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  • Designing For Difficulty: Readability In ARPGs

    - Alex Kubodera


    Patterns repeat, but until you recognize the repetition it's just noise. Don't compromise readability as a means to increase difficulty. Instead, here are some suggestions:

    Challenge learned behaviour. Patterns that string together, and patterns that change their timings both do this. They are usually triggered through phase changes after the player has chunked a portion of a boss fight so they're not overwhelmed.

    Shorten windows of opportunity (WoO). Players are ultimately learning patterns to figure out when they can counter attack. WoO are their reward for parsing patterns. The more downtime between patterns, the easier it is. Conversely, the less downtime, the harder it is. This can be a real test of patience however, as the longer players have to wait for their chance, the more prone they are to frustration- especially if the "waiting" requires minimal skill or a lot of skill. The length of time players need to wait should be proportional to the WoO they get. Look no further than Letho from Witcher 2 as an example of what not to do.

    Add modifiers. FromSoft loves to do this, whether it be elemental enchantments or larger areas of effects. The patterns usually stay the same, but they become deadlier with longer range or damage affinities that target specific resistances. A side effect of increasing range however, can be a narrower WoO because players spend more time running in and out of the bosses range.

    Increase the speed. This is a cheap and simple solution. Just make sure you've given the player ample time to chunk patterns before going turbo mode on them.

    Introduce a partner. Ideally this should be reserved for entities that you fight individually throughout the course of the game. Players need a chance to get familiar with their patterns before you suddenly put two of them together in an enclosed room. It's much harder to chunk two different patterns at the same time. That's why Ornstein and Smough were so impossibly difficult, but ultimately memorable.

    Clone them. The reason this is separate from "Introduce a partner" is because when you clone a boss, they share a moveset. You still only need to learn one set of patterns. It's just coming from two sources now.

    Add a timer. Players tend to hate this, but it really depends on how you implement it. A timer should force players to think more deliberately about their actions because they're against a clock. They can't afford to dilly dally baiting out attacks or circling around trying to find the perfect moment. I'd say so long as the countdown doesn't signify your unavoidable death, it's alright to have.

    Resource management. You see this a lot in MMOs, whether it be health or mana drains that require specific actions to mitigate. In Death's Gambit we had Death suck up your soul energy (the main resource for your abilities). If he absorbed enough, he'd become empowered dealing 9,999 damage with each swing. The minigame here was expending your soul energy consistently so he'd never have the chance to syphon it.

    By no means is this an exhaustive list, but hopefully it gets you thinking about creative ways to increase difficulty. Leave a comment about other creative ways you've seen difficulty implemented.

    Readability is about making a fight feel fair. But at the end of the day, everyone will have a different threshold for frustration. So try to set expectations early and design for your intended audience. Readability is information. As long as players are registering that information, they should have some idea of their available options. Teach your visual language properly, enforce the expectations, and keep it consistent. Smart designers will also be thinking about ways to alleviate frustrations outside the boss fight itself. But that's a topic for another time.

    Any challenge that feels fair will be satisfying to overcome. It doesn't hurt to reward players with sweet loot and experience too.

    Follow me on twitter @keikube


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