The equation of what makes a great game is not a simple one. There are many elements to consider, from the graphics and sound, to the actual game mechanics and its ‘social-ness’. But when it comes to continuously challenging your audience this is one of the hardest (and most important) factors to pitch right.
Too easy and players don’t come back after a few visits; too hard and they might not make it back after one. Ideally, challenges are staged and are able to match different skill levels, different experience levels and different time commitment levels, but getting this balance spot on is, in itself, a real challenge for the developer.
What are some of the ways of maintaining challenges throughout the course of a game?
Types of Challenge
It has been pointed out that there are four basic challenges that can be included in games:
1. You vs. yourself – where you must improve your concentration and skill level to beat your previous personal best performances. Usually as you ‘train’ your brain you become better at the game.
2. You vs. your opponent – this type of challenge is becoming more widespread as the social element of games takes over and it’s easier to consistently play against others. There’s no need to play Solitaire anymore when we can easily enjoy interactive online game experiences and test out our strategies and our strengths against other people’s.
3. You vs. the rules – there is always a degree of battling against the rules, but in more complex strategic games the challenge can be to master the rules of the game and create winning strategies (think Chess, complex puzzle games, or some more advanced console type games, for example).
4. You vs. luck – most games include a degree of luck and the challenge here is to give yourself the best odds of luck coming down on your side rather than your opponent’s. You may not be in full control of the situation but you can usually weight the odds in your favour.
The Challenge ‘Toolbox’
There are several ways for developers to challenge their gamers in each of the above categories. The most common are by:
• Levels – if you think of Candy Crush Saga with its hundreds of levels, this takes up a lot of development resources, but it is a sure-fire way to maintain something for players to aim for, no matter how long they have been playing it.
• Time pressure – by introducing a ticking time element, players are kept constantly challenged to complete tasks or missions before the bell goes! This is particularly useful in games where players play against themselves. Time may also be useful in multi-player games where the challenge is to complete a mission in the quickest time, before an opponent.
• Increasing complexity – when you are playing against the rules, adding layers of difficulty to the game will keep players challenged. Perhaps the number of missiles coming at you is greater, the game speeds up, life on the farm gets more difficult, or there are more objects to steer around on the road.
• Introducing a ‘super-opponent’ – introducing a bot is a great way to keep players on their toes AND to train them up so they improve their skills and feel they are making progress. Playing ‘against the computer’ used to be more critical in games before social media allowed you to connect easily with opponents, but it can still be a useful tool in social games.
• Tournaments – this is where meeting the challenge is rewarded with status amongst peers: the chance to become the player with the most points or the last man standing.
Increasingly social game developers need to rise to the challenge of the challenge. By consistently taxing the brains, testing the skills or awakening the competitive spirit of the player, the developer ensures that interest levels are maintained and players keep coming back for more.