HotM:Game Difficulty

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Arcen is known for making very difficult games, but with a lot of settings for difficulty. So you may be surprised to hear that -- after many iterations of experimenting with the concept of difficulty in this game -- I've gone with "there are no difficulty settings in this game." It will make sense shortly.

Why No Traditional Difficulty?

Traditional difficulty levels have a lot of problems.

  • First of all, it's asking you to predict in advance how hard of a challenge you can take on. If you guess wrong, you're going to either get stomped or you're going to have a boringly easy time.
  • Secondly, it creates a system of "troughs," even if there are a lot of difficulty options. If difficulty 6 is just slightly too easy for you, and difficulty 7 is just slightly too hard, then you're going to be perpetually uncomfortable until you get a bit better a the game. But how do you know when you've gotten "enough better" to actually move to difficulty 7?

There are other reasons as well, and I could talk about the cascading effects of all this, but that would be quite an essay. The two above are sufficient on their own, and the rest just reinforce the point.

Disincentives To Try New Content And Modes

A thing I've observed with AI War is that players have a deep reluctance, on balance, to try facing new factions, or engaging with new content. It could be amazing content that they would love... but when it's in the form of an early decision in a lobby, and it's clearly going to have some impact on difficulty either up or down... players tend to default to just going with the default factions. Other content, like new units or equipment or things to discover out in the world, they'll happily engage with. But a large, monolithic addition in the lobby? Those go deeply unused.

Heart of the Machine was designed to not require a lobby with a bunch of options specifically to get more players comfortable engaging with more parts of the game. This is deeply tied to difficulty, but it's not purely a difficulty issue. It's just one of the many other side-effects, in a bad way, of having a lobby with a lot of options, rather than the same volume of options, but expressed through gameplay. And if you're already having players making those sorts of large choices during gameplay... difficulty itself is a great one to also roll into that.

How Hard Is This Game, Then?

It depends.

  • The game is broken out into chapters, and the availability of difficult challenges increases as you get further into those.
    • The prologue is not hard at all. Early chapter one is also not hard. Later chapter one can be more challenging, depending on how you play. Chapter two and onwards let you select much more difficult situations, but it's not required.
  • Within a given chapter, there are project chains, and these get more difficult as you progress further into them.
    • The more rare or side-content-y a project chain is, the harder it is likely to be, but again it varies... a lot.
  • Within a given city timeline, there are multiple goal tiers, which basically is like winning a timeline and then going into NewGame+ on it, kinda sorta. The higher goal tiers are substantially harder.
    • These are not available until chapter two, and are not a focus for initial launch of the game. For reasons that are probably obvious, the focus is lots of of first-tier goal options, since that's where most people will spend most of their time.
  • When starting a new timeline, which is an option starting in chapter two, you can choose a machine origin, which makes SOME aspects of the game harder or easier in some specific ways.
    • This does not cause a blanket cascade of changes within the game. Rather, it affects a few key dials in a few specific ways, which additively combine with the other sources of difficulty.
  • In general, this is choose your own difficulty as you go as a model.
    • That deserves it's own section, so see below.

What Does "Choose Your Own Difficulty As You Go?" Mean?

In general, as you play any given project chain, especially the critical path ones (as opposed to side jaunts), the game gets progressively more difficult.

  • If you just stick to the critical path, and do no side jaunts, then in chapter two and onward the game is meant to be functionally impossible to win.
    • I can already hear some of you gearing up to prove me wrong, and that's absolutely fine.
  • When you run into a roadblock on the critical path, or even on a side path, you have two options:
    • First, keep beating your head against that rock, and see if you can crack it. If you feel like you can, and that sort of thing is your style, then go for it.
    • Secondly, go do something else that makes you stronger, and then come back.
      • If you go do a TON of side stuff and make yourself very very powerful, then you'll have a very easy time unless this is super-late-game content.
        • For people who want a relaxed experience where they just explore the game, this is how to play.
      • If you go do only a few side things, chosen carefully to benefit your specific needs for the path you were struggling with, then when you come back it's still going to be some degree of hard, but not unwinnable.
        • For people who want a hardcore strategic experience that tests their wits, this is how to play.
        • That said, it's probably better to play a number of timelines first, and get a general understanding of how they work and what their options are, before you try this. You'll have a better time, I bet. But it's up to you.

The Elden Ring Influence

I have spoken a lot of times about what an influence Elden Ring was on me when it comes to how it handled dynamic difficulty, and the general flow here is pretty similar to the general flow there -- with the exception that you can make your avatar a lot more overpowered here than in Elden Ring.

In other words, Elden Ring allowed players to choose difficulty by what content they did in what order, but only within a narrow range. I chose to bring that general style to strategy games, but with a much wider range. It's a fascinating way of handling difficulty, I think.

For competitive games that wouldn't work at all, but this isn't that kind of game.

A Typical Flow Of Play

The typical flow in Heart of the Machine goes like this:

  • Play the critical path(s) that interest you, and do side content that you see that interests you, as you see fit.
  • Encounter something on one of the paths that absolutely kicks your butt.
    • Please note that this doesn't mean you lose the game, or even the path. But rather, you just can't progress. It's a brick wall to you.
    • You can safely try the hard thing multiple times, and kind of get a sense for it, and what might help you win it -- without having to save and reload.
  • Now you have a choice:
    • Either go do something unrelated for a while and hope you get stronger in some way that helps with the hard thing.
      • This is going to lead to a more RPG-like experience, which is fine.
    • Or specifically study the map a bit, and think about your options, and what is most likely to help you solve your problem. Then pursue that.
      • This is a more strategic experience, and when I talk about "route planning," this is a big part of what I mean.

How Do I Brag That I "Beat A High Difficulty?"

Or put another way, "how do you know that you played a super-efficient, tight, game and won with style and skill?"

  • Short answer: you don't.
  • Longer answer: it's up to your own feelings on the matter, and if you achieved the things you wanted to achieve in a given timeline, and how you feel you executed your plan.
    • There is no objective way to measure this.
      • There ARE objective measures that I could put in, but those would then become the focus for a lot of people, and that would then completely undermine the intended flow and experience of the game.
  • In general, if you want to challenge yourself, then try to avoid taking on certain optional side content that powers you up, and see if you can still win in that way.
    • No, I am not going to put in a counter for how few side pieces of content you did -- again, this would become the focus for people. I strongly considered this, but it will just absolutely destroy the feel for a lot of people.
    • Or use the other self-selecting difficulty modifiers that were mentioned above. The fact that those exist is another good reason why a counter for "most efficient use of side content" is not in the game or advised to be there.
  • The general effects of RNG, plus your own additive choices which have butterfly effects on the scenario, also make it so that it's intensely apples and oranges in any given scenario. If you beat a given scenario with a certain theoretical "efficiency score" one time, there are a lot of reasons why you might not ever be able to quite duplicate that. This just isn't that kind of game.

So What Do I Brag About?

Secrets. Cleverness. Route effectiveness. And whatever else you feel like, of course.

  • As you play, you'll discover things that other people may not have noticed. Or obscure mechanics that require a specific sequence of events to get to.
    • If you and another player both have 50 hours in the game, and you show them something, and they're like "how did you even GET that!?" then you can tell them. This is a lot more fun than bragging about difficulty, I think.
  • You're likely to discover combinations of uses for abilities, items, units, and situations that I never thought of, and that you might be the first to experience in general.
    • Telling people "check out this cool combo I just pulled off, this was nuts" is a really fun thing!
  • Some content is harder to get to than others. But a lot of times there are multiple ways to get there.
    • This is sort of a temporal-flow mapping situation. "What is the most effective way to get from A to Z" is something people will be figuring out for a long while.
    • Most of the time, especially for the first dozen or few dozen hours, it's better to just not read guides and enjoy the experience. But for experienced players who like to optimize, figuring out clever routes and combos to get to difficult content more quickly and reliably will probably be a focus.

Or just enjoy the game. I'm not saying you need anything to brag about. But really when I say brag, I really mean "what is the yardstick for knowing I'm doing well and/or getting better?" These are some of the main yardsticks.

What Is The Point Of This Game, Boiled Down?

Exploration and decision-making.

This isn't a test of skill. It's not a game where you can repeatedly set up the same exact scenario and then try to optimize that.

This is a game about constantly finding new stuff, and making an educated guess as to how to best deal with that stuff, and then making tactical choices in response to that.

The strategy of it comes from seeing the macro state of the game, and then making choices that try to move that macro state in the direction you want in the most effective way possible.

Cozy Or Stressful?

Beyond the above, there's a generalized topic of how cozy or stressful this can be long term, which deserves it's own page: Cozy Or Stressful?