How Little Things Escalate

“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:

  1. decrease the amount of time the player has to complete a goal

    Super Metroid

    at the climax of Super Metroid, the player has to escape the ship before it explodes

  2. increase the speed or power of obstacles

    Pac Man

    Pac Man’s ghost enemies speed up as the game escalates

    Bubble Bobble

    Bubble Bobble introduces the invincible Baron von Blubba when the player dawdles

  3. decrease the number of “chances” or “tries” the player has to complete a goal

    Donkey Kong

    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

  4. increase complexity


    as Bejewelled escalates, it introduces extra gem colours, which makes finding matches more challenging

  5. increase the grind – an action the player must perform repeatedly to be successful

    Gran Turismo

    Gran Turismo introduces endurance races where the player must race for a set number of real-time hours to win

    World of Warcraft

    World of Warcraft confronts the player with increasingly more difficult monsters, which forces the player to repeatedly kill weaker monsters to improve his stats

  6. decrease the amount of visual information available to the player

    The Legend of Zelda

    The Legend of Zelda periodically turns out the lights, and requires the player to doggedly re-ignite lamps

  7. 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.

    Diner Dash

    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:

Game Escalation Graphs

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.

Steve Ballmer

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.

Final Fight Car Smash

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.

Little Things

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

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.

Where's Waldo

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.

10 thoughts on “How Little Things Escalate

  1. Mushyrulez

    Lightning bolt, hotness. Haha, I get it!

    Does grinding really escalate a game? In a MMO, although you gain levels progressively slower as you increase in level, the overall difficulty is still the same. Where at level 1 you might have done 10 damage and had 100 health, with enemies that did 1 damage with 10 house, at level 100 you might do 1000 damage and have 10000 health, and all the enemies deal 100 damage and have 1000 health – which is still relatively the same. It doesn’t get harder, compared to things like Tetris, where with time increasing it actually does get harder.

    Perhaps lightning-bolt works because it gives a sense of accomplishment, especially if the lightning bolt actually is based on difficulty and not grinding – you do something really hard, and suddenly everything seems really easy. Yet, there’s obviously a limit to how hard you can make something – there’s really not much of a difference between the ‘easy’ beginning and the ‘hard’ end. By not much, I mean a good player would be able to clear both /relatively/ easily. And of course, by relatively, I mean not spend three years on it :p

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Increasing the grind definitely makes a game more difficult, in a weird way. It’s hard to sit down and do a 24-hour endurance race in Gran Turismo. It’s hard to face the last boss in a Final Fantasy game and sit through mutliple 15-minute-long summons animations. It doesn’t require more skill – it requires more commitment. By that token, it’s more difficult.

      > there’s really not much of a difference between the ‘easy’ beginning and the ‘hard’ end.

      Spoken like someone who’s never finished Contra. ;)

  2. Alex Milkmen

    the ‘lightning bolt’ tense and release cycle is covered in Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design. Might be the source you were thinking of if you’ve read it recently.

  3. kalm-man

    Rate this Post:

    Fatal error: Call to undefined function get_option() in C:\wamp\www\\www\blog\wp-content\plugins\wp-postratings\wp-postratings.php on line 32

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Did you try to give it one star? It’ll break unless you give it the highest rating possible. Try again.

  4. UnSub

    Isn’t the picture you used there of the car smashing mini-game from Street Figher II, not Final Fight? That looks like Ken, not Guy, Cody or Super-Wrestling Mayor Haggar.

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Of course, you are right. i didn’t realize both games had car smash levels. This grievous error has been corrected.

  5. Pingback: Raph Koster Social Mechanics for Social Games « Doing The Right Things Right

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