Monday, April 5, 2010

More thoughts on game difficulty

Last time I talked about different genres of games and how the style of game relates to how challenging it should be. However, one point I left out is about what's often referred to as the "difficulty curve". The idea is that if you could make a graph with how far you've progressed in the game on the X-axis and the game's relative difficulty on the Y-axis, then ideally you should get a smooth line that starts low and ends high. Thus, the game starts off pretty easy and gets difficult at the end when you've developed your skills.

Unfortunately, a lot of games that would otherwise be pretty enjoyable are hurt by failing to follow the proper difficulty curve. One example I've recently run into is Top Spin 2, a tennis game for the Xbox 360. Top Spin 2 has a fairly robust career mode in which you create a player, assign points to various attributes to customize your playing style, train via mini-games, and select which tournaments you want to compete in during the year. It's a fun system that does a great job of hiding the fact that you're playing a glorified game of Pong.

But while the setup is well executed, I've run into a big problem. I was working through the career mode with a great deal of success, staying away from the big tournaments and focusing on training and lower-tier events to build my abilities and bankroll. Things were proceeding very fledgling player had placed first in a few minor tournaments and it felt like I was getting the hang of the game. Then the computer offered me a special event, in which you play against your rival (assigned by the computer) for a big purse and a boost to your abilities. Since I was progressing nicely, I decided to accept the challenge.

However, the match didn't exactly go as planned. Much like Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, my rival apparently didn't understand that it was supposed to be an exhibition. Not only did I lose, but the computer mopped the virtual court with me. Seriously, I could hardly win a point. After retrying the match several times, I was stumped. I started to think that maybe it was scripted so that you were destined to lose this match, but a quick internet search made it clear that, in fact, winning this challenge was the key to proceeding in the game.

What really struck me was the number of angry posts about Top Spin 2, with titles like "I hate this stupid game" and "*@#$ cheating rival...". Apparently everyone runs into this match and has the same trouble I'm having. Some struggle through, eventually succeed, and go on to beat the game. Others get frustrated and quit. But here's the thing - this could all be avoided if the designers had used their brains and not laid down a challenge vastly beyond what I had faced previously. A bump in difficulty was to be expected, but going from me kicking butt on the court to not being able to win more than a handful of points in an entire match feels arbitrary and unfair. That's not a difficulty curve, it's a difficulty BRICK WALL!

It's amazing how a nice gradual difficulty curve that eases players into a game (think Rock Band) will often greatly improve their opinion of it. Conversely, Top Spin 2 got a lot of very negative feedback despite the fact that, difficulty screw-ups aside, it's a pretty solid tennis title. Developers would be wise to learn a lesson here and give careful consideration to the right way (and WRONG ways) to challenge a player.

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