“Escalation” is the term game developers use to describe the ways in which a video game gets progressively more challenging. There are many different ways to escalate a game. Here are a few:
- decrease the amount of time the player has to complete a goal
at the climax of Super Metroid, the player has to escape the ship before it explodes
- increase the speed or power of obstacles
Pac Man’s ghost enemies speed up as the game escalates
Bubble Bobble introduces the invincible Baron von Blubba when the player dawdles
- decrease the number of “chances” or “tries” the player has to complete a goal
Donkey Kong gives the player a set number of tries (“lives”) as the game escalates before the machine requires another quarter and the player has to start from the beginning
- increase complexity
as Bejewelled escalates, it introduces extra gem colours, which makes finding matches more challenging
- increase the grind – an action the player must perform repeatedly to be successful
Gran Turismo introduces endurance races where the player must race for a set number of real-time hours to win
World of Warcraft confronts the player with increasingly more difficult monsters, which forces the player to repeatedly kill weaker monsters to improve his stats
- decrease the amount of visual information available to the player
The Legend of Zelda periodically turns out the lights, and requires the player to doggedly re-ignite lamps
- increase the quota – the number of small goals the player must complete within the time limit. This is really just a variation on decreasing the time limit.
As each level progesses, Diner Dash increases the number of customers you have to serve
Lightning Bolt! Lightning Bolt!
i learned an interesting tip about escalation. i wish i could credit my source, but i have a memory like a sieve . (Mother Nature escalates my life by increasingly turning me into a doddering old fool.) The tip is to escalate your game with a lightning bolt graph, rather than a smooth incline. Regard:
In an old-school arcade game, the levels get progressively more insane, until you lose the game and have to feed the machine more quarters. This makes sense for a coin-op that exists to devour your hard-earned pocket change, but it doesn’t make sense if you’re designing a more modern game where you want your player to be engaged for as long as possible. A freemium game, for example, lives and dies by retaining players; a linear escalation curve increases the likelihood that the player will quit out of fear or exhaustion. If he just barely makes it out of level 10 by the skin of his teeth, he may not even want to attempt level 11. He’d sooner quit while he’s ahead.
Is that all you got?? BRING ON THE WATER TEMPLE!!
A modern game that strives for retention might use a lightning bolt or stair-step graph. Here, level 10 was insanely difficult, but level 11 gives the player a bit of a breather. One of the early examples of this approach that i can remember is the coin-op beat-em-up Final Fight. After brawling your way through a preposterously crime-ridden city as the roid-raging mayor or one of his two ninja buddies, you get to smash a car. No bad guys, no chance of death, no risk of losing – just a time-limited opportunity to smash a car.
Because nothing says “tough on crime” like the mayor engaging in a little senseless vandalism.
A more modern example is Little Things, a hidden object game on the iPad that i’ve been playing this week. The levels in Little Things are, refreshingly, NOT rooms in a Victorian mansion in which a child ghost has murdered a wealthy detective. Instead, they’re little pictures composed of even smaller pictures. The player has to complete his quota by finding the items on the list.
i was trying to keep this article classy, but they had to go mentioning shuttlecocks.
Some of these pictures make it easier to find the little things within. The umbrella’s striped design makes it easier to compartmentalize sections of the image and limit your focus. In contrast, the hideously jam-packed cupcake is a real challenge to sift through.
Little Things beagle: easy. Little things hamburger: not-so-easy. (This is somewhat of a reversal of real life.)
If Little Things were to escalate linearly, you’d unlock the easy pictures at the beginning of the game, and the denser pictures towards the end. But Little Things has a staggered escalation; the densely-populated hamburger is introduced before the cinchy electric guitar. If the escalation was linear, you’d complete 10 missions in the beagle picture before moving on to complete 10 further missions in the wheelbarrow picture. Instead, Little Things bounces around from picture to picture, shuffling in the easier images to give the player a break. Even the missions themselves are staggered: in one instance, you’ll find yourself scouring the level for 15 objects under distinct time pressure; the very next level, you’ll need to point at four pairs of sunglasses in one of the easier pictures.
Serously – there he is. He’s RIGHT THERE. Just click on him. 50 points.
The net effect is that Little Things held my attention much longer than it would have if its escalation were progressive. Give consideration to staggered escalation if you count player retention among your next game’s goals.