Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Managing Difficulty Expectations

Game difficulty can be one of the more challenging aspects for designers.  Make the game too easy and players will complain about it being too simple, short or dull, but a game that is too hard will likely be called stupid, imbalanced or poorly designed. While I've discussed aspects of managing difficulty previously, perhaps one of the most vital aspects is to make sure that the difficulty matches the expectations of the player. In this case, I'm going to pick on the somewhat older title of Need For Speed: Shift. I'll say upfront that I've mostly enjoyed playing the game and its sequel, but it would be remiss of me to not identify the issues that they have.

I'm sure I've complained about rubberband AI in driving games before, before Shift goes one step further.  It has several mistakes when it comes to difficulty.  Firstly, in order to unlock new "tiers" of racing (ie new cars and races) you have to gain a set number of "stars" by achieving certain placing, point total (which you earn through certain driving actions: mastering a corner, overtaking, trading paint, drifting, drafting, etc), or another bonus objective. However, if you complete all of the stars from tier 1 and a couple of the associated "invitational events" that you'll unlock by doing so, you'll not only unlock tier 2, but also tier 3. That's right, before you've even done your first race in the second tier, you'll have already unlocked the third. Now I'm all for rewarding players for being thorough, but this is just ridiculous. To unlock the third tier so early is like dangling a carrot in front of someone on a 100m long stick. If someone is going through and doing all the events (and let's be honest here, a lot of players are going to do just that), then awarding them the third level of racing before they've even done the second is just ridiculous.

I'm still almost two tiers behind this race...

If that's all the game did wrong in terms of difficulty, I'd be happy to leave it at that. Shift has mild rubberband AI, in that it is present, but it's not as blatant as exists in some other driving games, or even other outings in the NFS series.  It instead falls into the trap of difficulty scaling. Having just gone through the process of winning every race in tier 1, I found myself with a substantial amount of cash. As such, I decided to put my money to work in buying a shiny new Porsche, top of tier 2, and invested in a few upgrades to put myself further on top of the newfound tier 2 heap. I jumped into a mixed (tier 1 & tier 2) event and expected this new wonderful car to breeze to victory. Couldn't be easier, right? Wrong.

Suddenly I was competing against people with equally fast and upgraded driving monsters, but I was the only one struggling to cope with the fact that this new car was a lot faster than the old one. Everyone else handled their new high horsepower beauties perfectly. Dismayed, I decided to shelve my new, shiny, uncontrollable Porsche in the garage for a spell, and spend a few thousand on some upgrades for my S2000 and see how it fared. At least if I lost to the competition, I could attribute it to their much faster and more powerful cars. So I jumped into the race with my old favourite... and found myself getting to the front of the pack with only a mild amount of difficulty.

Alas Porsche, back in the garage you go.

I thought I'd positioned myself to destroy my opposition by spending my money on a top of the line vehicle with a whole lot of bells and whistles, but all I did was get the computer opponents to scale up with me. Any sense of accomplishment was lost when they came right along with me despite me feeling like I should have a superior car. Dropping back to a worse car and seeing my opponents scale down with me turned me off my new car even more. What should have been a triumph instead ended up feeling like a tribulation.

This does present a difficult problem specifically for the racing genre, in that each race should be challenging (for whatever definition that might have based on the player's chosen difficulty level), yet in a career mode, the player should be given an increasing difficulty curve with manageable spikes periodically. Of course, it could be argued that any particular sequence within a level of an FPS/RTS/RPG.  Would it hurt to let the player of a racing game have a rare romp where they blitz the opposition by a vast margin like some firefights in an FPS are straightforward, or to have one really challenging race every now and then like an RPG boss fight? Racing games quite often manage the latter, but very rarely give a player the satisfaction of the first.

As a closing note, I should state that Shift 2 does make an attempt to address these issues, but isn't without its own shortcomings.  The main issue retaining the concept of assigning cars a class based on an arbitrary point value based on various handling aspects of the car. While this makes sense, it's possible to have two cars with the same point value where one is vastly inferior in virtually all circumstances to the other. Admittedly given it's pitched more towards the sim end of the market, that's arguably fair enough, but it still sometimes misses being fun..

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