iThings Considered

The Gaming Challenge

Jake Sargent - 2001.03.02

Many Mac users aspire to program their own games, but complicated coding languages like C++ often scare off the majority of them. What many Mac users don't realize is that it takes a lot more than knowledge of a few languages to make a game - it takes many hours of planning, experience, and testing.

One thing that has always puzzled me about game creation is how developers decide on the difficulty of a game. Since there is such a wide range of gaming talent (from the novice gamer to the expert), it is hard for developers to determine how to please everyone when it comes to how challenging a game should be. To find out how developers decided on the difficulty of a game, I talked to a couple of big-name companies including MacSoft, Presto (creators of the Myst series), and French Touch (makers of the new hit Water Race).

In terms of difficulty, there are two types of games - those that let you choose how challenging a game is (easy, normal, hard), and those that don't. Those that let you choose the difficulty are often shooter, action, or racing games. Those that don't let you choose the difficulty tend to be adventure games like Myst and Escape From Monkey Island. When it comes to choosing the difficulty of a game, developers that give users an option to change it have an easier job.

How developers determine the difficulty of a game varies with the size of the company they work for. For big companies like MacSoft, they often bring in a group of testers to evaluate if a game is too easy or too hard. "We will invite groups of people to come in and play the levels and try to determine whether or not the level is too difficult. If you've got good level designers, you generally don't have to make a lot of changes," Darn Harnett, a PR manager for MacSoft told me.

More independent companies like Pangea may not feel the need or have the resources to bring in a large group of testers to provide feedback on a game. "The difficulty generally evolves on its own. We don't start with a preconceived notion of how it should be, but rather we just see how it goes, and we tweak it if we think it is too hard or too easy," stated Brian Greenstone. Unlike many companies, it would be difficult for Presto Studios, creators of the Myst series, to implement "easy, normal, and hard" modes into its games. This presents a problem, since some gamers may have more experience with the game or be better at puzzles.

However, Presto Studios feels that everyone should be able to beat Myst III: Exile, the latest addition to the Myst saga, no matter what their gaming background is. "... [We] educate the player and prepare them for the challenges ahead. A lot of the Ages are filled with things that you've never seen before, and we can't expect players to be able to look at them, and just through their design figure out what they do. When making Myst III we decided that we had to educate the players early, by putting interactive elements in the very early stages of the game that they could play with. Things that they didn't necessarily realize would be related to something they might encounter further in the game. When they approached a puzzle later on in the game, we wanted them to have something in the back of their mind, something that they had seen before that they would intuitively relate to the challenge that was placed in front of them," said Phil Saunders, creative director for Myst III: Exile.

Even though you should be able to complete Myst III: Exile (with a lot of time and a few walkthrough books), don't feel bad if you don't perform as well in French Touch's Water Race. "We tuned the 'hard' difficulty [level] so that the best player we could find was not able to win all the races all the time. Finally, I guess a very, very good player racing in this mode should win about 2/3 of the races," replied Pierre-Olivier Latour when I asked him whether or not the average gamer should be able to complete all the courses in Water Race.

No matter which method they choose to decide on the difficulty of a game, all of the developers featured in this article have done an excellent job of not making their games too challenging or too easy.

If you do get too frustrated with a game, you may want to take Westlake Interactive's developer Mark Adam's advice: "One good source I've found when I got stuck in a game (particularly an adventure game like Tomb Raider) is the plethora of fan sites on the web with hints and walkthroughs. Its a good free way to get some assistance when you just don't know how to get past a part of a game."

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