I like hard games.
I enjoy learning from my mistakes, losing everything, and starting over. I’m the type of person who will play a video game on the hardest setting and I always look for the toughest challenges. I enjoy roguelike games where you playthrough until you die and then have to start over until you eventually clear the full game without dying. With games like Path of Exiles I enjoy playing on the optional hardcore mode, meaning if you die you immediately lose everything which could be hundreds of hours of gameplay.
The reason I say all this is because it’s very important to know what you enjoy from a game, and what other people enjoy from it. Many people will happily play a game on the easiest difficulty and would never choose to play on a hardcore 1-life mode, and that’s OK!
Choosing a difficulty
I often see people saying cooperative games should be relatively simple and that most people want win rates between 50% and 75%. They don’t want to play a game 10 times before they win and that’s understandable.
People play games to have fun, they don’t want to get beat down over and over, they crave the feeling of making good decisions and being rewarded.
When designing a cooperative game you should fully understand who your target audience is and let that feed into your difficulty options. If you want to appeal to the wider community then you should design your game to be (or at least include a default mode that is) easy enough to frequently win.
If you are happy to target a niche group and with that understand that your sales are going to be more restricted, then feel free to design a harder game.
Luck vs Skill
An important part of deciding how hard your game will be is the balance between luck and skill in your game.
If a game is incredibly luck dependent, then it probably shouldn’t be a very hard game to beat. To make a challenging game enjoyable to lose, people need to be able to see the mistake they made and not just blame it on a random dice roll.
The trick to roguelike games and the hardcore modes I mentioned at the start of this article is a player can learn the game and avoid making the same mistake a second time.
Making your audience aware
The most critical part of the process is to make sure your audience is aware if you choose to make your game harder. By that I mean you should clearly state it on your product pages and on the back of the box.
I designed The City of Kings to be incredibly challenging, after all it was my first game and it was designed to my tastes. The 7 stories you can playthrough are designed to ramp up and they get harder and harder as you go on. Many players will find the first story tough and by stories 3 or 4 they’ll really need to have learned the game and take advantage of every option given to them. Each story is designed to be replayed over and over, to feel unique each time, but to also have key moments you can learn from to improve your chances next time.
I did a bad job in the early days of making people aware of the games challenging nature and it has taken a long time to really fix that mistake. When people encounter something that is far more challenging than they expected, they often get put off or worse, look for reasons to criticize the game as they had such a bad experience.
However, those people were never going to enjoy the game and I knew that from the start, I just failed at providing them with the information to be able to make that decision for themselves before they played the game.
I learned a lot about managing expectations from The City of Kings and I am thankful for those lessons.
In the upcoming reprint I’m doing a lot of work on updating the box and product pages to make people more aware of the challenging nature of the game and to let them know what to expect in advance.
If you enjoy hard games and want to design something to your tastes, don’t be afraid to do so, just make sure players know what to expect in advance.