So I'm going to attempt to write about difficulty in game design then talk a bit about the Super Meat Boy design process, namely when it comes to how we approached dealing with difficulty. This post probably isn't for everyone but we get a lot of questions regarding this stuff so here goes.... (don't worry there are pictures!)
Difficulty in a platformer is usually established by this very simple formula.
(% chance the player will die) X (Penalty for dying) = Difficulty?
Pretty basic stuff, the higher the chance the player will die and the bigger price they pay for dying the harder the game will appear to the player. This is a formula that's been around from the start, but the one thing that's changed drastically over the years is the "Penalty" aspect.
Penalty for dying in video games started in the arcades where the major penalty was adding a quarter.
This worked very well when it came to getting money from kids, but once home consoles became the norm the player no longer had the ability to add credits with coins and the formula had to change. The goal of high score had been replaced with progression to completion and the major penalty became going back to start.
This is also when "risk/reward" was heavily established. Risk reward was a way for the designer to give the player a way to gain more credits by taking bigger risks, in mario this risk was coin collecting and exploration to find 1ups.
The Mario formula was solid, but as video games tapped into a more mainstream market, penalty for losing had to become less frustrating and penalty = frustration. Companies wanted more people to be able to complete their games, and by the early 90s most platformers added the "continue" option.
As time has passed, lives systems and penalty have almost vanished from most games due to the amount of frustration
they caused and difficulty had become watered down to the point of it not really being a factor anymore.
By the early-mid '00s the independent video game scene started to use a more direct and simple formula.
Removing lives all together let the designer base difficulty more on the actual level design and challenge and less around the penalty of losing lives and restarting, in doing so the formula for difficulty changed. The player no longer had to worry about dying, penalty for death basically turned into the amount of time you took to restart after death and the length of the current level.
So how could we take this existing formula and refine it and apply it to Super Meat Boy?
How could we make a seemingly aggravatingly difficult game into something fun that the player could get lost in?
When starting the development of Super Meat Boy these were the big questions that needed answers right away, and this is what we came up with.
1. Keep the levels small
First off it was very important that the levels in Super Meat Boy be bite sized
, you could almost think of most of them as micro levels, thrown at the player in rapid succession much like the micro games in the Wario Ware series. If we keep the levels small enough for the player to see their goal, it lowers the stress of not knowing what's to come and the distance they will have to start over from if they die.
2. Keep the action constant
It was imperative that the action never stopped, even when the player was killed. The time it takes for Meat Boy to die and respawn is almost instant, the player never waits to get back into the game, the pace never dropps and the player doesn't even have time to think about dying before they are right back where the left off. This same idea was applied to the level progression, the player never leaves the action till they want to, the levels keep coming as fast as the player can beat them, and all the complete screens, transitions and cut scenes are sped up to keep the fast pace of the game flowing.
The player should always feel good about completing something hard, so what better a reward then a reminder of just how hard that level was? Early in development Tommy implemented the replay system
, a replay mode that would start when a level was completed showing the player's past 40+ attempts all playing at once. This simple visual reward for taking a beating not only reminds the player of just how hard they tried but also shows a time line of how they learned and got better as they played.
So we had our basic outline, a hardcore platformer geared towards our horribly spoiled ADD generation, but how could we stay true to the extremely high difficulty par set by IWBTG, Jumper and N+ yet still be accessible enough for someone who was new to the genre to pick up and enjoy?
Was there a way to make something accessible and still hardcore?
This is where the Dark World
system comes into play. The dark world is an expert mode set parallel to the main game. As the player completes levels they will unlock expert versions in the dark world if they complete the level under a set par.
In a lot of ways dark worlds difficulty starts where the main games difficulty leaves off. You could say that level 1-5 in the dark world is almost as difficult as level 3-5 in main game.
The goal here was to setup a system that allowed expert players to start the game experiencing high difficulty right off the bat, yet not require those levels to be beaten to complete the main game.
All in all the dark world system allows for Super Meat Boy to become 2 full games, 150+ main game levels for the average gamer and 150+ expert levels for the hardcore gamer, but set up in a way that an average gamer who completes the main game, can easily transition into the difficulty of the dark world levels, and the game will unfold even more.
The point i'm trying to make here is, video games are an exercise in learning and growing. The designer acts as the teacher, giving the player problems that escalate in difficulty hoping their "course" will help them learn as they go, get better and feel good about what they achieve.
When you are trying to teach someone something, you don't punish them when they make a mistake, you let them learn from it and give them positive reinforcement when they do well.
Tune in next time when i'll be talking in depth about RISK REWARD!!! (Bandages, Warp Zones and Playable Characters)