Three uses of enemy difficulty

In this post, I will be talking about the design of games that feature (a) increasing character power, (b) variation in enemy difficulty and (c) a choice about which enemy to confront when. This design is common in computer roleplaying games: as you adventure, your character become better at whatever it is you need to do to overcome the enemies (often fighting); there are weaker and stronger enemies; and you get to choose, at least to some extent, when to confront which enemy. My question is: what's the point of this type of design? Or what different points can it have?

One might in fact legitimately wonder whether there's any point to it at all. In many pen & paper RPGs, the expected play experience is one where the player characters become stronger, and the enemies become stronger as well, in such a way that the challenge level always remains the same. What's the point of becoming 'stronger' if your relative power level doesn't change? Is it just the ultimately meaningless dopamine rush of "going level up"?

Given the ubiquity of this type of design, it is surprisingly hard to say much in its defence. Take Dungeons & Dragons, second, third (and I think fifth) edition. There is a difference between playing a 1st level character and playing a 10th level character, even if the enemies have become just as much stronger as you have, which is that the 10th level character has a larger repertoire of actions. Fights of 10th level characters are more tactically complicated, more dependent on player skill, than those of 1st level characters. But of course this raises an uncomfortable question: if 10th level fights are more fun than 1st level fights (and they are)... isn't it simply a mistake in the game design that you need to play for dozens of hours before the system truly starts to shine? Why not start out with this high level of tactical complexity? Which is precisely what Dungeons & Dragons fourth edition does. But then another uncomfortable question comes up: why have power progression at all? Just because of the ultimately meaningless dopamine rush of "going level up"?

In fact, however, there are several ways in which this type of game design can be justified, and in the rest of this post I want to discuss three examples: the isometric CRPG Baldur's Gate 2 (Bioware, 2000), the interactive fiction RPG Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom (S. John Ross, 2007) and my own interactive fiction roguelike Kerkerkruip (2011). All of these have in common that the player chooses which enemies -- weak or strong -- to engage at which point; and all of them have very different but very good reasons for allowing this.

To understand the differences between these games, there are two important things to note. First, the variation in difficulty of the available fights. In Baldur's Gate 2, this variation is relatively small. The player starts out in the city of Amn. Certain parts of this city are more dangerous than others, and certain fights are tougher than others, but more or less every fight in the city can be won by a dedicated player at any point. Kerkerkruip features much larger differences in difficulty. The player could start the game by fighting the final boss, Malygris, but she would have no chance of success. And Treasures of Slaver's Kingdom goes even further in this respect: the final enemy, the slaver king, would totally obliterate even a player already halfway through the game.

Clearly, this also means that power progression in these games happens at a different rate. In Baldur's Gate 2, one becomes stronger very gradually. In Kerkerkruip, absorbing a higher level soul makes a lot of difference. In Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom, progress is immense, often making enemies you struggled with mightily just a few minutes before into total pushovers.

The second thing to note is how much advantage for future fights can be gained from winning difficult fights. In both Baldur's Gate 2 and Kerkerkruip, winning difficult fights can generate large advantages. In Baldur's Gate 2, this is true especially because of powerful items that can be acquired this way; whereas Kerkerkruip rewards you with very strong powers when you kill powerful enemies. In the much more puzzle-oriented Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom, however, killing an enemy generally gives you access to an item you need to solve a puzzle; but this by itself will not make any fights any easier. Very often, it will be an item you can't even use yet.

So we can say that Baldur's Gate 2 has low difference in enemy difficulty, and serious advantage from defeating  powerful enemies; Kerkerkruip has large difference in enemy difficult, and serious advantage from defeating powerful enemies; and Treasures has very large difference in enemy difficulty, and little advantage from defeating powerful enemies. Let's see how this ties into the design goals of these games.
  1. In Baldur's Gate 2, the point of being able to choose your own route through the game is that you can choose your own patterns of challenge and relaxation. It's perfectly possible to do the fights roughly in order of difficulty, in which case the game is never too taxing. You can also choose to take on very hard challenges, and then revel in your accomplishments by using your newly acquired powers to beat some now-very-weak enemies into submission. Personally, I'm a lover of the second style. I'm the kind of person who immediately takes his brand new party to the Guarded Compound in the Temple District in order to grab the amazing +3 katana Celestial Fury. Sure, it will take me a few tries to optimise my strategy and win that fight. But the great thing about AD&D 2nd edition, which is the rule set that Baldur's Gate 2 is built on, is that it is a complicated and insane mess. There are always ways to win, there are always weird combinations of items, potions and spells that will allow you to defeat precisely this enemy. And if you're willing to search for those combinations, you get the amazing loot, and then you can enjoy the feeling of power that comes from killing some enemies that are now very simple indeed. But you don't have to; you can also follow the gradual power curve, and have a much more relaxed playing experience.
  2. In Kerkerkruip, the point of every part of the design is generating difficult tactical and strategic choices, and enemy level is all about strategy. There are always two level 1 enemies, two level 2 enemies, and one each of level 3, 4 and 5 in the game. All of these enemies give you a power corresponding to their level. But, and here is the crucial thing, higher powers drive out lower powers. So if you first defeat a level 1 and then a level 2 enemy, you'll end up with only level 2 power. Whereas defeating first a level 2 and then a level 1 enemy will let you have both powers at once, which is significantly better. So what's the best path through the game? You could go: 1, 2, 1, 3, 2, 4, 5. This would keep you pretty safe up to and including your fight against the level 4 enemy. But then you'd have to take on the final enemy with only a level 4 power, which is very difficult. To make the final fight easy, the best route would be 1, 2, 4, 3, 2, 1, 5. But this leaves you with a very difficult fight against the level 4 enemy. Kerkerkruip is all about assessing which risks you can take given your current items, powers, health, and so on. Taking too much risk will get you killed, but so will not taking enough risk.
  3. In Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom, the enemies function as doors and the items and other goodies that you assemble function as keys. In Kerkerkruip you can just run past your enemies, with some small risk of getting hit. In Treasures, this is impossible: enemies block your way, closing off some part of the map until you've defeated them. But because of the very high differences in enemy difficulty, this generally means that you can't get to some parts of the map until you've solved the puzzles in some other part of the map. This is precisely the functional role of doors and keys: solve a puzzle here to get the red key that opens the red door, allowing you to solve some other puzzle over there. The only difference is that the combat system of Treasures is softer than a traditional lock-and-key set-up: if you're lucky in combat, or willing to try many times, you can get to a new area slightly earlier; and you could conceivably skip one or more puzzles, since not all power-ups might be absolutely necessary.
It is interesting to note that these goals need very different combat systems to support them. Baldur's Gate 2 needs a combat system that allows the determined player to win fights that were designed with a much stronger character in mind; and that's precisely what it has. Kerkerkruip needs a tightly balanced and rather unforgiving combat system, preferably with roguelike permadeath, to really put weight on the strategic decisions; and that is what it has. And Treasures needs a simple combat system where player skill makes little to no difference, because the point of its combats is not to determine the player's ability but to check whether certain 'keys' have been found. Again, that is precisely what it has.

This typology is not meant to be exhaustive. But I hope it is enlightening.


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