Thought of the Day: It’s so hard to talk about difficulty

The problem with discussing difficulty in games (and particularly MMOs) is that as soon as you comment that something is hard, you lay yourself open to loads of hardcore fanboys/girls leaping on your back and proclaiming that you are a noob and should l2p. Or else suggesting that you have no right to judge the game’s difficulty unless you’ve already completed it on the hardest possible mode.

Say that something isn’t hard and the reaction is likely to be the opposite – you might be labelled hardcore.

So it’s a discussion that can only really be had sensibly with mature gamers (note: this is not related to physical age), a category which is not in the majority on official bboards. It’s not that we can’t have these discussions, it’s just that there’s a lot of social pressure for MMO bloggers to pretend it isn’t happening.

Plus we should value the reviewers who are brave enough to say when they think some content is overtuned.

And fact is, particularly in games where there are difficulty settings, it’s very useful for gamers to get an idea of a) how much difficulty is most fun for them and b) which games have harder or easier tuning at different levels.

Think of it as like comparing clothes sizes in different shops. Some shops, a size 8 will be huge, and in others it will be tiny. And yet, if you say that M&S (or pick any clothes shop of your choice) cut their clothes on the large size, no one starts insulting you.

Anyway, for the record:

WoW heroic instances in Cataclysm were mostly OK for tuning, but some of the bosses were overtuned and Blizzard didn’t fix them fast enough. However the heroics were mostly way too long, and they still haven’t figured a way to stop people queueing for heroics before they have learned the normal modes so LFD was stuffed.

WoW normal raids in Cataclysm are not any harder than Wrath raids (eg. Ulduar, ICC). They may seem a bit harder for 10 man groups who used to run Wrath raids in 25 man gear.

Dragon Age: Origins was overturned in its normal difficulty mode. (Sorry Syncaine, but it was. See the comments in the link to follow that one.)

Torchlight was undertuned in normal mode.

Anyone else want to get anything off their chest about games they’ve played that seemed over or under tuned. (I don’t really include games like Demon Souls or Super Meat Boy that are sold on the basis of being hard and unforgiving.)

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38 thoughts on “Thought of the Day: It’s so hard to talk about difficulty

  1. WoW normal raids in Cataclysm are not any harder than Wrath raids (eg. Ulduar, ICC). They may seem a bit harder for 10 man groups who used to run Wrath raids in 25 man gear.

    You are factually incorrect” here, as was Gevlon when he made a similar claim. Although difficulty is subjective, there is no possible way anyone can actually believe Magmaw or Omnotron is not any harder than the beginning bosses of any tier in Wrath, or ever for that matter. It is not a matter of 25m gear vs 10m raiding, it is a matter of the 10m vs 25m split offering four effective levels of difficulty in Wrath. Cataclysm 10ms can clearly be said to feature 25m difficulty in a 10m package (as you would assume, since they drop the same level of gear).

    • I don’t think Magmaw and Omnitron are particularly harder than Ignis and Razorscale, or Lady Deathwhisper and Saurfang.

      But I take your point, Cataclysm does lack introductory raid encounters. And more to the point, the Cata raids that I’ve seen just don’t have anything that struck me as especially /fun/ (which isn’t always tied up with difficulty) except maybe for the cloud jumping in Throne of the 4 Winds.

      Still, I don’t think any raid group than managed normal modes in ICC, TotC, or Ulduar should be stumbling on them. At least, not because of difficulty.

      • I don’t think Magmaw and Omnitron are particularly harder than Ignis and Razorscale, or Lady Deathwhisper and Saurfang.

        Seriously? You don’t see a difference between Omnotron and Razorscale? Do you actually remember Razorscale? You literally AoE waves of trash (focused down the big guys on release) for the first half of that encounter. There even were friendly NPCs that could get aggro on the trash so that the tanks had some slack in picking up everything. After Razorscale was down it was simply a tank swap and not standing in fire.

        In my mind, there is relative difficulty and conceptual difficulty. For example, I know people weren’t one-shotting Razorscale Week 1 – I believe the enrage timer was super tight on release, as indeed XT was overtuned, etc. However, conceptually? Very easy fight comparatively; nothing will one-shot you in Razorscale. Conversely, Poison Protocol will one-shot you, and Toxitron puts out 3 of them targeted on random raid members (including the Toxitron tank, it happened to me). Nevermind Arcanotron finishing off weakened members with his Arcane Barrage if he isn’t interrupted before getting moved out of his puddle, the high raid damage of the Fire one, how much it sets your healers behind if someone gets the Lightning Rod debuff while everyone is piled in the Arcane puddle, etc.

        The bosses in ToC were actually conceptually difficult (except maybe Jaraxxas on normal), but they were undertuned on normal mode. These Cata bosses are/were more difficult both conceptually and relatively. As I showed in my adjusted progression chart, any guild that downed Al’akir or Nef 10m should have been able to down 10m LK at 0%-10% buff, based on the numbers and length of time the bosses have been available.

      • I mean harder in a general sense, including execution as well as complexity. Conceptually there is a lot going on with the Cataclysm fights, but that’s not the bottom line with difficulty. There were conceptually difficult fights in Naxx which people mostly found not to be a challenge.

        Granted this is subjective, but Razorscale was tuned tightly on release and there was a fair amount of running around and situational awareness given that the dps requirements were also high. Omnitron seems like an easier execution fight to me once people have got the hang of it.

        I see your point, and I think a lot of the relative difficulty is going to be in whether you are part of a raid group that struggles more with the pure dps races or the conceptually harder fights.

  2. I agree that Cata raids isn’t harder than ICC but Blizzard made the mistake of making all bosses of Cata difficult. In ICC, there was at least the easy Lower Spire which allowed players to work their way to 4/12. Eventually, some managed to reach 6/12. In Cata, most of these players are barely killing any bosses.

    It would’ve been better if Blizzard made some of the early bosses (e.g. Halfus, Magmaw, Omni) easier.

  3. I found Mass Effect 2 kind of undertuned. There were very few times or situations where I found myself dying repeatedly or unsure how to solve/beat a scenario or boss. I basically blew straight through it with very little added effort. I enjoyed the story and setting so much that I hardly noticed while playing, but it was far from a difficult game.

  4. I’d agree that the difficulty level is about the same, though ICC had more bosses which could be taken down in 1-4 tries by an average Guild (plus you could practise in 10 man).

    But the last thing most guilds need after going through the upheaval of an expansion (plus the 10/25 man rubbish) is a challenging raid. Imagine if TBC had started with unnerfed SSC/TK. Ouch.

  5. Now the question with Cataclysm heroics for me is this: are they tuned for a guild group or for a PUG? For me it seems that there is a vast difference in these two, and for PUGs they are definitely not ok for tuning, as even a ‘over geared’ group will have difficulties in them.

    C out

    • This is an excellent point. My guild isn’t having too much difficulty in making progress every week, but I still have trouble finding pugs that can manage to get past the second Mangle on Magmaw.

      Part of the reason why the content is so difficult to pug right now is that raid success depends on everybody. You can’t beat most of the Cataclysm bosses with a couple underperforming players, even if the rest of the group is strong.

      Thinking back to Marrowgar, you could still beat him even if two dummy dps stood far away and died from a badly-positioned bone spike. Bad positioning on Magmaw (or attacking the wrong guy on Tron Council, or melee standing on the tank on Halfus, or…), however, quickly makes a mess of everything.

  6. Maybe challenge has been confused with difficulty. In my opinion a MMORPG should be difficult, but not challenging.

    Also, maybe there’s a difference between beating content in the “I am supposed to do it this way”-attitude and beating content in the “Hey, let’s try it this way””-attitude.

      • Hrm… I think there’s a market for Puzzle Raiders, but I do like more dynamic content, m’self. Of course, I’m not a raider, not having a character at the level cap, but I can see at least some small interest in it if it were dynamic.

        On the other hand, dynamic content is harder to generate and harder to tune in the first place. Difficulty being so variable and personal in the first place doesn’t help much either… unless you give players control over the difficulty.

        That’s relatively easy in single player games. Multiplayer, not as much.

        Tangentially, Pete over at Dragonchasers has a great article up on challenge in this vein:

        http://dragonchasers.com/2011/04/08/game-devs-dont-challenge-me/

  7. OatmealPacket on KillTenRats talked about the new priority to make people spend money in the cash shop. This apparently also includes making the game very easy, so that potential customers do not get killed and quit early on.

    The game gets lost in the process. We live in a time where STORY (-fication) seems to take priority over the GAME which also took priority over the WORLD feeling a long time ago.
    Dragon Age got easier over time. Every patch nerfed the difficulty till it was gone. Add in some overpowered preorder/bonus/etc. items and forget about interesting combat, you will not need to do fancy maneuvers, just overpower the mobs.
    The same happened to Guild Wars. I forgot in which year GW got released, but early on we did not have Heroes, Consumables, this PvE skill, that dlittle helper… heck, even the “hard mode” got made easier.
    But what makes GW go round is the interesting challenge to solve. Designer Linsey Murdock did many of the “Eye of the North” areas and quests.

    Compared to the usual mindless mob slaughter, many classes in many MMOs can pull everything in aggro range and finish the fight with full health and energy, this is quite different, you will have to be careful, to think, find a way to beat the odds.

    That’s fun. That’s a challenge.

    Modern MMO design: Concern that little kids, grandma and aged gamers who think they need reflexes in MMOs are overtaxed by the mob and might quit.
    – Result: Health of mobs in that particular encounters gets reduced to 33%, abilities removed, tuned down, players get boosts.

    There is no more difficulty left in such a game. It feels a lot like the “inspiration buff” in LOTRO. You know, the game that tells you that doing that instance alone will be extremely challenging. To make sure that really everyone can do it every time on the first try LOTRO will buff you so much that you cannot die even if you go AFK.

    That’s my example for game design were the only difficulty left in the game gets reserved for the contemporary endgame dungeons/raids alone and everything else is no longer difficult at all. Phat loot and story are still there – but where is the game?

    • I don’t find it such an issue in single player games tbh, because you can always turn up the difficulty if you feel it’s too easy.

      It’s more that in MMOs, playing in groups seems to put a lot of pressure on people to min max. I mean, in GW for example, who forced you to use the extra consumables, heroes, pets, abilities etc when they got put in?

      • “just turn up/down the difficulty”, if it would be that easy! Often this does not make the fights better and most MMOs have no difficulty slider. The player taking 150% damage and mobs only 75% for example is usually the “HARD” setting. This is often not enough to make any difference and does not add anything besides mobs taking longer to die.

        I can skip consumables, but with abilities and heroes instead of henchmen that’s another story.
        Part of the game is equipping and making a “build” for the particular hero.
        I can also chose not to equip the best skill combos, but that’s a bit like asking a Paladin not to heal, not to use the bubble nor the Hammer of Justice or a Warrior not to sunder armor and to drop the shield because Death Knights don’t have a shield for fairness reasons.

        Players should not have to show restraint and gimp themselves, they won’t anyways. To give them an appropriate challenge is the job of the game designer. Appropriate seems to mean right now “no challenge at all for nobody”.

      • So on the one hand, the drive to minmax is part of the goal of the gameplay?

        But that doesn’t really fit with the idea of having optional difficulty settings, because people who wanted to complete content efficiently would always select the easiest option (why stress over a hard mode if you don’t have to.)

        I think this conflict is part of the issue with difficulty in MMOs. I don’t personally like minmaxing, or want a game to force me to do it. At least, not a RPG where I was offered the chance to create the character I wanted and expereince a virtual world with it. (eg. I don’t want to feel like a numpty because I rolled a burglar and not a loremaster.)

      • Yes, the game must challenge players at least a little. This does not mean every mob must be a lethal threat, but one should also not be able to kill mobs with auto-attacks only without problems for instance.
        The other problem is that people won’t equip old (say) Moria gear when they got Mirkwood gear and 2nd Age weapons at their disposal. That’s part of the usual gear progression, nobody still uses his first low level legendary weapon.

        The difficulty and potential reward (rare drops) issue you just mentioned is why many people play STO at “advanced” difficulty. It’s still rather easy and mobs die quickly and the potential rewards are almost as good as on elite, where the mobs have a lot more HP and just take a lot longer to die, which does not make them harder, they just die harder. :)

        There are indeed huge differences between classes in LOTRO. A Warden won’t break a sweat in situations where a higher level Burglar would not have any chance, indeed. The usual answer is something along the lines of “the game is balanced for a group, not single classes” which is, well… not really satisfying for those who are on the lower side of the power spectrum. Wardens can solo the Sword-halls of Dol Guldur, I doubt any other class could do that. But on the other hand a Burglar or Champion probably won’t get a rejection from a turtle raid where only DPS matters, whereas my Warden is only allowed to participate when I bribe the Raid Leader, spec for damage and appeal to the social conscience of the group. ;)

  8. ICC and Ulduar were also overtuned for many guilds, at least the back ends of them. Only 20% of 25 man raiding guilds downed LK25 normal mode before 4.0.

    I wonder if the meh raid participation in Cataclysm is from people who felt WotLK strung them along and ultimately pulled the football away, Lucy-style.

  9. On the subject of Torchlight’s difficulty, I really wish Very Hard upped the damage without boosting health quite so much. I love the added challenge of VH, I hate the grind of it though.

  10. I think the tuning of Cataclysm raids is off. I don’t know if it’s just us, but our 10-man killed all normal raid bosses pre 4.0 in Wrath. Yet here we are in Cata, and have been sitting at 3/12 for weeks now. We’re currently stuck at Atramedes. Which is fine, we can be stuck in there. But even our ‘farm’ bosses turn into wipefests at times, especially Omnotron.

    BWD is no Naxxramas and no Karazhan. Magmaw is rougher than Anub’rekhan, Flame Leviathan and Lord Marrowgar. Probably on the same level as when we first tried Northrend Beasts.

    All bosses in BWD seem to share the theme of extremely high personal accountability. One player makes a mistake, especially on Atramedes, and half your raid dies. I might be bitter, because our raid yesterday was a disappointing wipefest. I don’t necessarily want another Naxxramas, and I enjoy challenges but I was looking to wipe for weeks on Nefarian, not on two bosses before him.

      • Yeah, I am a 10-man raider as well and started raiding with Karazhan. Zul’Aman was equally unforgiving when we started it, but then, it was no entry raid.

      • I remember some of the Kara bosses being fairly tough at the start of TBC. And ZA was extremely tough. But it’s hard to really compare those because raid composition was much more of a big deal then.

        If I say that I find the difficulty of Cata raids comparable to Wrath, it’s also in context of comparing vanilla with TBC (jump in difficulty), and TBC to Wrath (got easier). This time I think it’s similar.

      • Kara was certainly very hard right at the start of TBC. We were the second raid guild on our faction and we were stuck on Moroes for about 5 weeks.

        It didn’t help that the only Paladin to hit level 70 was in a different guild as Blessing of Protection and Bubble were really good against the Garotte.

        For us Garotte was undispellable, even after we were able to kill him people still bled to death while we were looking at the epics.

    • Thank you. Agreed.

      We’re not a raiding guild, but we’re no slouches. Our intrepid group of 10 has yet to down Magmaw. Yeah, really.

      I know we’re not the creme de la creme, but I’d like for the first boss of the first Cata raid to be less of a morale-killer so that at least somebody can get 1 good piece of gear a week.

      But we’ll keep bashing our heads against it and eventually we’ll finish. It’s just less fun than I’d like it to be.

  11. WoW heroic instances in Cataclysm were mostly OK for tuning, but some of the bosses were overtuned and Blizzard didn’t fix them fast enough. However the heroics were mostly way too long

    How can you say that the difficulty was okay but the instances were too long? In pure terms of how far you have to walk and how many mobs you have to kill, Cataclysm instances are no different than WOTLK ones (mostly 3-4 bosses with 3-4 trash packs in-between). The only thing that makes heroic runs last longer is players failing in some way and forcing you to corpse-run.

    and they still haven’t figured a way to stop people queueing for heroics before they have learned the normal modes so LFD was stuffed

    I’d love to know why they scrapped the “keep attunements, but make them account-wide” idea they were throwing around at the end of TBC. I’d still love that.

    • I don’t know if Cataclysm heroics are longer than Wrath heroics, but they certainly *feel* longer. Part of the reason, I think, is due to downtime. Instead of just pulling those three trash packs one after another, groups often have to assign CC, wait for mana, and so on. I don’t recall much dicking around between pulls in Wrath, aside from a few tricky pulls (eg, Old Kingdom before they removed all the pats).

  12. The real problem is that forums have become a tool of amateur game design and thus completely dishonest. More spin than Alastair Campbell in a blender.

    Everyone and their dog insists that their class is broken, unplayable and desperately in need of “fixing” because it’s a way to win, where winning is defined as becoming more powerful.

    People don’t say dungeons are too easy because they’re bored. (They just go play something else if they’re bored). They say they’re too easy because they’re fighting the guys on the forums who are lobbying for them to be dumbed down.

  13. My main problem with cataclysm instances was that the only difficult (and interesting) situation with trash packs was the pull. After the mobs are engaged, cc applied and the alpha strike healed the rest of the fight is a rather boring experience that takes far too long. I guess that was one of the main reasons why the instances felt so long to me.

  14. Dragon Age: Origins is massively, crazily undertuned.

    This runs up against the poor balance and the game’s failure to teach itself. You get a very wide delta in party performance, but given a reasonably informed build it becomes very, very easy indeed.

    Making a legitimately challenging encounter in the DA:O engine can be rough. I’ve often had experiences where a fight which I’ve nerfed to a point I feel very uncomfortable with is still too tough for some players. DPS checks in particular are risky because they’re entirely absent in the base game and thus some players have no conception of how to build a party for damage.

    DA2 is a significant improvement here (for a start the difficulty levels matter – Easy to Nightmare is not a big distinction in DA:O), but no toolset for it yet :<

    • The poor balance means that it can be either undertuned or overtuned.

      I found it too hard to be fun for me with my dwarf rogue on my first playthrough so I put it onto easy mode and had more fun. And I know a lot of reviewers commented on the difficulty in normal mode, so I don’t think it was just me.

      Now I’m not sure if I should feel that I was playing it wrong though. I’m taking this as an indication of issues with difficulty and storytelling/ roleplaying games.

      • It is a particularly complicated problem in an rpg – tabletop or computer – because many players will (rightly) make character build decisions for fictional reasons. Their character concept demands their Solar is a generalist rather than a specialist, a DA:O mage loves Wynne and Morrigan so much that they always take them both etc.

        That makes balance incredibly important, and in DA:O’s case it’s much more important than tuning. I believe very strongly that if you balanced DA:O the degree to which it is undertuned would become obvious, but that doesn’t really matter because the balance issues make any individual’s experience of the tuning essentially random.

        There’s little doubt that you and many others (including me for much of my first game) were playing DA:O “wrong”, but it wasn’t your fault. The “right” behaviours are far more likely to be discovered in a forum than in-game.

        Anyway, I think I’m agreeing with you in essence! I just have a very particular view on DA:O tuning after all the modding :)

  15. OK, let me chime in on my personal opinions what was undertuned and overtuned.

    Personally, I view Cataclysm raids as slightly overtuned. I’m in a guild that has a fair chance to possibly clear all heroic content before the next real content patch (4.2). On the other hand, even if so, we’ll probably not have a lot of time left afterwards for relaxed 1-2 night/week farming “farm” content. That may be a good or a bad thing. (Less gear, but some people tend to get bored if you just farm for too long).
    On the other end, if I remember correctly, there’s several bosses that really aren’t that hard. I understand how Omnotron might be difficult with all the special abilities and how they can intertwine, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about with Magmaw. Halfus was relatively simple too, and Valiona & Theralion are basically a “you defeated Halfus and a couple more trash pulls, here’s your additional free loot”. Maybe the difficulty gradient is a bit uneven in Cataclysm, and therefore it’s easier to get stuck. I don’t think that’s been much different in earlier content cycles either, though. You mentioned ICC and Ulduar as examples of instances that started out very easy and got pretty hard towards the end.

    Now, when it comes to undertuned, revamped Naxx was a serious offender. Especially the Four Horsemen stand out for me, if only because I had never seen the fight in vanilla, but worshipped the videos and thought it was such an amazing design at the time. (Not even to mention the fame that comes with the name, as one of the longest-standing roadblock bosses in the game.) In the new version, from almost week 1, you could just zerg through the bosses, mostly ignoring the mechanics. I felt cheated. Yes, I’m still a bit bitter about that, and that’s why I bring it up every time the discussion comes to that point. ;)

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  17. Hi Spinks, great post! I think WoW is becoming increasingly overtuned – i.e. there is one solution to every fight and one right build for every class and one right way to do everything.

    This especially applies to party size and make up which has had a really detrimental effect on my small social WoW guild. We are all bored / stuck without much to do now because often were are just four online (not always the same 4 ofc) which means we simply can’t do heroics.

    Pre Cataclysm we always found something to do, whether group quests (remember those!?), hunting rare spawns or undermanning heroics. Now that seem impossible because you have to do the dance which of course assumes 5 players. Even the seasonal special bosses can only be accessed via DF which means pugging extra people or not doing it. We haven’t always been this low, in TBC we regularly did guild runs of Karazhan.

    So for me it’s not that the content is too hard, but that we can only play it if we fit in the little pidgeon-holed group (size) that Blizzard thinks is needed.

  18. MMO difficulty is a strange beast. Of course you have instances of some fights being more difficult than others even depending on guild(guild A might wipe out fight Y easily but stumble for ages on fight Z, but guild B might be the opposite.)

    Many fights in WoW that were considered very hard for their time might not have been that conceptually hard. For example-Vael was a huge guildkiller in Vanilla. His concept? Kill him in 3 minutes. It was just an intense ass DPS race but it tore raids apart.

    Gothik the Harvester in Naxx 40 was considered widely to be one of the top-tier fights in that instance; below only 4H and the endwing bosses(YMMV there, but I know a lot of guilds who were stumped on him.) The concept? Balance the adds. Don’t kill to many Liveside so Deadside gets overrun. Liveside needs to kill just enough to not get overrun themselves. But in practice that fight turned out to be one of the toughest in that instance for many.

    Now I can say back in ICC, our FIRST NIGHT in ICC we downed the first four bosses. We got Deathbringer at the end of the night, but we still cleared out the entire first tier. This was pre buff. Our first night in BWD we cleared Magmaw and Omnitron. That was it. We got Halfus in two shots our first time into BoT, but the double dragons we didn’t get-we got them the following week. Conclave we nailed the first night as well. So I guess looking at it, ICC had four 1st night bosses. This tier had four first night bosses as well, they were just split among the instances. I’m…not sure what that says. xD

    I do think one thing I read rings true for me-it seems that while maybe the difficulty isn’t terribly hugely far apart in the Normal mode stuff, the margin of error is just so damned small this time around. I mean I’m cool with Heroic modes needing a measure of perfection, but I also feel that there should be room for error. I remember doing, for example, some hardmodes in Wrath where one screwup didn’t necessarily spell DOOM for the entire raid. (LK25HC or Yogg No Light notwithstanding-those fights, yeah, you needed perfection.) Nowadays if your interrupter on Nef lags or their finger accidentally slides onto the wrong button-aka, just human mistakes(lag not even being a mistake) and two Blast Novas creep through due to this you might as well just pack it in.

    I guess I feel there can be a balance between ‘challenge’ and ‘allowing a little wiggle room’ at the same time. In other words, an encounter can still be challenging WITH some wiggle room in there.

  19. Unforgiving. That best describes heroics when you first set foot in them with the bare minimal gear required with your guildies. For PUGs it was pretty slim.

    Raiding is much the same. There is a little forgiveness, but not much. You do it wrong, you pretty much die.

    As you grow the gear, it does become easier (especially heroics), but it’s still very unforgiving. You might be able to get away with more though.

    One thing Spinks mentioned struck a chord – instead of requiring people to find the dungeon entrance before they could queue for the dungeon, they should have made you locked out until you did the regular version of the dungeon (exceptions might need to be made for SFK and DM).

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