In this article, game designer Doug Hill discusses how game designers can use collectibles to allow players to adjust difficulty levels in games.
In his article Risk Vs. Reward: TACOs, Achievements, and YOU, Ryon Levitt discusses the relationship between the risk a player must consider in getting a collectible versus the reward of obtaining it. This article will consider the opposite side of this problem: taking a risk by not collecting something.
In the original NES classic The Legend of Zelda, you don't have to collect everything to beat the game. You don't even have to collect half of the items. If need proof, search for a speed run of The Legend of Zelda and you will soon see players beating the game from start to finish in around thirty minutes. These players manage to beat every boss and finish every dungeon while only getting a fraction of the game's plentiful power-ups.
So how these players accomplish something like this? Practice and planning. They learn the game forwards and backwards. They learn the enemy's attack scripting and spawn algorithms. They become so proficient that they no longer have to worry about getting all of the Heart Containers to increase their health. They don't have to worry about gathering enough money to buy the Blue Ring armor upgrade. They don't have to find the hidden letter to access the medicine shop. They have more than enough skill to beat the game without these items.
Most of us mere mortals, on the other hand, need a bit of a boost. The question is – how much of a boost? The nice thing about The Legend of Zelda and other games like it is the decision is left (mostly) in the hands of the player. It lets the player continue to collect all kinds of power-ups until they feel they have enough firepower to get through a dungeon. If the player fails, they can also go and collect more power-ups so they'll have a better chance when they try again. That is, unless the player has collected all of the power-ups already.
This school of game design is one of the primary reasons that many genres of games have garnered such a widely diverse fan base. Consider the role playing game, where players have the option of trying to collect extra treasure in order to become more powerful. In this case, the player is actually choosing which risk to take – go on to an area with stronger enemies or possibly a boss without getting stronger, or go after the treasure while having to fight additional foes? Even levels and experience can be considered collectibles that put the player in control of how strong they are before they attempt to move forward.
The point I'm trying to make is that, as game designers, we should not focus on making our games specifically easy or hard. Instead, we should try to leave as much of the difficulty level decision as possible in the hands of the players. If they want their game to be easy, we should let it be easy. Give the players cheat codes. Give them extra power ups. Litter useful items everywhere. Give them difficulty levels where they barely take damage and almost never run out of ammo. If your game is fun to play in and of itself, being easy shouldn't hurt it too much.
On the other hand, make sure you give a challenge to the players who want it. This can be through harder difficulty levels, achievements and trophies, or more difficult replays after they've defeated the easy mode. Most importantly, make sure they have choices during the game, not just before they start and after they finish. Give players weapons and power-ups they can skip and not use. Give them shortcuts they can choose to ignore. Give them easy and hard ways to kill bosses.
In the end, you'll get more players to appreciate your game. It won't feel too hard, while those seeking a challenge will find one without having to look too hard.
Doug Hill is a freelance game designer and writer who has worked on a variety of published video games over the past ten years. His current focus is developing intellectual property for use in both interactive and non-interactive media.