The resurgence of challenging games has brought back an old-school approach to development. However, not every game gets the delicate balance correct so hopefully this article will be insightful enough for you to implement the perfect difficulty for your next game.
Challenging but fair
Plenty of games constantly make players want to throw their controllers yet they hold on to them tightly since they know they'll do better next time. The key to crafting gameplay like this is to ensure that the player knows without a doubt that it's their fault that they failed while also feeling as if it's completely surmountable. A great example of this is Super Meat Boy. The controls are tight and responsive and you can clearly see where all the danger lurks. Once you land on some spikes or have a saw tear right through you then you know that you messed up. Another game that exemplifies this is Hotline Miami. Although you may not see an enemy who quickly snuffs you out from a distance, you would come to the conclusion that you should have scoped out your surroundings before you rushed ahead. What both of these games have in common is that failure isn't that punishing since you can easily restart the stage and give it another go without any repercussions; which brings me to my next point.
Your efforts shall not go unrewarded
A growing genre that inherently punishes you for failure is the roguelike. Some of these games are much more penalizing than others, but what will keep players coming back for more is when they can hold on to some token of their progress after they perish. Whether it's uncovering more of the map, keeping your acquired loot, or retaining your learned abilities; there should be some sort of progress made at every attempt. Rogue Legacy accomplished this masterfully by allowing you to keep your gold that you could use to level up, purchase equipment, and even lock down the randomly generated world so it's familiar the next time you enter it. Anyway, the carried-over elements should be significant yet not significant enough that it makes the game too easy. In other words, you wouldn't want the player to feel like they just wasted their time while you also wouldn't want them to easily grind their way through without a care in the world.
Learning from From
From Software took the gaming world by storm when they released the first title of their Souls series in 2009. One aspect that they perfected was its immense yet fair challenge that sunk its teeth into players and had them hooked until the end. They managed to do this by combining my previous two points. You always knew why you bit the dust even if a dragon swooped in from seemingly out of nowhere and lit you on fire. Also, you got to keep all of your collected items. However, the one feature that no gamer could resist is the temptation to retrieve your souls from the location where you just croaked. Although you were punished by having a smaller health meter and an increased difficulty, the opportunity to potentially gain everything back is a mechanic that made you focus with nothing but vengeance in your heart to take back what rightfully belonged to you. Years later, the instant classic Shovel Knight implemented a similar system where you could collect your lost gold after losing a life. Hopefully more games incorporate this system down the road.
But... that's impossible!
Finally, if you're looking to cater to a niche crowd in the hopes of becoming a cult hit then why not make a game that's brutally difficult? The aptly-named "The World's Hardest Game" and "The Impossible Game" paved the way for many future developers to try and create the most difficult game in the world. These games may not appeal to the masses, but tapping into the culture that surrounds them could be worth the effort. Imagine all of the YouTube videos of people reacting to and trying to master your game. Recently, Cosmophony had gamers weave between fast-moving obstacles in stages that merely lasted two minutes yet only the best gamers around could complete them all. Velocibox offered similar gameplay yet its much shorter stages allowed more of a chance to make it through the game even if it were to be by pure happenstance. This may not be the most lucrative option, but it's definitely one worth exploring.
That about does it for my exploration of what makes challenging games fun. I hope this was insightful enough to get you thinking about how to craft your next game. If you liked reading it or want to offer your own perspective then please leave a comment below.