What Constitutes Appropriate Difficulty in Small Games

A game that's too hard can lead to frustration, while one that's too easy can feel boring. The right level of difficulty is indispensable for a good game; though achieving the right balance can be challenging. The desired level of difficulty varies significantly from the relentless challenge and repeated retries found in Soul-like games, to the casual and easily cleared three-match puzzles. The type of game greatly influences the required difficulty level.

It's often mentioned, notably in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow Model, that offering challenges corresponding to a person’s skill level can enhance engagement and immersion. 1

Flow Model

In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow Model, achieving a balance between skill and challenge is key. A common method employed in small games to maintain this balance involves progressively increasing the difficulty over time. The level of difficulty, or challenge level, rises until it matches the player’s skill level, and once it surpasses that level, any mistake leads to a 'game over' situation.

With the right approach and pace in escalating the difficulty, this method can work well to create an enjoyable game. What's deemed as the right approach? When the difficulty increases and the player makes a mistake, if the player believes it was due to a lack of skill, then the difficulty level is seen as appropriate. On the contrary, if the game becomes unfairly difficult, for instance, if the player is faced with unavoidable attacks, the level of difficulty is seen as inappropriate.

A commonly used parameter for adjusting difficulty is the game speed. As the game progresses, the game speed accelerates, and the speed of both players and enemies increases. This demands more rapid actions from the player, and any misoperation leads to a 'game over' situation. This traditional method of adjusting difficulty, utilized since the Game & Watch 2 era — a period referring to the early handheld games by Nintendo — remains effective. A benefit of using game speed for difficulty adjustment is that it minimizes the chance of becoming unfairly difficult. When the game speed changes, both the enemy’s and the player’s speed increase proportionally, preventing situations where an enemy that could be avoided early in the game becomes unavoidable later on.

However, relying solely on game speed for difficulty adjustment can become monotonous. In such cases, increasing the number of enemies or enlarging obstacles are among other methods that can be employed to heighten the challenge. Consequently, it’s crucial to adjust so that situations, such as obstacles becoming too large to evade with the player's jumping ability, do not occur and lead to unfair scenarios.

By combining various difficulty adjustment methods, the game becomes more intricate, and players are less likely to lose interest. Ideally, introducing new elements that demand advanced techniques from players, like new enemies, weapons, terrain, items, etc., can enhance the game. Yet, the high implementation cost in small games can make this a challenging endeavor.

1. Flow (psychology)
2. Game & Watch

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