Sunday, February 20, 2011

Game difficulty (Part 7)

As mentioned in my last post, RPGs frequently have to deal with difficulty in a different manner to many other games because of their mechanics. A significant portion of player skill is determined by knowledge rather than reflexes. Knowledge of how to build a character, knowledge of powerful skills and abilities, and knowledge of enemy weaknesses. Furthermore, in games like Dragon Age, it is possible to pause the game, allowing the player time to plan their tactics in great detail and not have to be concerned with their reaction time at all.

If a player is failing to succeed in a particular encounter, then a quick read of a guide or walkthrough will provide them with the necessary knowledge to prevail. Implementing the strategies within general does not require a high degree of skill or mastery of the game's controls, meaning that the player can "improve" and overcome any challenges without becoming overly frustrated, which could lead them it stop playing the game entirely.

One cheap tactic and this fight becomes incredibly simple

Now, in certain circumstances, this can actually improve the accessibility and playability of the game.  MMO raiding relies fairly heavily on this type of setup for many guilds. Once the leading guilds who break the new ground and work out the strategies for overcoming the encounters, this information is typically available from one or more websites, and then other guilds follow in their footsteps.  A raid leader (or perhaps all members of the raid) will read about the encounter and the strategies required to defeat it, and then attempt the raid with an appropriate group possessing the relevant skills/gear. In this case, the ability to break down the tactics needed to succeed makes the game easier and more enjoyable for many players. Admittedly there is potentially some element of reaction and/or timing in MMO raiding, especially when compared to RPGs where you can pause, but even an MMO does still not require reflexes to the same extent as an FPS or fighting game.

Despite having some advantages, there are drawbacks to RPG difficulty.  For starters, it can be very hard to produce a "difficult" encounter for players truly wanting a challenge, as optimal character builds will often be able to breeze through the game without issue. This makes producing a challenging game for min/max players especially hard to do while still keeping the game accessible to the average or amateur player unless severe increases in difficulty are implemented. Further exacerbating this problems is that many RPGs rely on simple factors to increase difficulty, like multiplying enemy damage by 2 (or more). As discussed previously, this frequently does little to increase the challenge for the player in an enjoyable fashion, and sometimes fails to increase the challenge at all.

Dragon Age suffers from "double enemy damage" syndrome

Further compounding this issue is that guides frequently nullify any challenges faced by the player, removing any difficulty they might face. In an FPS, even being told explicitly where enemies are does not necessarily help if the player does not have the skill to line up a shot and kill those enemies before they do the same to the player. In an RPG it is potentially possible to "bypass" a challenge without learning the necessary skills that obstacle was trying to introduce to the player. Because the player has followed instructions to get past a challenge, it is possible that they have not learned from that event, and thus may get frustrated again if a similar circumstance arises again in the future. Of course, the player can theoretically just refer to their guide again, but if a player is constantly following a guide in order to succeed, it is likely that they are having less fun than if they were just able to work it out for themselves.

So when designing encounters for RPGs, it is vital that you consider the possible power level of the player's characters. Furthermore, when dealing with encounters that require specific player knowledge or require them to implement specific tactics, provide hints or resources to the player to allow them to not run into the fight blind. If a thorough player could find out that a particular enemy is vulnerable to fire, then this rewards the player who goes to the effort to find that out... though ideally they would find information from the game rather than the Internet.

Breadth of choice and a constant baseline of power are at opposite ends of the scale when dealing with RPG encounter difficulty. But if dealing with a game that features absolutely no dependency upon reactions, then a character build and player tactics are the only means by which to differentiate the skill level of players.


  1. So I didn't have a comment the first time I read this post, but idly browsing it again (definitely not procrastinating, no!), I was struck by something you overlooked.

    There is a barrier to winning an RPG encounter even if you know the strategy perfectly, particularly in real-time games, including pausable ones like our friend Dragon Age. It's the reason I can lose fights I created myself: attention resource.

    Now I'm a casual Starcraft fan at best, so I may be misusing the term, but I think the concept is highly relevant. The more individual details a player needs to keep track of during an encounter, the more likely they are to overlook something important. This can be something that under ordinary circumstances they would understand fully and execute on perfectly, but the chaos of the encounter denies them the bandwidth to even recognise.

    For example, imagine we have a Dragon Age boss that hits very hard and has a lot of hit points, but no other mechanics. The player has one and only one thing to focus on to win: the tank's health. There's some nuances ("How do I stop the tank dying: potion, heal spell, force field, kiting?"), but they're probably not going to forget to heal the tank.

    Imagine the same boss with an evil altar that must be clicked every 20 seconds, and a pair of adds that spawn every 30 seconds (one invincible and must be CC'd, the other must be killed). Many players would accidentally let the tank die at 60 seconds on their first few attempts because the mage needs to be CCing, the rogue clicking the altar and the dps warrior killing the second add, all while the tank is taking normal damage.

    This is important and interesting because it means that even for a player with perfect knowledge, the encounter becomes a skill in its own right, and the degree to which they've mastered the baseline skills of the game becomes critical. The player needs to internalise a bunch of stuff so they can fit the encounter into their conscious bandwidth. In our example, a player who was highly practiced at mage CC would have more attention to devote to checking the tank, and would probably need less attempts to prevail than a player reading "you have to forcefield the Invincible Magewrecker" off a printed FAQ while searching for their forcefield button on their mage's bar.

    This is something I notice very keenly while switching from DPS to healing on my Shaman in WoW (let alone one of my terrible alts). I've been primarily an Enhancement Shaman player since late Burning Crusade, spending hundreds upon hundreds of hours practicing the spec in extremely demanding encounters. I've done comparatively little healing. I could easily raid lead hard mode ICC encounters despite Enhance's sophisticated priority queue at the time. Given even a very simple healing job, even on encounters I knew intimately (200+ Arthas wipes wheee), I had to hand off raid leading duties. Didn't have the bandwidth, because healing was not internalised.

  2. I'd also notice a difference in my players - "stronger" players would adapt more quickly to an encounter, reaching peak throughput and making very few errors. Other players might eventually reach the same level of performance, but only after long and hard practice. I theorise the stronger players had more bandwidth to process the encounter mechanics, whereas the weaker ones had not mastered their classes to the same extent and could not instinctively use their class abilities to the fullest extent in a new context. They had to internalise mechanics of the fight instead, over many wipes.

    In a Dragon Age context, pause makes life easier, but worrying about four characters rather than one makes it harder :)

    So I think just by adding more things for the player to keep track of in an encounter, we can add legitimate difficulty that is not trivialised by foreknowledge. There's a big difference between being told that the 60 second mark is hairy and experiencing it yourself.

    When failing in this sort of circumstance, I think players are a bit more likely to blame themselves. It's very frustrating to fail to execute something you know you can do perfectly, but it's probably less likely to make the player conclude the encounter/game is at fault and the designer is a jerk. Plus it makes the encounter learnable through experience, leading to a natural improvement curve for the player, and hopefully a sense of fiero when they do triumph.

    In a DA:O context, I'd normally suggest Harvester and the bosses in Classic Week/Coldhearth/Broken City are the only examples of this sort of challenge (and problematic in the Harvester and Coldhearth cases because of the sudden spike in the amount of attention the player needs to pay). You could certainly make a case though that I'm overestimating the available attention resource of the average DA:O player, particularly in the light of the base game not requiring the player to be aware of the behaviours required for strong performance, let alone internalise them.

  3. PS: if you're continuing this series, I'm sure we'd all love to see some concrete examples of how you're putting this thinking into practice in the Shattered War. Got a boss fight that's ready to share? :)

  4. This is actually something I did think about covering, but I wasn't quite sure that I could adequately shoe-horn it into this post. It is an issue of time management, and sometimes even being able to pause whenever you want still only goes part of the way to helping overcome the problem. In some cases, timing can actually become *more* of an issue for the player if they're using pause and play mechanics, because then it becomes quite challenging to get the timing accurate.

    For example, if the player has to be ready for a particular action every minute, but pauses every 5-10 seconds, keeping track of exactly when that event will occur becomes problematic. In this case, it's actually beneficial for them just to try and deal with everything in real-time, though that can obviously present its own challenges.

    Managing multiple objectives at the same time is definitely a good way to increase encounter complexity, especially for single player games with pause and play capability. Of course, the key, as I've pointed out (and you've given the good example of the Harvester) is to make sure that players have (at least some of) the relevant skills (and/or knowledge) necessarily to deal with the encounter.

    Given that I still haven't experimented heavily with the various scripting possibilities for encounters within Dragon Age, I won't go into too much detail into encounters within The Shattered War. Several key fights have been planned, but I'm yet to implement them in full. That said, I am going to use an encounter I designed as a case study for an upcoming post.

  5. Do you want to collaborate on a rewrite of the scale system for dragon age?

    I think it might be worthwhile

  6. Just a quick question: What's the play-hour like with DA:2, assuming you finish all of the side quests? Is it considerably shorter than the 60-or so hours I got in the Origins--which seems to be the impression I get from the magazine reviews?

  7. Oops. Wrong thread.