Difficulty and Self-Improvement With Your Own Game

I’m currently out of town, and thus online less than usual. But I’ve been spending time on my shmup, working on various programming and game design issues. In particular, friend/co-creator Jeff and I have been playing through part of the game over and over, making sure each little detail behaves as expected. This constant repetition of playing our own game creates a game design challenge of its own:

How accurately can we balance the difficulty of our game after playing it so much that we have everything memorized?

This Must be What Happened to Touhou

I have a humorous mental image that ZUN began developing his Touhou Project shmups with only the Easy and Normal difficulties. Then after so much play-testing he was breezing through Normal and added Hard for fun. And then a few months later was beating that handily and tossed in the Lunatic difficulty ‘just because’.

I do not actually believe that is what happened. But I can honestly imagine something like that for my own game. Tweaking a few variables here and there can increase the difficulty by arbitrarily adding more enemies, more bullets, faster and/or larger bullets, more boss life, and so on. In the first place, Jeff and I are not trying to make a bullet-hell shmup like CAVE, nor is ours a shmup where you die after a single-hit; so our metrics for difficulty are somewhat different. That said, there is no reason why we couldn’t have such a crazy, ‘maniac shmup’ difficulty level. And when it comes time to release the game I would not be surprised if we can beat it so easily that we add a ratcheted-up difficulty as a challenge for ourselves.

The core problem is that we can no longer fairly judge the challenge of our own game. There is an obvious way to address the issue: get play-testing feedback from people who haven’t played the game nearly as much, or at all; and of course we plan to do just that, rendering this article a moot, blatant point.

To be honest, the only reason I felt like writing about it is because in retrospect it sounds like such an obvious, unavoidable development, and yet when beginning work on the game it was not a scenario that ever crossed my mind: that I would play my own game so much prior to release that I would lose perspective on the difficulty setting. Sounds natural when spelled out, but it’s one of many aspects of game development which I would not have predicted nearly two years ago.

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2 thoughts on “Difficulty and Self-Improvement With Your Own Game

  1. Of course, with really good design and scalability, the problem kind of solves itself. Your personal ability with the game merely becomes a baseline (arguably, this baseline is probably pretty high), but all you have to do is scale down or up and create additional difficulty levels. Granted, all of this is a lot easier than said, and there are plenty of things that don’t scale all that well or easily.

  2. That’s a great point, particularly that the scalability takes care of the problem but it’s not easy to determine what can be scalable, and how. A big challenge to me is trying to find the right relation to everything that scales, e.g. what ratio for player health versus enemy damage versus speed versus ability powers and so on feels “right” for each difficulty. Applying a sweeping, global multiplier based on difficulty is a crude way to do it but feels… off.

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