An Untitled Soapbox on Game Difficulty

I want to once against note before I begin this monologue that I’m not a game developer.  I’m just a chick who plays games.  Because of this, I’m not sure how well any advice I offer towards the process of development will be received.  That’s especially true when you consider that I haven’t been involved in Xbox Live Indie Games for a full year yet.  However, I have something I think needs to be said and I have reviewed nearly 200 XBLIGs.  That’s probably more than most developers have played.  So I feel somewhat qualified to offer you advice in the politest way possible.  Let’s see, how should I start this?

You guys are stupid dickweeds.

That’s usually what I think when I play a game where the difficulty curve spikes straight up out of nowhere like it just popped some digital Viagra.  I won’t go so far as to say it’s the biggest problem on Xbox Live Indie Games, but it is the one that has ruined the most good games.  This also isn’t a plea to dumb down your titles.  I like a challenge as much as anyone.  But I like a fair challenge, one that I feel tests me on the level of which I have progressed.  Often, XBLIGs play out at a rate equal to instructing a child on proper cap-gun safety, then shipping them off do front-line infantry duty in Baghdad.

Games should challenge a player.  A game that is too easy has to be exceptional to leave an impression on the player.  On the flip side of that, a game that is too hard is more than likely to leave impressions on a player.  And also the player’s controller, couch, television, walls, etc.  Now granted, some gamers want that.  But those that do have a genre all to their own for that.  This isn’t an editorial on punishers.  I’ll leave them out of it.  This is about any average game where a developer loses track of reality.

Lumi's difficulty curve could be more accurately described as a straight horizontal line immediately followed by a straight vertical line, and it ruined the game.

I’ve spoken with many guys on the XBLIG scene, and we all agree that developers often forget that they are the best player at their own game.  What happens is they play the game themselves hundreds of times, to the point where they know every little nuance about it.  They know the best ways to defeat enemies, the best angles to clear jumps, the best places to camp, or the best places to situate your defenses.  In no time at all, the game suddenly seems too easy.  The worried developer tries to correct this by beefing up the difficulty in a way to challenge themselves.  As a result, the finished project is an impenetrable mess fueled by swearing and rage quits.  The perplexed developer doesn’t realize this, because they could still beat the game, so everyone else should be able to as well.

Of course, the developer forgot that they were making a game to challenge everyone.  That’s really what it boils down to.  They created a game that was challenging for them but not impossible.  By time the game enters peer testing and peer-review, the developer is (perhaps rightfully) full of pride.  After all, they just made their very own video game.  Unfortunately, the resulting ego trip usually makes them oblivious to real concerns of difficulty that are brought up.

From what I’ve gathered from my time on the scene, there seems to be three types of peer-review testers in existence.  The first is the genuine tester who will play a title all the way through and give honest feedback.  The second is the cheerleader.  These are the guys who are just a little too in love with the scene and treat every game they come across like the mother of a spoiled child with a sense of entitlement.  They offer no constructive criticism, because that might hurt someone’s feelings.  Chances are they probably don’t even play a game all the way through to begin with, and if they dislike it, they’ll still slap on the pom-poms and congratulate you for whatever miniscule thing they can come up with.  “Way to not misspell the title of your game.  Man, XBLIG’s fucking rule!”  The third is the kickback reviewer.  They also probably don’t play games all the way through, nor do they offer any feedback.  They’re simply trying to pass games so that when their title is up for review, they can get it passed with minimum resistance.

The next-to-be-reviewed Spoids is a genuinely fun game that morphs into a lump of digital hatred for humanity in its final act.

So basically, two-thirds of peer-reviewers out there don’t actually do any work.  If someone with real concern over a game’s difficulty says something, the developer ignores it.  After all, nobody else said anything, and they were still able to beat their own game.  Maybe the guy who said the game is too hard simply has no skills.  I’m guessing there is also the occasional tester that’s too embarrassed to admit they found a game overly hard.  Guys, don’t worry about it.  I admitted I couldn’t throw a Dragon Punch in Street Fighter II and was able to weather the gentle barbs that followed.

Dragon Punch? Ha Ha!

Developers often don’t realize how difficult their games are.  It comes down to play testing for this to sort itself out.  It also comes down to expecting straight-forward honesty in the process.  Do your due-diligence in the testing process.  How reliable are the testers you’re getting?  If they lean too much towards the cheerleader set, make note of it, and don’t look to them for the real answers to the questions you should be asking.  Stuff like “is my game too difficult?” or “do the controls feel right?”  Don’t rely on just your fellow developers either.  Bring your friends into it, and be clear to them that they can’t possibly hurt your feelings if they think your game sucks.  Even if that’s not true.  I concede that getting people outside of the scene to play an XBLIG is tough.  But hell, you’ve already spent X amount of dollars.  What’s spending $20 more on a pizza and some soda?  Gather your friends.  Gather their friends.  And when they play the game, keep your mouth shut and your eyes open.  Don’t offer any tips or pointers.  If possible, don’t even tell them that it’s your game.  Just watch it play out.  You’re about to find out exactly how good it is.

There are some developers out there who truly don’t give a shit what anyone has to say and want no feedback outside of kudos and congratulations.  There’s no point in reaching out to them, because there is no helping them.  This goes out to everyone else: you can do better.  You deserve better too.  Developers need to ask for blunt honesty before their game goes on the marketplace, because the last thing they want is to hear it first from me.

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24 Responses to An Untitled Soapbox on Game Difficulty

  1. The problem is most people don’t play test and they jump straight to peer review. I don’t really understand why we don’t go for the option of free valuable feedback on our games, I guess some people think they need any feedback and assume that since their game is bug free(even though it often is not) that they should jump straight into peer review. I think XBLIG devs who do this are idiots, they miss out on the polishing stage from arrogance and it really negatively affects their game. But then again, if people want to waste all their effort put into making a game by throwing it all away on their last ten percent that’s their problem.

    • The problem is the playtest section is a barren wasteland. Unless you make direct contact with XBLIG devs, you can put your game there and not get a single play. They put their game on playtest after failing peer review for a week until they can resubmit again, where the developer is already in bug-fixing mode and not even thinking of balancing gameplay.

      It boils down to having no incentive to playtest. If a game is in review, you expect to be playing a finished product (to some extent). Devs want the favour owed by reviewing a game to be a review in return, not waste it on a playtest.

      Lack of playtesting in apphub is not necessarily out of arrogance, but instead know they’re going to be given little (if any) feedback.

      • That’s very true. The playtest section is largely worthless, and always has been. Finding people to play your game on twitter is much, much easier, and then you don’t have to rely on the terrible App Hub forums for communication.

        Still, not getting people to try out the games (early and often!) we work so hard on is absolute insanity.

  2. As I mentioned on Twitter, I came across this recently with Oil Magnate. I liked the game, but it was ruined for me by one minigame that I only managed to beat once in something like 30 or 40 attempts. Every failure of that minigame effectively costs you the entire game and forces you to start over from the beginning. It made Oil Magnate almost unplayable.

    When the devs found out about it, they told me they’d fallen prey to this phenomenon. They tried to make that minigame ‘difficult but not completely impossible’ – for THEM, people who had played it hundreds of times. The upshot was that it’s basically impossible for everyone else.

    (As a side note, the devs immediately started working on an update to correct this problem.)

  3. Starglider says:

    The vast majority of full-price games use difficulty levels to appeal to a wide range of player skills, and add replay value. The ones that don’t are either party/casual games or make the bulk of the game easy with hidden extra-hard challenges (e.g. the Zelda games). Similarly for most XBLIGs there is NO EXCUSE for not having selectable difficulty levels, both at the start of the game and reducing the difficulty during play if the player is finding it too hard. As I’ve said before, you should design for yourself and set that as ‘expert’, design for yourself when drunk and set that as ‘normal’, then make a version that your dog could complete by chewing on the controller and set that as ‘casual’.

    • Team Shuriken says:

      Also, make sure the default difficulty is set to casual because your dog don’t know how to select non-default option, but will bark loudest if the game don’t fit him. Serious advice.

  4. CJ says:

    I HATE dumbing the game down, whatever the method may be. However, developers should verily be aware of the challenges they make players face.

  5. After the first round of playtesting Soulcaster II, I reduced the number of enemies by 50%. Yes, half. I had forgotten how good I was at the game–just like Kairi says.

    +1 to her advice for playtesting. Sure my games are small and are only for XBLIG, but each of them had at least three playtesting parties and 20-40 testers. Feed them, watch them play, encourage them to speak their mind while playing, take notes and keep quiet.

    A note on the XNA CC playtest feedback system. It’s been good for me but not even close to sufficient. It’s a great way to have people find evil checklist stuff before peer review, and you’ll get feedback only other devs will know to give. But nowhere close to a substitute for in-person testing.

    • Team Shuriken says:

      One thing i did for dream divers that was really good (but i did it only once, should’ve done it 3 times to see results of my modifications), is to have about 10 people in the house, doing something (for us, it was playing poker). As people would get eliminated, i would take them in my computer room alone with me and not give them any tips (well, i did say 2 sentences since the tutorial was not done at that time) I would ask them to ask all their questions but would answer none, just to get a feel for their thoughtprocess. i would also ask them not to talk AT ALL about the game or even what it was about to the other people playing poker, so that i could get their fresh opinions once they’d be eliminated. It was crazy how different people would approach the game differently and develop all kinds of bad habits, mostly all differents. Sometimes, they would mostly all get the same bad habit and in those times it was easy to come up with slight tweaks to level design or other to invisibly guide them not to make those sorts of mistakes.

      I wish i had done it more times though as the problems i fixed through that playtest generated newer problems which would have needed more playtest to detect (since as a dev i become almost blinded to how they can invent new ways to suck beyond my imagination).

      What’s really hard though is being able to have enough virgin eyes to the games. Once someone has played 5 minutes, even if it’s months ago, their impressions become almost worthless when it comes to evaluating their reaction to the 8 minute trial and new virgin eyes become a must.

      • That’s a great idea, since first impressions quickly get corrupted if new players spectate before they play. I will have to try something like that next time…

        That reminds me though, having close friends who are veterans at your game also helps, because you can see how deep the gameplay goes and how much lasting appeal it has. Though this is only 10% as important as the “first 5 minutes” it is still worth keeping tabs on.

  6. tristanrendo says:

    I once reviewed a game that was pretty good up until one of the last levels that was turly impossible to beat. It took several attempts, prodding and eventually even producing a video showing the simple impossibility of a certain part before the developer admitted to never having even beaten the level with an actual controller on an actual Xbox (only having done so in the program they used to develop the game), I wish I could find his direct quote but I must have deleted the email.

  7. Sobou says:

    This entire subject is why I quit Apple Jack halfway through. The game was nifty, fun, and pretty cool for a platformer. But then the stages become malicious in their intent and it ends up becoming a clunky, stiff platformer with Super Meat Boy’s range of hate. It’s a bloody shame, too. These games are good but lack balance.

  8. Mike says:

    Oh boy is this a problem! I’ve been working on my game for at least two years, and playing any game for two years is probably going to make you pretty good at that game. Then I have friends over to play it, and they get tripped up on the first boss! Don’t worry though, the difficulty that I personally feel is “right” for the game is going to become the Hard difficulty setting. I want everyone to be able to enjoy the game with minimal damage to any cats that may be intercepting the flight path of a controller when you miss that jump for the 57th time.

  9. CJ says:

    The more you play your game, the better you will get good at it, and the less sympathy you’ll have for the gamers who just plain suck balls. But try not playing games for a while! I don’t know if it’s just me, but when I go without my Call of Duty or Alundra, my gaming reflexes dull out. Everytime this happens, I always get my ass beat by my own games! XD After that, I start toning things down.

  10. Sean Doherty says:

    Our unique insights on the XBLIG play testing process:

    Freelance Games

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