Flow Theory, RevisitedWith all that said, let’s come back to flow. There were two problems here that needed to be solved. One is that the player skill is increasing throughout the game, which tends to shift them from being in the flow to being bored. This is mostly a problem for longer PvE games, where the player has enough time and experience in the game to genuinely get better.
The solution, as we’ve seen when we talked about PvE games, is to have the game compensate by increasing its difficulty through play in order to make the game seem more challenging – this is the essence of what designers mean when they talk about a game’s “pacing.” For PvP games, in most cases we want the better player to win, so this isn’t seen as much of a problem; however, for games where we want the less-skilled player to have a chance and the highly-skilled player to still be challenged, we can implement negative feedback loops and randomness to give an extra edge to the player who is behind.
There was another problem with flow in that you can design your game at one level of difficulty, but players come to your game with a range of initial difficulty levels, and what’s easy for one player is hard for another.
With PvE games, as you might guess, the de facto standard is to implement a series of difficulty levels, with higher levels granting the AI power-based bonuses or giving the player fewer power-based bonuses, because that is relatively cheap and easy to design and implement. However, I have two cautions here:
- If you keep using the same playtesters, they will become experts at the game, and thus unable to accurately judge the true difficulty of “easy mode”; easy should mean easy and it’s better to err on the side of making it too easy, than making it challenging enough that some players will feel like they just can’t play at all.
- Take care to set player expectations up front about higher difficulties, especially if the AI actually cheats. If the game pretends on the surface to be a fair opponent that just gets harder because it is more skilled, and then players find out that it’s actually peeking at information that’s supposed to be hidden, it can be frustrating. If you’re clear that the AI is cheating and the player chooses that difficulty level anyway, there are less hurt feelings: the player is expecting an unfair challenge and the whole point is to beat that challenge anyway. Sometimes this is as simple as choosing a creative name for your highest difficulty level, like “Insane.”
Then there’s Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment (DDA), which is a specialized type of negative feedback loop where the game tries to figure out how the player is doing and then adjusts the difficulty on the fly. You have to be very careful with this, as with all negative feedback loops, because it does punish the player for doing well and some players will not appreciate that if it isn’t set up as an expectation ahead of time.
Another way to do this is to split the difference, by offering dynamic difficulty changes under player control. Like DDA, try to figure out how the player is doing… but then, give the player the option of changing the difficulty level manually. One example of this is the game flOw, where the player can go to the next more challenging level or the previous easier level at just about any time, based on how confident they are in their skills. Another example, God of War did this and probably some other games as well, is if you die enough times on a level it’ll offer you the chance to drop the difficulty on the reload screen (which some players might find patronizing, but on the other hand it also gives the player no excuse if they die again anyway). Sid Meier’s Pirates actually gives the player the chance to increase the difficulty when they come into port after a successful mission, and actually gives the player an incentive: a higher percentage of the booty on future missions if they succeed.
The equivalent in PvP games is a handicapping system, where one player can start with more power or earn more power over the course of the game, to compensate for their lower level of skill. In most cases this should be voluntary, though; players entering a PvP contest typically expect the game to be fair by default.
[This article was adapted from Ian Schreiber's course, Game Balance Concepts.]
Ian Schreiber has been in the game industry since the year 2000, first as a programmer and then as a game designer. Also an educator since 2006, Ian has taught game design and development courses at a variety of schools, and on his own without a school. He has co-authored two books, Challenges for Game Designers and Breaking Into the Game Industry.