Saturday, October 27, 2018

Gamebook Theory: Grave Mistake #2 (Level of Difficulty)

I am furious! I recently read some great ideas that turned into very poor gamebooks. Then I read one very bad idea that turned into a great gamebook. Do you know what made the difference? The good book was actually playable and it was possible to achieve success without any cheating.

That being said, the greatest mistake a gamebook author could make is to create a game that is impossible to finish through honest play.

The main downside of a gamebook being too difficult is that reading the same text multiple times is very different than overcoming the same obstacles multiple times in a videogame. Beautiful graphics, moving objects and pleasant sound effects are easily assimilated by our brains. Text is not! In reality, re-reading familiar text is very boring, so when a player has to start over, all the way from the beginning of a gamebook, he is naturally very frustrated. Make him do it more than once and he will either start cheating (forcing the reader to cheat is very undesirable) or he will put the book aside (or even throw it away) to never come back to it again. On top of those two bad outcomes, when the reader finds your name on a book next time, they will simply ignore it.

Unfortunately, besides being the greatest mistake, this is also the most common one. Most the time, authors fall into this trap unconsciously due to their fear of making a game with very low challenge level. Naturally, if you are designing a game, you are most likely creating a new world for it, a new universe with its own distinctive and diverse rules and specifics. Being the mastermind of this new world, you would technically be its Great and Powerful God, who knows it all from the inside out. Therefore, the game is not going to present any real challenge to you when playtesting it. That is the very moment, an author falls into the fear of his game being too easy. That is the very moment, an author starts developing more difficult challenges for his gamebook. That is the very moment, an author loses his readers, because the game was difficult enough to begin with. It was difficult enough, because the reader doesn't know all the rules and insights of the world. As Ashton Saylor pointed out: "a game essentially teaches a skill, then tests that skill". I will add that, if you are an author, it is your sole responsibility to lead your readers hand-in-hand through the learning curve of the game and HELP them achieve success in the adventure. Do not, do not, DO NOT compete with your readers! It would be an unfair competition, because you know your world very well while, at the same time, they are completely clueless about the rules and principles in it.

Beta testers are very important for fine tuning your game. Ideally, we would all have a horde of beta testers by our side, but in reality, we have just one or two of them and they can experience the adventure through fresh eyes only once. On every next attempt, they will be more and more familiar with the rules and challenges of this new world and they would no longer be objective in their evaluations. To prevent this problem, use your testers at a much later stage and do it very, very, VERY wisely!

Testing your own game multiple times is a must, but you have to force yourself to "forget" the rules of your new creation first. You need to choose and know your targeted audience very well in order to be able to get under their skin, so you could test your own game objectively through their point of view. Then and only then, you would be able to adjust the difficulty level to optimal parameters. So, it is very important to first decide if you are going to write for children, teenagers or adults; if you want to write a game for those, who are unfamiliar, somewhat familiar or experts on the subject of the gamebook.

Tin Man Gamebook Adventures are great!
Here are a few rules you could apply to make sure that your gamebook is playable:

1. When in doubt about the difficulty level of your game, always make it a little bit easier, not harder! It is much better to have your readers complain that your book was too easy, while they still feel some satisfaction of successfully reaching the end, than to have your readers complain that it was too difficult. In the latter situation, they probably attempted playing by the rules at least twice and after getting bored by reading the same text over and over again, they started cheating to get all the way through the adventure or never even finished the book. Do I even need to point out that the average person wants to feel good about themselves and forcing them to cheat has the exact opposite effect?

2. Always assume that your readers will fail 40-60% of the challenges. No, I am not sure about the exact percentages, but all of us make mistakes sometimes and not every one of them should be punished severely (read my previous post on instant death in gamebooks!). Use depleting stats (health, mana, energy) or the "God's Forgiveness" rule (roll the dice to save them from a bad choice) to achieve better balance. Once again, it is better for you to create a gamebook that is easier rather than harder. You'll gain more fans that way, because people prefer to hear how great they are doing instead of how much they suck.

3. A satisfying ending of a gamebook must be reachable within maximum of 3 attempts. You know how boring it is to be reading the same text over and over again. Don't ask your readers to do something you wouldn't like doing yourself!

If you follow the advice in this post, you will inevitably receive criticism from hardcore gamebook fans. Keep in mind that most of those fans are okay with the concept of cheating. They justify it by excusing themselves with being experts on the subject, which is supposed to allow them to playtest every single possible choice in the game. Don't worry about them! Nobody can satisfy them. They will never give your game an honest try. Instead, write for your friends and family, who have never opened a gamebook! Write for the new fans of the genre and those of the old fans, who enjoy a good, but honest challenge! Most importantly, write for yourself and for your own satisfaction!

Before I finish, let me clarify that I am not pushing for books that are too easy. I am simply saying that a gamebook should lean toward the easy level of difficulty, while maintaining a good illusion of danger.

Replayability? I'll write on that subject soon.

Until then, may the dice be with you!

Peter Agapov
Game Designer at
President and Chief Executive Officer of American Limo Naperville
Former Road Captain of Marine One at Operation "Welcome You Home"

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