Survival Games need Difficulty Levels

Survival Game: Games where the goal is to live as long as possible. Often (but not always), this involves plowing through ever increasing hordes of monsters until you eventually succumb to them.

Difficulty Levels: For the purposes of this article, anything that adjusts the difficulty of the game counts. This could take the form of skipping early levels, or making early levels harder.

Pure survival-based videogames were tremendously popular in the 1980’s arcade era: they practically were what people thought of when someone said “videogame.” They declined in the console era, but are resurgent these days; partly from the iOS gaming boom, and partly as game designers slowly realize the strengths of the framework. Survival games tend to be light on cruft, focusing not on more and more content but immediate and brutal challenge. While completion-based games often seem best suited for passive, cinematic gameplay, survival games focus instead on self-improvement in the face of ever-increasing challenge.

However, survival games have a key flaw best illustrated by analogy. Imagine an inept math teacher who only instructs through tests. He gives his student arithmetic tests to start. At first, the student fails the tests repeatedly. However, she slowly figures out the rules of arithmetic, and begins passing some of them. Whenever she passes an arithmetic test, the math teacher immediately gives her an algebra test, which she promptly fails. After she fails, the math teacher starts the loop over by giving her another arithmetic test.


Soon, she has mastered arithmetic and now routinely alternates between arithmetic tests (which she passes) and algebra tests (which she fails). Eventually, she masters algebra, and begins passing those tests as well. Her teacher rewards her with a new and exciting calculus test. She fails, of course, and soon she falls into a cycle of arithmetic tests (which hold very little value), algebra tests (which still hold some value, but not much), and calculus tests (which are what the student really should be working on).

At first, the style is reasonable, even optimal–test their skills until you find their limit, then go back to the basics and work your way up. However, as the student becomes more and more proficient at mathematics, the math teacher’s method becomes increasingly inefficient. By the time the student wants to learn graduate level mathematics (say, convergence of nonparametric regression techniques), her learning will be severely slowed by the remedial tests she has to grind through before she can even begin learning something new, let alone mastering high-level concepts she’s only seen a couple of times so far.

Survival games carry this exact flaw. As the player slowly masters the game, she progresses further and further on each playthrough. However, whenever she dies and starts over, she’ll have to start again at the exact same spot she did as a beginner. The early parts of the game inevitably become a grind as her skills trivialize their relatively low difficulty.

For this reason, survival strategy games need difficulty levels. The level of challenge appropriate for a beginner is far removed from that of an expert, but a survival game without difficulty levels ineptly presents the same challenges to both players. Without the ability to skip trivialized sections, your game is doomed to be abandoned — not because your player has mastered the game, but because her skills have advanced to the point where she no longer wants to play through increasingly long periods of trivial gameplay to get to a worthy challenge.

Review: Five Card Quest

Five Card Quest is the latest game from Rocketcat, who previously made the excellent Wayward Souls. It’s a turn-based FTL-like card game, where you battle through procedurally generated dungeons and kill a boss at the end. I’m quite partial to these sorts of games and Touch Arcade rated it five stars, so I got it, even though the linked review ominously read, “I don’t usually prejudge games before playing them, but…”

First things first: the game is obscenely buggy. Some of the bugs are reproducible and just another thing to learn, but others appear random and act as an unwanted dice roll. It’s pretty bad right now, so if you’re interested in the game, I’d recommend waiting for a patch or two. Anyway, that’s not too interesting to write about. What about the game design?!

The first sticking point is an interesting one. Rocketcat have made their name making excellent real-time games, and those work well with almost no tutorial. Wayward Souls didn’t tell you what monsters did, or the exact damage on your various weapons… and I’d argue it didn’t matter! In a real-time game, it’s *fun* to figure out the basic rules of the system – figuring out exactly what the enemies do, how many hits it takes to kill them, etc. For a real-time game like Wayward Souls, telling you the rules of the game is largely pointless – “this monster fires a fireball 10 pixels wide every 4 seconds that travels 10 pixels per second” is technically lots of actionable info but in practice you’d learn faster just watching the fireballs fly across the screen. As a whole, Wayward Soul’s refusal to tell you many of the rules ultimately doesn’t matter and even helps the accessibility of the game.

Five Card Quest is much worse off, though. Turn-based games, I’d argue, challenge a different part of your brain, and for reasons I’m not entirely sure of, that part of your brain *hates* even slightly ambiguous rules. As an example, one ability reads, “can interrupt some lightly armored foes.” Um, which ones? There’s no “lightly armored” characteristic anywhere, so in practice you have to spam the ability on various monsters to see whether they get stunned or not. This vagueness, combined with the bugginess, makes learning the game a nightmare. It’s one of the most unnecessarily obtuse games I’ve learned in a while.

Lastly, the game is just too damn easy. It has the typical card balance issues that you see in a lot of card games, and people with some experience are going to hone in on those pretty quick. Not surprisingly, a card that can draw 2 cards, do damage, prevent damage, and is FREE ends up being pretty good in this game. Once you start chaining free actions together it gets pretty easy, particularly given the overly forgiving rules regarding death (dead characters just revive next fight with a small amount of health).

So, the game sucks? Not quite! I’ve been ragging on Five Card Quest up until now, but one thing that is genuinely praiseworthy is the card system itself. You have monsters and your characters aligned in three “lanes”, and in general units can only attack the enemy across from them. So there’s some interesting positioning that happens as a result, in addition to the usual RPG tropes. This, combined with the FTL-like mechanics and lack of variance, made it an okay buy for me. After 5 (long-ish) playthroughs, I feel like I’ve seen most of what the game has to offer, but I had an okay time after the initial game 1 annoyances.

It’s about a 6/10.