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