There's little denying that developing a game, regardless of its scope, requires a lot of hard work. After spending months building solid core mechanics, designing sophisticated enemy behaviors and optimizing your code, the last thing you're going to want to do is add additional modes. Who needs them, right? But before you throw away all those great ideas you had during pre-production, consider your audience. Today's gamers expect, and even demand, more. And it's your job to give it to them.
As with every design decision, there are risks and rewards associated with adding modes to your game, and so our objective becomes identifying what types of modes will benefit your game, and sanity, the most.
Doubling Content Does Not Necessarily Double Production Time
Before we get into the different mode types, it's important to dispel a common misconception: adding a mode does not necessarily have to significantly increase a game's production time. Sure, there are a few caveats to this rule, but for the most part tacking on an extra variation or two will prove to be more of a worthy endeavor than an overwhelming one.
Think about it - by the time you've developed your core mechanics, you'll have an entire arsenal of accessible engine code right at your fingertips. With just a few subtle changes, your straightforward platformer can become an endless runner, an objective-based race against the clock, or an open sandbox where traditional dangers do not apply.
The beauty of modes is that end users will never know that you spent eight months creating the game's rules, and only two weeks on each manifestation of those rules. From their perspective, your small effort essentially doubled the breadth of the final product. Thus, they'll end up spending more time playing your game, and not someone else's. And most importantly, they'll view your company as one that offers its users a deeper, more versatile experience.
Overcome the Urge to Ship an Under-Realized Game
The problem is, even developers who realize the value of modes are still hard pressed to incorporate them. Game development is a grueling effort, and any designer who doesn't succumb to burnout at least once during the process is either a liar or a better person than I. These same developers, who at the beginning of pre-production wrote a very ambitious Game Design Document, are suddenly more than willing to release a final product that is just "good enough."
Overcome this urge. Easier said than done, but if you don't you'll end up releasing a game that is more a proof of concept than a fully realized, multifaceted game. Under-realized games might fly if you're targeting mobile platforms and are releasing for free, but don't expect to get away with a feature-light game on the PC or consoles.
So now that you're ready to dig deep, let's examine just how beneficial, or in a few cases detrimental, modes can be to your game.
Difficulty Modes: Low Risk, Low Reward
That subheading is a little misleading, because there have been times when developers crafted Hard Modes that added new gameplay mechanics not found on Normal. Some were even ambitious enough to tune enemy intelligence and aggression levels so that players would be forced to use different tactics, should they hope to succeed. The Halo series comes to mind as one that took a bold stance on how a Hard Mode should be implemented.
In these cases, adding difficulty modes probably took a while, and qualify as more of a high-risk venture. Then again, if I had Bungie's budget, I could create some pretty neat AI too.
Tangents aside, most difficulty modes are fairly easy to implement. However, I wouldn't suggest simply doubling the HP of every enemy as a viable solution. Instead, take a more creative approach.
For instance, if match-3 puzzle games are your thing, consider adding an extra puzzle piece, or decrease the effectiveness of the most basic moves. Side-scrolling shooters can become significantly more difficult just by removing a few gun types, or by limiting the effectiveness of existing ones. Even introducing a new enemy type that exhibits the characteristics of multiple standard enemies shouldn't take long to execute, especially considering that these behaviors are already built into your engine.
Shallow Hard Modes often upset the balance of otherwise sound games, so tread carefully. Yes, this means you'll have to actually test each mode and see whether the increased challenge is due to the clever manipulation of existing mechanics or just sloppy design. As a wise man once said, "Frustrated gamers are frustrated."
But even if your alternative difficulty modes come out perfect, realize that they will only appeal to a very select niche. Casuals will probably start out on Easy, and the most hardcore gamers will likely forgo playing on any other mode outside of Insane. But most of us fall into the middle, and are more than satisfied playing a game on Normal and being done with it. This is especially true of story driven games, where the implementation of different difficulties is often overlooked.
Then there are games that are intentionally hard, like Dark Souls and Super Meat Boy. I would imagine if these games had Easy modes, their core audiences would feel insulted.
So yes, while there are benefits to difficulty settings, they're not as universal as one might initially think. But because they're relatively simple to apply, do at least consider them.
Tacked-on Modes: Low Risk, Medium Reward
Otherwise known as "lazy modes", tacked-on modes are usually a simple variation of the primary gameplay mode. Endless and Time Attack modes fall into this category, as do some objective based modes. But just because they're a little cheap doesn't mean they're not useful. Games like Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved have relatively straightforward variants to significantly lengthen their replay value.
Just don't be too lazy. If you've produced a game with 10 levels, stringing those levels into one continuous one and calling it Endless Mode is not very creative. Increase enemy frequency, make jumps harder, add a mode-specific power up - do something to differentiate each mode.
Think about how much a game like the much maligned Diablo III would have benefited if it included a mode that played to its primary strength: killing swarms of increasingly difficult mobs. Alternatively, by simply providing players with a reward for clearing a dungeon in a certain amount of time, it would have extended its replay value by a fair margin.
Unfortunately, tacked-on modes only work for select genres. There is probably some appeal to a Gauntlet Mode in a turn-based RPG, but it's unlikely to increase its replay value all that much. And mode variations in adventure games like The Legend of Zelda would just feel out of sorts. These games benefit more from built in mini-games than they do from different modes.
But if you're an indie developer, you probably don't have the budget to create 20-plus hour adventure games featuring a fishing mini-game, so tacked-on modes become a good alternative to increasing your game's worth.
Alternative Gameplay and Online Modes: High Risk, High Reward
Remember when we said that the implementation of most modes will not greatly increase development time? Well, these are the exceptions. Online multiplayer, alternative storylines, deep variations on gameplay - they all have one thing in common: they're hell to develop. Well, not necessarily, but setting up a network is no day at Princess Peach's castle, especially for indies. How long was Minecraft in beta, three years?
On the flip side, the benefits of these modes can be huge. Don't even think about designing an FPS without an Online Mode; your target audience will seek their fix elsewhere. In fact, FPS aficionados probably spend upwards of 90 percent of their time playing online. Just make sure you are prepared for the monetary and time risks associated with developing a true online mode. As tempting as it may seem to create the next World of Warcraft, do something a bit less ambitious if this is your first game.
Independent developer Zeboyd Games did something that few indie devs would even consider: they implemented a second story mode for their modest hit, Cthulhu Saves the World. A bold move for sure, but one that gained the admiration and respect of their already loyal fan base. Again, it's probably not the best move for new developers, but tossing in a second story mode is something all rising stars should at least consider.
So... Modes Are Good?
Before you suddenly decide to add 14 new modes to your game, ask yourself a few questions first:
- What type of game am I making? Platformers, puzzle games and runners all benefit from tacked-on modes. Best to avoid difficulty and alternative modes if you're creating an adventure game or RPG.
- What is my budget? If it's nonexistent or small than stick with tacked-on and difficulty modes. You'll need more time and money for alternative modes.
- Is this my first game? Does anyone know who the heck I am? In this case, you'll want to create a robust game with lots of replay value. But if you find yourself devoting more than a third of your development time to creating new modes, stop.
So, yes - modes are good. Keep the creative juices (and an extra pot of coffee) flowing and you can turn your one-note game into one that keeps people coming back.