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TT: Difficulty

Tecku January 19, 2015 User blog:Tecku

Man, it's been a while since my last blog, hasn't it? With the release of Frostbite Caves, many people have found a source of great joy. However, some complain that it's not challenging enough. Today, I want to talk about difficulty, and how it fits into the game.

Tecku Talks About: Difficulty

Many people on the wiki (Moonshan being the most motable one) criticize Frostbite Caves for being easier than Big Wave Beach and, to an extent, the Dark Ages. However, I do feel that while Frostbite Caves may be easier than the others, it also handles the concept of difficultly better. To understand this, I have composed a theory on how difficult levels can be implement into the game without obstructing player enjoyment. The theory is divided into five parts: Potential of Challenge, Variety of Base, Zombie Inheritence, Blame Inheritence, and Replayability.

Potential of Challenge

Part one of my theory, potential, is a statement that difficult challenges must be available to the player. These challenges may come in the form of Endless Zones, set requirements (star-earning pre-1.7), survival zones, etc. No matter what world the players visit, there must be some sort of obstacle that can increase the difficulty of the player. In other words, there must be ways for the player to challenge themselves in every world.

Now, I do feel that PopCap has done an O.K. job on this. Endless Zones in particular are great examples of potential difficultly. However, I believe that many sources of challenge were lost in the 1.7 update. Star challenges were great ways to push the player further in their strategic manuvers without shoving them in their face. But, as is, we still have lots of ways to challenge ourselves. In fact, players who seek difficult challenges can look to this very wiki. The "Challenge of the Day" thread is a great way to keep challenge in the game. Indeed, I feel potential of challenge is met for every level (except Frostbite Caves ONLY becuase its endless zone isn't out YET).

Variety of Base

Variety of Base (title pending) is essentially the opposite of Potential of Challenge, and yet the two go hand in hand. What it means is that there must be more than a few levels in each world that can keep true to the basic formula of PvZ, but also be relatively simple such that the player can enjoy the mechanics of each world. In other words, there must be some levels where I can have fun casually instead of being frustrating. The most important times for this are the first levels of a new world, and levels where players gets to try out a new plant.

This is where Big Wave Beach failed miserably. Right from the get-go, players are thrown into zombies hordes that escalate way too quick, and many of the early levels have inherintly frustraing ambushes. The first few levels needs to be a phase of experimentation. Players needs to test out strategies to see what new strategies can be made, and how to set up for later levels. In this world, not only does that not happen, but there are almost no relaxing, straightforward levels later on. I don't want to experiment with Guacodile and Banana Launcher, I just want to stick with my classic strategies.

- "But later worlds need to be harder than the earlier ones!"

Allow me to address this in the next part of my thesis.

Zombie Inheritance

Zombie Inheritance, perhaps the most opinionated of the thesis, states that zombies must be relatively balanced world to world. In other words, you can't just keep making zombies and zombie waves tougher and tougher and tougher without providing tools and stategies against them.

For example, Football Zombie is tougher than most regular zombies. However, he appears much less often than them. This is an example of zombie inheritance. Barrel Roller Zombie is also tougher, but has a weakness with Spikeweed. This is also an example of zombie inheritance. Octo Zombie has the health of a Buckethead, has a powerful mechanic, and has no set counters. This is not an example of zombie inheritance. Zombies cannot just become tougher and tougher for no apparent reason.

- "But later worlds need to be harder than the earlier ones!"

In some ways, yes. But simply increasing zombie power is not the answer. Why? Because the plants do not change. A Peashooter in Ancient Egypt will have the same rate of fire at Frostbite Caves. That's why the later worlds need to be deeper, not just harder. In the first game, zombies would become more diverse with each level, levels became longer, and each world would have a more complicated mechanic. However, the players would get more seed slots as the game progressed, letting them use more diverse strategies. This made the gameplay deeper, as players would have to plan for each zombie, as well as the tough, far off final wave (often including Gargantuars), but it didn't make the starting waves harder.

Blame Inheritance

This one is pretty self explanatory. When making a difficult level, players need to be able to see where they screwed up, instead of blaming the game. In Frostbite Caves, when I failed a level, I knew where I failed, and what to try next time. Not so much in Big Wave Beach or Dark Ages. Fisherman Zombie had high health, often came in hordes, and could grapple plants quickly and remotely, with no counters. The thing could even survive a blast from a Citron. Zombie Kings would work faster than Magnet-shroom, and the Knight Zombies it made would protect it from everything but AOE attacks, which didn't have a lot of firepower.

The game needs to give the player ways to counter zombies, and overcome the challenges. The only exceptions to this are high-difficulty challenges and Endless Zones. High-difficulty challenges are designed to take multiple efforts to find the right niche, whereas Endless Zones are supposed to eventually overwhelm the player. Having a player fail a level is bad unless a player can learn from it.


Whether a world is hard or easy, it needs something to keep me coming back to it. However, I never find myself coming back to BWB that often. There are a few levels I like, such as Day 26 and Day 32, but I can never find a way to keep myself playing the levels. It feels like every level has only one or two set strategies, and that doesn't make for good replays. On Frostbite Caves, however, it's a whole different story. Not only have I found multiple setups for the levels, but I have found many people with their own ideas for beating it. Even the Dark Ages has different options with Ghost Pepper and Banana Launcher. But with BWB, it just seems bland, right down to the Endless Zone.

So that's my idea on difficulty. So, how would I handle the game? Well, to be blunt, I think that pre-1.7 really got everything right down pat. Challenges were optional, but enjoyable. If I had to, the only changes I would have made would be to implement the gem system instead of world keys for the gates, and maybe throw some tough zombies exclusively into the Endless Zones.

Do you agree? Do you disagree? Do you have your own ideas about what makes difficulty fun? Comment below! Also, my next Tecku Talks will be a voting page on possible subjects for me to talk about. Feel free to leave ideas below!

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