I knew from the start that I wanted Another Star to have multiple difficulty levels. There’s really no valid excuse not to, and it’s not all that hard a thing to implement so long as you begin adding the basic framework for it early on.
However, what is hard is realizing just what constitutes “difficulty”. In the first beta version of Another Star, changing the difficulty setting affected a couple of things, but most noticeable among them was that it raised (or lowered, depending on the setting) the maximum hit points of enemies in battle. This is actually fairly common. Countless games simply increase enemies’ attack and decrease the player’s defense based on the difficulty setting and then call it a day.
Trouble is, this doesn’t necessarily make the game any harder or easier. What it’s practically guaranteed to do is make the game more tedious. Sure, boss battles can actually be more fun and challenging if you stretch them out a bit on the harder difficulty settings (supposing the boss is well-designed and fun to begin with). But when minor cannon fodder enemies start requiring double or triple the hits to take out, even if it does make the game “harder” it makes battles tedious and repetitive.
Because the enemies in Another Star‘s first beta were so seriously unbalanced, it made this problem especially noticeable and I realized that I’d have to deal with it somehow. So I tossed the idea of merely making enemies tougher and focused instead on making them more relentless. Now when you play on the two higher difficulties in Another Star, the enemies will still get their old bonus to the STR (strength) stat—they will hit you harder and deal more overall damage—but they don’t get any real bonus to their RES (resistance) stat, and they don’t get any more hit points (except in very special cases). So long as the player can survive the enemy party’s barrage, they will go down just as fast as they would otherwise. This greatly decreases the tedium of playing on the higher difficulty settings. It also gets the player to focus more time on how to react to and survive enemy actions, rather than just figuring out ways to deal greater and greater damage. On higher difficulty settings, some enemies even get additional abilities at their disposal, and some abilities may have additional effects. Enemies also won’t lose as much HP when using abilities (most all magic and abilities in Another Star require spending HP), meaning that waiting for the enemy to drain their own HP is no longer a valid strategy at these difficulties, and the player will have to react accordingly.
I’ve also done my best to make sure that the easier difficulty settings are actually easier. In the game’s “Beginner” and “Easy” difficulty settings, enemies don’t check their HP before using abilities to make sure they have enough HP to actually use them. This leads to the enemy occasionally wasting turns, allowing the player to be more loose with their own strategies. Several enemy abilities are also somewhat nerfed on the lower difficulties, giving the player further wiggle room to make (and bounce back from) mistakes.
But, most of all, I wanted to make sure that there was no penalty for choosing any difficulty setting. Achievements are one thing, but there’s more than a handful of games that lock off features—or even halt the player’s progress altogether—as a punishment for selecting an easier mode of play. I’m sure there’s game developers out there that will disagree, but I find this practice deplorable. A person shouldn’t be missing out on content that they payed for just because they wanted a more laid-back experience. In Another Star, you won’t have to miss out on anything just because you switched to “Easy” mode for a boss fight that was giving you trouble. Likewise, there’s no extra items or special scenes triggered by you showing off in “Hard” mode. The game’s difficulty setting is about difficulty; nothing more.
Another Star is not a perfect game, and I would never claim that it is. There’s probably a lot with the game’s difficulty system that could have been done better, and admittedly there’s a lot about it that I overlooked (maybe I’ll end up making tweaks to it after release based on player feedback). But it is something that I put a lot of thought into, and I encourage other developers to do the same. Difficulty modes should not be an afterthought!
When the game comes out soon, I hope you’ll be able to enjoy the game on your own terms.