Difficulty Curves in Games – Lessons for Product Builders

A young girl wakes up in a daze. 

“Where is everyone?” 

She walks out of her room and searches her house. Her family is missing. She can hear some noise outside. She can also smell smoke. She picks up her dada’s old wooden sword and walks out of her house. The entire village is burning. A large shadow in the distance is moving towards her. 

She gasps! It is a rat monster from the forest. What is it doing here? The rat monster attacks. She fends off the first attack. Her entire right arm is blazing. She attacks back. She connects. The monster staggers back and evaporates. She turns around to find two more rat monsters staring her down. She paries and moves around to fight one of them at a time, not letting both monsters attack her at once. She is hurt. But she destroys both the monsters. Her wooden sword is broken. 

She finds a healing potion next to the first rat monster. She drinks it and is healed. She finds a satchel next to the other rat monsters and opens it. It is much larger on the inside. Her hand touches something metallic. She draws it out. It is a sword. A proper steel sword. The next rat monster won’t stand a chance. 

A lot of adventure games start with a similar storyline. 

  • Hero finds a weapon 
  • Hero finds the first enemy 
  • With some difficulty, hero wins
  • Hero meets more enemies
  • Hero loses health 
  • Hero heals 
  • Hero upgrades weapon 
  • Hero finds it easier to defeat enemies
  • Stronger enemies emerge

And the cycle continues. More evolved stories and games will involve a quest-giver – a mentor who helps our hero on her journey. 

If one were to plot the difficulty curve of a game like this over time it would appear something like this: 

Let’s zoom in and try and understand each part of that curve: 

  • Rising difficulty – whoa I am going to die
  • Local maxima – ouch ouch ouch ouch – nasty boss
  • Phew – I am getting a hang of it
  • Local minima – easy peasy – bring on the next challenge

At each new local maxima you have mastered a new weapon or a new set of moves and defeated a boss. Each local minima allows you to pause and appreciate what you have learned so far. It also provides a breather before the next spike in difficulty. 

There is an alternate difficulty curve in some games: 

  • Left for dead – this boss is too difficult – escape
  • Let’s start from scratch 
  • Rising difficulty – whoa I am going to die
  • Local maxima – ouch ouch ouch ouch – nasty boss
  • Phew – I am getting a hang of it
  • Local minima – easy peasy – bring on the next challenge

This makes for a more compelling story arc. 

What can product builders learn from such difficulty curves in games:

  • Your product has a difficulty curve of its own – think of all the funnels 
  • Users are learning new actions and new functionality at each step of the way
  • These repeated actions are critical for the success of your product 
  • You want to provide the dopamine rush of mastering a functionality/ successfully completing a set of actions
  • Repeated use still needs to be delightful 
  • What is the journey from user to power-user? Does your product need this? 

Try and map out the first time user experience of your product on a user difficulty curve. See the ups and downs. Are there moments of delight (victory)? The Swiggy blue tick mark, on placing an order successfully, instantly comes to mind. Does the curve stagnate over time on repeated usage? Has the user become proficient in using your product? Are there more peaks to climb – does the search on Slack work well for all users? How long before the user tags a friend in their picture? How long before they get their first like? 


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One Reply to “Difficulty Curves in Games – Lessons for Product Builders”

  1. As I have read and understood Nir Eyal, every trough and peak achieved is a variable reward as a user experience followed by user investing their time and effort to achieve more in reaching the maxima again, in the midst an interesting implicit triggers of controls, enemy tactics and weapons gets established in user’s mind on what to do next and the ability to take action is reinforced with the trigger with the motivation and ability to take action.
    It perfectly fits the bill of Hook cycle ! Great article to read and comprehend for habit forming products.

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