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Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Difficulty Modes and Unlocking Story Content

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - What kind of rewards do you like?

A month ago on the Requests page I got this request from ShinyGirafarig, relating to her newfound Advance Wars-esque darling, Wargroove from Chucklefish:
In the Wargroove fanbase, people are divided about earning one star only if played in easy mode compared to earning 3 stars if players did well enough in normal mode. Chucklefish is even asking for feedback about it here

For those who want to earn 3 stars in easy mode, they explain that there are unlockables behind earning enough stars that they won't be able to get if they get one star per map. They also say people who struggle with TBS games would just look at a day by day walkthrough, making it a chore to earn 3 stars per map. Those who only want three stars to be tied to difficulty say that stars should be earned for good play.

My request is how should games handle unlockable rewards for casual players vs hardcore gamers?” 

(Of note is that Chucklefish's development blog doesn't have a comments section on it.)

I just want to note that I haven't played Wargroove before and I'm taking this request anyway. Therefore, I'm making a lot of assumptions to write this article. Please correct me if any of them are wrong.

Regardless, tomorrow morning (March 6—I picked a great time to do this request) Chucklefish will be taking actions to address this exact issue in a 1.2.0 patch of Wargroove. Here's their new system they're planning to implement, and how I think it makes sense compared to the unlockables philosophy I outline later in the article:

First, they're going to create a checkpoint system. A checkpoint isn't a quicksave—it's a permanent “if you die, you can restart from here” until you make a new checkpoint. There doesn't appear to be any restrictions on checkpoint creation. That should make things a lot easier for people.

The difficulty system is also being overhauled. There is now a Story difficulty, along with Easy, Normal, Hard (default), and Custom. At issue in ShinyGirafarig's request is the “star” unlockable system. You can now get three stars in Normal and Hard, though Hard mode is the only mode you can get an S-Rank in. Easy gets you two, and Story is “VERY easy” and gets you one. From my research, I've deducted that story-driven players’ primary goal is to get 100 stars in order to unlock the epilogue mission and complete the story.

There are 33 missions in campaign mode (a maximum of 99 stars) and you can obtain an additional 101 stars from playing other modes—though it's likely that if you have trouble getting stars in campaign mode, you'll have trouble getting them in the other modes as well.

It's unclear to me from my research if any content is hidden behind S-ranking things, or if that's just a challenge for the most dedicated Wargroove players to prove themselves. I assume it's the latter, which is important to note in that story-driven players won't care about the rank, but hardcore players would. (Remember this distinction.)

I like the idea of not making the easiest mode out to be some humiliating experience for the player, like Story difficulty here, or Funky Mode in the Nintendo Switch version of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. That said, it doesn't appear that it is possible to experience the full story in Story difficulty... just 98% of it. (I'm assuming the epilogue has story content in it, or else the whole debate is pointless.)

That seems a bit wrong to me. By comparison, you can do everything in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze while playing as Funky Kong, while the developer's marketing portrayed the easy mode as really cool. Games shouldn't seek to humiliate their customers by referring to easy mode as “baby mode” or something like that. 

Not that Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a story-heavy game, so let's use another example that comes from the same super-genre of Wargroove. Fire Emblem (or “Fire Emblem 7”, or Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade) on the Game Boy Advance has four main non-tutorial game modes. Eliwood Normal Mode, Eliwood Hard Mode, Hector Normal Mode, and Hector Hard Mode. You unlock Eliwood Hard and Hector Normal by beating Eliwood Normal once, and you unlock Hector Hard by beating Hector Normal once.

Fire Emblem Blazing Blade Game Boy Advance Hector Hard mode difficulty select Normal
Hector Hard Mode vs. Hector Normal Mode: pure gameplay distinction.

Hector's modes has a different story and gameplay sequences than Eliwood's modes, but there isn't an extrinsic reward-based difference between Hector Normal and Hector Hard. The unlockable story sequences are exactly the same between both Hector difficulties. The difference is that Hector Hard Mode is considered the true mode of the game by its hardcore fans craving maximum gameplay exploitation and the biggest challenge, and it's what the metagame is based on. Fire Emblem also has a ranking system that doesn't affect any extrinsic rewards, and it's just there for that metagame.

I think that's exactly the right approach.

I do think that a game's story-based content shouldn't be locked behind difficulty-mode-exclusive barriers. Non-story-based content that is focused on maximising the potential of gameplay mechanics I think makes a lot more sense to lock behind difficulty barriers, because that's really the whole point of such content. To challenge the fanatic part of your player base and to demonstrate that, as a developer and a level designer, you've explored your own game's potential.

It's usually a different kind of gamer that is playing your game for the story than the gamer that really wants to explore the mechanics. You generally want your game to be as inclusive and accommodating of your diverse player base's interests as you can, since that helps increase player engagement and sales.

That's not a statement that you should “dumb down” your game design. Dumbing it down across the board is not being inclusive of people who really want to dig into your game's deep mechanics (they want deep mechanics). Give the people what they want.

With any luck, your game is compelling enough that story-driven players will also become interested in the game mechanics, and try to develop their skills enough that they'll want to S-Rank your levels on the hard difficulty for the sheer enjoyment of it. That's intrinsic reward.

For Wargroove, the solution is clear. Make the barrier to unlock the epilogue story content not high enough that it excludes the ability of story-driven players, but have the barrier to other, more challenging and extra gameplay portions be high enough that your deep metagame fans feel challenged and rewarded for meeting that challenge. Easier said than done, but that's the basic path to success. ...And don't make a gameplay difficulty mode named Story if you can't actually experience 100% of the story by playing it.

Ludwig doesn't remember if he ever referenced the Game Boy Advance Fire Emblem on KoopaTV before (his fondness for the Tellius games is much more obvious), but let it be known that he's beaten Hector Hard Mode. He's the more rare kind of gamer that deeply appreciates story and gameplay mechanics depth. Ludwig is unwilling to say whether or not he intentionally planned for this article to be published right before the new Wargroove update. In any case, requesting article ideas to KoopaTV is always encouraged!

Fire Emblem does some other good things in the name of making story-players and gameplay-players happy, like the Support system.


  1. As a gamer that plays games for the story most often than not, I can enjoy challenging gameplay to a point. Where I draw the line is when it seems as though I'm EXPECTED to use some ridiculous ubercheese strategy to win and if I try to fight "normally" I get dee-stuh-royed.

    1. From my research, the requirements to S-rank missions are to play ultra aggressively.

      In Advance Wars the way to S-rank things were very cheesy and more trying to screw the system than maximise its potential, like making waves of low-value units to make it seem like you've had less casualties, since it calculated unit survivability (under the "Technique" score) as a percentage.

    2. Days of Ruin changed the system by making it that the less units you buy, the better the technique score which added an actual challenge rather than trying to cheese the system.

      Wargroove rankings are rated only by how many turns you took to beat the objective. Even in hard mode you can get 3 stars if you got an A rank instead of an S rank.

    3. @Lhecticus Videre - I'm for a ranking system being competent to begin with. Speed is shallow and without any counterbalances inevitably invites exactly what you complain about unless the gameplay mechanics themselves HEAVILY discourage what would allow for suicide lynchpin target rushes.

      @Ludwig Von Koopa - Battalion Wars couldn't even let you build more units anyway, so casualties would still be stuck. BW2 simply had building points provide unit respawns or given unit type availability--unit losses would STILL lower Technique. But yeah, pre-DOR AW Technique could be cheesed by unit spam. I think Technique should punish casualties actively in the first place, because overly expected casualties guarantees problems with a map's design anyway. My thoughts on Gunfighter, for example?
      As Grit's forces can only be attacked from one direction *AT ALL*, no casualties degenerates into MD Tank spam and doesn't even allow for getting a Perfect S-Rank. Level design like that would be better given the once-over, instead of feeling too thrown together.

      @ShinyGirafarig - I do agree with punishing new builds for Technique, but the execution results in unit losses being given laughable weight, which contributes to S-Ranks being a joke to obtain in general. Still wasn't a bad idea though.

    4. I'll let you Advance Wars geeks talk it out more in this comment thread, but I think Wargroove's S-rank requirements will change in future updates.

      ...Though it probably doesn't make sense to change the requirements on the maps that have already existed for month(s) while keeping the maps the same. Your goals for players should be made, you know, at the time you make the level. Not way after.

  2. *sigh* Wargroove. It wanted to play Icarus and so it comes out with a whole host of issues over a year and a half after it goes on an Advance Wars community looking for advice. A blatant example is, whose bright idea was it to tone up the Mech Expy? It's why I had posted this:

    And speaking of stuff I made:
    Just to showcase that yeah, the only reason Chucklefish rejected me was because they believed the word of some toxic users claiming that I'm the toxic one. By the way, a Starbound mod called Frackin Universe involved plagarism of other people's work and its "author" being enabled by Chucklefish to pull HIS own smear campaign against detractors.

    Oh, and just to confirm, Wargroove's Epilogue does indeed have story stuff. You may screech now.

    So anyway, I do agree with this line of reason you put out: "to demonstrate that, as a developer and a level designer, you've explored your own game's potential." You remember the Cricket Jam in Super Mario RPG, right? About how the player could reach its container early and while they wouldn't get the Cricket Jam early, they'd still get an extra point to max FP, which was the fine balance in rewarding the player's creativity while keeping the Midas River's potential Frog Coin rewards significant. Things like that demonstrate the developers being thoughtful and invites players to further try new things with their established system.

    Of course, I do have to make my own contrasting points. The main point of a game is...a game. Difficulty is needed to make sure it avoids being a glorified movie. Easy Mode Mockery shouldn't be taken to ridiculous levels, of course, but done right, it does at least serve a purpose of things like making storyline successes more satisfying.

    I should mention the system I'd be wanting to set up in making my own game: a lower difficulty level would both reduce the ranking score caps and additionally increase ranking penalties--the latter being emphasized more, for reference--and progress in the player's file and even the ending would be tied to their overall rank. However, getting to the last level and beating it would not require getting maximum ranking scores at all, even if those would help, and my plan would be to make sure that ranking criteria would punish cheesing attempts. This would encourage players to want to play out each given level instead of pull some way to cheap out everything, while at the same time making sure that players with a better mentality wouldn't have to care if they simply want a good ending. Obviously, there's some complexity in my idea, but if it just provides a tough but fair approach, it should work out. Wargroove, meanwhile...if they're going to lock Epilogue behind Stars, they should have made the lock 75 Stars (accounting for buffer from those damned Forced Tutorials), and they shouldn't care about only Speed in the first place.

    Like I say, make sure your gameplay mechanics serve good purposes and hit that sweet spot in regard to strictness. I imagine even the story players would feel better satisfaction from adversity-induced Catharsis Factor.

    1. Well, first off, I'm really curious if you've been lurking KoopaTV this whole time and you're just now commenting because there's something related to Advance Wars in the article. Makes me wonder what'd happen if I wrote about Kid Icarus: Uprising as the main topic of an article.
      (And yet the only thing I really have to say about Uprising is in relation to its script and characters.)

      Alright, to keep the discussion related to the scope of the article—and the article certainly has a lot of directions we can take the discussion—the fact that the Epilogue has desirable story content should probably mean that the Story difficulty ought to make that accessible, or else that's just false advertising.

      Well, I see you in the comments section of the how to access the Cricket Jam chest early video on YouTube. That was never something I'd think of doing on my own (and never have).

      But I don't think it's difficulty that prevents a game from being a glorified movie... it's interactivity. Because movies have challenges too, just told by gripping people into a story and transplanting the viewer's mind into the protagonist's.
      ...Well, anyway, how much difficulty is right is dependent on the player. That's the whole point of why games have multiple difficulty levels.
      It's so you can be inclusive of multiple player skills with the same game. Not so you make one group of players have a worse experience than another, be it from your game content by difficulty segregation strategy, or a toxic fanbase. What's easy to you might be satisfying to someone else.
      Players will self-select appropriately if you can adjust the difficulty without having to make a new save file or something. (Props to Kid Icarus: Uprising for that kind of difficulty.)

      Making a ranking system that punishes cheesing attempts is, uh, easier said than done. Some players might find creating cheesing attempts to be the whole point of the game! That might be their idea of fun.


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