GameDev Protips: How To Improve Your Indie Game’s Difficulty Curve

Difficulty can be a major factor in your players’ enjoyments of your game. Make the game too easy and the skilled players jump ship early on due to boredom. On the opposite end, if you make the game too hard the beginners will get frustrated and also leave early on. A variety of factors can contribute to creating an appropriate difficulty curve, and they go as follows.

Let players get through easy parts fast if they’re skilled enough. This way a skilled player can easily blow through them and get to something challenging for them, whereas a less skilled player can be challenged by these earlier levels that would otherwise be considered easy. This makes sure that every play is challenged by at least one part of the game, and they get to that point quickly. If you arrange this differently, such as making every level take a uniform amount of time regardless of skill, the good players could quickly grow bored and stop playing.

Create some “layers” of challenge. To envision what I mean by this, think of many games in the past such as Lost Planet or Resident Evil 5. These games would have a rating at the end of every section of the game, giving the player a goal to shoot for. In a lot of cases, getting the lowest grade means you barely scraped by, but this could be enough for a novice player as they get to the next stage, and as they become more skilled they can return to an earlier level and try to improve. This system allows everyone to make it by but those who are skilled will know it and be rewarded as such.

Let the players chose their own difficulty level. You can’t really go wrong with this system, as having “easy, medium, or hard” options will guarantee that a player can find the appropriate challenge for their skill. The main downside to this method is having to create and balance multiple versions of your game, but you could also argue that it detracts from the “reality” of your game as players will argue which version is the “real” one. An example of this is when games have a normal difficulty and an unlockable harder difficulty; is the hard difficulty what the game was designed around and meant to be played on, or was normal the correct way to play?

Make sure you have a variety of playtesters. Many developers fall into a trap of only testing with people who are constantly exposed to the game in one way or another. Because of this, the game’s difficulty is designed with the average player being an experienced player, so novices are left without an appropriate challenge. The opposite can also occur, where you only playtest with people who have never played before. As a result, the game is designed in a way that will bore experienced players who can see the basics from a mile away. Test with a mixture of both to make sure that your game is fun throughout every point in the game for every type of player.

Give losers a break. Mario Kart is famous for its powerup system that can supposedly ruin a friendship. The reason it’s so notorious for this system is that players ahead in the race tend to get meager powerups whereas players in the back will get really good things like the fabled blue shell. This system works because it’s an equalizer that attempts to give the players in the back a chance to catch up to the players in the front. It keeps things fair and helps keep players engaged because those in the back need to pay attention. If they don’t pay attention they could miss a game-changing powerup that could win them the game. For the players in the front, if they get too relaxed they’ll fall victim to one of said powerups. This system makes sure every player feels like they have a chance regardless of skill, and you can apply similar handicap methods to other games to emulate the feeling.

Important Takeaways: Establishing the correct difficulty for your game is important because if it tips too much in one direction, easy or hard, you will lose the players who play at the opposite difficulty. There are several ways to ensure you’re correctly balancing the difficulty of your game including easy first levels, end of level ratings that are separate from the main game, difficulty settings, using a variety of playtesters, and giving a bonus to players that are falling behind in a multiplayer game. Make sure that every player has something will challenge them and that every type of player will find a section of the game that is enjoyable regardless of their skill level.