The primary goal when analyzing a game's difficulty design is not simply describing how hard the challenges are. After all, such discussions are usually very subjective, lacking in concrete details. Even a more objective approach like a DKART skill analysis or an analysis of interesting choices doesn't quite cover the core essence of difficulty design. Effectively analyzing a game's difficulty design requires understanding the range of challenges in a game, their quality (skill based or not), and how the gameplay complexities (rules) are taught.
Player Controlled Options
Over four years ago I wrote an article about difficulty design. In it I explained that games typically present a range of player controlled difficulty options in a few main ways. In the article I used the terms organic and inorganic in a way that wasn't entirely clear. To clarify, the 3 main methods of player controlled difficulty design are gameplay options (formally organic), suspended options (formally in-organic), and an option of difficulty modes. Interestingly, Kid Icarus Uprising features all three types.
The gameplay options are ways that players increase or decrease the intensity of difficulty within a particular gameplay challenge based on their immediate available options. Examples in Kid Icarus Uprising include exploring extra areas and routes (typically populated with more enemies); ranging enemies to take them out one by one versus rushing into the thick of battle; and skipping enemies instead of destroying them. Adjusting difficulty in these ways comes naturally to us especially for games that use 2D or 3D space as a core dynamic.
As far as suspended methods of adjusting difficulty, Kid Icarus Uprising let's players use any weapon in their collection in the single player. The level challenges do not adjust to the capabilities of the weapon you choose. The level challenges are fixed. So the weapon you bring into these challenges makes a big difference. For example, the boss in chapter 3 Heads of the Hewdraw is very difficult to defeat with a Magnus club because it has incredibly short ranged attacks and the boss and other key targets are positioned just beyond the shore. Also because these weapons have highly variable stats and strength, players typically don't understand just how much they're affecting the difficulty of missions when they pick their weapons. And even in battle, it's hard to tell exactly what's going on. This feedback issue is a common problem many "inorganic" stat based suspended difficulty options create in games.
Then there are the modes or levels of difficulty. Ever since Smash 64 Sakurai has shown a preference for minute increments of difficulty. The CPU AI in Smash can be set from 1-9. The difficulty in Brawl's single player has 5 levels from easy to intense. Kid Icarus Uprising takes things to another, perhaps excessive, level. Instead of just 9 levels of difficultly, players can fine tune the Fiend's Cauldronby a tenth of a point (see video above). 7.6 difficultly too hard for you? Try 7.5! If that doesn't work, there are 88 other degrees of difficulty to explore. I've been playing KIU's solo campaign for over 23 hours, and I can't tell you the difference .1 difficulty level makes. I'm not even sure how many gameplay variables are affected by the Fiend's Cauldron. But I do know that on higher intensities enemies take more damage, act and fire more quickly, do more damage, and seem to exhibit a greater variety of moves.
Finally, like Perfect Dark where new mission objectives are added with every difficulty level, in Kid Icarus there are a few in-level, optional challenges that can only be accessed on higher difficulty levels. These extra areas are restricted by intensity gates. Naturally, playing on the highest difficulty gives players access to any gate. And I should say that level 9 difficulty is no joke. At least for the weapons I use, it's a worthy challenge. If I take just a few hits I'm usually done for. And with every death my collected loot loses strength, I lose hearts (the currency of the game), and most importantly, the difficulty level drops by 1.0 point. Some players find this auto-lowering of the difficulty frustrating and intrusive. While I understand such sentiments, the genius of the Fiend's Cauldron difficulty design is a matter of understanding how we learn most effectively. I use the educational psychology term scaffolding to describe the method by which a game guides the player through a learning experience that's more effective than if the player were to attempt to learn on his or her own. In terms of challenge range and scaffolding, no other game that I know of does it quite like KIU.
By enduring video game challenges and the squeeze that it puts us through we gain new ways of measuring what we're made of. And when you lose in a game like Kid Icarus Uprising, it's pretty clear that you're not made of enough skill (a somewhat longwinded way of saying that KIU is a skilled based game). While I plan on writing in depth on learning, repetition, and playing games soon, for now I'll say that pushing yourself to repeatedly attempt challenges that are too hard for you is not the best way to learn. Sometimes, a good learning system or teacher will lower the challenge at hand to reduce the stress involved and help the learner focus on key ideas. Effective learning or skill building is much more delicate a matter than simply doing what we want. For if we learned the best by just doing what came naturally to us, we wouldn't need school or have great teachers in the world. While it can be frustrating to drop 1.0 difficulty level level with every death in Kid Icarus Uprising, this feature is designed to make players more conscious of their own skill, their own limits, and their own learning to enjoy the game more effectively.
The scaffolding doesn't stop with just the fiend cauldron system. Knowledge skills are generally the most important and hardest to gain. We typically learn as we play through games. This method ensures that we're exposed and focused on the elements that are immediately important. In other words, nothing is learned out of context if you learn as you play. But this kind of exposure and learning is done under the stress of survival and execution. It also helps to learn game complexities (rules) outside such stressful environments. For this reason alone, the AR cards that were distributed at the game's launch fulfilled a profound gameplay purpose. Yes, the cards don't really do anything gameplay wise. But they do get players to see elements of the game from characters, to weapons, to enemies individually. The mere exposure to this information goes a long way to prep the mind with questions and information.
By scanning cards into the game, players are exposed to gameplay information. I didn't know the Earthmaul club is the longest range weapon in the game followed by the Laser staff until I scanned the card. I also I didn't know that the enemy Collin & Phil can be defeated by knocking back the poisonous projectiles using melee attacks. I learned these things from the AR cards. And when I met Collin & Phil for the first time in the game, I was like "oh, it's that guy. I know what I gotta do!" AR cards are a small but effective part of KIU's difficulty design.
Another element of knowledge scaffolding are the tips displayed at the loading screens. This style of presentation is unobtrusive allowing players to take it or leave it. With nothing else to do, simply reading the information is great for preparing the mind with information even if it cannot be immediately applied. I learned many important techniques through these tips that I haven't seen anywhere else. And because there are load screens everywhere, players are exposed to these tips repeatedly, which helps the learning process.
Level and Boss Scaffolding
Just in terms of easing the player into the full core combat gameplay, I consider Kid Icarus Uprising's 3 part level structure to be another genius level of scaffolding. The air battles are all about simple movement as Palutena guides Pit through the skies. Enemies come and go as you fly past them. If you play defensively with just movement, you can make it through these on-rails section. When you feel comfortable moving and shooting, you can switch over to moving and shooting at any time. All the while, you never have to worry about camera control.
Then in the ground battles, the complexity and engagement of the encounters is taken to the next level. Now you can move around in all directions however you want. You must be mindful that enemies can now attack from all sides instead of just in front like in air battles. In the ground battles leading up to the boss, players can use cover and range to their advantage. However, in the boss areas, there is typically no cover. At the boss, players have to rely on their DODGE mechanics and all of their skills and abilities to keep everything under control. And when it's all done, you go back through the 3-part mission structure for the next level where you can expect everything to be a bit harder and more complex.
In terms of scaffolding dexterity, timing, and tactical skills the bosses are specifically designed to teach important skills of increasing usefulness. This is no secret, the voiced dialog gives very explicit tips on the lesson to be learned. Palutena: "Try circling left and right as you attack. Keep your aim focused on the enemy." Pit: "That's called strafing right?" Palutena: "Whatever it's called just stay out of his way." This is the dialog from the first boss encounter. Obviously strafing or moving and shooting at a target is a foundational skill in a TPS.
- Twin Bellows, the first boss, is a large dog monster, which makes him easy to hit. Because it has no armor you can aim anywhere you like. As I explained above the player is advised to master strafing.
- The Dark Lord Gaol is a much smaller target who's also much more evasive than Twin Bellows. She even has a counter attack for ranged attacks and melee attacks. This style of gameplay is more like what you'll find in multiplayer. Fortunately players have some help from Magnus, an AI controlled ally, who fights along side you.
- Hewdraw is a large slippery boss with snake like animations. He also shoots projectiles that can be countered with bullet v bullet interplay. Complex timing skills are stressed to fish the Hewdraw out of the water as players have to shoot the hovering orange balls of light so that they'll drop on the Hewdraw. This battle teaches players to carefully time attacks across large distances. Notice that the battle arena is a relatively narrow hallway.
- The Great Reaper battle is placed in a more complex arena with stairs, jump pads, and two different elevations. This huge boss encourages players to avoid large attacks by moving around the arena instead of just using DODGE. Also, moving and shooting at one of its two weak points (the head and feet) is an important skill stressed.
To avoid spoilers I'll describe the next few bosses very simply. The 5th boss is another multiplayer style match versus a small, evasive target in a complex area with jump pads, elevation, and bullet v bullet interplay. The next boss is a grab bag of different challenges and skills. The next greatly tests the players ability to spin the camera quickly and accurately while reacting to the 3D positional audio to locate targets. Then it's an all air mission boss. Next a large, constantly moving, flying boss that challenges players to lead their shots. Then an aggressive boss with a weak spot in its back challenging players to master the special, close range "swing around" DODGE. And so on for almost all of the bosses in the game.
You may think it's only natural for a game to design their levels and bosses like this to increase the challenge slowly to effectively teach players while ramping up the gameplay complexity. While this approach may seem like a no brainer, it requires that a game has enough depth and diversity in its core gameplay let alone clean feedback design. Most bosses in TPSs and FPSs, in my experience, have been obtuse, set pieces with poor feedback; bosses that hardly stress what's good, core, and interesting about the gameplay. Either this or "bosses" are just tweaked enemy encounters. So to put things into perspective the boss design of Kid Icarus Uprising is some of the best I've ever played, ranking right up there with Viewtiful Joe.
Put it all together and you get options. Options to play with strong weapons and weak ones. Options to play on invincible mode (0.0 intensity) or nothing harder (9.0). Options to play it safe with every enemy, or to rush in and take everything out as a group. In terms of difficulty design, what more can one ask for? Perhaps, more is part of the problem, not the solution?
In part 7 I address the other major half of the KIU gameplay experience; multiplayer. I'll also begin my repair analysis.