I like game design quite a lot. I'm going to present one of the major problems in the field. Perhaps one of you will have a suggestion. Even if not it's still interesting.
The best computer game is Warcraft 3, so this will be my example game. It comes with a World Editor program so anyone can create their own maps.
To create a warcraft map of the RPG variety, you using the following main elements: place heroes, monsters, terrain, treasure. Create spells, quests, traps, and possibly a little AI to help the monsters use spells or fight smarter. You can also put in a city with shops and people to talk to.
Most warcraft RPGs I play are way too easy if I play with friends (multiplayer, cooperative). But, surprisingly, playing with random people we usually lose badly. The skill gap between random people and experts is huge, and directly effects survival rate.
So if I make a map of fun difficulty for me, most people will never get anywhere in it. But if it's going to be too easy for me, that's no fun and I won't make it at all.
One solution is difficulty levels. However, those involve either creating separate versions of each fight for each difficulty, or using some general function. The first plan is tons of work. The second has limited use. The simplest way, in warcraft, to set the difficulty at a stroke is to alter the amount of life the badguys have by some factor. However, this has unintended consequences, such as making spells that deal damage very good on low difficulties and bad on high ones.
My current map is too hard for unorganised (bad) players even on easy difficulty, but I can't lower life more because the badguys already die en masse to spells as they have so little life. The issue is that the monsters are threatening, and if they die fast, even really fast, idiots or novices can still die first. The fix would be making the monsters unthreatening...
It just occurred to me to try giving the heroes more life on easy mode. This may help.
BTW the reason I call these people idiots is if they just did the following they'd survive way way more:
- heal between fights
- buy replacement healing potions
- start fights together with everyone ready
- cast some spells like Ice Armor before combat
- run away if losing
- back up if all the monsters are targeting you
Designing difficulties for people who don't get any of those is really tricky...
Anyhow the real balance issue is to make maps interesting they should require some strategy to win. But then people bad at strategy lose. Most players have terrible strategy. And in a four player map, just one bad player can ruin it. So, what do ya do?
Make really flashy spells so that even if it's too hard for the losers they're still so "ooo"ed and "aaa"ed by the awesomeness to care.
Also, there are enough cool people out there for your map to be appreciated if it's hard.
I know neither of these answer your question tho.
One option is to have difficulty levels give you extra lives like in video games. Hard would have no restarts, ez might have a code for a restart or 3 or something. Of course if you have unlimited restarts then it just becomes a war of attrition and no strategy; a bloody charge into the monsters until they die or you do and if you die, respawn and try again. So that solution wouldn't require the bad people to get any better.
Dunno about Warcraft 3 but doesn't the typical solution to this problem rely heavily on varying the # (not hit points but actual number) of monsters? The enemies' hitpoints/difficulty/AI could vary too but that's an independent thing. They wouldn't even *have* to. You could really just make each encounter like this - X monsters on easy, Y on medium, Z on hard. quick n dirty, of course for some games the result is more fun than for other games.
Or is this method not useful at all for WC3 for some reason? Like you have to custom design each enemy/encounter individually, you can't just plop down a bunch of orcs (or whatever) in a place?
How about methods involving careful use of timed events and branching. Like on a map there are two basic (speaking geometrically here) paths to the goal, one easier and one harder. (Again, I don't really know if this applies to WC3) Only, the easy path becomes blocked by a planned rockslide (or whatever) which takes place T minutes into the map. On Easy difficulty, set T rather high.. on Hard, set it rather low... you could stack up events and path-splits to create multiple "branches", so that the difficulty of the "path" a person happens to be on depends on whether he's beaten the timed events, which is harder to do on harder difficulty...
I'm sure, like, REAL game designers have thought all this stuff through like a million times over :-)
varying number of baddies is easy to do, but usually worse than varying their life b/c of unintended consequences:
more ppl dish out more dmg
more ppl gets crowded, esp if they have hand to hand attacks
more weak ppl makes it easier to pick a few off, retreat, heal, repeat. i try to design encounters to avoid this (tho occasionally it's supposed to work that way)
more ppl die just as fast as less to area of effect spells
more ppl are less effected by single target spells
thus spell balance gets messed up. especially i made a spell that is actually better the more opponents it hits.
the traditional game design solution, IME, is to make everything bloody easy. some game are exceptions but they tend to sell worse. Blizzard (war3 maker) created some single player maps to go with the game, including some RPG ones. they would be super duper easy, on hard mode, if you didn't have unlimited respawns with no penalty at all, and instead had one life. but unlimited lives it is. you can't die. ho hum.
when using timers for events, changing how long you get by difficulty level is definitely smart. similarly, i made a fire trap, and it does different amounts of damage on different difficulty levels (had to set by hand, but worth it. on easy it's not too scary, unless ur seriously hurt, on normal it could kill u if u were already hurt, and hard can kill one person from full health i think, and others from slightly hurt. trap not very hard to avoid tho...)
Seems like the "spell imbalance" problem is pretty much mathematically inevitable, given a game with enough complexity. (No, haven't proved it as a theorem, still a conjecture at this point ;-) I think that you could hire an armada of highschool kids to playtest your map over and over to ferret out all those imbalances and fine-tune all the parameters accordingly, but that might get expensive... ;-)
More stupid ideas -
The "Villagers" could give Easy clues on Easy difficulty but only the Hard clues on Hard (may not apply to WC3? how much RPG is it?)
Is there such a thing as an invincible static object? (Big rock, etc) Which could be used by a player as a shield? If so - static objects which are strategically-placed (for the player) on Easy, but not there on Hard. Or something equivalent to that, yet not so stupid that it sounds lifted from Wolfenstein 3D (still fond memories of hiding behind a bullet-deflecting potted plant...)
Of course you could always try to tailor the adventure so that it's *supposed* have a substantially different flavor on Easy as opposed to Hard. I mean the "spell balance" problem you cite, is that really a problem? So on Hard, the expert player finds that the area-effect spell is far preferable to the fireball. As opposed to the Easy player who relies a lot on Fireball because most of the baddies for him are one-shot kills (low HP on Easy) that way. (Or whatever.) Well, so what? So it's a different kind of adventure on Easy than on Hard. Just keep that in mind and place objects, quests etc keeping both possible difficulty tracks in mind. (The Easy player won't have much use for this spell.. so I'll put this one for him nearby...)
Now, obviously it would help if I had actually ever played WC3 and my computer game experience didn't essentially come to a halt sometime during the Starcraft era ;-)
If you want, I could ask my friend who runs an actual game company (and, is an ex-Blizzard employee who, I believe, worked on WC3..) to chime in... ;-)
if he has something interesting to add, sure.
most of your suggestions seem to involve making two versions of things *by hand*. this is prohibitively time consuming.
spell balance issues can be so bad that on easy a spell just kills everything and on hard does nothing. bleh.
in my map i gave the heroes extra health on easy mode, and it's helped a lot, so bad players won't die too too much.