We've talked about what modding a game involves, but another huge misconception I find is what constitutes a good mod. For the sake of this article, we're going to be restricting this largely to difficulty mods, for obvious reasons.
To create a good difficulty mod, you have to look at the following:
- Difficulty Curve
- Difficulty Type
- Technical Limitations
Each of these must be managed and/or worked around appropriately in order to make a good mod, and to be honest, these are largely applicable to any type of mod, not just difficulty mods.
First and foremost, a difficulty curve is absolutely essential to any kind of mod, hardtype or not.
A mod that is really tough from the get go will quickly reach the point where strategical difficulty becomes statistical difficulty, or in other words, your well thought out strategies will become simply a numbers game. Or, failing that, will reach a point where the player simply isn't enjoying themselves anymore. A huge offender of this is Phantasy Star IV: Purgatory Mode. The difficulty is very high at the beginning (characters being one shot in the first dungeon) and does not let up.
It's also very possible for your mod to be too easy as well. Ideally, you want a difficulty curve that challenges the player to step up their game, but you don't want the game to beat them into submission either.
Just as important as the difficulty curve is the type of difficulty. Difficulty is something that, in RPGs, needs to be present at all times in some way, shape, or form. How much is comfortable both depends on the mod, and the player. I'm not going to say that any one type of difficulty is superior to another, because to be quite honest it's all subjective. What you find fun may not be what another person finds fun.
Most RPG mods try to have a heavy emphasis on what I call strategical difficulty. The term is self-explanatory; the difficulty comes from the strategies you employ rather than your overall stats. Golden Sun 2: Risen Star and Final Fantasy VI: Brave New World are two mods that do this very well. This is generally a very fun type of difficulty that a lot of people who enjoy RPGs enjoy.
Some people find enjoyment in the type of statistical difficulty I mentioned before, and there's nothing wrong with that. If your mod is targeting that crowd of people, have at it, just don't expect those outside of that group to find it very fun or entertaining.
There's another type of difficulty that you generally won't see emphasized too much outside of action games: reaction-based difficulty. A really good example of this is our Megaman X Hardtype created by Hart-Hunt. The emphasis on your reaction time is displayed quite clearly in the very first level and sets the tone for the rest of the mod.
Then there are certain mods that combine all three of these: strategy, statistical, and reaction time. In this case, the statistical part of the formula is most often done through equipment choices and, if applicable, the game's job/class system.
As a side note, a concept regarding difficulty that is something of a golden rule is to never break an established "law" without telling the player. If the player has gotten used to playing a certain way (most of the time different from the original), you don't simply change that completely without giving the player some kind of clue. Teaching the player to use different strategies is well and good, but don't do something like emphasize highly aggressive play in the first 75% of the game and then completely nullify that playstyle in the last 25%. You know who you are.
Content in a mod is many things. It is the number of viable equipment and abilities, the new stuff you add to the game, and, to add onto the first, builds.
The best poster child for content I've seen has got to be, without a doubt, Brave New World. BTB and Synchysi have added a lot of things to the game, and in doing so made practically everything viable. Every piece of equipment and every ability is useful, niche or not. Every character is viable and has multiple builds, each of them with different strengths and weaknesses. This adds a lot of replayability to the mod as a result.
Something to always be cautious of, however, is overbalancing. Ideally, you want to make as many things viable as you can, but also give the player the freedom to experiment. Pigeon-holing the player into using that one ability for a given fight over all others (not to be confused with an intelligent choice of abilities for a fight) is not a good thing.
Tedium goes hand in hand with the first two points about difficulty curve and type. If you want grinding to be a necessity, that's fine. Just don't expect a lot of people to be a huge fan of your mod, because let's face it, people generally don't like tedious, arbitrary, repetitive tasks.
The key word there is "arbitrary." I'll use Final Fantasy Tactics 1.3 as an example: everything in the Deep Dungeon is level 99, but the Deep Dungeon is optional. You can complete the game without ever grinding a single point of exp or JP. However, it is not uncommon to feel like in order to compete later on in the game, you need to poach items. Poaching is exactly that: a tedious, arbitrary, repetitive task that very few people find even remotely interesting.
Brave New World (most mods that we host, really) does a very good job of this. If you fight every battle you get into, then you won't have to grind at all. If you run from battles, there's obviously going to come a point where you need to do a little grinding to keep pace.
It's always good to see that a modder has put up safeguards to deter the brute force (beating a fight with levels, not strategy) approach to a given boss fight. as well. For example, I had a situation where a mod I was designing was going through one of its first betas, and a certain tester brute forced his way past the first boss. To curb that urge, I made the ability (that he was grinding for) do significantly less damage. You can also spin this another way, and make a boss counter a particular ability with an attack that almost wipes out your entire party.
That said, you also don't want to create a situation where you're countering everything, because then it's just not fun anymore. You're just beating them into submission, which is bad, remember? Speaking on modders for a moment, there is also something to be said about how you, as a modder, try to balance around what the player may or may not do. It is a mistake to try and have complete control over what the player will do, because that stymies creativity and interesting mechanics.
"The hand of the developer should be invisible and gentle, not gigantic and shoved up your ass." - BTB, Co-creator of Brave New World
Ah, technical limitations, the bane of a modder. Anyone who has ever modded something knows all too well what these roadblocks feel like. However, all is not lost; these roadblocks are expected. As a modder, you have to find a way to work around them, as we all do.
Sometimes you work around them with mechanics, sometimes you cut to the root of the problem and change it with an Assembly hack, but regardless, you still have to get past it or your project is doomed.
Do not be afraid to ask for help. That's what we're here for.
Edited by Kyrios