How much is too much?

The problem

There’s a common mantra in games design, in fact, it’s something shared in the design of most things - ‘Keep it simple'. This however directly conflicts with the urge most young designers feel to cram every good idea they have into a game.

As we become more experienced, we learn to pick and choose between our ideas. There is a shared understanding in the industry that often, less is more when it comes to mechanic design, however this often rears its head as some vaguely agreed upon notion that a design should not be overly crowded with features.

In addition to this, complexity can be the very thing that makes the core of a game interesting, and we often want to try to create systems that will give us depth through the possibilities of their combinatorial elements. So where do we draw the line?

The real key, is that it all comes down to pressure. Pressure is an interesting topic in game design, and it’s one that I’ll cover in more depth in the future, but for now I’ll simply summarise it for our purposes as - the time the player perceives they have to make a decision. In a turn based game, the pressure is low. In a third person action game, the pressure is higher - and if the enemy AI is advancing, threatening to flank you, then the pressure is higher still.

So we return of the question of ‘how much is too much?’, surely there is a better metric than merely relying on gut feeling, or blindly throwing builds at playtesters until they seem happy.

The rule

So with this in mind, consider the following rule: That when we ask something of the player, it should be the only thing they are being asked to actively think about and deal with. This is essentially about a person’s ability to calculate, to deal with problems in real time, to pay attention.

Now it’s important to note that this rule is a starting point. There may be times when you want this pressure to increase, or decrease to nothing, and I will explain why that’s important a little later, but first, to try and explain why this idea is important I want to present an example we will all be familiar with: Learning to drive.

When we got in a car for the first time, if we were asked to pay attention to everything - signalling, steering, observing, changing gears - we would be overwhelmed, we would probably neglect something and we would most likely crash. This might sound simple, but it’s a basic illustration of how the brain can deal with new information, and how people deal with new actions they are being asked to perform.

In this example, we also don’t actually need to remove any of the ‘mechanics’, instead we are introduced to them one by one in a safe environment until they become second nature. When they have become automatic, we can introduce more and more until we are able to essentially perform all at once.

So you can begin to see not only the importance of the rule of ‘actively thinking about one thing at a time’, but also one way in which we are able to include many more mechanics without overwhelming the player.

The key point here is that if the player is consistently being required to actively (and by actively I mean consciously pay attention to and calculate) more than one thing, then you know you have too many mechanics at that moment.

When and how the rule can be bent or broken

We can also see that conversely, as our players become more comfortable with gameplay, it can be important to increase the pressure of those mechanics, or add more to avoid the player becoming bored (enemies becoming more aggressive or adding more enemy types being the most basic example).

And of course in sections of the game where we actually want to increase the pressure to make the player feel stressed or overwhelmed, we can actually require them to deal with more things than they are used to at one time (think, having to unlock a door while you fend off enemies at the same time), perhaps more even than they are able to deal with (fighting a battle you eventually lose for story purposes). Be aware though that if you increase this too high, players may fall back on simple solutions, foregoing the interesting possibilities of your systems because they’re so stressed they don’t have time to think properly. Because of this, these moments should be the exception.


Techniques for adding in mechanics

This rule is restrictive by its very nature, so let’s look at some ways of circumventing these restrictions while not compromising player experience. Some of these are obvious, others less so.

  1. Learnt things becoming second nature allowing us to add more

    This we’ve already discussed - mechanics that become second nature freeing up the player's mind to do something else. So, aiming then gives way to tactical positioning. Cover based combat gives way to enemy prioritisation and so on. This is done in almost every action game made to date.

  2. The simple practice of requiring different skills at different times

    This too is done often in games. In boss design for example - we often have to use one skill and then the pattern of the enemy will change requiring us to use something different.

  3. Layers in level design

    This is the simple idea that there are different places for different activities. A game that illustrates this very well is the recent Metal Gear Solid: V. They deal with the issue of complexity by placing different requirements at different distances from each objective.

    At the very lowest pressure, there's nothing to consider, but you get breathing space to organise yourself. Further in, you can observe things and tag enemies, possibly use a long-range rifle. After that you get the different stages and ranges of combat. Of course you can do all of these things at once by charging in, but this is much more difficult and stressful. It also allows the player to set their own difficulty by choosing how slowly to approach.

    An interesting solution to the problem of complexity: The pressures in MGSV

  4. Kishōtenketsu

    The phrase comes from the inspiration behind the structure of Super Mario 3D world, and how that popularised this type of game structure, though it was by no means the first to do it.

    The idea is very simple - instead of increasing the elements that a player uses as the game goes on, you simply change them. A mechanic is explored for a while and then thrown away, and a new one introduced (Though this is of course a simplification of these game designs)

    Some examples of other games that use this format - Braid, Portal 2 to varying degrees, Brothers, Retsnom, Advanced Warfare (each level gives you a new toy you then never get again) and I’m sure many more.


So as you can see there are actually many ways to include different mechanics in a game without it becoming overburdened. We have a rule that allows us to maintain a default level of pressure in a game, and can show us when just one more mechanic is one too many, and when it may just need a new place.

This is the basis of how we sort, structure and cut mechanics in our games.

Letting players set their own difficulty

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When we talk about players setting their own difficulty, we’re not talking about choosing from ‘easy’, ‘medium’ or ‘hard’ in the main menu, but a vast range of techniques that allows the player to dynamically set their own level of challenge as they progress through the game.

Why allow the player to do this?
These designs mean players can fine tune the challenges that you’ve set out for them, in some cases even skipping them altogether. This reduces the emphasis that must be placed on a dynamically scaling system - though not something it should replace, but stand beside.

Unlike dynamic difficulty, these designs embody the ranges of challenge in missions, scenarios and systems - and so are visible to the player. This often this means greater replayability as beginners can see ways of interacting with your game they can aspire to. There are in-fact many more benefits to these systems which we’ll explore with some examples.

More difficult, optional game components

This is commonplace in many games - harder challenges of all kinds that can be attempted or bypassed depending on whether the player feels they have the skill required.

  • Green stars in Mario 3D World - These more challenging divergences in the level design offer greater risk, but completing them will award the player with a green star, which are used to unlock later levels.
  • Optional routes in Burnout Paradise - this game has many branching sub-routes that are more difficult, but offer rewards, even if they are as subtle as having lots of trick-jumps you can use to rack up a bigger score.
  • Very difficult but optional bosses in From Software’s games (Dark Souls, Bloodborne) - in their latest game, the Abhorrent Beast and the Bloodstarved Beast are rated among the hardest, but are entirely optional.

Different ways to play

These are games that cater for multiple playstyles, give the player the chance to master an alternate way of completing the game, or mix and match the two. It’s a nice design element that supports player choice, but it also allows us alternatives when a section may become too challenging.

  • The multiple specialisations of Deus Ex - The player is able to choose between combat, which pushes on reflexes and tactical evaluation. Stealth, which relies on observation and timing, and hacking, which provides a puzzle-solving approach to each scenario.
  • The ‘Heavy Weapons’ of Disney Infinity - We had big carriable weapons that were much more powerful than your character. We decided to let the players take them wherever they wanted - they make you much slower and were usually left behind, but if you were struggling with the combat, you could use them to make the game easier at the cost of movement speed.

Setting your own goals

Unlike games which offer you many ways to complete them, these games embody the idea that the goal is set by the player - many goals varying in the level of challenge that they provide.

  • The world structure of Minecraft - The player can choose to simply build and explore, mine into the more dangerous parts of the game or try and break into the final, hard to reach ‘boss stage’.

System design

This is my personal favourite, mostly because clever systems design can deliver this player-set difficulty on a micro or macro level. These are systems that range from allowing you to elegantly but purposefully raise and lower the difficulty, to systems that when pushed, push back harder.

  • The dynamic AI of Halo - As you become more bold, more enemies are allowed to engage you at once - proximity is the heuristic here. This means if you’re timid and keep your distance, the challenge is less than if you go in guns blazing. The AI also eases off if you retreat, again allowing you to back out of your decision to ramp up your own difficulty. This allows the player to vary the challenge on the micro level - every encounter can be approached differently.
  • The ‘Insight’ resource in Bloodborne - Insight is a currency earned by defeating bosses, and the more you have, the harder the game gets - enemies are visibly upgraded and more of them appear. The game allows you to spend this currency on helpful items and cooperative help from other players, and in doing so you get the added benefit that the game becomes a little easier. This system allows the player to vary their challenge on a macro level - their decision to make the game easier affects the whole game world.
  • The colour-based scoring mechanic of Ikaruga - In Ikaruga you are immune to projectiles of the same colour, however to get the really high scores you must defeat them with the opposite colour, making the game more difficult. The gameplay gets more complex and more difficult as you try and become better at the game. This is micro-level system as it affects individual enemies.


  • The common component of all these systems is that they keep the game challenging for more skilled players. Often, they reward those players but they rarely punish the weaker ones.
  • The hardest part of your game should be an optional part. This does not mean reducing the difficulty of your game’s final moment, but about adding in additional challenges that most hardcore players.
  • Often we create a drawback to taking the easy option so as to incentivise the player become better. This is often necessary so that players don’t simply choose the path of least resistance. It’s always worth considering however if it’s really necessary to punish players for not being good enough. Ask yourselves, why shouldn’t we let the player cheat? Why can’t the player sneak past our bosses if they’re too hard? Deus Ex certainly takes this ideology to heart. Sometimes it’s about choice, sometime’s it’s about rewarding better players, but in my opinion it should never be about punishing bad ones.
  • There is another fantastic side-effect to many of these systems - it allows players to control pacing and pressure. Regardless of difficulty, many of these systems allows the player to ramp down intense gameplay and just breeze through a section when they feel like taking a break.
  • Drawing attention to all of these mechanics might very well be something you want to do. In Bloodborne you can decide to counter enemies attacks rather than dodging them. This puts you in the way of danger, but allows you to take them out faster. Compare this to Ikaruga’s system where putting yourself in danger by switching to the opposite colour can result in greater rewards - The real difference here is only that Ikaruga’s system draws attention to itself with a score, while Bloodborne’s doesn’t. You’re not particularly incentivised to always use the counter mechanic, if you were (for example, perhaps enemies could only drop items if killed this way) it would become obvious to the player that there was a ‘best’ way of playing the game - thus incentivising people to become more skilled.

    The gameplay hasn’t changed, but we’ve motivated the player by enhancing their perception of the system. Of course players sometimes do this of their own volition anyway - this is one of those fuzzy design decision that will depend on your game.

  • The importance of readability in these systems cannot be understated - Increasing the number of enemies shooting at you in Halo, is far better than upping their damage, because the player can’t see that happening. In all of these examples, the workings of the systems are exposed - without this, the player may never notice them, and won’t then be able to make a conscious decision about their play-style.

Finally, let’s call this by its true name - this is actually dynamic difficulty ramping of the current situation. Something I warned away from in this article. The thing that makes it work is that the player can back away from it. Vary it consciously. These systems are presented as a natural aspect of the game’s world, and not a developer lurking behind the scenes, reducing the difficulty. It is the difference between choosing a worthy opponent, and being faced against a skilled one who is very obviously going easy on you.

This is the third in a four-part series on difficulty in games.
Part 1 is about dynamic difficulty
Part 2 is all about the relationship between difficulty and readability

Using a 'Razor' to make a lean, focussed game.

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I’m not usually a fan of short, snappy phrases that sum up design concepts because more often than not they end up being reductive and misleading. A Razor however, while not being entirely guilt-free in this regard, is a simple concept that I’ve seen used consistently enough for it to be worth covering.

The name comes because it helps you identify and cut unnecessary features. It is however a slight misnomer because it also helps you design them, and generally keep the creative team on track.

In short, it’s a phrase that serves as a small reminder about the core of your game.

Using this Razor for your game design

Often in design you find yourself paused, not by creative block or because you’re unable to see a solution to a problem, but because you have a variety of seemingly equal and interesting solutions in front of you that you have to choose between.

The idea is simple - you think of a way to define the core of your game, a summary of the experience, and then you encapsulate that in an easy to remember phrase. For example “You are a swashbuckling pirate”. From that point onwars you then make sure every part of your design validates this phrase. If you think of a feature you like, but it really doesn’t help achieve this feeling, then you cut it.

Of course, it works both ways - the realisation of your game’s true core helps you to think of gameplay that will further help you evoke this feeling in the player.

It’s a tool designed to keep your game lean, focussed and consistent. It’s meant to produce something where everything works together to push towards one overall feeling. Game mechanics, music, art, story - all should be working towards one goal.

To use a more relatable example, let’s imagine that the Razor for Uncharted 1 was “you are Indiana Jones”, not only can the design team use this as a reminder for their mechanic design, but the level designers too can use this to remember the heart of the game, and how they should be thinking about movement through their spaces. Animators too can refer to this, and remember that in combat Drake is not supposed to be a master of the martial arts, but rather someone who comes off as a scrappy street fighter - untrained but experienced.

Now it’s important also to point out that it’s not some magical phrase - really it’s an understanding the whole team has to come to. A true understanding of what the game is about at its core. The phrase is merely there to remind you of it, so don’t be too beholden to the words you’ve chosen - it’s the idea behind them that’s important.

Things to watch out for

It’s important that this phrase encapsulate the feeling the player should have when playing the game. It should not describe something the game should do - this is a common mistake. You may be tempted to use a phrase such as ‘everything is a weapon’ because this might remind you of one of the core tenants of your game, and in some ways can help other aspects of the game’s creation, but it doesn’t help you make decisions, and more importantly, it certainly won’t help an animator decide what style to choose when blocking out a new animation.

It’s the overall feeling that you’re trying to convey - “You’re a ragtag group of mercenaries.” “You are inside a Grimm's fairytale.” “You are a scared civilian in a war with absolutely no training.”

A small, simple thing that should not be overstated, but a useful trick nonetheless.

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Four-Step Puzzle Design

Good puzzle design gives a player that moment of epiphany, where suddenly all is clear, and the following satisfaction when your put your solution in place, and it works!

During my time working on Disney Infinity, I began to see that a lot of game puzzles, including many of our own, missed this mark. Even puzzles in some of my favourite games often left me feeling unsatisfied. The reason was simple - I kept finding myself solving puzzles through experimentation or trial and error without fully understanding either the objective or the true nature of the puzzle itself.

Consider this extremely simple and often seen game puzzle:

You walk into a room and see a heavy box and a weighted switch. You move the box onto the switch. A cutscene plays showing a door opening you haven't really registered before. You solved the puzzle before you even knew there was one. You feel cheated because if you had realised, you would have been capable of solving it. Even in a situation as simple as this, there is a better way.

basic puzzle

Because of this I developed four steps to deal with this problem, they may seem obvious at first but it’s amazing how many puzzles, simple and complicated, fail this simple test.

Step one - the player understands the objective clearly.
You’d think this would be an obvious one, but time and time again we encounter design that skips this basic step, leaving players unsure why they’ve been presented with the elements of a puzzle in the first place. As gamers, we know when we encounter a puzzle we are meant to solve it, and so as a designer it's easy to lean on that fact and overlook this fundamental step. Clearly communicate the problem FIRST. Example: There is a locked door you need to get through.

Step two - the player discovers the pieces of the puzzle needed to solve it.
Basic things like switches and levers. Note though that it is OK if these objects need to be experimented with in order to discover their true function. Note too the emphasis on this ordering. You discover a problem that needs a solution AND THEN you notice the puzzle that needs solving.

Step three - the player notices the association between the components and works out a solution in their head.
This is an important one, though there are a few caveats I’ll discuss later. The player must be able to think of a solution before implementing it. What this essentially means is that they are not forced to solve the puzzle with simple trial and error. It may be POSSIBLE to solve with experimentation, but the key point is that it is not necessary. The puzzle is readable.

Step four - the player implements the solution and solves the puzzle
Again, obvious, but it exists as a reminder that working out a solution and implementing it are two separate stages.

Now consider this reworking of the same simple puzzle:

You drop into a room and observe a locked door which seems to be the only way out (step 1). After exploring more you then find a heavy box and a weighted switch that weren't immediately visible from where you entered the room (Step 2). You see a line from the switch to the door and deduce their association. After standing on the switch and observing no movement you guess the heavy crate might do the trick (Step 3). You move the box onto the switch and the door opens (Step 4). You feel a small amount of satisfaction that you were presented with a challenge, solved the problem and are now able to progress.

Note too the readability of the connecting line linking the switch and the door, and the fact that we drop in to this room, ensuring that the player cannot mistake the entrance for the goal.

Now we can see that the original room had us noticing the puzzle elements first (Step 2), solving it (Step 4) and only then realising what our objective was all along (Step 1) and finally gaining a true understanding of what the puzzle had been and why your solution worked (Step 3).

There are a couple more things it's important to keep in mind.

First of all it's important to remember that experimentation can be a fun mechanic. These steps do not mean that everything has to be immediately obvious. It's fine to create a room in which each puzzle component, each switch and lever has to be experimented with to see what it does. The important part is that once the true functionality is discovered, the player can work out a solution.

Now that's not to say that confusing situations, games of chance or trial and error as a game mechanic don't have their place, but they are not puzzles. There is a difference between a maze and a labyrinth. Simply be aware of what experience you are trying to give the player and mould the gameplay to that goal.

The other caveat to this system are complex puzzles that are too large for the solution to be calculated and held in the player’s mind at once. There are many examples of these we've all come across before - a Rubik's cube or a Sudoku puzzle for example.

But here we can see that each stage in the greater puzzle is in itself a small 4 step loop. Every number written on the page in a Sudoku solution is a tiny calculation and solution that can be put in place and saves the progress of the puzzle and brings the overall solution closer.

This concept of incremental progress in more complex puzzles is an import at one, otherwise the player can feel lost and frustrated in the face of seemingly endless combinations. Most of us will have at some point fallen back to brute-force trial-and-error in a point-and-click adventure when the puzzles true goal has eluded us, and this is always very tiresome.


Finally, a note on testing. Just because someone can get through a puzzle does not mean it's a successful one. The joy of a puzzle is in solving a problem, if the problem is only understood in retrospect the puzzle is not successful. Time and time again I have seen confusing game design make it into a final product simply because the player is, after some time, able to solve the puzzle by mistake.

There are thankfully many solutions, asking the player to explain what they did after they've finished the puzzle and why they did it can be incredibly valuable. Also having them do this while watching a replay of themselves will often prompt their memory.

Another good technique is to sit with a player and ask them to think aloud while they attempt the puzzle.

So those steps again:

  1. The player understands the objective.
  2. The player discovers the puzzle.
  3. Step three - the player works out a solution in their head.
  4. The player implements the solution and solves the puzzle.

Attempting a puzzle is essentially an attempt to find a solution for a problem, so make sure the problem is clear. No one would attempt to solve a Rubik’s cube if it wasn’t for the coloured stickers on each piece.