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[GCS]Designing difficulty into your game: Variance. Part 1 of 3

When adjusting difficulty, there’s much more than observing how hard or soft an enemy hits a player-character. Enemy strength matters, but games usually have too much complexity. Viewing difficulty in your game as only one dial to be cranked up or down is insufficient. Difficulty can be looked at as something that results from designing challenge. View it like a math problem. Challenge+challenge+challenge=difficulty level, where challenge is one of multiple elements in your game. Some things to think about may be managing health, how many enemies you have, how hard they hit, the terrain, how the game can get more challenging as the player progresses and how these features work together.

Think of a game with health, food and water meters. How does a player manage them? You’ll be deciding if and how meters get replenished. Will water and food be found in bins that are randomly spawned on an open-world map? How is the terrain designed to steer, help, hinder or stay out of the players way? Already, there is a challenge for a player to roam around a map to find these bins before the water and food meters are depleted. You could say searching for the bins is a challenge and obtaining food and water at a rate faster than the time it takes to locate more bins is another challenge and the result is how difficult those two challenges together are. And that’s before adding in enemies.

There are many elements to take into consideration when designing your game, whether it’s a side-scrolling platformer or a 3D, open-world survival. As a game developer, I want you to think about three categories that can govern how hard or easy of a time a player has in your game: Variance, Layers and Challenge. Don’t think about a 2-Dimensional dial labelled “Difficulty”. It’s to be taken into consideration, but let’s start with the first: Variance.

*I’ve divided each element into separate articles, but don’t worry. I will connect these articles into a trilogy of “designing difficulty into your game”.


Variance can be seen as a window of opportunity given to your players through the approaches they can choose to take toward a goal. You don’t always know exactly how players will approach your game. There are many ways to narrow the field to predict, expect or steer players the way you want, but within the context of adjusting difficulty, variance is an allowance granted to players.

Let’s dissect the puzzling mini-games found in today’s big-budget games. Fallout 4, Bioshock and Skyrim all have a very shallow sense of difficulty hidden throughout an open-world. This is the locked safes and computer terminals in Fallout 4, the chests in Skyrim or even the tube-puzzle when trying to unlock boxes in Bioshock. In each, you have a self-contained puzzle with all pieces and elements flatly and instantly provided to you and you have one solution. The difficulty is only affected in one way. In many cases you never get in-game clues or help during the solving of the puzzle.


here’s a tip to think about as you get further through this article. Even within these extremely limited forms of difficulty and puzzles with no variance, big game-design still gives more to a player. After developers concoct a severely shallow mini-game, they keep it small, optional and spread throughout a world that doesn’t require or force you to do them. And even beyond that, big-budget games will have a stat or attribute a player “could” obtain that lowers the shallow difficulty still further. So, even when the self-contained puzzle has no variance and a flat difficulty of its own, the designers bend over backward to give players even more to feed them some kind of outside variance. 


This shallow design exists in many forms and isn’t limited to puzzles. It was just the easiest way for me to represent it to you. To explain myself. This design can be within the interactions between the player and the enemies in a side-scrolling shooter or any genre of game. Indeed, variance can be anywhere.

If you apply this design to your whole game, it can leave it feeling 2-dimensional and flat. And if a player can’t overcome this straightforward difficulty, it will leave a high degree of frustration that feels forced upon the player with no other courses of action except perhaps to quit playing. There will be players that absolutely love this kind of game, but they will be a minority and not a good foundation to your design.

Depending on the game you’re making, this could be the only element you need for adjusting difficulty in your game, but chances are slim. Even games like Puzzle Quest or retro platformers like Mario and Mega Man offer a lot of Variance.

The next two articles will cover Layers and Challenge. Layers are a bit harder to define, while Challenge is probably the hardest to define, understand and nail down. Part two will cover layers, dive into the relationship with Variance and enlighten you more on the nature of both.

Remember: all of the elements mean different things based on what your game is. One person’s game might benefit from looking at the combination of terrain design and enemies that lay in hiding waiting to ambush the player, while a player uses a sneak mode, to develop a lot of Variance. But another’s game may have sneaking and enemy ambushes yet not benefit as much from using variance the same way. You need to see what pieces your game is made of, define where and how much variance lies hidden and decide if it is wanted, needed or best.

*This article is tagged as a Game Creation Station article.


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Jeremy Stratton

Jeremy Stratton

Jeremy's lived long enough to see his favorite games making a comeback in High Definition and Indie games with old-school ideals. He also loves cooking and photography.