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I'm at a stage where I'm trying to design an initial world or set of levels to help me think about and test progression in a dungeon crawler. For some reason this has really stopped me in my tracks. I know that I want my player's heros to get stronger, and I want the game to get more difficult so they can't over power anything. This really is the game loop anyways.

So what I tried to do to distill the progression design down is to literally focus on nothing but HP and Damage increase. How do I make this interesting if the player power and enemy power looks something like this:

  1. Level 1 Hero has 100HP/10DMG, Level 1 Enemy has 50HP/10DMG
  2. Level 2 Hero has 200HP/20DMG, Level 2 Enemy has 100HP/20DMG
  3. Level 3 Hero has 300HP/30DMG, Level 3 Enemy has 150HP/30DMG

As you can see, the balance ratio between the two always stays at 2:1. The fight will take the same amount of time. It will look the same from HP bars losing life. Why would the player keep wanting to play or even care about leveling up if this is how the game goes? This isn't fun. It isn't interesting. But it is a linear balance curve of 2:1. Ok, I've designed that I guess.

So of course the next step is to make the player be stronger than the enemies for a bit after they level up. They want to feel strong, right? Well how long do I do this for? How long do I wait until I make the enemies stronger and challenging again so the player wants to level up to get stronger again? How do I know exactly how strong a hero will be at each level in my world?

That's one problem.

The second thing to consider is that simply giving stat increases is incredibly boring. So instead, I'd like to give the player's spells and abilities which effectively increase their HP or DMG. How often do I give them these? How do I keep it fun between levels? How do I know how strong a hero will be at each level in my world?

...

I think looking at it this way has taken the magic out of the game and design, but is there any other way? How do I get past this and is there common ways to look at this type of hero vs. enemy/level balance?

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    \$\begingroup\$ How is designed your favourite game of the same genre? How did they make it interesting? Without copying every elements, you could use this to answer a couple of questions. \$\endgroup\$
    – Vaillancourt
    Jun 28 at 1:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ How and when to increase HP/damage and give abilities (and add monster variety) would depend a lot on your game and how fast-paced and difficult you want the game to be. You could perhaps try to write down the applicable numbers at each point to see if they make sense. If you don't have a good idea of what they should look like, you should probably just start off with something that seems vaguely reasonable (even if it's not very good) and do plenty of playtesting to see how well it works and tweak it. You should do a lot of playtesting regardless. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 28 at 9:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks. One of the realizations I had yesterday is that if I don't implement other core parts of the system (like a party), then I can't begin play testing accurately in the first place. I've been trying to just do 1 hero vs 1 enemy to check the progression but it's too hard to get a feel for it. After all, the point of a party is to balance them so that one shores up the next's weakness. I will need this first. I'm also keeping in mind the games I like but I will have to wait to try out their feel before I finish more of the game. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 29 at 3:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, planning when you want to reveal new mechanics (some kind of buff/debuff for example) might help. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eraw
    2 days ago
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Feeling stat increases

My initial suggestion to help player's feel increase in raw stats is to let player's experience over-leveled mobs early. These OP mobs shouldn't block or occupy mandatory paths in your dungeon. If you let player's experience the power of high level monsters early, then in later levels, the player can rencounter the same mobs that gave them such difficulty previously, and will now be able to defeat them with relative ease and really feel their stat progression.

Implications on difficulty balance

Creating various levels of difficulty (through optional encounters) in a dungeon, will also help differently skilled players balance the game for themselves. A super skilled player might choose (and be able to) defeat level 5 mobs on the first level through superior knowledge and mechanics, while a new player might choose to only enter rooms blocked or occupied by lvl 1 mobs as they are still grokking the game's systems and timings.

Resources

Here's a related question which offers some topical game design resources to give you a base to jump off from.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the comment. Tbh I was completely ignoring the player's perspective of learning enemies and how tough they are before I read this. That's just asking for trouble down the road. I really like the idea of dynamic encounter choices for the exact reason you stated, but it might take accurate balance calculations to get right. Which is fun in its own right as a dev. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 28 at 5:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ The optional encounters will not work very well at the start of your game unless there's some skill expression at the very start of your game. So if your game has twitch-based skill, like a binding of issac or dark souls then experienced players can differentiate themselves even at lvl 1 with superior mechanics. If your game doesn't have this type of skill expression, then optional encounters will only work at the start if players can differentiate their superior knowledge at the start (perhaps in character creation, or they know certain attacks that particularly effective vs a mob). \$\endgroup\$
    – Charly
    Jun 28 at 6:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, the ultimate goals I have are to get the player to strategize their party makeup against the specific type and balance of enemies in the encounter. I'm not sure how far I'll go in balancing the heroes abilities vs enemy types yet. I would like to achieve a very obvious difficulty or even impossibility if the party is not setup correctly for the challenge. One that eludes to the fact that the player needs to grind more, retrain their heros skill trees or unlock new heroes entirely. The encounter itself will have still have mechanical and tactical skill requirements but it's not the focus. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 28 at 8:52
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A common approach to this is a lock-step approach.

  1. Give the player more power
  2. Give the player the opportunity to enjoy their power trip by using their newfound power on old opponents.
  3. Introduce more challenging opponents which match the new power-level of the player, thus forcing the player to play serious again.
  4. Repeat.

The result is that the gameplay will alternate between phases where the player feels challenged (by the introduction of a more powerful enemy), followed by a reward for overcoming the challenge (more power and a phase of curb-stomping what used to bother them).

This is why most dungeon crawlers with levelup systems are designed in a way that levelups happen in the middle of the dungeon crawl instead of between dungeons. The enemies stay the same, but the player gets more powerful. And new equipment is rarely found right before a boss fight. They are found either a couple rooms before the boss, or right after it a a reward for beating the boss.

Or let's take the example of a classic JRPG with an overworld with towns with equipment shops. When the player reaches a new overworld region, they will at first struggle against the new overworld enemies. That is until they reach a new town with the next equipment tier for sale. They will then buy that equipment and then keep exploring the same overworld region where they face the exact same opponents. But those opponents are now notably less challenging thanks to the recent powerup. That is until the player discovers the dungeon, where they then face enemies which measure up to their new equip.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This makes a lot of sense. I'm also trying to get the player to grind a bit if they hit a wall, or simply choose an easier route altogether, but with better rewards for the harder ones. Due to the length of dungeons (short), I think I might be able to get away with leveling up at the end of dungeons. The player should ideally want to go check out a new dungeon they failed at earlier or retry the same for a better score. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 29 at 3:49
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HP and Damage increases for the player and enemies are just a tool that help you do some other things. Until you decide what other things you're trying to do, it's very hard to know what health and damage progression will give you good results. They can be used for:

Planned Obsolescence

If you have items to pick up, or abilities to learn, you can use HP and Damage increases to make old items and abilities grow less useful over time. Maybe at level 5 the player learns to cast fireballs which do 10 damage in a circle; at level 15 when you give them the ability to make cones of fire that do 30 damage in a cone, then they'll have little use for the fireball even though it has better range and is easier to avoid hitting your teammates with.

Grinding

If you give the player some control over how powerful they are, let them dwell in a lower-level area for a bit before moving on if they want to be a bit stronger, then the player can substitute patience for skill. But ideally the extra combat is more practice for them, which the less-skilled players probably need. It can be a bit difficult to correctly tune grinding mechanics like this to not be too bothersome though.

That nice back and forth between being a bit too strong and having to really struggle

As you alluded to, it can feel good to be powerful, and it can feel rewarding to win a really tough fight. It's actually not terribly hard to design this sort of oscillation, just look at how much XP and loot the critical path of the game rewards (aside from any detours for grinding use), and you can get an estimate of the player's strength over time and tune your enemy stats accordingly. As for how much: in a purely linear game, you probably want to have a short power trip section immediately after the player levels up, and before giving them some great treasure have a serious battle or two. In an open game, I'd have there be difficult fights at objectives, and then have the player cross back through areas that used to be hard to get from one objective to the next.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As for how to assess the value of an ability given out instead of a boost to health or damage, that's a rather complicated topic on its own (especially if the abilities are interesting) and should probably be asked as a separate question. \$\endgroup\$
    – Foxwarrior
    Jun 28 at 4:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think you could employ traditional pacing curves found in other mediums like movies for this oscillating player/enemy strength. Actually I just found an article on Gamasutra which makes this connection. \$\endgroup\$
    – Charly
    Jun 28 at 5:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the comments. I had been planning on building single levels/dungeons like pop songs - verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus/finale. It looks like I just didn't consider the meta-level pacing. As for calculating how powerful a new ability makes a hero, that has been fun to think about. A single "slam" ability is straight forward - 50 extra dmg every 5 seconds if they execute it perfectly. Then comes the skill modifier for how hard perfect skill use is to reach. AOE is harder because you don't know if they will use it perfectly or if the situation will even present itself. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 28 at 5:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ I feel if this balance can be per-calculated, then you get into the world of forming "perfectly" challenging dungeons if desired. You can then present the choice of easy dungeons over harder ones for greater rewards. None of this would be pre-built worlds, but dynamic options. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 28 at 5:28
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You can have stronger characters and more powerful items be more attractive to monsters, drawing them in larger groups

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