It was shortly after sending the second Lumicon beta out to our external testers that we realised we had a difficult decision to make. Things were going fairly well. People had responded positively and we felt we’d found a core mechanic that worked well and was entertaining. The problem was that people were ending games due to fatigue, rather than any kind of mounting difficulty.
It was clear that we had to rethink our approach to difficulty as a whole. But how? The act of assessing difficulty is, in itself, a difficult task. It’s a relative measure. Something impossible to quantify. So ultimately we cast our attention to the game itself. We asked the question, ‘what do we want Lumicon to be?’. The answer, thankfully, was a little easier to quantify:
- We wanted Lumicon to be accessible, but ultimately frantic.
- We wanted to encourage tactical play.
- We wanted to make it very difficult, but not impossible, to play for a long period of time.
At its simplest, Lumicon is a game about making words (for those who haven’t seen any of the in-game shots, they’re on Dribbble). You have a gutter at the bottom of the screen that is gradually populated with letters. Much like a game of Scrabble, you must take the letters that arrive and arrange them to form words. If your gutter fills up, the game is lost.
Approach one: punishing success
Our initial approach to difficulty revolved solely around the speed at which letters were delivered to a players gutter. The faster letters appeared, the more difficult and frantic the game became. It was a simple mechanic and it worked well. As the player created words and ‘popped’ them for points, the speed at which letters appeared would increase. For every 300 points a player scored, the game would move up a notch.
Speeds were capped by bandings that corresponded to the games difficulty level. Each difficulty (Normal, Medium and Hard) would have a minimum and a maximum speed.
Out of the three criteria listed above, our initial system only satisfied one: the fact that we wanted the game to be accessible, but also frantic. Even then, this was only partly true. New players would often approach the game on its easiest difficulty and report little to no challenge. While our default response was to suggest players try the game at a higher setting, it ultimately left a bad taste in our mouths.
The game, we felt, should become challenging regardless of difficulty level. Instead, because of the banding system we’d employed, difficulty would often plateau, leaving players in an awkward limbo. Without mounting difficulty it became possible to play indefinitely, which resulted in players growing restless and ultimately fatigued. Often you would simply allow the gutter to fill up as a means of ending your game.
While there were many issues with this first iteration, by far the most worrying was the fact that it completely failed to satisfy our most important criteria: that the game should reward tactical play. Instead, we found that the banding system actively punished skilled players. Because we were incrementing difficulty based on the number of points a player had scored, it was often better to avoid large combos, as they would inevitably lead to more frantic play.
Approach two: time
We quickly realised that our banding system wasn’t to blame for the games difficulty issues. The culprit seemed instead to be the marrying of difficulty to point score. A situation we attempted to rectify by having difficulty increase linearly over a set period of time.
It was decided that Normal games would start with a letter spawning rate of 3 seconds. Over the course of a full game, this rate would decrease to a minimum of 1.4 seconds. As we had three difficulty levels, we decided that it should take a player roughly 4 minutes of gameplay before a Normal game ‘shifted’ to a speed comparable to that of Medium difficulty.
Which meant that if a player were to start a Normal game they would reach the maximum letter spawn speed of 1.4 seconds in a total time of 12 minutes. Hard players would reach it in 8 minutes, and Advanced in 4.
To make the increase in difficulty as transparent to the user as possible, we implemented a levelling system. Every 45 seconds the players level would increase, along with the letter spawn time. Below is a basic breakdown of the formula used to calculate letter spawn times during each level increase:
slowestLetterSpawnTime = 3.0;
fastestLetterSpawnTime = 1.4;
timeUntilMaxSpeed = 12*60;
levelDuration = 45;
currentLevel = 0;
speedDiff = slowestLetterSpawnTime - fastestLetterSpawnTime;
speedIncrease = (speedDiff/timeUntilMaxSpeed)*levelDuration;
letterSpawnTime = slowestLetterSpawnTime-(currentLevel*speedIncrease);
Given that a Normal game takes 12 minutes to reach our maximum level, and that each level takes 45 seconds, we know that there must be a total of 16 levels in a Normal game of Lumicon.
Using the above formula, we can determine the exact letter spawn time at level 11 by first calculating the speed increase per level and then multiplying that amount by our current level.
speedIncrease = ((3.0-1.4)/720)*45 = 0.099
letterSpawnTime = 3.0-(11*0.099) = 1.9 seconds
And for the sake of completeness, here’s the letter spawn time at level 16 for a normal game:
letterSpawnTime = 3.0-(16*0.099) = 1.4 seconds
Mechanics complimenting mechanics
It’s astonishing to think that by exchanging one metric (player score) for another (total game time) we were able to dramatically increase the difficulty and depth of our entire game. If we return to our initial list of criteria, we can finally appreciate what the above changes allow us:
- We wanted Lumicon to be accessible, but ultimately frantic. By decoupling player score from difficulty level, and ultimately making difficulty a variable measure, we’ve made it possible for players of any skill level to start a game of Lumicon at any difficulty and eventually find themselves challenged.
- We wanted to encourage tactical play. By removing score from the difficulty equation, the entire tactical approach of the game is changed. We’ve shifted the impetus away from rationing your combos to avoid difficulty increase, to considering large combos early in the game as a sort of ‘low hanging fruit’. You want to score as highly as possible before difficulty ramps up and it’s far more difficult to do so.
- We wanted to make it very difficult, but not impossible, to play for a long period of time. While there may ultimately be a select few individuals who find the 1.4 second limit slightly too slow for their liking, we believe the majority of players will find Lumicon’s max speed to be a state of permanent jeopardy.
I can’t wait to see what people make of it.