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Game design: Complexity management with an aim on player retention

Game design: Complexity management with an aim on player retention

If the game offers an unfair and punishing first experience, the player will likely leave. Newbies in particular. You know you don’t have a second chance on first experience.

Uninstalls in the later stages of the game

Advanced developers set a goal of preventing players from leaving in the early game. Otherwise, for sure, you will lose them forever. Most advanced developers also care about keeping players playing until the later stages. Sure, a few your players will reach your game’s ending – but most players usually will quit the game before they reach that point. Want to help your users? (read: help yourself). There are a lot of reasons why players would uninstall your game, but these three are the most usual, so check them.

Sudden rises in difficulty

Unwanted difficulty spikes will ruin the user’s experience. Don’t get it wrong: it doesn’t mean that your game shouldn’t be hard. However, it should be fair at all times. The Souls series is a solid example of an unforgiving game with a beautiful difficult curve. It even lets the player choose his own difficulty, without really knowing it. Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac are both very hard and were successful.

Difficulty overwhelming on experience

The game is not the experience by itself — games are simply structures that engender mental models in the mind of the player. In doing so, the games provide some level of detail but leave it to the player to fill in the rest. As usual, there is no magic recipe. It all depends on what your game is and who are your target audience. Someone wants to be just an observer, while other wills to control 215% of what is happening. Shuffle options, test, draw conclusions.

Chaotic complexity

The complexity of the game must be determined even before writing the story. This aspect must be taken into account throughout the whole development. It’s up to you, what your difficulty curve should look like (Flappy Bird, Dragon Age; Angry Birds, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.; Smash Hit, Clicker Heroes), but you have to always keep it in mind, because complexity of the game determines the strategy of the entire development (of course, not only it).

“How to” section

Here are two lifehacks of keeping your game difficulty “right where it needed to be”.

Game design: Complexity management with an aim on player retention

This graph demonstrates in the best way most usual players feelings depending on their skill and game difficulty. As player skill increases, the difficulty must also increase to keep a balance. The balance zones are as follows:

  • Frustrating – Too difficult to be fun.
  • Hardcore Fun – Really tough, but some people like that.
  • Challenging Fun – For people who like to overcome challenges.
  • Balanced Fun – The Goldilocks zone (not too tough, not too easy).
  • Casual Fun – Nice and easy, never a challenge, but not mindless either.
  • Mindless Fun – They just want to play, they don’t want to think.
  • Boring – I could play this in my sleep… in fact, I’d rather sleep.

Emergent complexity

This is the kind of complexity that everyone praises. Games like Go that have a very simple ruleset that gives rise to very complex situations are said to have emergent complexity. When games are praised for being simple and complex at the same time, it is the emergent complexity that is being praised.

Emergent complexity can be difficult to achieve, but is worth the effort. Ideally, one can create a simple ruleset out of which emerges the thing every game designer strives for: balanced surprises. So yeah, if you can handle chaos, emergent complexity may give you an advance to keep players tied to your game for years.

Look, most MOBA and Battle Royale games offer a great realization of it. Furthermore, chaos is controlled not by game, but by the player himself:

the more you play on the same hero (champion) || location || rating level || etc., the easier it becomes for you to overplay your opponents.

Rules are always (almost) the same, so if a player wants to put his arse into fire, he can do it by simply changing some of things he experienced in, to some new. It will give potential opponents biggest chance to overwhelm him. Perhaps, that is exactly the reason, why 5 most popular Twitch games are all MOBA’s or Battle Royale’s:

  1. League of Legends (MOBA).
  2. Fortnite (Battle Royale).
  3. Apex Legends (My congratulations (Battle Royale)).
  4. Dota 2 (MOBA).
  5. PUBG (Battle Royale).

As always, there are some more ways to optimize the difficulty of your game. But usually, the best one is to ask yourself a question: Does everything that was planned exactly fits complexity I want to achieve?

Have fun.