Difficulty curves are, perhaps unsurprisingly, difficult. The theory is simple enough: add a mechanic, teach it, test it, combine with the existing mechanics, slowly ramp up to a climax (or ‘boss’), optionally have an easy level to celebrate the player’s success, repeat until you run out of mechanics or development time.
The problem is that it never really goes that smoothly. Some mechanics are more complex than others, and should therefore need more time. Story and experience constraints (how long you want a player to play before giving them a break) can affect or dictate pacing. The number of mechanics the game needs can be dictated by considerations that aren’t the development time (such as ‘what will make the game feel complete’, and ‘there are 4 fundamental forces of physics’), and players are notorious for being individuals who each approach a given game very differently.
Particulars, as you may have guessed, has hit a number of these hurdles. Specifically, the second half of the game contains mechanics that are significantly more complex than the first half, but for many varied reasons (story, pacing, development time), the second half is essentially the same length as the first. This means we have to get through a lot more content in the same amount of time.
This might make it seem like the second half of the game is doomed, but not to worry - we do have some tricks up our sleeve. If the problem is that the player needs to learn more, more quickly, the solution becomes apparent: we need to treat learning as a skill that the player needs to learn. That way, by the time players hit Chapter 6, players are used to having to work out some of the physics for themselves. The key then is to give them the right tools for the job.
As luck would have it, we’re already doing a lot of this: Chapter 4, in particular, increases the amount of thinking and examination that players need to do. We give a lot less direction there (mostly because we hadn’t gotten to it yet, but I’m not above using serendipity as part of the design process), and players have generally enjoyed the greater freedom that goes with it. With some more work, we’ll be able to smoothly transition into that mode of play (it’s a bit abrupt at the moment).
Which brings us to the other half of the equation: having the right tools available to players. To that end, we’re adding what we’re calling ‘helpers’ - they’re panels of information about each of the forces which help you to figure out how each of them work. These then link into the examination mode tooltips for particles.
Clearly, we need to teach players to use these helpers, but that’s a task for another week.
As of today, we’ve got panels for the Weak and Strong forces in the game. If you want to check them out, just go into a level in chapters 6-8, press control to go into examination mode and try them! We’d love to know what you think.