RPG Difficulties and Spandex Force

Tonight I will have a few beers downtown.

Tomorrow I will go to Croatia for some sun, sea, beer and hiking in a national park.

Next week, unless something unforeseen shows up, I will release Spandex Force: Superhero U on an unsuspecting public.

But right now I intend to muse about difficulty in RPGs. The Rampant Coyote posted an entry about this and it got me thinking. He argues that a difficulty setting doesn’t necessarily have to mean just a more difficult game – it could also entail a new way of playing the game. It does make sense. Almost all games are full of (more or less) meta games – collect extra lives in SMB3, get all collectables in a casual game, and so on. A difficulty level that would result in a new way of playing the game is an intriguing thought, and might simply mean putting focus on some of the metagames instead of simply the main game.

Also, I agree with the necessity for difficulty levels in action RPGs. I just suck at action games and if I have to spend time on learning how to get my motor skills to work I’d rather press a big fat DELETE button and do something else. Give me the easiest setting, or give me hell!

Then again, I am strongly against difficulty levels in turn based RPGs and strategy games. For some reason I like the idea of playing the game like a puzzle; learn what I need to do to overcome this obstacle, and once I’ve come up with a solution it’s reproducable. An environment like that also lends itself well to meta games. What’s the lowest level I can beat Final Fantasy 5 at? What spells can I get at a ridiculously early stage of the game? Can I kill the dragon on Emerald Isle?

However, I realize that that point of view can be a bit obsessive and might not reflect the “normal” gamer. So I’ve actually opted for a different method with variable difficulty in Spandex Force: Superhero U. I imagine that the majority of players would rather just play and have everything adapt itself automatically.

Every minigame has a difficulty rating, from 1 to infinity. 1 is extremely easy, 20 getting challenging, 100 is very very hard. This difficulty determines how many tokens you have to collect to finish a minigame, or the opponent’s level (and the levels of his superpowers).

How is this difficulty determined? I’m glad you asked!

A base difficulty value is determined based on the player’s level. This value can range between the player’s level and the player’s level times 3. Then, each task has a relative difficulty from 1-10. Tasks in the first missions have a relative difficulty of 1-2, but the fights in the last episode have a difficulty of 9-10. The relative difficulty determines if the lower or the higher end of the base difficulty will be chosen. Let’s take an example:

Justice Guy is level 5, and will enter a task with relative difficulty 4.
Base difficulty = 5-15
Modified difficulty = (max – min) / 10 * relative difficulty + min = (15 – 5)/10 * 4 + 5 = 9

So, that’s it? The difficulty will be 9? Well, not exactly.

During gameplay, the player has a variable keeping track of how well he does. This variable starts at 50 and depending on whether or not he loses or wins minigames it increases and decreases to range between 0-100. This variable determines how likely it is that a new token falling onto the board will create a match. In other words: if you play well, it’s less likely that you’ll receive “free” chains when matching tokens, but more likely if things aren’t going so well for you.

Also, this variable affects the modified difficulty too. It can modify the value by 50%-200%. Let’s continue our previous example:

Justice Guy is level 5, and will enter a task with relative difficulty 4. He has a success variable rating of 78.
Modified difficulty = 9
After the variable of 78 has been taken into account, the difficulty is = 9 * 1.8 = 16

The final difficulty will actually be 16, in other words? Yes, almost. For scaling reasons I divide that value by two, though. So the final difficulty is 8.

In fact, I was toying with applying a quadratic transformation afterwards to smooth out the value, and give it a ceiling. It turned out to be a bad idea, though – it was hard finding a formula that would give suitable difficulty early as well as in the end. I tried this one, for example:

Justice Guy is level 5, and will enter a task with relative difficulty 4. He has a success variable rating of 78.
Modified difficulty = 16
Transformed difficulty = -0.0025x*x + 1x + 0.0025 = -0,64 + 16 + 0.0025 = 15.3625

Not much difference, eh? It would have been more of a difference if x was 100:

Transformed difficulty = -0.0025x*x + 1x + 0.0025 = -25 + 100 + 0.0025 = 75.0025

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but in the end I let the difficulty remain pretty linear. Theoretically I think that this means that a player can level up too much to finish the game…but if anyone has that much time to spare, I’ll eat my hat!

3 Responses to “RPG Difficulties and Spandex Force”

  1. Farshid P Says:

    I have always been for the notion of having a difficulty system that scales with players performance. I have played your game yet to be able to give a final verdict as to how the system you so thoughtfuly planned out will work out.

    But I am reminded of a system that I very much enjoyed, while pretty basic in terms of implementation it worked wonders in my experience. Final Fantasy 8. It had a system where the enemies leveled up with you, so no matter which mission, which part of a world map you got into battle … they were all challenging and you never outpowered the weaker enemies from early on in the game.

    Great post.

  2. Felix Pleșoianu Says:

    “… they were all challenging and you never outpowered the weaker enemies from early on in the game.”

    Then why level up at all? Everyone might as well have stayed at level 1 the whole way. Not that leveling up is a sine-qua-non feature of RPGs — there are plenty of tabletop titles with no advancement mechanic. But if you have it, it better be meaningful.

  3. Mistie Partin Says:

    I was THRILLED upon discovering the release of the second Spandex Force, buying it on the spot…if I’d known then what I know how, I’d have saved the money. The shortness of the game, finished it in one sitting, could be over-looked for me. However, the trophies and prizes earned for said trophies can only be won once…are you serious? This is a huge punishment for multiplayer households not to mention ruining replayability! The cash awards for those trophies are the ONLY chance one has to buy equipment as well as higher price attacks. If only I could “exchange” it for something worth owning. I can’t even put into words how disappointed I am. I LOVED the original SF. While the characters may look the same, these two games don’t seem as if they were created by the same people at all. What a let down!

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