GameDev Protips: How To Properly Implement Difficulty In Game Design

Have you ever played a game and quit because it was too hard? We all have, no big deal right? Well, you might think so when it happens to your game and your players start leaving in spades. As developers, it can be hard to figure out what the ideal level of difficulty is — we oftentimes get so good at the game by the tail end of development that we fail to balance the game properly for new players. One work-around is allowing your player to choose their intended level of difficulty early on, or having the game give certain perks and rewards for more skilled play.

People liked to be challenged. That’s part of the reason that they decided to play your game in the first place. A game that is too difficult is infinitely better than a game that is too easy. If a game is too easy a player will feel no sense of an intrinsic reward. Try to incorporate a gradual level of difficulty to make it feel as though your player is naturally progressing and learning. Reward difficult sessions accordingly and your player will feel tempted to return. One rule of thumb is that the first few levels of any game should be like training sessions, but with lots of rewards. Amp up the rewards and make sure to drown the player in shiny things.

With increased levels of difficulty should come opportunities to leverage player skill if they want to speed through a level, or become stronger or faster. This is a subtle way to get your player to dig deeper into a reward that they either had at the beginning or the game or a new feature that gives them a taste of what they could experience. Raising the skill ceiling should be viewed as helpful aids that reward higher skilled players to make them continually feel challenged.

One last tip. Never make the player feel cheated when it comes to difficulty. Make sure that players know exactly what they could do better each and every time that they fail. Random spikes of difficulty can confuse and frustrate the player. You don’t want that. In the Freemium market, they may or may not make in-app purchases to beat one, or a couple levels, but the purchases will not continue if they do not feel like they are treated fairly. In the traditional PC market, they might get too frustrated and leave a horribly negative review.

Important Takeaways: The difficulty curve is necessary for players to enjoy your game, so don’t let them down by being lazy. Make sure that it ramps up accordingly and is sufficiently challenging, while maintaining a high skill ceiling for more hardcore players. At the same time though, don’t make players feel like your game is purposefully trying to screw them over. They might just give up early on and get a refund on their purchase. Run as many playtests as you can with fresh eyes. The success of your game depends on a refined difficulty curve.