April 23, 2010 12:00 AM | Simon Carless
[In a wry analysis and historical retrospective reprinted on GSW, Super Meat Boy co-creator Edmund McMillen discusses approaches to difficulty in games, and explains just how his game addressed the difficulty problem.]
Difficulty in a platformer is usually established by a very simple formula:
(Percent chance the player will die) X (Penalty for dying) = Difficulty
It's pretty basic stuff: The higher the chance the player will die and the bigger price they pay for dying, the harder the game will appear to the player.
This is a formula that's been around from the start, but the one thing that's changed drastically over the years is the "penalty" aspect.
Penalty for dying in video games started in the arcades where the major penalty was adding a quarter.
The Mario formula was solid, but as video games tapped into a more mainstream market, penalty for losing had to become less frustrating, and penalty equals frustration. Companies wanted more people to be able to complete their games, and by the early 90s most platformers added a "continue" option.
By the mid-2000s, the independent video game scene started to use a more direct and simple formula.
So how could we take this existing formula, refine it, and apply it to Super Meat Boy?
How could we make a seemingly aggravatingly difficult game into something fun that the player could get lost in?
When starting the development of Super Meat Boy, these were the big questions that needed answers right away, and this is what we came up with:
1. Keep the levels small
2. Keep the action constant
This same idea was applied to the level progression. Players never leave the action until they want to, the levels keep coming as fast as the player can beat them, and all the complete screens, transitions, and cut-scenes are sped up to maintain the fast pace of the game.
With our basic outline and a hardcore platformer geared towards our horribly spoiled ADD generation, how could we stay true to the extremely high difficulty par set by games like I Wanna Be The Guy, Jumper, and N+, yet still be accessible enough for someone who was new to the genre to pick up and enjoy?
Was there a way to make something accessible and still hardcore?
This is where the "dark world" system comes into play. The dark world is an expert mode set parallel to the main game. As the player completes levels they will unlock expert versions in the dark world if they complete the level under a set par.
The dark world system allows for Super Meat Boy to become two full games. There are more than 150 main game levels for the average gamer and more than 150 expert levels for the hardcore gamer, but they are set up in a way that an average gamer who completes the main game can easily transition into the difficulty of the dark world levels. For those players, the game will unfold even more.
Video games are exercises in learning and growing. The designer acts as the teacher, giving the player problems that escalate in difficulty, hoping their course will help them learn as they go, get better, and feel good about what they achieve.
When you are trying to teach someone something, you don't punish them when they make a mistake. You let them learn from it and give them positive reinforcement when they do well.
[This analysis was originally posted on SuperMeatBoy.com, which has more information on Edmund's upcoming IGF-nominated XBLA, WiiWare and PC action platform title.]