Aztez – A Game of Conquest and Brutality

Difficulty In Beat ‘Em Ups

The idea of difficulty in a beat 'em up seems straightforward, but once you dig in and really pick apart why a particular game feels so easy or so hard, you'll quickly find it's pretty hairy. Keep in mind this is not a discussion about difficulty on the higher game-structure level; for a couple notes on that check out the previous post on Challenge Vs. Punishment. This is about the difficulty on the moment-to-moment encounter level. I've found that you can really evaluate it by posing a few really important questions:

1. Who is attacking the player?

This is simply about assessing an encounter at various stages and then planning accordingly. One of the key differences between an easier and a more difficult encounter is how quickly and carefully the player has to undergo this process. Now the first thing the brain is going to do is register the enemies by their appearance. Ideally they are as visually intimidating as they are mechanically threatening so even when the player has never encountered an enemy type they'll have an idea of what they're up against. In a well constructed game, the different enemy types are recognized effortlessly and the player can easily recall exactly what those enemy types are capable of, assuming they've been previously defeated. The very next thing the brain is going to do is go into a bloodlust and what separates a good player from a bad player is whether or not outright mashing begins here. I make the distinction because these factors we're discussing will determine whether or not the average player is going to survive that impulse to mash.

2. When are they attacking the player?

This is about two symbiotic possibilities: the frequency of individual enemy attacks and the coordination of attacks between multiple enemies. The frequency of attacks is pretty straightforward; enemies perform a dice roll at the end of a designer-specified cycle and the quicker the cycle the more intense the pressure on the player is. This cycle can be as short as a single second (sometimes less in the more sadistic sectors of the genre) or as long as a minute, depending on the game, enemy type, and difficulty mode. But the real secret sauce is in the enemy group behavior. Attack coordination (or lack thereof) is easily one of the single biggest contributing factor in determining how difficult a game of this type is. For example; in God Of War the player will rarely be attacked by more than one or two enemies at a time but in Ninja Gaiden, enemies don't give a flying fuck about what other enemies are doing and the player is under a constant barrage of attacks. Obviously this changes how you play the game and cannot be glossed over in the design process. For a much more detailed analysis about the nuances of group behavior, check out this great 2009 write-up by Tom Smith, a then creative manager at THQ who was helping with Nihilistic's Conan at the time.

3. How are they attacking the player?

This is about identifying the attributes of an enemy attack. The player is relying on a set of primitive behaviors and simple cues to determine how dangerous an enemy and their respective attacks are. One of these attributes is the "tell", or the visual cue that indicates to the player that an attack is about to occur. Typically this just means a warm-up animation (for example, an enemy swinging their sword behind them in an exaggerated fashion before attacking) but could also mean a distinct sound or effect. Tells can vary greatly in form and function, but it goes without saying that having no indication that it's time to prepare for an attack is much more difficult than having it broadcast way before it happens. The more mechanical aspects of an enemy attack are much easier to observe. What does it look like? How much damage does it do? What does it feel like getting hit by it? What's really interesting is that these factors can come at the player in all kinds of crazy combinations, like attacks that don't look very powerful but hurt the player very much, or attacks that are spectacular and intimidating but ultimately trivial. In some (too many) games there are generic looking attacks with non-trivial effects and this oftentimes feels unfair. It's a very strange problem but it boils down to minimizing the discrepancies between what the player is looking at and what the player feels.

4. What can the player do about it?

This is the million dollar question once it's all said and done and wraps up the high level difficulty equation. This can make or break the game and all of the enemies in it or alternatively, it can render the player powerless. The answer is found in the flow of combat and deals specifically with what ability the player is given to deal with inevitable enemy attacks. As stated in the previous post about defense mechanics, sometimes it's a block or a dodge and sometimes it's nothing, but whatever it is and however it's implemented are very important factors. Unfortunately, most games don't have a very rewarding answer to this question, and the only tool the player is provided with is the ability to simply continue attacking once they've survived an attack. Not only is this why most beat 'em ups feel difficult, but it's also why they oftentimes feel very tedious! The player must simply repeat the "evaluate, survive, attack" process over and over and over again.

Here are some case studies:

God Of War:

  1. Who is attacking the player? Small to medium sized groups (3 to 10) of reasonably threatening enemies that encircle the player character.
  2. When are they attacking the player? Carefully coordinated enemy attacks across all types of enemies at regular intervals; no more than one or two enemy attacks at a time.
  3. How are they attacking the player? With moderately fast attacks that aren't particularly damaging but are often very extravagant and powerful looking.
  4. What can the player do about it? The player can identify the attack tell and dodge out of the way. Once recovered the player simply continues to mash.
  5. Concensus? Is not very difficult, but feels very difficult.

Ninja Gaiden:

  1. Who is attacking the player? Small groups (3 to 5) of fairly threatening looking enemies that form groups around the player character.
  2. When are they attacking the player? Every enemy will attack whenever they want at very frequent intervals.
  3. How are they attacking the player? With very fast and damaging attacks with little to no tell.
  4. What can the player do about it? The player can maintain their block stance or perform a quick dash out of the block stance, but since enemies attack so quickly there is no incentive to dash. In any case, the player may then continue to simply mash.
  5. Concensus? Is very difficult, and feels very difficult.


  1. Who is attacking the player? Small to medium sized groups (5 to 15) of very threatening looking enemies that encircle the player character.
  2. When are they attacking the player? Lower level enemies will attack in turn at regular intervals and higher level enemies will attack whenever they want at regular intervals.
  3. How are they attacking the player? Some enemies attack from a distance with very weak projectiles but most enemies have powerful close combat attacks with fast but very noticeable tells.
  4. What can the player do about it? Bayonetta is a remarkable exception in this regard; the game rewards the player with a brief window of excessive power against all nearby enemies when they perform a last second dodge against any one attack. Once this is window has closed the player may then continue to regularly mash.
  5. Concensus? Is very difficult, but does not feel very difficult.

Dante's Inferno:

  1. Who is attacking the player? Small to medium sized groups (3 to 10) of goofy looking enemies that haphazardly encircle the player character.
  2. When are they attacking the player? All enemies across all enemy types coordinate their attacks so that only one or two enemies are ever attacking you.
  3. How are they attacking me? Most enemies have close combat attacks that have barely noticeable tells, but they are also not very fast or damaging.
  4. What can the player do about it? You can maintain a block stance or dodge, but the dodge is so poorly implemented that it is rarely used. You can also parry in the same way God Of War lets you parry but it's not rewarding enough to hone and employ. After any of these things the player may simply continue to mash.
  5. Concensus? Not very difficult, and does not feel very difficult.

Every game does things a little differently so it's worth spending some time breaking them open, especially if you like the way one feels and plays when you've got your hands on it. In any case it's a very delicate balancing act and has so much to do with how your game feels. With that being said, keep in mind that it is still a matter of preference! Decide how difficult you want it to "feel" for the player and then build around that. :)

  • Adam

    I’d be interest to know how you’d describe Lords of Shadow using this pattern. I haven’t stopped to analyze it much yet.

    • I would classify Lords Of Shadow under “Is difficult, and feels difficult.” It’s no Ninja Gaiden, though. Lords Of Shadow is actually wonderfully challenging and I feel like I’m constantly on my feet, where in Ninja Gaiden I feel like I’m being constantly punished for not being psychic. While you really can’t zone out in Lords Of Shadow, it feels great to clean up and success is super satisfying.

      • thatguy

        the thing about ninja gaiden is that you have to keep moving so i feel what you said about dashing being useless is not true.

        Blocking is not that great in this game since it can be broken very easily and enemies will grab you if you just sit there and block. Its best to just dash out of the way or counter if you can see the attack coming

        • I agree with you about the dashing at this point. I’ve since given the game some serious playtime and agree about its functionality. It definitely becomes more necessary over time.

          And blocking is certainly useful at the lower levels, until the game trains you out of with the block breakers, which is actually rather elegant.

  • Good article. Hopefully next article you can touch upon incrementing difficulty and pacing as well :)

    • Can you elaborate on what you mean?

  • Glowyrm

    Excellent breakdown of those games! You’re blogs are more like the de facto manual on the fundamental elements of combat systems than just a personal rant as to your feelings on a game. Which is fucking awesome, and the reason I’ve spent hours pouring over your site, and absolutely loving every minute of it. Way to set the bar man.