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I’m probably long overdue in showing my affection for Extra Credits. I wasn’t aware of the team or their work before they came to The Escapist earlier this year, but since then they’ve been giving us a steady supply of smart commentary. This week they talked about a subject near and dear to my aging, decrepit heart: difficulty. The issue is a tricky one for a game designer, and it’s one of those things that you just can’t afford to get wrong. If you botch the story then guys like me will complain, but the game can still be fun. If the graphics suck then other people will complain, but the game can still be fun. But if you mess up the difficulty balance then the game is going to be boring or frustrating, and neither of those are any fun.

The Prince of Persia is a long-lived franchise that has been all over the place with regards to difficulty, so I thought we’d look at a few important aspects of balancing a game and how Prince of Persia did it.

Expectations

There is no “right” difficulty for a game. The delta between the least skilled players and the most skilled ones is massive. Anything that provides even a modest challenge to your average player will be face-smashingly impossible to someone who has never held a controller before. And that same game will be seen as “too easy” and “dumbed down” to the really hardcore types. The designer just needs to know ahead of time who their audience is.

A game can be as easy or as hard as the designer thinks it should be, but the kiss of death is when the difficulty of the game differs from what the audience expects. The 2008 Prince of Persia was cited in the Extra Credits piece as one of the games that gets difficulty wrong, and I think it’s a great example of this problem. I was really excited by the game when it came out. For too long, designers seemed to think that all of the new gamers (remember this was when the Wii was devouring the competition) were addled pacifists who wanted nothing more than to pet cartoon animals and click on shiny things. But here was a real action game for those folks. You could have an epic adventure where you stabbed dudes, smashed stuff, and saved the world, even if you haven’t been playing games since 1993.

The problem was that Ubisoft just threw the game out there without communicating any of this to the audience. They just thought, “Hey, casual games are selling, so let’s do one of those.” Long time fans bought the game and wondered why their beloved well-established platformer of flowing movement and elegant controls had just become Super Win Button Deluxe. At the other side of the spectrum, the more casual players didn’t buy the game because they didn’t know it was for them. It was the wrong game, for the wrong platform, marketed to the wrong demographic. When the dust settled, Ubisoft seemed to stagger away without learning anything. They didn’t understand why their game had failed and so they abandoned the reboot and went back to trying to recapture the lost glory of the Sands of Time series.

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Punishment

A lot of people give the 1993 version of Prince of Persia credit for being a mercilessly hard game. For the record, I beat it a few times. The game wasn’t challenging, it was just punishing. Stupidly, horribly, punishing. I certainly wouldn’t let a game waste my time like that these days. Each individual challenge in the game is fairly straightforward, but there is no tolerance for human error. If you can pull off the individual jumps with 95% accuracy and if a level has (say) thirty do-or-die jumps, then your chances of making it through the level are an abyssmal 16%. (This is based on a simulation I just ran in PHP. There might be a little numeric slop in there because this is working off of a short run of pseudo-random numbers, but this is still more analysis than some designers seem to put into their game. In any case, you get the idea.) With these numbers, you’ll have to play every level about five times, which means you’ll spend the majority of the game repeating the same content again and again.

I’m actually offended by obvious and gratuitous punishment in games. This can be something like stingy checkpoint-based saves, or a lingering death animation before you’re allowed to re-load the game. I’m playing the game to have fun and be entertained, and if making a mistake means the game is going to refuse to entertain me for a couple of minutes, then the game is no longer doing its job. I can understand making me repeat the challenge I just failed. That’s proper, and, in fact, I want another crack at that. But I don’t want to spend a few minutes repeating the piss-easy challenges that came before, and I don’t want to watch a little animation I’ve seen a dozen times already. The game should only throw me as far back as it’s required to allow me to re-examine the situation and try a different approach or figure out what I did wrong. Anything more than that is just padding out your gameplay length at my expense.

Ramping Up

There’s a reason people talk about games having a difficulty “curve.” There is an expectation that a game should ramp up the challenge as you go. It shouldn’t be a bland monotonous grind of the same thing, and it shouldn’t have crazy unexpected spikes. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is on my short list of favorite games, but one of the things it gets wrong is the combat. It ramps up the difficulty by just throwing more guys at you with bigger health bars. It’s not harder, just more time consuming.

Difficulty, if you’ll pardon the expression, is hard. Here’s to the game designers who take the time to get it right.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, Stolen Pixels, Shamus Plays, and Spoiler Warning. Beat that, fanboy.

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