A Note About Game Difficulty in XNA Games
After the second round of playtesting for Ikaroids, we found that a number of comments were coming back to us stating that the game was rather difficult. Instead of simply dumbing down the game, we added the classic Easy, Medium and Hard difficulty settings to the game. Here’s some discussion about how we did that, and how to pre-empt the playtesters comments!
Should We Add Difficulty Levels?
We originally decided against having the option of selecting the difficulty in Ikaroids. We figured the campaign would start off easy and progress to hard as you worked through it. What we didn’t account for, was the fact that we’d spent 4 months playing it during development when trying to set the levels…
The game came back from playtest with a number of comments stating that the game was too hard. However, we could blast through most of the levels without getting a game over and didn’t want to make it considerably easier so that players that are dual-stick shooter fanatics like us didn’t get bored.
It was clear from this point that adding difficulty settings was the most appropriate resolution to this problem.
Is it going to be a lot of work?
How much work it is to add difficulty settings to your game depends on the internal structure of your game. Most games will have a small number of variables that are easy for you to change depending on the difficulty setting that can have a massive effect on gameplay. This is where you should start to look initially.
If your game is a break-out clone, change the speed of the ball. If your game is a golf game, ramp up the chance of having strong winds. In our case, all of our entities are derived from the game base class, so we simply scale the hit points, speed, reaction speed, firing speed and AI targeting range to make them worse for easy mode and better for hard mode. The whole change took less than an hour and has opened the game to beginner players, as well as generating a reason for people to play through the game multiple times.
So, we increased the re-playability of our game, made it easier for beginning players and make an exceptionally hard mode to make a challenge for hard-core gamers. Not bad for an hours work.
How easy is easy, how hard is hard?
The last challenge is to decide how difficult each setting should be. I have seen a number of games (both XNA and real) where the difference between Easy and Medium is fairly non-existant, and then hard becomes an absolute beast to tackle. Alternatively, some games make Easy so easy that it’s boring and then normal difficulty becomes the only real way to start the game.
Here at Iron Star Media Ltd, we believe that you should be aiming for the following out of each difficulty setting;
Easy: Should be easy enough for your mum, sister, girlfriend to pick up and complete the first couple of levels. It might get a bit tough after that, but even someone with little gaming experience should be able to make progress by breaking a sweat. As a developer, you should be able to get through a third of the game in this mode without a challenge, after which, you might lose once or twice – but generally don’t find it a problem.
Medium: On regular difficulty, your game should still be accessible, but it might present a solid challenge to the non-gamers out there. Regular gamers should be able to play through the first couple of levels without much of a challenge, but then they might start dying a couple of times on each level before being able to complete them. All in all – you should be looking at ‘regular gamers’ having to tackle some of your later levels (but not necessarily all of them) a couple of times before progressing.
Hard: We are firm believers that it’s important to add a really challenging difficulty mode to every game. On hard difficulty, people that haven’t played your game before should struggle to get past the first few levels. Even seasoned gamers should struggle on a number of levels and it should be exceptionally tough to get past some levels. However, don’t make a game tough by making it impossible, or by making boss fights really, really long – add some extra enemies or give them an edge, but don’t just draw it out for the sake of it. It should be a real achievement to complete the game on hard, and even as a developer – you should struggle to do so yourself. Don’t under-estimate the hardcore gamers, they want a challenge and you’ve given them the choice of playing it on an easier difficulty if they struggle.
Of course, this is just like, our opinions Dude, so feel free to take it or leave it. However, we can hand on hearts say that this simple addition has added much more variety to Ikaroids and has really helped to please the playtesters!