Overland difficulty

Overland Creator Sees Difficulty As Its Biggest Asset

Overland: a game that doesn’t pull its punches, hits harder.

When video game difficulty invariably cycles back into the conversation du jour, we can count on a number of things: people will die on the hill of valorizing skill; Dark Souls will be brought out of its cell for another public flogging; and difficulty will be conflated with accessibility, harming our capacity to discuss either with nuance. A resounding “you hate to see it” issues from the rest of us as we bunker down and weather the discourse storm.

A microshake of this phenomenon could be seen in reviews and talk about Overland, the tactical road trip game from Finji. Developer Adam Saltsman would not argue that Overland isn’t difficult — it was a key ingredient from the start. What confounds him more is the shape of opinions in the two weeks since release. “We have a lot of ‘this game is literally impossible’ sitting next to ‘the best post-apocalyptic experience of all time’,” Saltsman explains. “Which is hard feedback in terms of figuring out what to do next.”

“To be clear, I don’t think it was ever a game that would please everyone,” he continues. Overland makes no attempt to veil its intentions of forcing players to make tough, sometimes agonizing decisions. You are the survivor of a world beset by an inhuman menace emerging from the ground. Finding relative safety means completing a cross-country drive, scavenging for fuel, weapons and medical supplies along the way. Covering the distance between the East and West Coast will take a lot of fuel, but stopping invites danger, injury, or even death.

That constant balancing of resources keeps players feeling like disaster is always in the rear-view mirror, waiting for them to make a mistake. Indeed, some reviews felt the punishment for slipping up was too harsh. One miscalculated move can seal the fate of a full team, leaving only the inexorable crawl towards a total wash. Starting over might be easy, but too often reviewers felt doomed from the start. It is one thing to make the most of a losing hand but another to have the cards stacked against you.

Saltsman now wonders if the polarized response is the outcome of Overland’s long and transparent development period. “When you are building something for six years, you end up putting a lot of effort into trying to be able to see it with fresh eyes,” he acknowledges. “I think it’s something that I didn’t entirely succeed at doing.”

He mentions the breadth of options available to players from the jump that might only be obvious to the dev team and early testers — Overland’s sparse and linear opening levels are anything but. Those who followed Saltsman on Twitter likely saw occasional updates, like adding dogs and then fixing it so the dogs couldn’t drive cars anymore, but itch.io hosted early versions of the game for years. Feedback from players who watched Overland gradually change and grow proved fundamentally different from reviewers playing the finished product.

Overland isn’t shy about its influences. X-COM’s DNA runs through the mechanical design, with a healthy dose of Michael Brough’s love for tightly tuned, small-map roguelikes. All three share a respect for difficulty that emerges from player choice and consequences. Saltsman wanted to create a “survival road trip” experience but worried about the game being “bucketed as a ‘strategy lite’ or ‘casual’ game,” which can often be a risky marketing endeavor for smaller studios. By running a core tenant of weighty player choice throughout their design ethos, Saltsman and his team built everything around the idea of challenging, if not antagonistic, gameplay.

“I love the feeling of gradually learning new little tricks to save an action point here, skip a turn there, especially when that adds up to new opportunities later in the game,” Saltsman says. “I also love the feeling of those choices really mattering.”

They decided against difficulty settings that locked players down from the outset. Whether you find it punishing or rewarding, Overland plays the same for everyone. This was a conscious choice. The team believed that, in addition to feeling overly critical of an individual’s abilities, standard difficulty settings don’t advertise well enough what that choice means. The difference between “easy” and “normal” could be as simple as some tweaked numbers or as vast as significant changes to enemy AI.

They decided instead to include an optional “level restart” feature that resets all progress (and mistakes) to the beginning of the diorama-style map. Players wanting a more hardcore experience can turn this off, while others still finding their post-apocalyptic feet have a critical lifeline.

Saltsman still isn’t completely satisfied by the ways developers, including himself, instrumentalize difficulty in games. He believes the best approach is to think primarily from the players’ perspective. “I don’t want to make an “easy” mode — I want to maintain a very carefully tuned hard mode, but also provide a way for new players to figure out wtf is going on so they can enjoy that mode, too,” he explains.

The Saltsman Model of Difficulty:

NORMAL MODE: Settings that are helpful for experimenting and figuring out what’s going on and learning. So things like level restart, being able to undo at night (available now on all platforms), plus some reductions in complexity of some upgrades and locations, etc.

HARD MODE: Settings that assume you either know the genre well or you’ve been playing the normal mode a bunch and want to dig deeper.

EXPERT MODE: A bunch of rowdy modifiers for folks that have learned the systems inside and out and want to push the mechanics even farther.

Such a model doesn’t lock out players interested in the genre but lacking critical knowledge; neither does it defang the game for the more experienced. “Expert mode is for like 11 players, sure. But they’re sweethearts, and I love how they’re exploring our systems. So why not give them a couple extra options?”

Developing Overland like they did afforded the team opportunities to add what Saltsman calls “extra entrances,” features and specifications that provide ways for different kinds of players to enjoy a new experience. The optional font that eases reading UI elements for dyslexic players has already been widely reported. Additionally, they wanted to ensure the experience held up no matter what sort of accessibility controller or device a player used. “I think these are really worthwhile feature sets in terms of avoiding unnecessary gatekeeping,” Saltsman adds.

The word “unforgiving” appeared in a number of reviews, both from press outlets and storefronts. While Saltsman understands that a game like Overland forces players to learn from failure, he doesn’t quite agree with the popular sentiment. He describes how “I think we made a game that rewards thinking deeply and observing carefully, and a lot of games — rightfully — don’t ask that of their players.”

The original prototype weighed every decision on a scale of life and death, but the dev team gradually walked that back to a mindset more interested in making every decision matter. According to Saltsman, there should be consequences, and it should meaningfully shape the player’s future but life and death ended up feeling too binary.

Post-release patches have focused on girding players’ ability to make weighty choices while also doing a better job at showing them all available options. Some solutions are as simple as slight tweaks to item outlines. “Overland is supposed to be challenging, but knowing whether or not you should pick up that stick on the ground is not really intended to be part of the difficulty,” Saltsman acknowledges. Other changes involve reevaluating how they signpost possible solutions to the problems each level can randomly generate. New levels inspire excitement in players, not dread.

“Overland levels are a bit like doing a heist in a building you never saw before, so we’re eager to provide players with more tools to understand what they’re doing and find new ways to improvise,” Saltsman explains.

The team also continues working to flesh out the worldbuilding of the game. These include conventional storytelling elements like dialogue and explicitly stating that the world has, in fact, ended. More interesting are what the Finji community manager called “out-of-game effects.” Deciding who to rescue or when you leave someone behind for the good of the group can affect a playthrough in more than simply mechanical ways. Players making less-than-optimal choices in order to rescue the dog wearing a hat they scavenged delights Saltsman. In the future, the dev team hopes they can provide better opportunities for decisions like those that don’t also start a slow death spiral.

“The thing that surprised me the most was the level of stress and intensity that you can get from a turn-based game. But I think people really crave quiet moments, and a lot of our work toward the end of the game and across our post-launch dev is to try and make a little bit of space for that.”