The Joy and Pain of Game Mastery

Exploring how to create interesting and challenging content for all players

The Joy and Pain of Game Mastery
Doom Eternal. Source: Press Kit.

During the process of writing my shooter book, I revisited the top shooters of the past decade, including another playthrough of Doom Eternal. Eternal is a game that you either love or hate for its unique designs, and I am in the love column. I explored the master levels in Doom Eternal, also known as the humbling mode, and why it’s a fantastic way to conclude the game. Generating valuable and stimulating content is much more challenging than it appears, and relying on stats alone won’t cut it.

Master Slayer

In case you didn’t catch the updates after Doom Eternal’s release, the master levels and DLC chapters have been added since the game's release in 2020. These remixes are incredibly tough, shaking up encounters and arenas without changing the overall flow or path. A hallway that was just a hallway could now be a tiny arena with very large enemies coming at you. None of the enemies gain new powers or tricks, but the complete difference in where and what you fight at any time is what makes good action design.

Rising to the Test

Anyone who plays action games knows that part of the thrill of playing them is reaching a level of mastery — when you can show off all the tech and abilities you have built up. What’s often the problem for action designers is figuring out how to really test the player beyond just stat raising. Creating a challenging encounter goes beyond simply making an enemy tankier or one-hit kills; it requires making it interesting.

It’s not about punishing the player for making the game harder but letting the player be able to cut loose and use every ability, weapon, and technique available to them. One common trap I notice is using higher difficulty levels to restrict players to using only the most optimal weapons or strategies. Action design, or reflex-driven games, are at their best when it is not about changing how the enemies behave but throwing new and interesting ways of having them in the space against the player.

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It’s not possible to capture an action shot of a master level, so here’s a pose for you to enjoy. Source: Author.

This is where the master levels of Doom Eternal really shine. The player is facing off against the usual cyberdemons, marauders, etc., but in different formations and arrangements. Good enemy design is, in a way, evergreen throughout a game.

If you want to really test the player, you could use the basic starting enemy in your game in a nasty way. Similar to Nintendo’s game design, this approach provides both a user-friendly main game and challenging bonus content for skilled players. That last point is important. Most people will not be thinking about complete mastery in a game. Good difficulty design balances a game for people of all skill levels.

A game consisting solely of the master levels of Doom Eternal might appeal to a very vocal minority of gamers, but I can guarantee that a game like that would never sell the same amount of copies or receive as much praise as Doom Eternal.

The beauty of reflex-driven design over abstracted games is that RPG mechanics make it a lot harder to take something already in the game and make it more challenging without directly changing it. That’s why RPGs often increase enemy strength and durability for higher difficulty levels. In most of these games, however, raising the difficulty level does not enhance the mechanics’ intrigue or provide incentives for the player’s triumph; instead, it simply adds more time and grinding.

If you want mastery to feel good and rewarding, not only must you set up your game for it, but you also need to provide an interesting reason to chase after it.

'P' Stands for Pain

Another ordeal I inflicted upon myself while writing the book was doing the P-Rank challenges in Ultrakill. It joins Doom Eternal in the ranks of FPS that feature very technical gameplay. While Doom Eternal does not grade you on your skill (thankfully), Ultrakill does. To open up the current game’s most challenging level, P-2, players must attain the top rank on all previous levels. That means killing all the enemies, doing it fast, and doing it stylishly; that last point will take some work.

Ultrakill features far more integration of mechanics and tech to its gunplay compared to Doom Eternal. Quick swapping between weapons is the major form of tech that players need to learn for advanced Doom Eternal play. In Ultrakill, not only do you have different melee options, but weapons have unique combos between them that change the dynamics of the attack. Your shotgun’s alt-fire launches an explosive core as a mock grenade... but if you shoot that with your rail cannon, it turns into a devastating AOE nuke that clears an arena of small enemies instantly.

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It’s unlikely that most of you reading this will ever battle against this character in Ultrakill, and there won’t be a regular encounter designed this way. Source: Author.

Importantly, Ultrakill openly reveals the fact that its weapons behave this way - every log entry on weapons specifies the combos that the player can use, and this is done specifically because of P-ranking. Getting the score to P range requires the player to be constantly swapping through weapons to keep their fresh rating high, and of course not taking a lot of hits. Like Doom Eternal, getting good at Ultrakill will make the game easier for you. The second Gabriel fight can seem like a huge difficulty spike when you first fight him; once you can P-rank him, it’s about 10 seconds of a battle.

While the player’s skill will grow as they learn the mechanics, that does not make the gameplay any easier. Reaching P-2 delivers the hardest and craziest arena encounters to date. Ultrakill’s enemy design is unique among other shooters — each enemy type not only has a specific role, but unique rules and factors for how they behave. By combining these arrangements with different arenas and different enemies, it allows the game to go from very easy to incredibly difficult encounters more smoothly than other shooters.

Just like in Doom Eternal, the player’s abilities and enemy stats don’t change in these expert challenges, but winning demands a higher level of skill. Beating P-2 of Ultrakill, including Sisyphus Prime, is a gauntlet and trial for the player.

But again, only people who want to push this far into learning Ultrakill are meant for this challenge, whereas Doom Eternal’s master levels are simply available as an option at any time. You need to be both very good and committed to Ultrakill if you want to see P-2 for yourself, and I shudder to think right now what P-3 will be like, if this is any indication.

Perfected Pain

Mastery, again, is not something as a designer that you can force players to go after, but it has benefits for casual players that you might not realize. Knowing that there is “more” to playing a game than just going from beginning to end can push someone to look deeper into the mechanics and game. This also allows people of different skill levels or styles of play to learn different tricks for playing it. While I may never get the timing for coin flip tech in Ultrakill, I can still get P-rank with rail cannon tricks. By designing your game to accommodate different skill levels, you can achieve a more balanced gameplay and simplify creating levels and challenges based on the players’ capabilities.

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Your job is to make the player feel this cool for learning your game. Source: Author.

Looking at the different difficulties for Ultrakill, the changes made to each setting are there to provide a unique experience, but still test the player. While I will never play the game on the easiest mode, someone can still enjoy and get the full gameplay of learning it with that setting. Anytime you allow players to choose how they play and learn a game, it keeps them engaged by giving them the option to make it easier or harder. This ensures that there is not one “correct” way to play the game.

A question for the readers: Can you think of other examples of games that did a great job of promoting and encouraging the achievement of mastery? Let me know in the comments.

To learn more about shooters and FPS design, don’t forget to grab a copy of Game Design Deep Dive Shooters when released.

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