Tap! magazine editor Christopher Phin has written about difficulty walls, and his frustration at being rubbish at games, thereby making his progress often resemble: Oh, this is quite nice. I’m having fun here, and I think th—SMACK. (We’ll ignore for a minute the super-secret that I’m about to reveal, in that Phin completed World of Goo HD in relatively little time and with no walkthrough assistance whatsoever, rather scuppering the ‘entirely rubbish at games’ thing, but anyway.)

Difficulty walls have long been a problem in gaming, and difficulty is extremely tricky to judge. Indies in particular have a hard time of it,  because they’ll regularly play their game and, naturally, get very good at it, and may ramp up the difficulty level accordingly. No worries, you might say, because good developers have chums and pals they can rope in for playtesting. Well, sure, but they regularly play the game and, naturally, get very good at it, and the developer may ramp up the difficulty level accordingly… Also, the opposite is sometimes true—devs get paranoid and the default (or, in bad cases, the only) difficulty level is set so low that you feel you could complete a level with your eyes shut and one hand tied behind your back, while being attacked by a mad person throwing inflatable geese at your head. Neither option is particularly fun for anyone. Apart from the geese.

In his article, Phin then argues Where’s My Water? has a kind of sawtooth curve, where each set of levels gets tougher until it’s complete; on starting a new set, the game eases off a bit. Long-time gamers will note that ebb-and-flow used to be quite common in gaming, especially in the arcades. Even those games that appeared relentless on the surface sometimes weren’t actually relentless at all if you were paying attention—instead, as a game hotted up, the odd easier level would be dropped in, enabling recovery. Eugene Jarvis once told me this was one of the main aspects of his game design, and it was why planet refreshes occurred in Defender after you’d carelessly allowed all the little guys under your protection to be horribly mutated by evil aliens:

It’s redemption, where if you can just survive a couple more waves, everything will be OK. Providing a difficulty curve, rather than a straight linear projection of progressive difficulty… instead, [Defender] has waves where it’s more and more difficult, and then—aah!—it’s easy for a little bit. You have this roller-coaster of emotions. “If I can just get through the next wave, I’ll be in paradise!”

It’s strange how few developers utilise this idea today, which can be beneficial for casual fare like Where’s My Water but also hardcore arcade gaming like Defender. I know Llamasoft‘s titles frequently use this technique, but so often developers think a straight line—easy to ‘really not very easy at all’—is the way to go, when variety in terms of difficulty can add spice and breathing space to games that often sorely need it.