Using level design to increase game difficulty in Myth 2

no trees 1

Most games change their difficulty by making the enemies more numerous or more powerful. But, I always like it when games designers do something unique and off the beaten path. Which brings me to something that happens in at least one level in Myth 2: Soulblighter, developed by Chicago Bungie. (I know System Shock 2 did some really cool things with custom difficulty settings, but I never got to play it and I certainly can’t play it on the computer I have now.)

trees 1

Myth 1 & 2 are some of the best games of their kind, of all time. No exaggeration. They were real time tactical games (no base building, no resource gathering, just armies) that were ahead of their time with 3D terrain, real physics, and weather effects. In my opinion, they were far superior to their RTS counterparts Warcraft, Total Annihiliation, and Command & Conquer due to Myth’s heavy reliance on quick thinking under extreme pressure. Friendly fire was “on” for all units and you couldn’t get new units, which forced you to be very tactical and intelligent in how you played the game.

(Gaming history sidenote: All Bungie products have acronyms on them that stand for actual phrases; fans figured them out and Bungie confirmed them. On Myth the WACCSMD stands for Warcraft and Command & Conquer, Suck My Dick; and on Myth 2 the TATRTSTS stands for Total Annihilation True Real Time Strategy Totally Sucks. HA HA! Game developers had real spirit back then. Can you imagine modern Washington Bungie doing something like that? No way, it wouldn’t be PR friendly.)

ANYWAY, let’s get back to talking about game difficulty.

In Myth 2, increasing the difficulty level increases the number of enemy units and the strength of their attacks. However, in the level “Down A Broken Path” you will also have extra obstacles (trees) when you increase difficulty. What’s important to understand is that ranged units are key to Myth strategy and the positioning of your units can alter the outcome of a battle, and adding obstacles reduces the effectiveness of both.

In “Down A Broken Path” you have to escort a slow moving civilian down a path to a nearby town. You have to protect him from the enemy patrols that try to ambush you and kill the civilian.

One of the first interesting areas you’ll encounter is a crossroads of three paths in the center of which is a hill.

On Normal difficulty (and lower) this works out great. The hill is elevated so it gives your ranged units greater range, and it’s surrounded by open terrain so your ranged units have a clear shot. On Normal difficulty it’s a no brainer to take a stand on this and take on the groups of enemies that come at you.

no trees 2trees 2

However, on Heroic and Legendary difficulties that hill has a couple of trees right in the middle of it. Immediately this reduces the advantage of taking this hill. The trees prevent your ranged units from getting as much height advantage. The trees reduce mobility, and thus make it more slow and clunky to retreat or reposition your units. Also, the trees make it harder to adapt to enemies coming from new directions. Let’s say you’re on one side of the hill shooting at enemies and a second group shows up behind you. With no trees (on normal difficulty) you can just turn your ranged units around and fire at the new group. But, when the trees are there (on heroic and legendary) you can’t just turn around because the trees are blocking your shots. You have to move your ranged units through the trees (which is slow and clunky), use your melee units to attack the new enemies (which is costly and dangerous), or retreat back down the hill the way you came to get some distance and attack the enemies when they’re coming through the trees and down the hill.

What I like about this change in difficulty is that it doesn’t just make a part of the level objectively harder. It also makes this part of the level harder in a way that gives the player more interesting decisions to make. On Normal difficulty it’s obvious that you make a stand on the hill. On harder difficulties it’s less obvious and how you choose to use the hill depends on the context of the battlefield.

no trees 3trees 3

I really haven’t seen this type of thing done in any other games. Scaling difficulty by altering terrain, level design, or geography is such a cool idea that I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often, or at all.

In all fairness, this design in “Down A Broken Path” only happens in this one level in the whole Myth series. If it happens in any other levels in Myth then I just don’t remember it. And this change in difficulty also only happens by adding extra trees, and not by changing the actual terrain or geography.

Nevertheless, I think it’s a very cool idea that more games should be using. Anyone out there remember any other types of games that did this?

(One final note, speculating on how the engine does this:

I think this mechanic/gimmick might have been possible due to how Myth was coded. All enemies and scenery objects are 2D sprites in Myth. If the engine considers both scenery and units to be the same class of objects, and decreasing difficulty decreases the number of objects on the map, then decreasing the difficulty would decrease the number of enemies AND the number of scenery objects. Not sure how accurate that is since this doesn’t happen with scenery objects in any other levels, but it is clearly a deliberate choice by the map designer. Maybe the map designer was able to trick the engine into thinking that those particular trees were enemy units. I’m not sure.)

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