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The Inverse Difficulty Curve Problem

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#1 Moosh


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Posted 09 May 2024 - 12:34 AM

As a preface, I'm viewing this mostly though the lens of a Zelda 1-like. ZC can make pretty much anything, but much of the design we use is inherited from that.


So here's something I think about sometimes. I really like Level 1. I've made a whole lot of them over the years, though few ever got a sequel, or a threequel, or a fourquel. Level 1 is where it's at. And there's a lot of reasons for this, but the one I want to talk about today is the simplicity. Early on in a quest there's few items and many possibilities. This presents many opportunities to create difficultywhich happens to be another thing I'm fond of.


Something I've realized over time is that creating a difficulty curve around a player character who's constantly picking up new items, it's kinda hard. Quite a few quests, my own included, have a tendency towards being harder at the start than at the end. Link's arsenal rapidly outgrows what the game can throw at him. The obvious suspects are the swords and tunics. Exponential gains are utterly cracked and most of us at this point have at least realized that the 1/8th damage divisor on the gold ring is unreasonable, but even the blue ring is a crazy powerup compared to some games. Paired with additional hearts and potions, the gap in survivability between early and late game is pretty massive. Then there's items like the shields that serve to invalidate certain obstacles. Instantly fireball shooters rendered a near nonissue in isolation. The boots negate floor damage. The arrows/wand take the edge off combat by providing a ranged option. The hammer counters shielded enemies.


The boomerang and hookshot invalidate half of the enemies in the game.


Okay, so the video game is a video game and powerful stuff is powerful. The player can increase their survivability over the course of the game by like 40-100 times over. How does one deal with that within the framework ZC provides? The most common thing I see is to pump up the numbers. Make new variants of enemies to offset the values. I'm not personally a fan of this. It works, but it feels like it's invalidating the player's gains artificially to level the playing field. Getting stronger is a natural part of the game so upgrades shouldn't feel like they're just a means of keeping pace. At the least there should be an ebb and flow of increasing values, but generally I think the game feels healthiest when the range in enemy strength between early game and endgame is kept at around the vanilla level. This is why I don't often use the enemy editor to add new enemy levels, preferring to introduce new enemy types instead.


Another solution I see is to build in counters. This enemy type is strong against this item, but weak to this other one. Half of the half of the enemies will just no-sell the boomerang because it's just too powerful. This one fireball? It doesn't care if you have a shield. These spikes are flashing so your boots don't work on them. This also works, but can feel a bit arbitrary. Enemy balance should fit into the logic of the game's setting rather than be governed by the whims of 10 multicolored types of rabbit that are each dealt with with a specific tool. That takes extra effort. It can also be exhausting at times to be constantly expected to use the entire arsenal, though four item buttons eases up on that some.


The third solution that comes to mind is targeting and removing the most egregious elements that contribute to the power creep. So no rings, no potions, no boomerang. This might be the one I align with the most mentally, though I haven't really put it into practice because I'm a horrible creature of habit. It also doesn't really solve the underlying problem I think, just closes the power gap enough that the same old design can become interesting again.


The fourth solution is to become a rich master and pay somebody else to make the quest for you.


Did I have a point with this topic? Heck if I know. I like designing level 1's too much because the stakes and potential are high while the elements to account for are few. I'm not getting anything done. Somebody please solve this cursed problem for me! 



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#2 Mani Kanina

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Posted 09 May 2024 - 04:32 AM

I think the use case of items like Blue ring and Sword isn't so much an *upgrade* to the player as it is a tool to change the flow of the game. Ideally a game that uses those items should scale up later enemies to account for this upgrade. The main purpose isn't really to get ahead of the curve, though you can tweak that into your game flow as well, but rather to make old content easier to deal with. You've already proven mastery over that stuff, so now you get around older areas quicker with less hassle.

Personally I don't see that later challenges in a game should just deal higher numbers, though with the way how games usually goes that part is often also a given. Rather later enemies should have harder patterns or similar in order to challenge your mastery more. In the context of a Z1-like, that might not necessarily just be more new enemies, but also tougher enemy formations that are harder to deal with.

A lot of quests don't really do it well (including many of my own), but like, consider a room with four darknutz, then consider one with four darknutz and a bubble. The bubble don't deal damage to you but it makes the rest of the fight much harder if it hits you; so you probably want to fight on the opposite side of the room.

I'm not sure if I was going anywhere else with this though, but making a compelling difficulty curve can be hard. Even many commercial games by big studios mess this shit up. Plus, a curve should probably never be an even smooth line going up either, peaks can help set the mood.

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#3 Alucard648



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Posted 09 May 2024 - 06:09 AM

Imagine the same 4 Darknuts and bubble, but also in a room full of instant death pits (sideview area). And no-death run is unlock condition for best ending.

#4 Demonlink


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Posted 09 May 2024 - 06:37 AM

I came up with an idea to tweak the blue and red rings, but never actually tested it to see how it would impact gameplay. Once you got either one, its effect would activate depending on Link's remaining health; under 50% for blue and under 30% for red. If Link's health is above that, the effects would wear off until said values.

I think this was a neat idea to not overpower the player too much, as well as turning these items more like tools then as upgrades. The only thing to balance this would be how enemy damage is handled.

#5 Jambu



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Posted 09 May 2024 - 06:46 AM

I just modify every enemy so that they are a pain in the butt. Digdoggers tribble now... XD

Kids these days, they grow up so fast.

Edited by Jambu, 09 May 2024 - 06:47 AM.

#6 Matthew


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Posted 09 May 2024 - 11:37 AM

Balancing difficulty is certainly a hard problem to solve… I’ve opted to flat-out remove the rings from my project; you already get more offensive power via items and defensive power via hearts, so rings are overkill.

I’ve started using newbie boss for everything - even standard enemies. This helps provide foes with more creative behaviors that continue to challenge players as the game goes on. It’s a nice bonus that there are so many attacks to chose from, especially compared to the base engine. No more need to have the high-level octorocks spit fire, for instance (unless you’re into that).

My last attempted solution is to rethink defensive upgrades- Instead of the ring, I have an item that passively charges a shield that blocks one damage instance entirely before going on cooldown. Players can use this more strategically than the blue ring, which just lets you faceroll past a certain point.

ZC combat itself is also kind of limited. I’m of the view that slash is brokenly OP and that link lacks mobility options that would otherwise make combat cooler (roll, dash, etc).

Oh- and it doesn’t help that link can slash AND move 8-ways, if you have that enabled, which in-engine enemies are absolutely trivialized by.

#7 Nightmare


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Posted 09 May 2024 - 12:21 PM

Solving difficulty, an age old problem.

Which quests solved this? Armageddon Quest supposedly did, but I'm no expert.

Another quest that did, was Zelda NES Remastered (ZNR), and I can explain how it accomplished this feat mostly mires in NES technology:

Rings and swords tech to change the game flow as noted earlier. So to compensate, ZNR had balance redesigns in 3, 5, 7, and 10. Every time you got a new item, the enemyflow changed (since the 5th you couldn't use new items, and this stayed true in the public release). Also, new balance changes were added, like old bosses regenerating, boomerangs being blocked late, and new Darknuts variants shooting swords. Was this popular? Debatedly no, but if you're looking one way to solve and balance the game, ZNR did it and did it well, and within familiar grounds.

As for Moosh's Level 1 argument, I think New Quest had the most "attitude" and came out swinging, while ZNR well presented itself as an advanced, long challenge as a taste of things to come.

Are there better and new ways to solve things now? Yes, and even Nintendo rebuked the 5th Contest in general with that. Styles evolve. What worked in ZNR's era might not work now.


#8 kurt91


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Posted 18 May 2024 - 12:36 AM

I think part of it is that ZC provides upgrades beyond what we normally get. For example, in ZC you can get the Blue, Red, and Gold Rings. In Z1, if I'm not mistaken, you could only get Blue and Red. Gold was pretty much implemented since there were also a few cracked-out enemies that were excessive compared to Z1. When you look at the later official Zelda games, you don't usually get as many upgrades.


Link's Awakening only gave you a permanent defense upgrade in DX and the remake, and even then you had to sacrifice the equivalent offensive upgrade. You could double-stack it with the Guardian Acorn, but that was only temporary. (There's an idea, make one of the Rings a temporary upgrade that enemies can drop on occasion) Ocarina of Time had the defense upgrade available prior to Ganon's Tower, the final dungeon in the game. You had a Blue and Red Tunic, but they were for breathing underwater or surviving intense heat. (So, make the Blue and Red Rings only defend against specific damage types? Melee and Magic, perhaps? You'd need to add a flag to each enemy for this to work, but it'd be an interesting result)


So, you can limit the existing tools at your disposal. How about making multiple shields? Instead of a normal shield and a Magic Shield upgrade, how about if the Magic Shield ONLY blocked magical attacks, and was implemented GB style so you had to actively pull it up? A screen with multiple types of attackers would need the player to determine which ones they can personally deal with more easily, and equip the shield that blocks the attack types they personally have a harder time dealing with. Pair that with a set of Rings that only work on specific attacks or require magic to work (meaning they just convert HP damage into MP damage), and you have tools to make enemies easier to fight, but you still have to pay attention.


Personally, I'm a fan of how Neutopia handled it's Boomerang equivalent, the Fire Rod. In that game, the weapon's capability depended on your current HP. When you first got it early in the game, it acted like a Boomerang, except it dealt damage in most cases instead of just stunned. However, if you tried using it when low on HP, the range dropped and it just fired forward instead of forward and returning. As you continued progressing in the game and your Max HP increased, it would get more powerful. It would switch to summoning pillars of fire ahead of you, and by endgame, it would have a range that could reach across the entire screen. However, if you took damage, your weapon would get weaker and revert down until you were able to heal yourself.


It's been quite a while since I had worked on my quest, but what I did was I made sure every single enemy was mechanically unique, or at the very least had graphics that didn't match up with traditional Zelda enemies, so you had to actually figure out how to deal damage. Instead of Darknuts, I went the opposite direction and had what was essentially a stone Mettaur. It was guarded against absolutely everything in every direction except for the face, and so you needed to get up close to it while it was approaching you to deal damage. It would encourage having to make quick hit-and-run style attacks so that if you couldn't kill it immediately, you were ready to back off and get back out of range before lining up another attack.


I also had made a boss that was a giant slime, that as you dealt damage, would split into smaller and smaller slimes. You had to weave around the battlefield and focus on one part at a time, methodically killing one group before moving on to another so it kept the population manageable. Even with defense and strong attack power, being careless would lead to flooding the screen with enemies and just getting smacked around and damn near stun-locked if you didn't take care of how you were fighting.

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