Difficulty Level

When I started seriously thinking about Six Ages, I decided I didn’t want to have difficulty levels.

This is partly because King of Dragon Pass didn’t do a particularly good job with them. The hardest setting was certainly harder than the easiest one, but I think calling the easiest one “Easy” was a mistake. The game itself wasn’t particularly easy, and if a player thought they were experienced at similar games, they might try a harder setting and become frustrated. (I changed the labels to begin at “Normal” as part of the version 2.0 reworking, to clarify this.) And the effects of the settings weren’t explained. In general, King of Dragon Pass stays immersive and doesn’t mention game terms, but this is before play begins.

Even if they had been explained, it’s one more thing to decide before you get to the meat of the game.

So my plan was to focus on tuning the game, and make sure that was right.

Then I asked Ken Rolston to give some feedback on the latest Six Ages build. One of his key items was that he missed KoDP’s difficulty options at the beginning of a new game.

We had a short discussion about this, since Ken said, “when working with Raphael van Lierop on The Long Dark, the single most important thing I worked on was persuading Raphael to add difficulty levels.” I’m pretty sure Ken made many other contributions, but at the very least I needed to reconsider my design.

Certainly difficulty levels are a simple way to accommodate players of different skill. They also hint at replayability (your future self after winning is likely to be at a different skill level, so you might want to try a more challenging level). And while Ken didn’t say this, if he missed difficulty levels, other players might as well. Starting players off with even a minor disappointment isn’t the best experience!

So I will be adding three levels of difficulty: Normal (since this is how I expect people will play), Hard, and Harsh.

I haven’t figured out exactly what these mean, but the basic idea is that Hard will make careful resource management more important, and Harsh may feel like all Glorantha is against you. The game system has a lot of difficulty levers, including

  • starting resources
  • likelihood of raiding
  • level of external threats (e.g. Undead and Chaos in KoDP)
  • harvest quality
  • various parameters for adaptive difficulty

I want to show an explanation of the chosen difficulty, so I mocked up a couple UI designs. Now that it’s in the game, I may further tweak the intro (because it is indeed one more choice, and takes up space on a screen that may make other items less prominent).

And I’ll start adjusting things to see how big a difference it makes.

Author: David

Creator of Six Ages and King of Dragon Pass

18 thoughts on “Difficulty Level”

  1. How about using adaptive difficulty levels, which you mentioned before? That way more people will find the game enjoyable rather than frustrating or too easy. Maybe combine the two modes, have fixed difficulty levels and adaptive mode where the difficulty is varied depending on how well the player is doing.

    The downside is that adaptive difficulty is less competitive. You can’t boast to other people that you beat the game on the Harsh difficulty level. Though the adaptive game could report at the end on how many times it had to insert good luck / bad luck events or whatever it does to vary difficulty, and you could boast about that.

    Which brings up the matter of score. Will there be one? Or will players just boast about final resource counts? Is it pointless to have a score in a story telling style of game?

    1. Adaptive difficulty is just one of the things I plan to tune. I expect it may be turned off at Harsh, and less responsive at Hard. Rather like it is in KoDP.

      I think a score during the game (like some of the earliest Infocom games) breaks immersion. And afterwards it would seem arbitrary. (And like you suggest, irrelevant. I don’t think a score would have made sense in King of Dragon Pass.)

  2. Suggestion (and spoiler if you haven’t completed kodp):

    In the original kodp, the victory path is always the same and involved succeeding in ONE very important grand quest, which creates a no matter what fork you take, you eventually ends up in the same last leg whereby you get to the top scenario.

    Instead of an arbitrary difficulty setting, I guess it’ll be more interesting to have more options of distinctive endings with varied difficulty of a grand quest (with different prerequisite) to achieve them.

    The replayability is much better this way, imho.

    1. That wouldn’t solve the problem of making the game more challenging to players who want a harder game for the vast majority of the experience.

      At the moment, I’ll just say that we were aware of your concern.

    2. That’s exactly how I feel, Steven, as I’ve pointed out in previous comments.

      In my case, it’s not the level of challenge that makes me keep coming back, but the storytelling experience, the huge number of sub-scenarios in the game, that never play out exactly the same (contrary to, for example, Reigns).

      However, when the main quest has only one final pathway, that should be your major concern for replayability.

      1. Repelstale:
        Yup, it’s great that the narrative progresses in response to the choice you’ve made, sort of a write-your-own story book adventure, but upon knowing it always ends up whether you’d slained the one and only proverbial dragon makes all the achievements, decisions, and consequences prior to that dragon slaying rather inconsequential.

        Like can I end up as a well natured Bad King Urgain because I was too afraid to do the tough decisions to my people? Or can I weasel my way to the top by being a shrew schemer that alienate one enemy one at a time and decimate them accordingly? (FYI my default strategy when playing kodp )

        It would be much more immersive, decisions be more consequential, and role playing element much more profound when the endings reflect this.

        1. Yes, it would. But I was actually thinking of more roads leading to the unification, other than the familiar building of the city, meeting the dwarf, having sex with the mountain (it’s been a couple of years since my last run through) etc etc.

          It would be great if the story tree could branch out into different ending scenarios. Best example I can come up with now is the ending of Telltale’s second Walking Dead season: while Telltale games rely more on atmosphere than actual gameplay, this ending was a pile of raw moral (and practical) decisions, leading to four completely different (but equal) outcome scenarios.

          I would love to see those in a Glorantha game.

  3. Have you considered starting the player on Normal difficulty for their first game, and not even showing the options for the others?

    This is catching on, and solves a few problems;

    1. Doesn’t break immersion for new players

    2. Doesn’t force a choice by players before they understand the implications

    3. Still allows for replayability and various player skill levels

    Of course it doesn’t solve that potential ‘micro disappointment’ moment where KoDP players may start it up for the first time and not see the difficulty setting… but considering the following;

    1. Again this is becoming standard, so players may guess that there is a difficulty setting even if they don’t immediately see it for their first game

    2. It’s extremely unlikely that micromoment will make anyone stop playing the game… so inevitably most players (especially those who would best appreciate harder difficulties) will encounter the setting on their future games. And in that moment it’s actually a cool little surprise feature!

    3. These days it’s easier than ever for players to know the basic details about games– if anyone is truly concerned, a quick google search for “Does Six Ages have difficulty” would give them the answer they want (though of course you don’t want to rely on someone needing to google info!)

    You can also consider another common trend (though I suspect mostly by developers that need a cheap way to extend their shelf life)– lock the harder difficulties until the player beats the one below it. While this is a pretty artificial way to add gameplay, it does at least ensure that no one will have ‘eyes bigger than their stomach’ when it comes to difficulty, and can tap into the primal “100% completion” drive that a lot of players have

    Curious to hear if you’ve already considered these options, and your thoughts on them! Thanks for another interesting behind-the-scenes blogpost 🙂

    1. Oh to add a 4th benefit for hiding the option on the first game– you aren’t burdening players who just downloaded & are excited to get into it with another choice/decision… especially one that requires as much mental & UI consideration as this does!

    2. Not really, since Ken’s feedback (which I’m summarizing) had a lot to do with the impression that the game was not as rich due to the lack of a difficulty setting. This is basically your first impression, so it should be a positive one. (It might be some time before you start another game since this is not a quick casual game.)

      Also, while we do try to do some things differently for your first game, it can be hard to identify 100% of the time. Players might delete and then reinstall the game. Or be playing on a different device. Or be a different player playing on the same device.

      Which is why making difficulty levels locked is problematic too.

      Hopefully calling the expected level “Normal” will help make that first decision simple.

      1. “…your first impression… should be a positive one.”

        Totally agreed 🙂 but totally disagree about how hiding the choice on first-play-only would affect that! As you identify, difficulty is a difficult (heh) decision for a new player, especially in a game as unique as KoDP (and presumably Six Ages). Trying to explain the differences between options is a great solution… provided the player is already somewhat familiar with the involved concepts. But to a BRAND new player, who I would argue is most affected by this whole decision, there’s no winning– any explanations will be hard to understand before they’ve experienced gameplay, but making a decision without knowing the consequences is bad news too.

        To address your specific points…

        – The “new install != new player” situations, like deleting/reinstalling, playing on a different device, new player on your device… these are all pretty minor edge cases. Yes they should be considered, but are the extreme minority, and don’t seem like they should be a deciding factor in the onboard experience

        – If I can be frank, “I don’t immediately see an option, therefore it doesn’t exist” seems like kind of an old school assumption. Most current games (from mobile to AAA) try to do immersive first play experiences now, and often that involves hiding or minimizing options in the effort to immediately get players *playing* And hey, just add it in the app description with all the other features! 🙂 “2 difficulty levels”, BOOM, everyone will know… or at least be able to quickly realize, should they be terribly concerned

        – Most importantly– think of the BRAND NEW player experience! Ken’s insight as a KoDP veteran is great overall (especially since it sounds like this game is made for us!), but for the New Player viewpoint it can be misleading. KoDP vets will be coming into this game with a lot more excitement and tolerance than any brand new player. BNP’s can be put off by any little thing! Especially if they have to read a couple paragraphs of game-jargon to even understand one of the first choices they face!

        Whereas KoDP vets who know how amazing this kind of game can be will take this minor disappointment in stride (if they even notice, or again assume, two things a good tester like Ken is more likely to do than a random player!)

        But if the choice is hidden your first time, new players get into the game faster and without being held up by a difficult decision. KoDP vets, in a worst case scenario (where they make an incorrect assumption that didn’t-see-it => it-doesn’t-exist) will be disappointed… but hey, they’re getting into the game faster too, and if they aren’t quickly overwhelmed by all the awesome new things then it seems like there’s a bigger problem 😛

        TLDR; While I’m sure Ken was very persuasive about his disappointment… there’s no way it’s actually going to stop any KoDP vet from exploring this new game! But it may actually overwhelm or confuse bran new players

  4. I agree the difficulty levels sound like a good addition (and those who don’t can always just go with Normal 🙂 If there are a variety of global / starting variables that can affect the gameplay experience, as listed in the bullets in your post, you may want to consider making several of these customizable on game setup (so it could be possible to try out several variations like a more warlike or more magically rife game world on different play throughs.)

    As another thought, a great way to keep these choices more personal and atmospheric than clicking “Normal” or “Harsh” would be to integrate them into the narrative choices at game startup a la kodp : (“the land we settled was a barren wasteland” or “a land of milk and honey”, etc etc 🙂

    1. This guy is right. The /full/ impact of the decisions you’re making might not be immediately obvious, but it makes it much more meaningful when you /do/ learn. Makes me think of the implications when selecting your starting amount of land in KoDP. I really doubt that difficulty adjustments would confuse or detract from the game experience for brand new players. As a aside, thanks for mentioning the long dark! I gave the trial a shot on Father’s Day and it was a pretty interesting experience. If I ever get more free time that I can spend in front of a TV I might purchase it.

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