Whether you’ve played SkyBoats or not, and dug it or not, I encourage you to check out Breezy Mode! I can only speak for myself, but it has completely re-energized my feelings for the game. Just like it says on the tin, it’s streamlined and lets you play by feel, man.
In truth, this commandment is actually very closely related to the commandment about Learning. This is because if there are no gameplay paths that the player can come up with that give a reasonable chance of victory, or if the player can choose an arbitrary path (i.e if the game is too easy or too hard), then the player either cannot or does not need to learn anything! If we accept the premise that learning is a huge aspect of the fun of strategy games, then providing the correct challenge level is absolutely critical in creating an enjoyable experience.
Games have tried many methods of tailoring the challenge level correctly over the years, some overtly, others more subtly. One classic example is the concept of “grinding” in early RPG systems like Final Fantasy. The ability to grind (gaining power through some repetitive action) ensures that players of any skill level can eventually surpass whatever challenge the game throws at them. In theory this allows players to correctly tailor the challenge level to themselves. In practice it often results in players grinding until the game presents no strategic challenge (as players will often use the simplest solution available, even if it is less fun for them!). Not only that, but grindingly inherently involves engaging in a low-value activity in exchange for power, which means part of your game system is inherently boring to engage with (setting aside the quirk of human nature which assign some base-line satisfaction with gaining quantifiable power, as evidenced by clicker games).
Another common method of scaling difficulty is to allow players to simply select the difficulty from a menu at the start of the game. This is problematic as the player has no way of knowing which difficulty level will be appropriate for them in your game system until they have engaged with it. A more modern “fix” is to allow players to re-select their difficulty at any time from a menu. The problem with this approach is that it again gives players a trivial way to bypass the challenge and learning of your game, and therefore a lot of the fun! Additionally, I think that part of the job of a game designer is to do upfront work to craft a game experience the player will find enjoyable, and to some extent that includes selecting the difficulty. Players shouldn’t have to do the designer’s work for them (although I will admit that at times this is not feasible, in which case practical concessions need to be made).
Am I more of a “Ultra-Violence” guy or a “Nightmare!” guy…
BrainGoodGames have taken another approach, as outlined in the article on Learning. They use a single-player ladder system to develop a sense of player’s skill, and then adapt dynamically to continually modify the challenge to be suitable for them! In my estimation this solves a lot of the fun-circumvention problems of other systems, and removes some design burden from players. Win-win! A further augmentation present in Militia, and likely soon to be included in other BrainGoodGames is the inclusion of a “Placement Match” system to allow players who feel the difficulty is incorrectly calibrated to quickly set it to a (ideally) closer challenge level. This also allows experienced strategy game players to skip ranks that are too easy for them, and players’ to opt in to re-calibration after a large balance patch!
Raph Koster explains in his novel “A Theory of Fun” that perhaps the most important source of enjoyment in a game comes from learning. I absolutely agree with this claim, and framing things in this way can allow us to make many inferences about the ideal way to design our games.
As explained in my recent article, carefully crafted ambiguity allows a designer to continually present the player with novel and yet at least somewhat comparable situations to those they have encountered before. In this context, players are able to use their existing knowledge of a game’s system, without being able to rely on rote memorization of solutions to succeed. As they receive feedback (most importantly through whether they won or lost), they can develop new insights into the system (i.e learn).
However, this is not quite enough, because there is another way that learning can be prevented that is quite common. If the game situation is too easy to figure out for the player, they can simply pick an arbitrary strategy and win, without weighing/considering several options (strategic thinking). If the game situation is too hard/beyond their capability to figure out, then all of the strategic paths they come up with will be equally ineffective (resulting in a loss). Either way, learning is stifled.
Fortunately, multiplayer match-based games have already come up with an ingenious solution to this problem: a matchmaking/ladder ranking system! In such a system, players are (theoretically) matched against opponents that provide suitable difficulty for them. As Keith Burgun points out, such a system can also be applied in a single-player context in much the same way. As players win, the game gets harder, and as they lose, the game gets easier. At some point, they will be placed into matches of an appropriate challenge level (which allows for optimal learning!). This process can even be sped up by doing a “placement match” to estimate what rank/difficulty they should start at.
This does beg the question of how to scale the system mathematically to increase the challenge in a way that does not feel arbitrary (not to mention designing a system that rewards learning in the first place). This is one of the primary challenges of designing a single-player strategy game in my opinion, and needs to be considered early on in the process. It is absolutely possible to come up with satisfying answers, and provide reasonable scaling up to a very high level of skill.
As one final point, I want to mention that a system such as this has the added benefit of reflecting a player’s growth and learning in a tangible way! By ranking up a player is able to see with some degree of certainty that they have in fact improved at understanding the system strategically, which is an awesome side effect.