Whether you’re working on your first game or your 10th, finding the right balance between making gameplay challenging and enjoyable for the player can be quite difficult. Developers try to find that perfect level of difficulty that engages players, puts them into a flow state, and gives them a sense of achievement without too much frustration. It’s hard enough to do this for one player in mind; even fairly specific market niches include a diverse group of players with different gaming play styles and skills. In fact, right now we’re continuing to test and iterate as we develop our debut game, Immortals of Aveum™. We asked some of our Game Designers and Level Designers about how they approach designing engaging gameplay.
“Balancing difficulty and fun is a tricky tightrope act for any game designer. Making components too easy can rob players of any sense of real accomplishment. On the other hand, I don’t want to design anything so difficult that players get frustrated and quit. I constantly ask myself if I would like to play what I’ve designed, then what about my partner, my peers or my friends – would they enjoy it? Would they be able to do it? Is there something I can add to help them find the solution without sacrificing the challenge?
Going beyond theorizing, play testing is a vital way to see things from others perspectives and filter out my own bias. Assessing their experiences in the game can help game designers like me to tweak and change components until we find the sweet spot that combines fun and challenging.”Nathan Clarke, Senior Game Designer at Ascendant Studios
Experience Your Game
From Centipede, to Candy Crush, to Elden Ring, game developers have spent decades figuring out the right balance for their games. One game isn’t going to appeal to everyone in terms of challenge and fun, but many games make a variety of strategies available so that different play styles and skill levels can still find success. Here’s one perspective from our Senior Level Designer, Daedra Christopher:
“When striking a balance between fun and difficulty, I take into account things like player progression, current mechanics, narrative plot points and the pacing of the game. Once I understand all of the factors involved, I play through the space in a multitude of ways, usually with a particular playstyle or goal in mind. For example, I might play as someone who wants to just focus on the main objectives. Then I ask myself, is this fun? Alternatively, I will then play as someone who wants to collect everything and explore every nuance. I again ask, is this still fun? I vary the challenges to take into account player skill levels and repeat my playthroughs. I try to give players a rewarding sense of achievement that further arms them as they progress through other areas of the game.”Daedra Christopher, Senior Level Designer at Ascendant Studios
Finding Creative Victories
Another way to make an in-game challenge enjoyable is teaching the player the tools they will need to be successful later in the game. Pacing encounters in this method arms the player for future boss fights by showing them similar, but lower-stakes challenges earlier in the game. Plus, seeing someone use a novel strategy to find victory might inspire you for future levels or in game hints!
“I often find a level is a success if the player thinks they are the ones that came up with all the really good ideas, when in fact everything in the level is placed deliberately to help foster the player to take specific actions.This provides players tons of options with varying levels of difficulty and risk/reward. If a player struggles with one method, the layout is conducive to them trying a 2nd method, or even a third, and so forth.”Alyssa Lutz, Senior Level Designer at Ascendant Studios
Speaking of different ways to play, changing up something expected can also help ramp up the difficulty while keeping the experience engaging. Senior Level Designer, Clemence Maurer explains how prompting the player to take a different approach to known mechanic can create interesting, novel scenarios.
“I try to balance difficulty by thinking of ways to combine the abilities that the player possesses, in a way that is surprising and fresh. For that, I often need to think of a way to ‘twist’ a known mechanic, even if that means I might create something alien that looks disconcerting because we never planned to have the mechanic work that way.
I rely on combinations of elements and how they relate to the environment, the story, the game progression, and the player’s experience to glue together a setup that belongs yet feels unique, and offers opportunities for the player to feel creative and clever as they go through combat, puzzles, traversal moments, and everything we put in their way.”Clemence Maurer, Senior Level Designer at Ascendant Studios
Remove Unintended Challenges
All these tips are amazing, but it might feel like a lot on your plate. There must be some shortcuts you can take to great level design…right? Often we get caught in a trap of additive thinking, which can result in costly feature creep and missed deadlines. By flipping the problem from “what else can I put here to make it successful” to “what can I take away or move around”, you may find an easier to implement a solution. We asked our Level Designer, Shawn Lucas, for his thoughts:
“Do your best to ensure the content is free of artificial frustrations. For example, if you have a challenging encounter and some voice-over or a scripted sequence before the encounter, your pre-encounter checkpoint better be after that stuff and immediately before the encounter because having to repeatedly sit through the same dialogue is annoying and causes unnecessary friction. Also, you don’t want the player to fail because of something that was totally outside of their control, like bad collision or telegraphing.”Shawn Lucas, Lead Level Designer at Ascendant Studios
There’s no one solution to finding that perfect balance between difficulty and fun in a game, but there are many ways to approach design and development. Whether you’re a team of one or 100, these are just a few suggestions from our team to help you create inspiring levels that let your players feel like they’re on top of the world (or the leaderboards):
- PLAY, PLAY, PLAY your game!
- Imagine how different people with different playstyles will experience your game
- Be deliberate in what you put in your levels to encourage a variety of paths to victory
- Arm your player with skills to face greater challenges later
- Eliminate unrewarding, unnecessary friction
STAY IN TOUCH
Learn more from our team as well as some of the industry’s leading developers as we share insights into game development. Check out YouTube for more content about devs sharing their experiences creating some of the best games ever made. Our original podcast series, Rise Above, delves into the world of video game development through candid conversations with some of the industry’s leading devs. Our pilot and a special bonus episode are available now, and Season 1 arrives later this year!
Check our blog often, subscribe to our newsletter, The Standup, and follow us on YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn to keep up with our game, Immortals of Aveum™, as well as all of our other exciting content.