'm calling a scaling system that is not widely used, but can be quite effective: no scaling. In this type of system, things work the way you would expect them too in the real world, every enemy has a fixed strength. Take a look at Dragon's Dogma, for example; in this game each goblin is exactly as strong as every other goblin everywhere else in the world. A goblin is weaker than a cyclops, however, and both pale in comparison to the strength of a griffin.

This is exactly how you would expect things to work in the real world, and for that reason this type of system really works towards increasing the immersion of the game. The world in Dragon's Dogma feels connected and realistic; the farther away you venture from towns the stronger the wildlife will become and the greater the threat is to your life.

Like anything else though, this system does come with its own limitations, the biggest of which is the way it can hinder complete player freedom. In a game like Oblivion or Skyrim you can hop out of character creation, see a looming castle in the distance and march on over there, forging your own path in the huge world you are given to explore.

In Dragon's Dogma this doesn't work - there are many places you simply can't go until you are strong enough with the strength of the enemies presenting a metaphorical wall blocking your progress in that direction. This mean the game is much more directed than something like Skyrim, which can be a lot less enticing for some players.

You can't kill this yet. Please come back later.
You can't kill this yet. Please come back later.

More importantly, this system is very finicky and hard to get right. (It was done extraordinarily well in Dragon's Dogma, with there always being just enough places for your character to go at any given level and with endgame enemies that provided reasonable challenge even with high level characters. Another great thing about it, is that as your character levels up the experience you gain from the easier enemies becomes almost negligible, meaning you rarely find yourself overpowered when entering new areas.)

When this works, it's great, but when it doesn't, the wall risks breaking the entire difficulty curve of your game. A good example of this is Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, a game with the same system as Dragon's Dogma, but crippled with poor execution.

In Kingdoms of Amalur, level is not tied to specific enemies, but to the zones the enemies are found in. Other than a few small overlaps like bandits, most enemies are only found in their own zones so the system seems to behave very similarly to the one in Dragon's Dogma. There is slight scaling going on, as zones do have a level range, but these ranges are very small and so the scaling is almost negligible.

So great, it's basically Dragon's Dogma's system, which I just said was awesome - what's the problem? The problem doesn't lie in the system itself, but in the fact that the numbers just aren't tuned right. In Kingdoms of Amalur you will go through the world in a more or less predetermined order, and the enemy levels were set by the developers to what they thought would match the levels of the players when they enter certain areas of the world.

Unfortunately, not all players play these types of games the same way. If you want to simply follow the story, and maybe do a sidequest here or there Kingdoms of Amalur's difficulty will seem just fine, but not everybody plays that way. Any player who chooses to complete a larger amount of sidequests in an area than what the developers were expecting will find themselves grossly over-levelled upon entering the next area.

You should be difficult, but you will die in two hits.
You should be difficult, but you will die in two hits.

Since the game does not handle experience gain from lower level enemies the way Dragon's Dogma does, and just keeps on giving experience to the players, the game never really catches up. It is not uncommon for someone playing Kingdoms of Amalur to find themselves killing bosses with one combo as soon as they enter the second area, and find themselves doing so again with every other boss and common enemy in the game.

Having no enemy scaling can work really well, but it's a double edged sword that can have disastrous results if not executed properly. It's a system that works, but it's finicky and I'd imagine it requires a lot of playtesting to pull off properly.


The Difficulty Mode

This final system I'm going to look at isn't one that's applied very often, if at all, to open world games, but is worth a mention all the same. In fact, this system is most popular with hack and slash action RPG's like the Diablo and Torchlight series.

In these types of games, player strength, even at equal levels, varies enormously. There are many ways to build characters in these games, and some of these are vastly more effective than others. Add in the fact that randomly generated equipment is a staple of the genre and you have basically no way to know ahead of time how powerful your player is going to be at any point in the game.

The solution: lots of difficulty modes. These types of games usually have a large amount of different difficulty modes, and in the case of the Diablo series these must be played in order of increasing difficulty.

This screen is a big part of the Diablo appeal.
This screen is a big part of the Diablo appeal.

The effectiveness in keeping players engaged is obvious with this type of system. They may have gotten some sweet loot that made their first go round way too easy near the end, but playthroughs two and three are bound to kick it up a notch. The player gets to go from weak to powerful many times over, repeating the process of character progression, the driving force of fun behind these types of games.

Unfortunately though, this is about the farthest thing from an immersive system that a game can incorporate. Having an experience built on repetition and a transparent representation of both player and enemy progression does not lead to breakthroughs in believable world-building.


There are many ways to try and balance the difficulty of a game when you don't know how your player will approach the open-ended experience you've created. So far, no developer has truly conquered this challenge, and I can't even begin to go about saying how they would. All of this was just a small taste of what other designers are doing in this field; maybe you can do better.

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