When someone plays a video game, what are they looking for? Are they looking for a challenge? Are they looking to have fun? More often than not, it is a mixture of both. As game designers we are trying to hit that sweet spot between the two. A well balanced game will have players coming back again and again, and that is ultimately what we want to see. It is all about the ecstatic feeling the player gets after completing a particularly grueling task which may have taken a few hours of playing to beat. One should always be careful not to punish the player so harshly that they are deterred from playing. It's all in dangling the metaphorical carrot in front of the player.
Rocket league is a game that is easy to understand but difficult to master. The mechanics are simple enough: it's soccer with rocket powered cars. The balance in this game is evident. The different cars in the game differ very slightly in their capabilities (speed, hitboxes, aerial maneuvering). This is not evident to a new player but as the player gets familiar with the game they will figure this out.
Balancing is constantly being tweaked by the developer, with regular patches. The difficulty curve on this game is gradual. The player learns through playing more matches or through practicing in the tutorials. People keep coming back to the game because it doesn't matter if you won or lost the game you have fun taking part in the match regardless; there is a sense of achievement that you get when you win and a lesson learned when you lose. The player never feels that their experience has been unfruitful. The game achieves this my a matchmaking system where the player is matched up with other players of similar skill. This means the player always has close matches where they either win/lose by a small margin. These close encounters keep the player wanting to replay to get better; this feeling resonates throughout the the whole player base keeping an active pool of players who are of similar levels playing together to collectively increase their skills.
Link to some gameplay can be found here.
Hotline Miami EditIn Hotline Miami, the balance of difficulty and fun flows through combos. First, the level of difficulty starts quite high- you are constantly in danger. The moment you lose focus or loosen your attention is usually the moment you break your combo… often ending with your own death. However, as you become more familiar with the enemy AI, you have no problems killing them safely. So if things aren't difficult, how does it stay fun and rewarding?
Combos, points, grades, achievements.
After you kill a man, a short 4-5 second timer starts; if you kill another thug before the timer runs out, your combo goes up +1, and the short timer restarts. The more people you kill consecutively, the bigger your combo! And combos are NOT easy to sustain. This process often involves beating or shooting over 15 people in succession (and in some VERY dedicated instances can include 90!).
The game designers wanted to maintain this balance of difficulty and fun, so they introduced these mechanics. After developing competence in simply beating the levels, you're ready for a higher challenge. The game has these systems built in for you to test the skill you know you have. Remember, to complete this game all you need to do is kill everyone and survive. But to get all the achievements, you need to kill everyone in a continuous stream of second-nature, fast-paced precision. To balance difficulty and fun in your games, consider introducing optional rewards that demand higher skill so that players can rise to the challenge on their own terms.
Enter The Gungeon Edit
Another example would be Enter The Gungeon.
Enter The Gungeon is a roguelite game with dungeons and weapon theme. Almost everything in this game makes full use of puns about weapons. Player needs to go through each floor to fight against the boss and enter next floor. Game starts with minimal difficulty so that players can quickly adjust to its gameplay style. As players go through more and more rooms and floors, the difficulty increases by increasing environmental variety as well as enemy type. But what is really great and addictive about this game is, that the difficulty never increases drastically. Rather, difficulty is increased a little bit at a time so that players will actually realize that when they die, it's their fault instead of the game difficulty being too high. This kind of feeling encourages players to try over and over again. It is this difficulty setting that hooks players up.
Shovel Knight Edit
Shovel Knight is also a fantastic example of this. Every enemy encounter, every trap, every death is always telegraphed to the player beforehand. Whenever the player dies, it is a problem with their skill, not with an unfair game. It never feels cheap or unfair that you died. However, the game is still extremely challenging, forcing the player to get much better to defeat all of the bosses. Every time you die, it also takes some of your gold, which makes you want to get better.
The Talos Principle Edit
Another example of balancing difficulty and fun is in The Talos Principle (a first-person RPG driven by puzzles and interactive environment). In The Talos Principle, the player has the choice to choose which puzzles they would like to attempt to solve so they are not forced to complete a linear progression of puzzles if they choose not to. If a player is attempting a specific puzzle for a certain length of time, the narrator will encourage the player to try another puzzle first, bringing the awareness to the player that it is okay to come back to a puzzle later. The game design also offers puzzle hints for players if they interact with a specific altar, which appears in most puzzle challenges. By including encouraging narration, the player choice of selecting a variety of puzzles to complete, and a puzzle hint mechanic, this encourages the player to have a mindset that it is okay to take time on difficult puzzles (can always come back to a puzzle at a later time), and also provides them support through the design by allowing them to receive extra help (puzzle hints). This balances the game difficulty for players of a broad skill range, reducing the chance of frustration while encouraging players to want to solve puzzles without the use of hints (related to the pride factor that was mentioned in the main post). This gives the player a strong sense of accomplishment when they finally complete a puzzle, regardless of if they used a hint, came back to the puzzle later, or spent an hour solving a puzzle.