Hacking the Difficulty Curve – Smart Level Design

One of the things that I see as I play different games is that successful games often have tricks to get users through a difficult level. More over, they have specific patterns for level design.

How difficult should your game levels be

The pattern that most successful level based games used is a pattern of hard levels mixed with easy ones where the hard levels increase in their difficulty as users makes progress through the game. This pattern allows users enjoy the satisfaction of completing a tough level for a little longer as he easily solves a few easy ones. To avoid a situation where the user simply retries a step until completion I would suggest enforcing some waiting periods between sessions.

Problem – users get stuck on a levelUsers frustration is a big issue in level design. Candy crush level 65 is known for being really hard and king may have created random cheats.

A big problem with level based games is that users can reach a level they simply can’t solve. It’s fun at the beginning but then it’s not. The user gets frustrated and is likely to leave the game unless he can figure out a way around it. This is a very important one for game designers to solve. Let’s cover some tricks used by savvy designers.

Method 1 – add a random element

A relatively simple way to make sure users don’t spend too much time on a given level is to design some random event that makes the level much easier. If you give this event a chance of 5% to happen, the user is unlikely to get stuck for longer than 20 turns. You can even take this method one step further and design function that gives the odds so that they will increase the more turns the user plays. For example, on the first try give the event a 1% chance of happening and in the 10th attempt give it 10% chance.

Example – Candy Crush gives you a favorable hand

Candy crush is one game that has levels and worlds. It’s very easy to spot the pattern of interleaving easy levels with hard ones and specifically many users found #33 and #65 extremely hard to get through. How did King.com solved the frustration problem? This is not fully confirmed but many users swear that when they came back after a few days to play the impossible level, they received a surprisingly good ‘hand’ with a color bomb just a few swipes away. Is it possible that King designed a rule that helps stuck users with some favorable odds? I wouldn’t be so surprised.

Method 2 – allow level repetition and flexible completion

Giving user a score in every level and allowing users to break their own records or compete with their friends allows to maintain user satisfaction even when they get stuck on a levelThis strategy has become quite standard in games today but it’s still worth mentioning as I have seen games that don’t implement it. The idea is that you can allow users to compete on each level as a repeated scene individually. This means that every level has a score system, records and completion. This means that if the user got stuck on level 12 he can replay level 11 or 10 and get satisfaction from beating his friends in that level.

Example – Jelly Splash allows you to compete in every level

Wooga, the maker of Jelly Splash have been in this game long enough to know the importance of always giving users a sense of accomplishment. Their game allows users to compete on scores in every level so even if users get stuck they can keep playing for the sake of beating their friends.

Method 3 – give the user an alternative mode with rewards

Dear hunter give users alternative play modes so they can maintain progress at all timesOne way to keep users trying longer is to give them another mode of gameplay in which they can play over and over with no limitations and combine it with an alternative achievement system such as quests. With this method, the user that got stuck discover the alternative and stays in the game longer as he tries the difficult level from time to time. This works really great when quest completion is rewarded with virtual currency or goods that eventually help the user to complete the difficult level.

Example – Dear hunter different hunt modes

Dear hunter is a well designed game. The main progress is achieved through the “hunting series” which is also the requirement for moving to the next world. One of the interesting things is that every 2-3 levels the user pretty much has to upgrade his gun in order to succeed. Of course, this makes the level almost impossible to win unless you have enough coins to upgrade. To avoid user frustration, Glu designed other modes like the “club hunt” that allow users to keep playing even if they are stuck on the main progression path. Of course, this alternative mode rewards the user with more coins and so eventually he is able to buy the required upgrades and win the level he spent so much time on.

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Raised in the Kibbutz and reborn in the city, Yaniv is a certified entre-parent-neur. When he’s not busy doing SEO, content marketing, administration, QA, fund raising, customer support… [stop to breathe], you can find Yaniv snowboarding down the slopes of France and hiking with his kids. Yaniv holds a B.Sc. in Computer Science and Management from Tel Aviv University. He is also an avid blogger and a speaker at industry events. Before SOOMLA, Yaniv co-founded EyeView

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