Game Design: Flow and difficulty locks

Flow is a term that gets bandied about every now and then in game design. For a good overview, there’s Jenova Chen’s MFA thesis. I’ll provide a very quick summary:

If a game is too easy, the player can feel bored.

If a game is too hard, the player can feel frustrated.

In that zone of “just right” the player can enter a state of intense concentration called flow. Many people seem to find it pleasurable. Of course, it’s probably not appropriate for every game experience.

Let’s assume for that moment that flow is a good thingm that we are designing a game in which we want to guide the player into a state of flow. One of Jenova’s key ideas is that the player should be able to adjust the game’s difficulty level at any time.  If they’re frustrated, they can “step back” and make things easier; if they’re bored, they can seek out greater challenge.

One problem with changing the difficulty level is that it often has no in-world explanation. Difficulty level is a concept about the game, an expression of game mechanics, not something that happens in the game. It’s tough to come up with a reason for the player to be able to change the game’s fictional reality in such a fundamental way and not in such a way as to let them win the game instantly.  Kingdom of Loathing is the only game I know which provides justifications for the player changing the difficulty level.

Difficulty Locks

Some games implement an idea I think of as difficulty locks. The player reaches points in the game where they may attempt harder challenges, or they may stay at their current level and continue playing until they feel ready. Many computer role-playing games use this model; the player may wander around and fight random monsters, acquiring loot and “experience”, until they finally decide to take on the next boss.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is an interesting example in that it tests both player skill and time (as I’ve written about before). The player may wait until they have a character powerful enough to definitively defeat the boss, or they may rely on their skill to win the fight. In other words, if the player finds a fight that is too frustrating, they can wander around the areas just before it until they become powerful and/or skilled enough to progress.

Dwarf Fortress: Delving Too Deeply (minor spoilers)

Dwarf Fortress contains an interesting set of features in this vein (pun intended). Playing Dwarf Fortress, you start with a settlement of dwarves on the surface. You can direct your dwarves to dig into the ground to construct rooms and hallways. From the surface, your fortress will most likely be attacked by goblins, and perhaps wild animals like wolves or elephants.

Digging deeply enough will bring you to an underground cavern layer. Here you will find more valuable gems and ores, but you will also find tougher monsters like cave crocodiles. Delving still deeper will yield entry into a second cavern layer, then a third, each with progressively more powerful denizens. Below the three cavern layers lies a magma sea. And below that is something DF players obliquely refer to as “Hidden Fun Stuff“…in other words, something really bad.

With this set of features, Dwarf Fortress allows the player to take on additional challenges whenever they feel up to it. It’s not as finely grained as it could be, but it does have the advantage of being completely justified by the world’s setting.

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