October 1, 2023

Lesson 11: Game Difficulty


In this video, Aaron delves into the nuanced topic of difficulty in video games, emphasizing the role of a game designer in setting the difficulty level to align with the narrative and the intended player experience.

Lesson 11 Transcript

Let’s talk about the difficulty of video games. This is one that I’m sure you have your own opinion on because difficulty in video games is something that varies wildly depending on what you’re playing the preferences that you have, and sometimes just the mood that you’re in.

Now, there are games that range from very easy to very hard, and most of the time that is on purpose by the designer. Sometimes the difficulty of the game actually helps influence and tell the narrative that the player is supposed to be engaging with and responding to. Think of Dark Souls.

This is a game that is wildly compared to difficulty, but the thing is that the game itself, its story revolves around that. It is a dark and gritty world filled with depression after depression, and the game is supposed to be hard.

The designer and creator himself talked about how the difficulty of dark souls played into it, and that was his purpose from the very beginning.

So when a game’s difficulty is designed by the designer, that would be you when you’re making your own games, if you have it in mind to be one way, then in my opinion, that is the way it should be.

And you shouldn’t have to compromise by making easy modes, or even on the flip side, if you make an easy game, you shouldn’t make a hard mode just because that’s what people want.

Now, if you’re making a game that doesn’t matter. If it’s hard or difficult, then yeah, you probably want to include ways for everyone to be able to play it at their level that they enjoy.

But if your game is intrinsically tied to the difficulty, whether that be hard or easy, or if it’s supposed to just be right in the middle, then as a designer you need to stick to what you want to do.

The story, the game, and the experience that you want the player to have are the first and biggest concerns that you have as the designer. Well, I guess those are several different concerns, but you understand what I mean.

The overall experience difficulty plays into that. So difficulty in games is a very subjective thing. Some people like games that are really hard. Some people like games that are really easy. Some people don’t care, and they’ll just play everything that is suggested to them.

But difficulty in games, whether it be hard, easy, or right in the middle, is up to you as the designer. If you have an idea for something, stick to it. If it is to be as accessible as possible, then definitely add in those accessibility options, whatever those look like.

But that’s all I want to talk about on difficulty. You could probably have an entire course on difficulty and everything that

entails, but this is just a very brief discussion to get you thinking about it and to get you going where you need to be. So up next we’re going to talk about obvious game expectations and if you should subvert them, and then how to do that.

Lesson 12: Game Expectations


In this lesson, Aaron discusses the importance of meeting and sometimes subverting player expectations in game design, emphasizing the balance between conforming to familiar control schemes and introducing surprising elements to engage experienced players.

Lesson 12 Transcript

So game expectations are things that the player has when going into them. And when I’m talking about obvious expectations, there are things like how to use a controller, which buttons on the keyboard will probably be used if you jump or attack, what happens, and what they expect to happen.

Now, for the most part, these are things that are actually learned. They’re not things that are just innate. If you give a four-year-old or a 40-year-old who has never played a video game before, if you hand them a controller, they will not know what to do unless they’ve seen lots of let’s plays.

And in that case, that’s a terrible subject for what we’re talking about. But for someone who has no idea how to play a game, the fact that the space bar is traditionally jump or the A button is that’s not something that people who’ve never played video games will understand.

It could just as easily be the left trigger or pressing the right stick in to jump if that’s what they were told to do. These are obvious game expectations, and for the most part, it is best to conform to these.

There are games that really, really want to be unique sometimes in how they handle and how they work. And changing up the controls just makes it difficult and sometimes flat-out annoying for the player.

Now, if you want to try something and try altering the controls to do the best experience that you think you can provide, that’s great. Just make sure you have a way for them to change it. Go and look at all of the FPSs out there.

The first-person shooters. There are a dozen different control schemes if you’re using a controller, and that’s because there are way too many games that have tried to do their own thing.

Some of them have worked out and some of them haven’t. But the ability to switch between Halo and Call of Duty and whatnot and so forth is really, really helpful to the player.

The more options that they have, the more likely they are to find the one that they are used to and enjoy and actually be able to just engage with the game instead of trying to figure out what buttons they’re supposed to be pressing.

So that’s conforming to obvious game expectations. Something that is probably a good idea. But what about subverting those expectations?

This comes for people who already know how to play games, and this is something that you definitely want to use. So if in our game we have a character that cannot run around or shoot and jump, whatever the case is, if we press the jump button, we expect them to jump, and if we press the shoot button they shoot.

It makes total sense. And an experienced player will just do these things without even thinking, and that’s where subverting their expectations comes in. What happens if you change that jump button because of a power-up they

received? No longer are things going to work exactly the way they wanted or expected, but they’re going to be different.

If a game takes the usual approach to platforming and that’s going well and everything’s just fine, but then flips it on its head, somehow the player is no longer going to know what to expect.

And all of the things that they’ve done in the past for specific platformers, they now have to kind of unlearn because your game is doing something entirely different. Your players are going to expect something out of your game.

A lot of times you want to conform to those when it’s things like how a game controls and how to save and load those things. You want to be uniform across the games that are played. But when it comes to playing the game, subvert the expectations.

When a player goes in to talk to an N P C, make something crazy happen when they go check out behind a waterfall because there are always secrets there. Do something that surprises them.

Subvert the expectations of experienced players while conforming to the normalities of things that make the game easy to engage with.

It is difficult to achieve well, but when done, it makes your game easier to access for more players and it makes it more fun for the experienced players because there’s always going to be something new for them to discover.

Up next, we’re going to look at adding a score to our snake game.

GameMaker Studio 2 – Module 3: Attack of the Snake

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