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Did you ever have a single-player campaign that you just had to finish, no matter how many times you died? For me, that was the experience of playing Wolfenstein: The New Order, developed by Sweden’s Machine Games for Bethesda Softworks. Though it released in May, it took me a while to finish. Once I did, I decided to confront the guys who put me through all of that misery or joy. I don’t know which.
And when I told Jerk Gustafsson, executive producer of the game and managing director of Machine Games, about my ordeal of dying 30 times or so under the feet of the London Nautica monster in level 15 of the game, he said to me, “I’m sorry about that.”
Gustaffson told me that the title was designed to be particularly hard because it had no multiplayer combat. Built with idTech 5, the title had plenty of room for beautiful graphics, lots of enemies, and plenty of action on the screen all at the same time. But what is the right balance in making a game difficult for the hardcore gamer, yet easy enough so that is accessible to the wider audience?
I caught up with Gustafsson and Anders Backman, senior artificial intelligence programmer, in a post-mortem discussion that focused on the game’s difficulty.
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Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: I saw this game in a preview at the E3 judges’ day more than a year ago, in May 2013. I played through and had a hard time. I didn’t quite finish the demo level. One of the people there said, “We clearly made the game too hard.” All the judges had a similar experience – it was very hard for them to finish the whole demo, the big moon level. So I had heard that you were going to go back and make it a little easier. Did you try to take that feedback in and make the game less difficult, after that initial E3 showing?
Jerk Gustafsson: In a way, we did. To be honest, I don’t think it’s much easier than it was at that time. But since you play the game from the beginning – you get your health upgrades and character abilities and things like that – the player is a bit better at that point. For a demo, it was too hard, especially since we have a difficulty spike just before you get all the way up to the moon. In that sense, then, there were some changes that we made.
GamesBeat: I was very pleasantly surprised by how big the game was and how much variety it had. The AI was very smart. Can you talk about the approach you took to making such an ambitious game?
Gustafsson: We wanted it to be pretty big, since we only made it a single-player game. We wanted you to have not only good replayability, but also a lot of value in terms of length. It’s difficult, of course. Every piece of content nowadays is so expensive to create, and there’s a lot of variety in our games. But a single-player-only game should be an expansive experience.
GamesBeat: What have you heard so far from the people who’ve played it? Do they make any comments about the difficulty? Is there any consistency to the feedback?
Gustafsson: I think we’ve gotten pretty good feedback on those points. You can always turn it down if you want to, if you think it’s too hard. We have heard reports from people who’ve faced some small spikes. If you remember the bridge level, we’ve had a lot of people say that it’s very difficult if you try to accomplish it run-and-gun style.
GamesBeat: I remember that level. I was trying to make a jump, and I could just never make it. Then I figured out that somebody was shooting at me from the side, and so I just went into the rail car and shot him and figured out I could go around the jump. It almost seemed like it was deliberately misleading.
Gustafsson: It was definitely deliberate. We wanted players to have to explore as well as fight their way out. That’s one of the hardest segments in the game, but I think it’s also one of the most rewarding.
GamesBeat: Do you have any detailed analytics back as far as where people had the most difficulty? Can you say for certain that the bridge level was the hardest in the game?
Gustafsson: I don’t know. The thing is, of course we have lots of players and we can get lots of data from them, but there are lots of differences between PC and console, for one example. What we’re trying to do is make a very simple system, which is pretty much only numbers. Anders, you can maybe talk more about how we do that.
Backman: Basically, the major variables we have are the amount of damage the player takes and the amount of damage they dish out. There are some other variables, but that’s most of it. One other such variable controlled the likelihood of melee enemies (Kampfhunds and knife baton guards) likelihood of grappling with the player depending on difficulty. We didn’t change the number of enemies or where they spawn on different difficulty settings because we felt that doing so would alter the player experience depending on difficulty, and would also give rise to higher demands for detail testing each difficulty by QA.
Gustafsson: We’re talking about these variables, because basically, we’re making sure that we have a normal—We have a medium, right? Then we have a lower value for the easier levels and a higher level for the amount of damage players take on the higher levels. But for AI, we only have lower AI health on the lower levels. On the higher ones, we still have the same amount as the medium, just to make sure that the player doesn’t have to use more ammo on the AI for the higher difficulty levels. Then the balancing can be too difficult.
There are also other aspects to this, such as how the checkpoint system works. We save a lot of data, so that when you die, you don’t come back just five or ten seconds before you gave up playing. This also makes it so that we can’t make it too hard. If you have a really quick reload, pretty much instantly after you die, you can make the game a bit harder. Those are variables you have to consider when you do the balancing.
Backman: Another thing is that due to the fact that the loading takes a while, instead of trying to do the same thing again, you think a little bit. It allows different play styles. The player can retry and do something else, which generally helps for the players. If something didn’t work—If gung-ho rushing in fails, maybe I should try to sneak little bit. That all helps in making it a little bit easier. You can play the levels very differently.
GamesBeat: I found that the stealth worked for maybe just one or two enemies, and then after that it was pretty likely that I would get discovered. I could never really finish a whole section by playing stealth. I was more easily discovered.
Gustafsson: Yeah, same thing for me. I’m too eager. I’m not good at playing that way. But in general, we tried to make it so that you can—We have a lot of sections in the game that force combat, where it’s basically an ambush or something like that. But in those sections where we allow stealth or want to encourage stealth, we want to make sure that the player can do it as long as possible in that section.
GamesBeat: I think there were different strategies I could adopt. If you switched to the shotgun, it was much easier to kill a drone.
Gustafsson: Yeah, it’s a lot easier. That’s a good tactic.
GamesBeat: I would also try to find a corner or a barrier where nobody could sneak up on me so easily. I’d sort of find a corner or find a doorway where they’d just have to attack me from one direction.
Gustafsson: Yeah. We were trying to force players out of their hiding places, though, using grenades and things like that. That helps the combat not become too static. Obviously it’s good to take cover sometimes, though.
GamesBeat: I tried not to use grenades too much. I felt like they were too precious, I guess. I remember, when you get out of the asylum and it’s a more open space, that felt harder, because the drones made you run around more. It was a little easier to get attacked from behind or out in the open.
Gustafsson: Yeah, yeah. It’s a big difference depending on the weapon you choose. A lot of people use the shotgun there. You have to save the ammo for the shotgun until they get in close.
GamesBeat: Or use a Tesla grenade at that point.
GamesBeat: Whenever you make the level more difficult, are you also providing something that makes the player more powerful? Is that the thinking?
Gustafsson: Usually. You always need to give the players tools to overcome. We’re always trying to think about different approaches and play styles, being more tactical and so on. In the area you’re talking about now, after the asylum, there you’re in a position where you could run out of ammo. In that particular place we had to add infinite ammo boxes, just to make sure players wouldn’t get stuck. Those are difficult problems to deal with.
GamesBeat: One of the harder levels was also just after you get out of the trunk of the car. You go through that level, and there’s the next level where the big robot comes out and tries to stop you. The robot was a very difficult boss.
Gustafsson: Oh, when you go through the checkpoint with the grandmother and grandfather in the car.
GamesBeat: Yeah, yeah. You ride on the side of the car, and then you get pulled off. Can you talk about that level a little? I found I had to play that level a lot.
Backman: The third part, where the big robot is? There are basically three parts. There’s the first one, and then you get to the towers, and then the third part where you eventually meet the robot. It’s the third part you mean?
GamesBeat: Yeah. It was almost by the third part that it seemed like I was almost out of my weapons. I had used up a lot of more powerful weapons. I think I had to go back to the machine gun turrets as often as I could.
Gustafsson: We had a problem with that for a long time, because for many players, especially during focus testing, they didn’t realize that they could go out and use the turrets.
Backman: Especially, they didn’t understand that they could reattach and reload the turrets.
GamesBeat: I think I found a lot of ammo and grenades in one of the buildings. After that I had more armor and more grenades to throw. That helped. It felt good after I finally killed that robot.
Backman: One way for handling the robot, although it’s maybe not that obvious, the grenades are magnetic grenades, so they cling to robotic enemies. The robots are fairly easy to kill with grenades, because if you hit the right place, they stick. I guess that’s quite hard to realize. As the grenades were pretty small it was hard to see them sticking to the Robot, the smaller metal enemies such as the 1960 Kampfhundts and the Drones were small enough to see the grenades clinging but few players used grenades on those enemies.
GamesBeat: There was another very difficult level just before you go into the moon museum. It’s fairly early. You finish going into the blown-up building in London, and then you get through and you have to choose whether to fight on the ground level or go up the stairs. There was something I felt was a little tricky about that level. There was the room full of ammo when you turned left, and then stairs on the right and enemies coming at you from straight ahead.
Every time I went into the room on the left to get a bunch of ammo, I got cornered in that room and the enemies would come at me with grenades. I died every time I went to the left. But then I figured out I could go over to the right, up the stairs, and find another big room full of ammo on the right-hand side. Then I could fight from there and survive and take on all the enemies on the upstairs level. Then I’d finally fight the robot down at the bottom.
Gustafsson: That runway is one of my personal favorites. I really like the combat up there, because it’s so dynamic.
GamesBeat: There was one thing—I liked that level because you had a lot of enemies. You had a lot of variety. But I felt like there was really only one way to go. You could only survive it if you went to the right, up the stairs. If you stayed on the bottom, it felt like it was impossible to survive.
Gustafsson: That’s what’s part of the approach, though, to try to force the player to move forward and not stay in cover all the time. It also depends a bit, though—You might be interested to see our QA guys, because they would run straight forward and up the stairs and take the turret and do it that way. But for the average player, they usually have to go in, try to get as much ammo as possible, and then not stay there. They have to go up exactly the way you did, which is what I’d say is the preferred route.
GamesBeat: In some of the levels, it seems like there is a “right” way to play it.
Gustafsson: Ah…We try to keep the player engaged. In many ways, this is a linear game, but especially in these combat scenarios, we try to make it so the player has at least a few different options as far as how to play. We try not to force people. But we think it’s generally better if we try to take people along a more tactical path. We’ll continue to do that in future games we make. We’re looking to make the combat more dynamic, and also give more options to the player in terms of play styles.
GamesBeat: Can you talk about the AI and how smart the AI was?
Backman: It’s hard to say. The main thing that our AI does, it isn’t cheating. It doesn’t know things it shouldn’t know, ever. It cannot just know where the player is. The only way it can know that is if the commander tells them, “He’s here now!” or it hears you sprinting or hears your gun sounds. It’ll base its decisions on that. Even if you’re in combat, you can sort of sneak while in combat, because if you don’t fire, they won’t know what you’re doing. If nobody sees you and you aren’t firing, then they’ll have to just assume where you are. You can still sneak up on the AI while in combat.
That was a major basis for our level design. The scripters don’t have to plan every single situation. We can keep the AI from knowing too much and ruining a clever plan by the player.
GamesBeat: The added difficulty was the commanders, where they would call in reinforcements if you didn’t kill them.
Gustafsson: Yeah. We always thought that was interesting approach, to have the commanders know something, and also give the player a reward. If you were quick enough to take out the commander, the combat will be easier as you progress through and take care of that area.
GamesBeat: You had to be careful about where you placed the commanders, then?
Gustafsson: In the earlier levels, we put them pretty much in the open, to give players an understanding of where the system worked. But in the harder fights toward the end, we always wanted the commanders to fall back a bit, to make sure that the soldiers were the ones doing the combat and the commander was a little bit behind. If you sneak around a little bit in a tactical way, using the silencer or a very careful shot to get rid of them, that will benefit you in the following scenario.
GamesBeat: There were a couple of levels where I thought that if I didn’t kill the commander, there was just no way I was going to survive. I ran into that feeling more than once.
Gustafsson: It is a lot easier if you manage to take out the commander quickly. Which was the intention on our side.
GamesBeat: One of the levels was where you had the big circle. There were a couple of layers to the circle. You had to take out a whole bunch of enemies that would come into—It was still on Earth, just after you get through —
Gustafsson: Was this late in the game?
GamesBeat: It felt more like the middle. I can’t remember if it was before or after the hangar. It was a big stadium, almost? Anyway, that was one of the levels where I felt like I tried to fight it without taking out the commanders first, and then I remembered the commanders and I finally got through it. The other feeling I had was that—How many levels were there again? 16 chapters or so?
Gustafsson: Yeah, 16 chapters.
GamesBeat: By level 12, once I’d finished with the moon, I thought the game was going to be over by then. I had fought so much, fought so many big bosses, and gotten all the way to the top of the moon—It seemed like this was all so hard that it seemed like the game should have been over.
Gustafsson: Did you always play on Bring ‘Em On, the medium difficulty?
GamesBeat: It was somewhere around medium. It was maybe the third of five? Is that how many levels there were?
Gustafsson: Yeah, we have five. Number three is the default one. It’s pretty challenging, although it’s a bit easier if you play on PC of course. On console it’s more challenging.
GamesBeat: Can you talk about that part of the game, where you made these—The story went longer. The bosses were more difficult. Especially the big giant monster boss, the one that’s as big as London or whatever? I don’t know if that was level 12 or 13 or so. Even that was an extremely difficult boss. I felt like I went from boss level to boss level and I was finally done after that. It was like there were four major endings.
Gustafsson: Yeah. When you return from the moon level, you play through the London Nautica – Chapter 15 — level, and then you come after this big London Monitor, which is a bit challenging, especially if you don’t know what to do and have to figure out how to approach it. Then you go back to the headquarters, which is a pretty short level, but we also had the [Panzerhund] fight in the hangar, before you eventually come to the last level, which is a pretty big challenge. The boss fights there are pretty much [three different boss fights]. There are a lot of challenges toward the end of the game, especially the last couple of hours.
GamesBeat: I think that with the London Monitor, I died about 30 times.
Gustafsson: I’m sorry about that.
GamesBeat: Or it felt like that. I don’t know actually how many.
Gustafsson: At least it’s fairly easy to continue, though, right after you left off.
GamesBeat: It took me a while to figure out what to do. I think there was almost so much freedom to move around and do things that it took a lot of experimentation before you figured out how to take out the boss.
Gustafsson: Any game you develop, especially a game with this kind of dynamic combat, bosses are pretty much the hardest gameplay to do. You have to communicate to the player what they should do. It’s very difficult. It usually ends up taking a lot of time for players to learn how to plan and how to assault it.
GamesBeat: I felt like the Monitor was probably a harder level than the actual final level of the game. I felt that if I used a lot of rockets in that last level and kept on reloading near the ammo point, then I could take out all the enemies with those rockets.
Gustafsson: Here’s a question for you. In terms of picking up health and upgrades for the basic weapons, did you put in a lot of time on that, or did you try to play through as quickly as possible? That can make the game pretty hard, but people who are exploring and upgrading the weapons, it usually becomes pretty easy for them. It’s hard to balance. If you don’t do anything, it gets a lot harder after a certain point.
GamesBeat: Let’s see. The very final, final level, I did have a very hard time. I was forgetting about that very final level. That side was very difficult, for sure. The level before that was the one that was somewhat easier. I didn’t really do too many upgrades. I did read everything I could. I tried to find as many secrets as I could. But I wasn’t actually doing a lot of upgrades to the basic soldier.
Gustafsson: If you’ve played through from the beginning to the end without caring too much about exploring, if you haven’t found anything to make it easier, then it can become really difficult. If you do explore, it does become a little bit easier. If you’re really rushing and don’t care about anything, then of course it might be a bit harder. It’s a difficult thing to balance, as I say. Finding things should be a bonus for you and not a penalty. That’s usually the approach we have.
GamesBeat: With the two different levels fighting Death’s Head, it was difficult, because I didn’t know what was working against him. It took quite a while to find out how he was vulnerable. I think I died a lot there as well. Just a normal grenade or something like that has almost no effect, right? But once I figured out some things like that guns on the side, then it became a lot easier. If you have to summarize this, how is Wolfenstein different from other shooters? What did you learn about making this game? How do you take in a lot of the feedback you get about the experience players have had?
Gustafsson: For me, the intention from the beginning was to have—A lot of our idea around this product was to make it a throwback, a little bit, to the classic shooter style. The intention was to have it be a little more difficult than some of the other shooters of today. Obviously you don’t want players to be frustrated and die all the time, though.
Looking back, I think we did a pretty good job. Our medium difficulty isn’t for every player. It’s challenging. But it’s not impossible. There are still a few spikes where maybe we should have decreased it a little bit and tried to even it out. There are always things you can learn. But I would say that in general, with the medium setting, I’m happy with it.
GamesBeat: One of the things that was interesting here is that there is no multiplayer. You can put so much more into the single-player experience. You wound up with a game that’s probably twice as long as most other shooters right now. For me it was almost as long as playing The Last of Us, which was a pretty long game. It was almost two or three times longer than a typical Call of Duty game. It sounds like that was what you wanted to do.
Gustafsson: Yeah, it was. If we don’t have that multiplayer component—We’re a single-player studio. This is what we want to do. We want to do single-player games. We feel that this what we know how to do and what we want to do. But we also want to make sure that the players get their money’s worth. We would never be satisfied releasing a game that was over after only eight hours. It wouldn’t be enough.
We’ll continue working and trying to build on things in the story, but also to focus on a lot on exploration and optional content and things like that. I didn’t talk about this too much earlier, but you can approach scenarios with different play styles, play in different ways, take different paths. You can approach the game in many ways and make the game more interesting to return to. So we’re focusing a lot on that. We’ll continue to focus on that. Our goal has always been to release a game that’s an adventure. We don’t want that adventure to be too short.
GamesBeat: What have you discovered about some of the very best players? If you watch them on YouTube or playing on Twitch, the really expert players who may have gone through more than once, what do you notice about those players?
Gustafsson: We’re always amazed. Those are usually people who like the game a lot. We had our CTO come in and he could show us something from a guy who’s been playing for 50 hours. We’re glad people can come back and really like to play it again. And then of course you’re always impressed by the ways that players can approach certain areas. There are things some players do that would be impossible for me.
GamesBeat: If somebody played for 60 hours, how many times did they play through? Two or three?
Gustafsson: Yeah, probably. The thing is, it might also be someone replaying a favorite chapter over and over again.
GamesBeat: I also thought the story and the cinematics were interesting as well. I didn’t expect to see so much of that throughout the game.
Gustafsson: Oh, thank you.
GamesBeat: That was an unexpected pleasure, to have a good story to go with the game.
Gustafsson: That’s something we focus a lot on, always.
GamesBeat: The characters, at least one of them seemed inspired by Inglourious Basterds, the heroine, in some of her scenes. It made you want to beat them that much more.
Gustafsson: I’ll certainly ask our writer about that one. [laughs]
GamesBeat: Did you have any other comments?
Backman: I’ll mention one thing that I’m pretty sure you know from having played through it. You can unlock certain game modes to play in. There’s the Ironman you can play through, if you think the game is too easy. That means you have only one life, and you have to play the entire game in one sitting. It’s pretty hard.
GamesBeat: Has anyone completed that?
Gustafsson: I don’t know, actually. I don’t think so.
Backman: A lot of players have tried. But we don’t know of anyone finishing Ironman yet.
GamesBeat: I’ll have to watch for that.
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