Fine tuning

I’ll come right out and say it, Aeternum is going to be a very difficult game. What I’m hoping, is that this will generally be seen as a good thing.

Aeternum has four difficulty levels: “easy”, “normal”, “hard” and “insane”. The difficulty isn’t linear, though, it’s exponential (at least mathematically speaking, in the code). The approach I’m taking to actually building content for these difficulty levels is something I have read many times is part of Blizzard’s design philosophy. I am balancing the game for the hardest level of play first, and then scaling things back for the other difficulties. This becomes more interesting though, because what I’m aiming for at the “insane” level is for the game to be harder than even I can play. I’m doing this in the hopes that some day, I can go on YouTube and find a video of someone playing my game at a level of skill way beyond what I can do.

Once I’ve built a section I’m happy with as far as difficulty is concerned I go in and tweak the values with a modifier variable that stands in for the difficulty level. So for example a script that fires nine bullets on insane may only fire 3 on easy. The applications are practically limitless, and I’ve had quite a bit of fun just developing patterns and tweaking them for the different levels.

Interestingly, what I’ve found so far is that actually tweaking for the lowest level of play has really been the hardest part. While I have built what I find to be a significantly easy experience on the lowest difficulty setting, whenever I have had someone play test, the consistent verdict has been that the game is “too hard.” I find this very interesting because my circle of friends (the people that have so far been play testing the game) are very much what anyone would call “gamers.” So I have constantly struggled with finding the balance, mostly because it’s been hard to figure out where any unbalance my actually lay.

Is it too hard because of the well known phenomenon of enhanced developer skill due to sheer amount of time spent playing the game? Is it too hard because despite familiarity with games, the testers are still largely unaware of “bullet hell” strategic tropes? Is it too hard because the play testers aren’t putting in the necessary effort to actually learn how to play the game? Or is it actually just plain unfair? The truth in these questions is something that I think will only come with experience.

Having these friends test has so far shown me something interesting. While people I have talked to are generally broadly aware of the notion of a “bullet hell shooter” most have no experience with an actual game of the genre. Perhaps many find the idea of dodging an entire screen full of bullets too intimidating. My guess is that in looking for information about the genre, people generally stumble upon videos depicting extremes of the play style and use that to dismiss any chance they might have of enjoying such a game. This effect could have interesting consequences  for Aeternum because in my desire to show interesting examples of game play in screenshots I intentionally gravitated toward sections with large numbers of seemingly impassable bullet pattern obstacles. While being visually stimulating such displays may in turn paradoxically dissuade the average gamer from giving the game a chance. That said, I think it would be very flattering for my game to be a gateway experience into a much broader genre for people who are unfamiliar. I think crafting an effective trial experience will be of great importance in this respect.

So yes, I want Aeternum to be a difficult game. I am of the opinion that an experience that is difficult yet properly tuned through good design, balance and difficulty curve is far more rewarding than a game that lets you just fly through without challenge. At the same time, I really do want the game to be an experience that people of many skill levels can enjoy. As such, properly balancing the level of difficulty in Aeternum is something I have put quite a bit of thought and effort into.


WastedBrilliance is an independent video game development studio run by Brooks Bishop. With contributions by Nate Graves, Jesse Bishop and Geoff Schultz.