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  • Reflections On Difficulty Pacing In Puzzledorf

    [10.19.21]
    - Stuart Burfield
  • This article was originally posted here on my blog.

    Introduction

    The difficulty level of video games is a big topic, often with strong view points on varying ends of the scale.

    "Hard games are more rewarding."

    "Games should be easier and more accessible."

    And many other points of view. What I am going to discuss in this article, however, is not so much how hard the game is overall, but rather, the difficulty pacing - how quickly the game progresses from it's easier, simpler challenges and into the more difficult challenges.

    I will be reflecting on the difficulty pacing in my own Steam release, Puzzledorf. Keep in mind, appropriate difficulty pacing is going to vary based upon many factors, including genre and target audience. I think I cover enough general principles to be useful as a guideline with any game.

    3 Types of Curves

    When I sat down to create Puzzledorf, I thought the first level should be the easiest, the last level the hardest, and that the difficulty would gradually increase throughout the game at a fairly constant rate. This is roughly the same approach I have taken with other puzzle games. A graph demonstrates what I mean.

    Gradual Increase

    The above graph demonstrates (not to exact scale) roughly what I tried to accomplish. A gradually increasing difficulty, easier in the first half to slowly onboard players of all skill levels, then ramping up difficulty in the last half of the game.

    Below is another way some games may approach difficulty pacing.

    Constant Increase

    puzzle4.png

    I think it's fairly self explanatory - the game increases in difficulty at a constant pace form beginning to end. Of course try as one might to create a constant difficulty increase, one player may get absolutely stuck on a level, and another player blitz through it. There are always anomalies you can't account for.

    Below is the difficulty curve I ended up using, after much play testing and a discussion with a friend.

    Variable Increase

    puzzle5.png

    Rather than either a gradual or constant increase, I used a variable difficulty curve, modelled off of the gradual curve. Psychologically it had a healthier impact on players experiences, causing players to have more fun, feel empowered and they were more likely to finish the game. I will discuss all the curves and my experiences with each approach further below.

    Reflecting on Constant / Gradual Curves

    Of the 2 initial types of curves, constant and gradual, I think the gradual is the better curve. Having that gradual difficulty in the beginning allows players to ease in to the game, learn the rules and develop their skills before they get to the harder challenges at the end. However, that last part, where the difficulty ramps up, can be problematic for some players. Constant difficulty curves have the same issues.

    Through play testing, here are some issues I found with both curves as the game gets harder:

    • They can be discouraging
    • They can be exhausting and overwhelming

    Let's talk about that in a bit more detail.

    puzzle7.gif

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