Archive for the ‘Game Design’ Category

Dragon Age was a good game from a story perspective. And I liked the NPCs.  However, some of the game mechanics drove me batty.  The most annoying one was probably how each NPC might be happy or mad at you based on what you did on your quests. This was, in my view, a micro-management nightmare and an almighty pain in the ass. I have a character who would, if played to her role, do X. But if I do X, I get negative faction with half my party.  So now I have to decide. Do I want to lose faction with my party over and over, or do I want to forgo playing my character “right” and “game the system?” Worse, you can work your ass off with a character only to gain +1 or +3 faction with them, and then make a seemingly innocent remark and lose -20.  What the hell is THAT?  IMO, the whole character faction system of DA was done almost as a way of the devs griefing the players.

Unfortunately, although much of the moment-to-moment gameplay of DA 2 is pretty good, and in many ways superior to DA 1, this theme of the devs seeming to do things to grief the players has been magnified to such an extreme that many nights, long before it’s time to turn off the Xbox and go to bed, I shut the game down in aggravation and annoyance.  DA 2 has continued the annoying issues with the NPCs and even magnified them.  But worse, you the game lets you completely, totally screw yourself over and doesn’t do a thing to stop you. (more…)

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This summer, Cryptic Studios, original makers of City of Heroes, and current developers of Champions Online and Star Trek Online, announced they were making a multiplayer, but non-MMO, game called Neverwinter. This game is based on the original two Neverwinter Nights games, and will apparently include a toolset like those did.  Since Cryptic is a major player in the MMO market these days, the announcement created a buzz, and in August, Jack was interviewed by ZAM.  As part of the interview, he said,

“I’ve been pretty honest about our faults in the past and people have accused us that I’m virtually admitting that we pushed out Star Trek and Champions as unpolished product. But as God as my witness, when we launched those games, we had zero idea that we thought they were anything less than excellent [my emphasis].”

The fact that Cryptic thought their games were excellent, but most of their customers (by Jack’s own admission here and elsewhere) thought the games were unpolished, unfinished, and at best mediocre, points to a very serious problem at Cryptic studios.

The problem Cryptic has always had, even in the COH heyday, though it was not as pronounced, is a lack of understanding at the basic level of game theory and game design.  I’m talking about the Raph Koster  level here; I don’t always agree with Koster, but he thinks deeply about what systems should be in a game from the standpoint of why they are putting the system in in, and what that system has to do with the rest of the game. Far too much of Cryptic’s design philosophy (and to be fair they are not alone as a development company) is, “Well this works in *insert game here* and people like it so let’s do it.” Auction Houses and Crafting are a great example.

But ask yourself: Why did they put auction houses into COH? Was it because they were an integral part of the smash-hit superhero movies like Spider-Man, Batman Begins, and Iron Man 2?  Was it because you see superheroes in most comic books stopping by the auction house at the start of each issue? Was it because auction houses as a concept flow necessarily from the fact that the game was essentially loot and completely craft-free before adding them? No! Auction houses are actually the opposite of what the game’s original design and its thematic inspiration would lead you to predict.  So why were they added? Because Jack played WOW and got addicted to WOW’s auction house!  He saw how much people loved it, and how many subscriptions you could get by addicting people to it, and thought “let’s do that in COH.” How it would affect the overall game, what the heck it all has to do with the comic book genre, and whether it would actually be workable with their game system, design, and interface, he didn’t bother to ask. And worse: He doesn’t even seem to know those are valuable questions to ask.  To Jack, the game is just a set of systems designed to make people want to subscribe and pay him money.

This is why Cryptic threw out so many of the great COH systems when they made Champions Online. The instanced missions that scaled to your group size were a huge draw of COH, and frequently listed by players as a favorite feature.  Yet the company that invented them ditched that system when they made CO. Why? Was it to replace the system with a better one? Nope.  The sum total of Cryptic’s penetratingly deep design logic seems to have been, “WOW does it with static instances and open world quests so let’s do that.” And so, they copied WOW. They admitted it more than once on the beta boards, too — that “because WOW does it” was their design philosophy. What this ultimately means, as a friend of mine once said, is that when making Champions Online, Cryptic had no design philosophy. But I think it’s even worse than that. Not only don’t they have a design philosophy; they don’t seem to see the need to have one!

SWG for all its flaws — the original SWG — had a very deep and well thought out design philosophy. Koster was a student of the Bartle system and explicitly made a game designed to appeal to all the types (Killers, Socializers, etc) and the hybrid classes were designed to appeal to hybrid players (Explorer/Socializers (Rangers), Killer/Achievers (BHs), etc).  That’s why for all the programming flaws, the fundamental system worked.  There was an underpinning of solid game design theory there. Systems were included for a reason that was based on the fundamental design.

Cryptic, in contrast, seems to look at a game as simply a collection of modular systems invented by other games, like WOW, VG, AOC.  They seem to believe that, as modules, these systems can just be plugged into the game in question like interchangeable computer components.   But game design doesn’t work like that.  What Cryptic has historically done when designing games is analogous to someone deciding that since the soccer rule that ‘no one but the goalie can touch the ball’ works in soccer, we should import that rule into football and prohibit anyone but the quarterback from touching the ball.  Would that work? Of course not.  Soccer’s rule works only within the context of soccer.  Football is a different game and requires fundamentally different ball-handling rules. This basic concept, that each game needs an underlying philosophy and must have systems based on that philosophy, seems to have escaped Cryptic Studios, and especially Diamond Jack Emmert.

And this explains why Jack is starting to realize that his games are not as “excellent” as he thought they were before launch.  He’s smart enough to intuit that the games are a bust (quite independent of the sluggish sales and subscription rates), but not clever enough to figure out why.   He must sit there thinking, “Gee we took all these popular systems from successful games. Why aren’t they working for us?”  And my guess is he has no idea why they don’t work, because this is a failure at the design level by someone who doesn’t seem to realize there needs to be a single, strong, internally consistent design to any good game.  Instead his games are just a polyglots of all the “cool ideas that players seem to like in other games.” And no game with such a flimsy design philosophy will ever be a “success”. Not from the design point of view. And not with subscriptions, since players will intuit that the game “doesn’t seem right” and go elsewhere.

WOW has a design philosophy. It may be one that I hate, but it’s there, and they follow it religiously. Thus it works.  GW2 seems to have a very solid design philosophy. My guess is that, as a result, it will work.   Cryptic Studios makes games that have no design philosophy.  Games without a design philosophy don’t work, but Jack doesn’t seem to get that. And the reason he doesn’t get it is that he doesn’t even know he needs to have one.

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It’s become fairly standard in most video games to have a difficulty setting, and so, I am always surprised when I find a game that doesn’t have one. I would think, at this point, that it is no longer a surprise to people that gamers have different levels of skill, and not everyone can win the game on “Nightmare” difficulty. Heck, even MMORPGs, which for years people thought could not have difficulty settings, have started introducing them. City of Heroes originally only let you raise the difficulty of your missions, but now you can even lower them, asking for enemies lower than your level, asking for bosses and arch-villains to be demoted to the next lower rank, and the like. Although there might be reasons why one wouldn’t want MMORPGs to have variable difficulty settings (though I do not agree with people who take that position), there is absolutely no good reason why one can’t have several settings, such as “easy,” “medium,” and “hard,” in a single-player game.

That’s why I have been surprised recently playing two “Platinum hit” Xbox 360 games – Assassin’s Creed and Fable II – to find that neither game has a difficulty setting. I have only played Assassin’s Creed once, enough to get through the tutorial, but I’ve been playing Fable II for a couple of weeks, and that game has finally frustrated me into putting it on the shelf. For the gamer jocks out there, I am sure they’re laughing up their sleeves at me… Fable II, hard? Ha! It’s the easiest game in the world. Why would anyone need a difficulty slider for it?

It turns out that Fable II is an very long game with lots of content (good things in general), and almost no guidance as to what to do first, second, or third. The game urges you repeatedly to keep doing the main quest line, and there is really no indication that you shouldn’t be doing that. They also don’t give you the option to make multiple saves, so when you get yourself deep into a main quest that is too hard for your character’s level and equipment, you are basically screwed. Now, if they had multiple saves, I could just go back to before I started that quest and wait to level up to it, but I can’t do that. Still this wouldn’t be a problem, if I could just make it easier. But since they don’t have a difficulty setting, I can’t.

What we have with Fable II is basically a perfect storm. First, the game pushing, cajoling, begging you to do the main quest line. Second, there is no ability to make multiple save points, which can leave you “trapped” in the middle of a quest that you aren’t strong enough to finish. And third, there is no ability to “make the game easier” for a few minutes by dialing down the difficulty just to get out of this current mess. I’ve gotten my character stuck in the “Crucible” without any way to finish it because he’s just not strong enough to survive and beat the last encounter (a giant troll). I’ve trolled (pun intended) the game’s forums looking for advice and the main advice I’ve found is “use a high level time control spell” (I don’t have it) and “use a really high level pistol with augmentations” (I don’t have one). Because the Crucible won’t let you go back or quit, I basically can’t get out of this encounter. Your goal is to do it in a minute and a half. I was up to about 18 minutes and I just could not get past the troll.

Now, laugh at me all you want, but this makes Fable II basically a coaster to me. I am stuck in an encounter that I cannot beat, and I have no way to go back to an earlier save and improve my character to make him able to beat the encounter. If the game just had a way for me to set it to “easy,” maybe, maybe, I could survive the encounter (it always depends on what “easy” means), but there is no such option. And thanks to the designers not warning me before I entered the crucible that I was not strong enough to win, and not giving me multiple save points, I am not going to ever be able to get out of the Crucible to continue the game. Not that I’d want to, at this point, since given how aggravated the game has made me.

Designers really need to do a better job than this of realizing what players, especially the non-jock players, people who are just casually playing for fun and enjoyment, are going to need. If you’re not going to let us have multiple save points to help us get out of a jam, and if you’re not going to warn us before we get into the jam, then you absolutely need to give us a way to make your game easier so we can get ourselves out of the jam.

And while they’re at it, designers really need to make game difficulty something we can change on-the-fly. In most Bioware games this is possible, and it has saved me no end of frustration in Dragon Age. I play the game on “normal” difficulty, but every so often there is an encounter that is just too tough – after three or four wipes, I give up, set it to “casual,” blow through the problem encounter, and then set it back to “normal.” Sure, some people see it as cheating. I see it as editing – I am editing out an encounter that the designers made too hard. I say this with confidence (that it’s their fault, not mine) because I can beat 95% of the game’s encounters, even some clearly intended to be challenging, without lowering the setting to “casual.” So that means the few that I can’t do, scattered here and there through the game, are designed to be too hard. Since that’s the case, I have no qualms about lowering the difficulty.

The other way to have a difficulty setting is to set it to a certain level for an entire play-through. This is better than not having any setting at all, but not by much. The reason is, you can’t know how hard or easy the latter stages of the game will be until it’s too late, and now you may be forced to go back and re-play the whole entire game up to that point. This happened with a game that is amazing in all other respects – Batman: Arkham Asylum, which I have previously praised on this blog. I still think it worthy of that praise, but I wish you could tweak the difficulty during the game. I had the unfortunate experience of being able to get all the way to the very final battle on “Normal,” and then, no matter what I tried, I failed at that battle at least 50 times in a row. I never came close to beating it. So now I had to put the game on easy and go through the whole thing again just to be able to finish that last battle. This is silly. Let me go into “options” and lower it to easy just for this battle. Take away my achievement for finishing if you want, but at least let me finish and see the ending, without having to endure an impossibly hard battle.

I know the gamer-jocks think that difficulty settings are for pansies. They think that I “don’t deserve” to see the ending sequence of Batman/Arkham if I can’t beat the last battle – that’s the “reward” for people good enough to win that final fight. My feeling about their opinion? Screw them. I paid my $50 for Batman/Arkham just like they did. If I want to make the last battle easy, I think my $50 ought to earn me that right.

And getting back to Fable II… I didn’t pay $50 for it. It’s an old game, so I got it for $19.99. But I still paid good money for it, and if I just want to get the (bleep) out of the Crucible and go back to the rest of the game to level my character, I should be able to do it – either with a save/reload, or with a change to the difficulty settings. The only other option – which is to start over on a game I’ve already sunk 20 hours of play into – is a non-starter for me. I have other games like the Dragon Age expansion and Star Wars: Force Unleashed that let me make multiple saves and change the difficulty setting so I won’t get into this kind of mess. Why should I waste my time on a game whose designers are clearly just trying to bust my chops?

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I’ve read a lot of arguments about why games have poorly designed features, and are set up in ways that are at best inadvisable, and at worst stupid.    The apologists for the designers will wax eloquent about how game designers need to make money, and they do this to make money, and that to make money.  As I read these defenses of poorly designed game, one thought occurrs to me, and it’s this: There is no end to the variety of money-making devices game designers will try to come up with so that they don’t have to bother making a game that’s actually good.

Because let’s face it: if the game is good, people will want to play it, and they will buy it and (for a subscription-based game) they will subscribe.  If the game isn’t making money, it’s because it’s having sales/subscription problems, and that’s usually because there is some problem with the game design in the first place. Players want to have FUN — period. It is why we play games. When designers build things into the game that are roadblocks to fun, or simply cannot be bothered to make some in-game activities fun, or worse when they purposely design them NOT to be fun, that is when your secondary markets and the buying/selling of in game “accomplishments” comes along.

Too often, game designers purposely insert gobs of content into a game that are not really meant to be fun for everyone.  They do this for two reasons:

(A) – Designers often seem not to realize or understand that there are many ways to have fun, and that their way to have fun is not the only way.  This comes up with things like “forced grouping.” The designer feels that “a group of 5 is the most fun way to play this game, so that’s what the content will be designed for.” Now if someone has more fun soloing, or duoing, or trio-ing, well they’re out of luck. And should they complain about it, they are accused of “not playing the game right,” as if there is some objective way to “correctly” have fun and their way is not as legitimate as someone else’s.  I have said this over and over again: you can’t force people to have fun your way.  When designers force people to have fun their way, secondary markets and exploits and all these other things spring up as players try to avoid being forced into what, to their mind, is an unpleasant experience for the sake of playing a game.

(B) – Designers often see pain, boredom, tedium, as a great way to “gate” content. Knowing that players do like to have fun, they make the thing that they want few people to have, take as much non-fun action to get as possible.  Grinding resources for crafting tiers is a great example… Make it so that the activity sucks, and you won’t have a lot of master crafters on the game. Or so they think. Of course, this sort of idiotic design doesn’t work, because again, the “secondary market” or the exploit comes into play (AFK macroed crafting in SWG comes to mind).  Once again the secondary market or the exploit is being used because players want to have fun, but they still want the thing that comes at the end, the thing that the gate was put there to prevent them from getting in the first place.

My feeling in both of these cases is that the fun-reduction design is the first mistake.  If designers would stop making their games tedious, boring time sinks designed to “only allow players with endurance enough to stomach this hateful activity” to complete quests or missions, the secondary market would be little more than a trivial foot-note that only a small group of strange players would ever get involved in.  Instead, because designers think that “good design” = finding a way to make each activity take forever, the secondary market, sanctioned or not, represents a roaring trade that probably makes the secondary market even more money than the subscriptions make the designers themselves.

Developers seem to realize that “something is wrong with this picture,” and that’s true. But they don’t seem to realize that the “something wrong” is their inherently flawed design, where the game is designed to be work, designed not to be fun in the first place, on purpose… or designed to force players to play this one particular way that not everyone likes.  If they would cut that out, and design their games to be all fun, all the time, for everyone, the secondary market would be a non-issue.

Oh, and by the way, people would be willing to pay more than $15/month subscription too — because that’s the other problem the development houses are having.  They need more income but their games are not good enough for most players to accept, say, a $20/month fee… So rather than making their games actually BE good enough to warrant the extra price, they let the game keep being mediocre (or worse), and go in for the secondary market.

Sure it’s a cheap, easy, lazy, lame way for the game designers to make more money without charging a larger subscription fee. But… their time is limited, in my opinion.  Sooner or later, SOMEONE is going to come along who actually gets that games are meant to be about fun, and put out an MMORPG that is fun in all its aspects, and not a deliberate time sink, and that game will bury everyone else — even WOW. It’s a matter of time… but who knows how long? It might be a while… since game designers seem not to be able to realize that there is an outside of the box, let alone think outside it.

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This weekend, I finally decided that I would buy myself an X-box 360. I have not had the console anywhere near enough time to write a review, but it led me to thinking about something else, as a consequence of the game I purchased — Mass Effect.  Now, I already have a review of Mass Effect here, and it wasn’t very positive, so you might wonder why I bought it (a second time) for the X-box. There were a couple of reasons. First, it was on sale ($20). Second, as I said in the review, part of the problem seemed to be my dinosaurian computer system.  I heard from other friends that the game was much smoother on the console.  And so I tried it, and it is definitely much better on the console. When I finish it (assuming that I eventually do), I will be giving it a re-review.

Mass Effect, as you might know, is a Bioware game, which means it’s a computer RPG.  It is like most other RPGs in that you start out as a beginning (“Level 1”) character and the character slowly becomes more skilled and gains better equipment over time.  You can select from about 6 different classes. I chose (again, because I thought it was an interesting class last time) the “Infiltrator”, which is kind of a mix between electronics powers and soldiering skills.  What I like most about them is the sniper rifle.  I was reading up a little about the class on the Bioware forums, just to get some advice on the types of skills that help the most, and someone made a comment that was interesting, and got me thinking about RPGs and the difficulty level. The comment was, “It gets easier as you level up.”

Before I go any further, I want you, gentle reader, to think about that statement, because it is a general truth of how most RPGs — from Dungeons and Dragons to MMORPGs to Mass Effect — are structured.  Let me repeat it: It gets easier as you level up.  It’s true for almost all RPGs (the one exception I can think of is the Pen-and-paper game Champions), and I think it’s a bad thing. I want to discuss why I hold that opinion.

What do I mean by “easy”?

I’d like to discuss why this happens, but first let me define “easier” relative to “harder.” The ultimate failure in an RPG is for the character to die. In pen and paper games this is often permanent. In computer games it usually “resets” you somehow — you load from a save game, or respawn at a spawn point, or lose some experience, or something of that nature.  Therefore, death is the ultimate consequence.  Speaking in general terms, therefore, a hard game would be one in which death was frequent or difficult to avoid, and an easy game would be the opposite.  I recall my first D&D adventure. There were just two of us — my friend Stu, who was the DM, and I, who was the player. We wanted a “full party” but there were only two of us, so we each made up five characters, and then I played all 10 by myself, while he DMed and ran the NPCs.  It was a lot of fun, but even with multiple raise dead scrolls and all sorts of DM intervention and assistance, only 6 of the 10 PCs made it out of that (very long) adventure alive.  That’s a 40% mortality rate of our level 1 characters.   In the next adventure, of which I was the DM and he played all 6 characters, there was only 1 death by the end (one that “stuck” after scrolls and the like, anyway), so that’s only a 17% mortality rate.  Clearly the second adventure was easier than the first.  Our final adventure with this group had no deaths out of five, or a 0% mortality rate. I’d call that one the easiest.

Therefore, having an “easier” time in an RPG means “you have an easier time keeping your character alive.” The battles are less likely to be lethal. The enemies are easier to defeat. The traps are less likely to be sprung, and if sprung less likely to kill you.  And my assertion is that these things become easier as you level up the character.

Why it gets easier as you level up

There are a few reasons why RPGs become easier as your character levels up, quite apart from the obvious cause in any game — the gamers become more experienced.  In a regular, non-RPG, this is the only thing that really makes a game easier — you get better at it.  Turn on Madden NFL or Major League Baseball XXII, and set the game to “normal.” You will find over time that the games later in the season seem easier (notice, I didn’t say “get”, I said “seem”), because for a given (e.g. normal) setting, the game’s difficulty is constant, but after playing 16 or 100 games, or however long the season is, you, as a player, are better. That’s always going to happen, in any game, because humans learn by doing.

However, in RPGs, there is another layer of experience gain layered on top of the experience of the player, and that is the experience of the character.  As a character levels up, many things happen. He usually gains more hit points, and that makes him harder to kill.  He gains attack ability, which gives him (1) more options of ways to defeat enemies, and (2) the ability to damage enemies more or faster. And he will gain non-combat skills, like trap detection or conversation manipulation skills. This will make it easier to find and disarm traps, or to convince NPCs to do the character’s bidding.

These changes, these advances in character power, make the character less likely to die than he was in earlier adventures, and thus, make the game easier as you go.  A higher level Infiltrator in Mass Effect, to use the first example, has an easier time of it because his snipe ability gets better.  A higher level wizard in D&D can cast Power Word Kill, and one-shot kill an enemy, or Meteor Shower, which is like a multi-cast fireball.  At first level he was lucky if he could fire a single magical crossbow bolt out of the palm of his hand once a day.  At higher levels, the thief or rogue can detect traps from across the room while half asleep. At low level he could stare right at the trap and miss it.

Hopefully, as the above paragraphs indicate, this is something that happens in most RPGs. It happened in Dungeons and Dragons. It happens in Mass Effect. It happens in most MMORPGs. The characters’ survival rate goes up as they gain experience, because the experience gains lead to character improvements that make the game easier to play.

Why are games designed like this?

By now, I will assume I have convinced you that RPGs get easier to play as the character levels up. I hope you’re already thinking about where I’m headed with this, which is that games shouldn’t be designed to get easier as you go forward.  But before we get there, you might want to wonder why games are designed in such an obviously reverse orientation (you would expect challenge to go up as players get more experienced, not down). There are some reasons for this, which are the following:

  • Easing players into the game. Although it’s true for pen and paper, this is especially important for computer RPGs, where the game is played in real time and there is little chance to think (as there would be in a Pen-paper game). The player has to learn to react quickly to his surroundings or else his character will die.  If you started characters with 20 or 30 abilities, all showing up as buttons on the hot bar, the new player would be overwhelmed.  In video games, then, it makes a certain amount of sense to start the character out with only one or two simple abilities, and then add one every couple of levels.  The new ability can then be practiced for a while until the player becomes comfortable with it, by which time he’s gained a few levels and it’s time for a new ability.  I have no objection to this line of reasoning and I would not suggest changing this aspect of it — go ahead and start with few abilities and then increase them.
  • Lower level characters don’t need mega-abilities. Many games withhold the “mega” powers, like Power Word Kill or Meteor Swarm, to the higher levels because, for lower level characters, these abilities would be overkill. When a single dagger does enough damage to 1-shot an orc, there’s no need for Power Word Kill, a spell whose main claim to fame is that it can one-shot an enemy.  You need that in the higher levels, where it would take 100 dagger strokes to kill a foe, and one-shotting him is therefore very useful.  I have no problem with this line of reasoning either.
  • Characters become more powerful as they gain experience. Most games are designed to follow a story much like a fantasy novel or a comic book. It is a standard convention of the genre that older, more experienced characters are more powerful.  Although this is a sound principle, this is where the wheels start to come off, because “being powerful” becomes equated with “being harder to kill.” And since the main thing that makes an RPG difficult is dying, becoming more powerful = harder to kill = easier to play.  And here is where we get caught in the inescapable quicksand of pretty much all RPG design with the possible exception of Champions.  When characters become more powerful the challenges need to become equally more powerful. And I will grant that RPGs try to do this… The Malta in COH, a level 45-50 enemy group, are more powerful in absolute terms than the Skull gang. But the problem is that the power increases of PC vs. NPC do not match, so that a level 50 PC is 50x as powerful as a level 1, but the enemies are only maybe 25x as powerful… making the high level enemies an easier challenge for the player, than the low level enemies were.

Why making the game easier as the character levels up is a bad idea

Now I’m going to get to the point of this whole post: Why this is a bad idea.  The reason should be blatantly obvious but I will spell it out.  Although you can sometimes have a level 1 character played by an experienced player, you will pretty much never (under normal conditions) have a level 50 character played by a newbie, and all new players generally have to start out at level 1.  The player is gaining experience as the character does. It makes no sense to present the most difficult challenge to the player and then make the game easier as the player gets better. That’s why so many RPGs and especially MMORPGs get boring in the upper levels.  The game is super hard early on because you are weak, have few abilities, and can die in one shot (Magic-users in 1st edition D&D with 1d4 hit points, anyone?).  Then as you gain levels, it slowly becomes easier as the character’s ability to soak up hits increases.  What’s going on here is that higher level characters give their players much more margin of error. But a wide margin of error is needed by new players, not veterans — so why are we increasing the margin of error as the character (and by extension the player) becomes more experienced?  That’s what I call a bad idea.

Before anyone tries to claim that this lowering of difficulty as you go up in level is an illusion, I want to provide a few examples of how it’s not just all in my head.  The two I will use will be Dungeons and Dragons from pen-and-paper, and City of Heroes from MMORPGs.

In Dungeons and Dragons, weapons do a fixed amount of damage. A dagger always does 1d4. A longsword always does 1d8.  Higher level enemies might have a small additive bonus to their attack (e.g., 1d4 +2), but that’s all. Hit points, however, go up much faster than damage bonuses do. In 1st edition AD&D for example, most NPCs got +1 to hit and damage per level, but even the weakest class (in terms of hit points), the  Magic-User, got +1d4 hit points per level, meaning that he rapidly outstripped the dagger’s damage. Thus a level 1 mage attacked by a dagger-wielding kobold had a 1 in 4 chance of insta-death. By level 10, that mage would have (on average) about 25 hit points, but the level 10 kobold (still wielding a dagger) would be doing 1d4 +10 (at most), averaging less than half the number of hit points per blow as the mage has, and making it impossible to one-shot him.  (We are leaving aside spells the mage could use to buff his hit points, whether the mage has a CON bonus, and other possible weapons, just to make the example easier).  Now, later editions of D&D have done some to correct this, but the problem still remains: at low levels, one or two hits can kill you. At higher levels, it takes a dozen hits to kill you. This dramatically increases the player’s margin of error, making it much harder to die by accident at higher levels. But again, it’s the new players that are more likely to make mistakes, so why aren’t they the ones given the higher margin of error?

Or, consider the game City of Heroes. I played a martial arts/super reflex scrapper to level 50.  Then I played more characters. Then I made up another MA/SR scrapper. At level 1, I had a much harder time surviving than I had with the same (essentially, other than name/costume) character at level 50. Why? Well, first, over level 25, I had health and stamina, which helped my character recover faster. Over level 25, I had “Single Origin” enhancements which could basically double the power and accuracy of my character.   Enemies get a little more versatile as you go up in level in COH, but they don’t become more powerful relative to your character. It takes about 3 kicks with martial arts to bring down a white conning enemy at level 1, and about 3 to bring him down at level 50.  Because living long enough to deliver 3 kicks is harder at level 1 than at 50, that means the game at level 50 is easier. In fact, at higher levels I used to talk on the phone or watch a video while playing the game, and not die once in a long mission. If I tried that at level 5 there would be a lot of face-plants. And remember, I’m not talking about back when I was a new player… I mean after I already had gotten the same character type to level 50.

I could give a lot more examples, but for the sake of space I will end with those.  The point here is that RPGs, by their very nature, almost always get easier for the player as the character levels up. This is a bad idea, because it’s the new player, not the veteran, who needs the easier experience, and yet it is the level 1 experience that is, in most games, the most difficult to survive.


So what possible solutions are there?  When giving the reasons why the difficulty goes down as level goes up, I didn’t really disagree that the reasoning in most cases was sound. We do want to ease players into the game by giving them less options and thus hopefully less confusion. We do want to have characters grow in power as they gain levels. But there needs to be some sort of increase in the power level of the enemies as well, perhaps also an increase in AI… something to make the difficulty higher as you level, and lower at the start.  So here are my basic suggestions:

  • Give the best AI to the highest level enemies. A few games give a token nod to this idea, but I’ve not seen anyone do it well yet.  The higher level AIs should be smarter, not just more powerful.
  • Give new characters (and new players) some “panic buttons”. Things like (full h.p.) healing potions or scrolls of invincibility seem to only crop up at higher levels, when the characters are able to cast those same spells or do those same things. Here’s a news flash for game designers: a high level character is probably never going to need a scroll of invincibility. He is already nigh-invincible. The guy who needs it is the level 2 with the newbie player, who doesn’t realize that poison arrows are done as a “save or die” roll.
  • Give low level characters a bigger margin of error. This really has to do with the problem of hit points and “how many hits” you can take.  One way or another designers need to make sure that level 1 characters can take as many hits as level 10 or 20 characters.  If you are expecting a new player to be able to make all the right decisions or else die in one shot, you are asking for trouble in terms of player frustration.  I veteran player may know how to deal with potential one-shots. A new player will not.
  • Start the game out slowly and then speed it up. One big problem with computer games is speed.  Right now the idea is to give players few abilities to start with and then add more abilities as they level up. This effectively “speeds up” the game slightly as the player has to train himself to consider more and more options over time.  But it’s not the only way to speed things up. You could have things actually go more slowly at lower than at higher levels.  Have enemies attack, for instance,  once every 4 seconds at level 1, every 3 seconds at level 10, every 2 seconds at level 20, and so on.  (I am not suggesting these actual timings but just the idea of having it speed up over levels.)  Let the player ease into the speed rather than easing into the options.  Too often the game play speed doesn’t change, so if the player is having a hard time at level 1, there is no remedy but to somehow level until it “gets easier” (that is, the character lives long enough that the speed is no longer an issue).

I’m sure there are other ways to deal with this, but those are four obvious ones that came to my mind as I was thinking about this. New players are going to be poor players by definition — why give them the hardest time? The vets are the ones who can handle the tougher game-play.

You may be thinking “well that sounds good but it can’t be done.” I’m not so sure. Most non-RPG based games are already doing this. Most racing games start you out on easier tracks against slower cars and dumber (in terms of AI) opponents and then ramp it up as you complete races and prove that you can handle it.  Most fighting games in the vein of Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat are the same way. Arcade games have been doing this for years. Each wave of Space Invaders or level of Pac-Man was basically identical except each went slightly faster.

Right now, most RPGs and especially CRPGs and MMORPGs are designed in reverse difficulty order… they make the lower levels harder than the higher levels, which makes it so that veteran players are facing substantially easier challenges than newbies are.  I can’t see how this could be thought of as anything but backwards, and although I know it has been a part of RPG design for as long as there have been RPGs, I think it’s a bad idea… and that designers need to re-think the whole thing.

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