The problem of difficulty in CRPGs

Challenge in RPGs has been a mixed bag at best for designers.

If they ramp the challenge up in an encounter, and classes/ builds differ noticeably in any way, then it favours min-maxing. A game with lots of these challenges can become largely about figuring out this optimal setup.  There’s room for a genre of games which are about figuring out the best min-maxed party  to beat encounters and then executing it. But the current theorycrafting metagame is largely an accident of fate. ie. if you wanted to design a game that invited all players to figure out through play the optimal setup, you wouldn’t design it like an MMO.

If we also want the diversity and flexibility in games of being able to try unusual classes or builds, or trying abilities because they sound fun rather than because they’re in the optimised setup, then this high-challenge scenario is the wrong one to be playing. Originally there was an assumption with MMOs that devs would provide a large game world with lots of ‘stuff’ in it and players would find their own level of challenge. Although you can still do this in most games, endgame tends to be situated around fixed design challenges.

Part of the popularity of Skyrim is as an antidote to this style of game design; it’s an entire game world which invites players (in a single player environment, naturally) to go explore and try stuff out. Yes, you can outlevel the content and make the game far too easy for yourself by minmaxing. Yes, you can also head into killer dungeons way above your level. But by and large no one is going to tell you that you’re playing it wrong if you do any of those things. It is flexible.

Maybe it was inevitable that massive multi-player games would end up favouring optimised character setups. Maybe the incessant focus on combat meant that optimising for combat was always going to be the end result. Maybe the freedom to experiment without being oppressed/ farmed by the hardcore section of the playerbase for not doing things the way they do can only ever happen in single player games. It isn’t that the player base is the problem exactly, more that in a multiplayer game people will eventually be pressed into conforming and competing with the rest of the online player base. And the ‘golden age’ of MMOs that Wolfshead waxes lyrical about was simply a pre-evolutionary stage, before the push of gamification, when being online with other people in real time in a virtual world was so exciting in itself that players were more patient with each other, and before there was much competition for the few virtual worlds that existed.

But one thing is for sure, that type of challenge design doesn’t work brilliantly with heavily story based games, unless the challenge can be tailored to the character/ group more closely. Because if a player feels torn between picking a character/ class for story reasons and picking one for minmaxing reasons, there will always be more pressure on them from other players (and the game environment itself) to optimise.

I think players who enjoy more flexibility do feel oppressed by the optimising hardcore, because it’s pretty rough to always be told that you’re playing the game wrong. And that’s not the same as being a bad player (‘bad’ is very much a social construction in computer games, and can  be used equally to mean someone with slow reactions, someone who doesn’t watch the youtube video of the boss kill before zoning into a raid,  someone who hurls abuse in general chat, or someone who never listens to advice and never seems to learn.)

[Blizzard] Plan B in patch 4.3, and Diablo 3 trailer

Happy Sunday!

Let’s start with a link to the new D3 trailer that was premiered last night (this is an RPS link since the Spike TV one is inaccessible to people in my region. )

If you want to compare with previous ones:

Maybe I’m jaded from awesome computer game trailers these days. It looks fine. I just want to know the release date.

Of greater interest to prospective players, Blizzard also released some more details around how the auction house/ battlenet/ money thing is going to work. So you’ll be able to ‘charge up’ your battle.net balance via paying money into your account, but you cannot withdraw money from it – this isn’t a bank. Proceeds of a D3 cash auction can either go into the battle.net balance (ie. if you want to use the money to pay future subs or something), or they can be cashed out if you pay a cashout fee. What this basically means is that you cannot store auction profits on battle.net until you have a decent amount and then cash all of it out for a single cashout fee. You’ll have to pay a fee on every individual auction you want to cash out.

Or as Mike@MMOCrunch puts it, quadruple dipping. This rather makes the cash AH  useful only if you either want to ‘earn’ money for your WoW subs/future D3 expansions or intend to sell rather large/ high value items. I suspect gold selling/ buying for Diablo 3 in large amounts will be the dominant model on the real money AH, and people will just use the gold AH for selling most gear.

What does a successful patch look like anyway?

Earlier this week I asked readers how they had found the difficulty of WoW’s latest patch, 4.3. Thanks to everyone who responded! The main impression I get is that people are enjoying the content, so that’s definitely a win for Blizzard.

But still, I see concerns around how difficult or challenging the raids and instances are (or more accurately, around how difficult they aren’t). I see this as very much tied into longevity. Ideally every player would like to spend their time working towards clear short and medium term goals, and seeing actual progress towards those goals with every session. (The goals don’t have to be gear related, maybe you’re making gold, making friends, or learning how to play your class/spec better.) So there’s an idea that “Well yes, this is really fun now. But what happens next? It won’t stay this fun for long …” It’s like a protestant work ethic – we cannot admit that we are having fun with the new content because dammit, we didn’t have to work hard enough. And it feels as though admitting that a patch is fun right now is like saying that it won’t be fun next week, or maybe the week after.

So–  when a player meets their medium term goals quickly, what happens then? Either they make new goals, or take a break until new goals present themselves. Some people are better than others at thinking up interesting personal goals, and some goals appeal more to some people than others (eg. I’m not motivated by achievements, personally.) And after you have played a game for long enough, maybe you’ve run out of potential medium term goals that can still hold your interest. There are only so many times you need to get the Loremaster or Crusader achievements, after all.

Blizzard is aiming to offer heroic modes as future goals for people who complete the content on normal modes, AND a much larger proportion of the player base will complete the content on normal or LFD mode than previously. Will the player base buy it, and will people then want to spend time working on the harder modes? If so, it’s a good model for Blizz. Lots of fun things for everyone to do and see when a new patch drops, as they check out the content on LFR/ normal mode. And then when they have completed that, extra challenge on heroic. Plus the new PvP season, and any other new content/ daily quest Blizzard can drop in (Darkmoon Faire in this case.)

And all that is required for that to work is for people to really care about repeating content they have already seen in normal mode in a harder heroic mode.  Let’s see how that pans out. I’d also have concerns about how LFR will affect turnout to casual raid guilds. Again, if people are motivated by seeing the content, how keen will they be to turn up to weekly raids to see it again in a harder form?

Still, it’s undoubtedly a good deal for players who wanted to see the cool lore stuff from patch 4.3 and be done with it (assuming they don’t care about harder modes) when SWTOR is released.

Gaming News: LOTRO goes F2P, Zynga buys Warstorm Dev, Sony announces Clone Wars Online, DC Online, Buzz about Halflife 3

Good news everyone, I didn’t have to make up any news this week!

LOTRO, Darkfall: Free as in Beer (the first round is on the house)

In case anyone had escaped the internet LOTRO blogging blitz, yes Turbine have announced that their  AAA Lord of the Rings MMO will be offering a wider variety of payment schemes from sometime this Autumn, so probably around November. Which does, yes, include some non-subscription cash shop options.

The big news from my point of view is that this is going to happen for the Euro servers as well as the US ones (unlike DDO). So we may actually retain some players. We still don’t know exactly how the changeover will affect existing players. So expect to hear more about that as the deadline approaches.

In other freemium news, Darkfall has announced a new 14 day free trial. So if you’re curious to test Aventurine’s claims that their MMO is not just a hardcore PvP gankfest with a confusing UI but actually does sport some challenging PvE also, this is your chance.

Zynga pays a high price for Challenge Games

Continuing to buy their way to dominance of Facebook games, Zynga announced a new acquisition this week. Challenge Games have made a name for themselves producing innovative social games like Warstorm (a collectible card type game) and Ponzi (a game that pokes fun at corporate life), with the obligatory cash shop purchases built in.

So it’s clear that Zynga recognise that they’ve been weak at innovation in this area – all of their more popular games right now were based on polishing other existing games. And this is how they plan to plug the gap. Challenge now becomes Zynga’s Austin office.

Sony announces two new MMOs, internet ignores one of them

Sony announced that they are releasing two new MMOs this year:

Care to guess which one got all the attention? Hint: It wasn’t DCU Online. This can’t bode well for the superhero MMO, maybe the popular interest in playing superheroes just isn’t there or is already well catered for with City of Heroes (due an expansion later this year too) and Champions Online. I was actually surprised by how few of the blogs and news outlets I read had much to say about it.

Everyone seems far more taken by the notion of Clone Wars Adventures, myself included. Maybe Sony have some agile PR campaign planned for DCUO later this year to stir up some excitement.

November is looking pretty busy this year for MMO releases, especially if Cataclysm ends up with a November release date too (which is likely). And we still don’t have dates for Final Fantasy 14, which also could potentially release this year, not to mention other smaller games (Jumpgate Evolution, Black Prophecy, TERA, etc.)

Valve cancels the Portal 2 demo at E3… what are they planning?

Lots of gaming journalists this week received a note from Aperture Science to announce the cancellation of the Portal 2 demo at E3. It will be replaced with A Surprise. RPS speculate whether the surprise might be related to a Half-Life 3 announcement.

From working my way through Portal (what a great game!!), I can only say that I regard announcements from Aperture Science with a degree of .. uh … cynicism. My 2c says that it is in fact going to be the Portal 2 demo, but maybe they’ll zap visiting hacks with cake guns or something similarly amusing to the public.

In any case, Valve could teach Sony a thing or three about PR campaigns. Maybe Portal 2 could include a Batman level to hype DCUO or something…

Puzzling PR #2, and a great article on casual/ hardcore gaming

Most puzzling comment made in an interview I saw this week was from Bioware, on the topic of Mass Effect 3. Apparently the third story is where they are going to bring some more fun and lightness into the trilogy, like the ewoks in Star Wars.

But I thought that everyone hated the ewoks and also, what if existing players love the games BECAUSE they aren’t fun and light hearted. Just a thought. Why are devs so scared of the grimdark, I wonder. It obviously does sell.

And because I forgot this from yesterday’s link post, everyone should go and read Greg Costyikan’s great article in The Escapist in which he ponders why publishers and retailers have been trying so hard to drive a wedge between casual and hardcore gamers. After all, don’t lots of people play both, and have been since the very dawn of gaming?

10 cool posts to read over the weekend

I haven’t done a good links post for awhile. But not for the lack of material!

  1. Flaim at The Cognisance Council has some thoughts for tanks, from someone who doesn’t tank. Big Bear Butt Blogger has some more thoughts about the tank’s role in a group, from someone who does.
  2. I’ve often seen bloggers wish that MMOs were based more on skill than on grind. But here’s the other side of the picture, MMO Designer discusses why it may be better to reward players for time spent, rather than for challenge.
  3. Dwism writes a timely post on some of the easter eggs in WoW. The little details that bring the world to life (a bit) which people might miss if they just dash through following questhelper like dogs on leashes.
  4. Leigh Alexander discusses an indie game that lets you take your virtual revenge on guys who make catcalls in the street. (Warning: if it bothers you that some women may not like being accosted in the street, don’t read this.)
  5. A couple of great posts from The Psychology of Games. One on how people pick their guildies, and how players pick their guilds. And another on whether people behave better online if they pick an avatar that looks more like themselves.
  6. Back in March, Keen swore that he’d never touch another F2P game. It’s something that he still feels very strongly about, and he describes why he thinks F2P is going to ruin LOTRO.
  7. Jeff Vogel at The Bottom Feeder discusses anti piracy solutions. And explains why he thinks the options that players hate might be the ones which work best.
  8. Back in February, Larisa was already asking how WoW players were going to keep their enthusiasm going until November. We still don’t really know the answer to that.
  9. Kava is a Wow player and musician who writes a druid blog at Evil Tree. She’s recently been sharing her passion for gaming music, comparing classical music and opera with the Warcraft soundtrack.
  10. Syncaine talks about the lure of grindy gameplay in MMOs. Why do we enjoy spending hours killing mobs or doing dailies to chase that extra 0.1% damage?

End of the Expansion Blues

If there was any doubt that we were nearing the end of an expansion in WoW, the start of the Cataclysm alpha has put a line underneath it.

From here on, there will be one more content patch – it will contain a small non-progression raid to dispense trinkets and other epic sparklies, some fun PvE questlines (retake Gnomeregan or the Echo Isles), the battle.net Real ID integration, and whatever else Blizzard decide to do in preparation for the expansion that is to come.

And frankly, even though we haven’t yet killed the Lich King in 25 man raid, the kill cannot be too far away. I’d give it a month or so, depending on how raid attendance goes. And for a casual progression guild, that’s a good result which will make people happy.

But for all that, I’m worn down with Wrath raiding. It’s been fun, and I have a post in progress to go through some of the high and low points.  I’ll keep up my end of the weekly schedule as long as everyone else is keen, but I could give it up right now. I can see a mixture of reasons.

  • ICC holds very few tanking challenges for any tank who has cleared Ulduar. LK may be different but it won’t matter if I’m bored by the time I get there. From talking to friends who have tried heroic ICC, I don’t hold out much hope for those encounters either.
  • I don’t personally have any other avenues for progression. Aside from alting.
  • My efforts to get a 10 man crew together haven’t really worked (partly because other people are feeling end of Wrath blues too). I blame my social skills (ie. lack of friends) rather than gaming ones, but the enthusiasm for trying again has run dry.

I think the lack of challenge in ICC is an interesting issue. It isn’t that the encounters aren’t difficult, you only have to look at the hardcore versions to see how few guilds have completed them all. But the difficulty doesn’t really involve my role so I often feel as though I’m just ferrying bosses around while everyone else does the actual work. This is not why I raid.

So pardon me if I fail to get over excited about Cataclysm alpha leaks (why do they even bother with an NDA any more, I wonder?). It’s because I’m wondering if the raid game of the future has moved on and become something I’m no longer going to enjoy. Or maybe it’s just end of the expansion blues.

It’s hard to make easy games

Simon Foster: It’ll be easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.
Toby Wright: No, it’s going to be difficult-difficult-lemon-difficult.

– In the Loop

The great challenge of MMOs has always been to get massive amounts of people all playing together happily.

  • That means people from different cultures, timezones, and with different amounts of time to play: Hello 24/7 servers.
  • That means people who want to do different types of content: Hello PvE, PvP, crafting, questing
  • That means people who want to play together or separately: Hello instancing, solo content, raiding
  • It means people with different playing styles: Hello multiple classes and roles

So it’s no accident that these games are so large and sprawling. Their core mission requires a smorgasbord of gaming, something for (almost) everyone. And in a macrocosm of the WoW random group finder, for people to have a good chance to find others who want to play with them, the game needs as many active players as possible.  The alternative strategy is to go with a more focussed game, offer less choice, and cater to the core player base. But that’s not quite so massive.

But the great step forwards in game play in current gen MMOs has been all about the difficulty. What do you do when you have players who enjoy different amounts of difficulty in your game? How can it be fun for the min/maxing hardcore as well as the guys who just want to log in and chill out when they get back from work? And what does it mean if making the game easier also makes it more popular?

Difficulty in CRPGs

Difficulty in MMOs is a moving target. In a traditional open world computer RPG the player always has the option to go away and level up by killing wandering monsters and taking their loot, and then coming back later. If a challenge is too hard, you have a choice. Either try to figure out a better strategy, or go away and come back later when you are more powerful or have more friends. And both of these are valid strategies. That’s why you don’t need a difficulty setting. The player always gets to choose.

The whole genre is based around the idea that characters progress over time. The challenges generally do not.

So even in a typical MMO, the game gets easier over the course of an expansion. It gets easier because players get tougher, even if devs never tweak the earlier encounters at all. It must get easier because players like to see how much better their characters are after a month of play, so that they can feel there was some value to the effort. That’s what character progression means.

Which is a long way to say that we want our RPGs to get easier as characters progress, otherwise why bother with progression at all? We want raid encounters to be challenging at first and then move to farm status as we learn them and get geared up. We want to be able to go back and solo low level instances. We want to be able to easily gank lower level players on our more experienced/geared mains. Because if you can’t, what is the point?

The game also traditionally provides new and tougher challenges as the character progresses. Sometimes they are actually harder, sometimes the difficulty just scaled with the gear. (For example, Yogg-Saron will always be a trickier execution fight than Lord Marrowgar, even in full ICC gear.) And that’s fine. If difficulty genuinely kept scaling then people would have to drop out as they reached their own personal limit. Players can’t handle infinitely increasing difficulty, it would make no sense.

The more difficult the group content, the more players are forced to socialise with others based on their difficulty preferences. If you want to do hard mode raids, you probably need to be in a hardcore raid guild who will demand 100% dedication because they’re hardcore (duh). If you want to do hardcore raids occasionally because you enjoy the difficulty but not more than once a week, you may be out of luck. Or at least, you’ll have the challenge of finding people who are hardcore enough to like the difficulty but not so hardcore that the want to raid more, play more, and min-max more than that.

Difficulty in group content leads to a kind of race to the bottom, with players pressuring each other to spend more time, optimise more, grind more, and so on. None of which is necessarily going to satisfy someone who just likes intricate fights.

Difficulty and Immersion

As soon as you have to stop and wonder about whether your character’s talent traits are sufficiently optimised, then immersion is broken. Thinking about game mechanics or the metagame while you play will drag you out of the virtual world faster than just about anything except a cat on the keyboard.

A large part of why I loved Dragon Age, for example, is that I could play on easy mode and make all my decisions based on my interactions with the world and plot and it wouldn’t break my game. I could pick spells because I thought they were thematic for my character, I could screw people over and it wouldn’t stop me getting to the end. For those reasons, it was immersive in the non-combat sections.

So it isn’t surprising that a lot of players balk at being told to go look up spreadsheets and long lists of BIS (best in slot) gear and complex rotations. These things are not easy to work out for yourself in game. They don’t add difficulty, just tedium and they take you out of the game world while they do it. Also, looking at a loot list is functionally identical to having a button to press in the game that says ‘Where should I go next to get a better hat?’

The difficulty of reading a class thread on a bulletin board is passing the mental barrier that says, “Why should I have to spend ages researching this?” It’s a good question. Looking up strategies doesn’t add difficulty.

The idea behind having talent choices and loot choices is that they should be true player choices. Immersive play requires that there are no truly bad choices, only different ones. Then players are free to customise their characters based on their gaming and aesthetic preferences.

None of this would stop someone from playing badly, having poor reactions, not paying attention, or being an arse. It would take out a lot of the complexity, but since even hardcore players tend to look up the optimal gear and rotations anyway, they clearly prefer to skip the complexity also.

Easy to learn, hard to master

There is a lot more to be said about difficulty in MMOs and why it’s being such a tough nut to crack. The RPG genre has traditionally not had formal difficulty settings because the player could effectively do that by coming back later when they had more gear. Forcing people to figure out complex mechanics acts directly against the idea of an immersive virtual world.

The game side of the MMO simply runs counter to the virtual world side. This is another strong trend in current gen MMOs.

And even from a gameplay point of view, making the game easier, more intuitive, more forgiving, and more accessible has been a great success for WoW. On the other hand, will players also get bored more quickly? That’s something we’ll see over the coming months leading up to Cataclysm. I think we’re seeing the start of it now – I already sidelined my death knight for example; she’s fun, but now that she is geared and I’ve seen a few raids, there’s no great challenge left.

So what was that big leap forwards again? Devs have a much better understanding now of how gameplay works in MMOs. We’re seeing better designed and tuned games now, where the previous ethos was to plop people into the virtual world and see what happened.

And somewhere along the line, everything that has been learned about making accessible games more fun will also be used to make difficult games more fun. It’s not a bad thing for games to cut out the needless cruft of pointless complexity and timesinks, if they can replace it with something equally absorbing (but more fun than poking at spreadsheets).

How many classes do you like to see in a game?

After reading the announcements about the final two classes in Bioware’s Star Wars MMO (for more info, read Moon over Endor’s excellent summary of the Total PC Gaming article), I’m still stuck on the notion of only having four classes on each faction. Even allowing for subclasses, it’s hard to gauge how differently they all will play.

There are some great advantages to having lots of different class choices. It’s more likely that a player who strongly favours one style of MMO play will be able to find a class that suits them. Love bow users but hate pets? Like melee healing but want to be able to shape shift too?  Only play healers but want something a bit different, yet still familiar? Dual wield rapiers? Want a class that’s exactly like some other class in a completely different game or genre? And if your favourite class gets altered via patches and stops being fun (for whatever reason), is there another class you might want to try?

Players will also get to mix with a wide range of classes and class abilities when they group. So grouping might be deeper and more complex, with more emphasis on having to adapt because you can’t assume all classes will be present. And because some classes will be rarer than others, people who like to be different should be able to do it. It also means that designers can allow for some classes being more complex than others; so for example the stereotype hardcore gamer with the more casual partner can both find fun classes, even if one of them doesn’t want the same level of challenge.

Not only that but if the classes play very differently (different mechanics, different lore and class quests, etc) then the game adds some extra replay-ability. It is also easier to manage group invites when a class  represents a role, as any hybrid will tell you who is tired of being asked if they’re specced to heal.

A lot of those factors could work with  fewer but more customisable classes. More flexibility within a class means that people can adapt better if their tastes change. It means more flexibility in forming groups too, and a higher skill cap if people want to really master their class.

For me, more flexibility in a class is also more fun, and means more time spent learning to play the different roles without having to reroll. But it’s also nice to have a strong class identity, and to have the widely different replayability options.

With Star Wars, I keep coming back to the thought that I have a lot of friends who like to play support classes, and there’s one option for that on each side. I wonder how that will work out.

Do you like games with a lot of classes to choose from? Or do you prefer fewer classes with more flexibility?

 

 

Thought of the Day: How we define challenge

I’ve read a few bloggers recently commenting about how challenges change in MMOs. Tobold joked that hunters were changing to FPS gameplay, as a way of talking about how WoW is tending towards twitch based challenge and away from knowledge/ puzzle solving — granted it wasn’t ever very puzzle based but it’s clear that designers now assume everyone will look the strategies up and are trying to find other ways to challenge players.

Gevlon has been thinking about why hardcore players complain about nerfs. Looking at the marathon example, the hardcore don’t ever have to be in contact with the casuals so why would it matter what they do? Again, it’s to do with the perception of the challenge and people being concerned that their previous achievements will be less ‘valuable,’ especially in a game where people often define their self-worth by what challenges they have beaten. (Sure, there are other reasons to complain about nerfs, I remember being sad when Ulduar was first nerfed because I was enjoying the original difficulty.)

This all reminded me of a wise comment I read recently on a bboard. From an rpg.net post by David J Prokopetz:

The ready availability of strategy guides and online FAQs seems to have lead many hardcore gamers to conclude that the only “real” challenges are those that test your reflexes, and those that test your patience.

Exploration-based challenges are deemed worthless because you can just look up where to go next; likewise reasoning-based challenges, because you can look up the solution; resource-based challenges are out because you can look up the optimal distributions; strategy and tactics disdained because you can look up an algorithm and apply it by rote; and so forth.

Ultimately, any challenge that doesn’t boil down to pure twitch or interminable grind will be dismissed out of hand.

So maybe it all does come down to spoilers in the end. But it speaks to something in player mentality where someone who levels naked (in game) or beats Ulduar in blue gear will be widely respected, whereas a group who go into a raid instance ‘blind’ so that they can figure out the strategy themselves will be mocked for not looking it up like everyone else. The player base values some challenges more than others.

It doesn’t look good for the non-achievers or people who prefer puzzle based play to twitch. But at least we still have single player games. And of course social players face the biggest challenges of all: running a successful guild or raid group.

And because it’s still being great, here’s the obligatory Torchlight screenie. My vanquisher at level 12 with a new gun. Why is it that I hate the thigh boots and miniskirt look in Aion but really like it here, I wonder?

Vanquisher with gun

Finding the game to suit your mood

Over the last couple of weeks, my patterns of game playing have changed. I’m still playing the same games as before we had a death in the family, but I have noticed that I am playing them in different ways.

I’m enjoying the social contact and escapism in my MMOs, but I also have a lot of other things to do in real life. I find that I’m reluctant to spend too long in game. Sometimes I solo — more than usual. I’ve started low level alts with sisters and friends, on a very no-strings-attached understanding.

I’ve also been avoiding in game stress. I’m looking for a more peaceful and less challenging experience right now. Maybe it’s part of the grieving process, or a way of escaping from real life upheavals. I’m not entirely sure. Either way, I’m not enjoying progression raiding in the way I had in the past. I can live with it — we have such a light raid schedule that one night a week isn’t going to hurt — but right now I can’t honestly say that it’s fun for me.

I would normally stop doing things if I decided that they weren’t fun. But in this case it’s only one night a week, and I enjoy the company and being able to keep my hand in. I’m hoping this phase will pass soon and I’ll be back to gleefully comparing my repair costs with the other tanks as usual. (In case anyone was wondering what we discuss in the tank channels.)

I also find myself retreating towards familiar things. I would love to spend more time with EQ2 but somehow in spare moments I still drift back to WoW. I think this is down to the low barriers of entry to a game you know very well. Also, I already have a couple of characters who are geared for endgame there and a social circle,  and I’m familiar with most of the current content. It’s very low stress for me to hop into WoW, run a couple of instances with friends or PUGs, and hop out again. A large part of this is because the heroics are easy, I’m overgeared, and I probably could run them blindfold.

EQ2 isn’t high stress by any means, but it takes more time and energy to go and learn a new game, explore, make new friends, and figure out new content and mechanics. And energy, as much as anything, is what I’m trying to recharge at the moment. For the same reason, I bowed out of trying any of the new releases this month. It’s not the right time, and I’m not in the right mood.

Back on the DS, Galactrix has been seeing a lot of play, probably because I’ve spent a lot of time on trains.

I love it more and more with every session, despite the game’s  huge sucking flaws. Yes it spends a freaking aeon saving and loading itself all the time — it has more load screens than EQ2 in open beta. Yes the screen manages to be sensitive when you want it to be forgiving, and vice versa. For all that, I love how it plays and I love what they were trying to do. I’m finally discovering the main storyline, and trekking around the galaxy unlocking stargates, fighting baddies, discovering rumours, making new items, mining, trading, and unlocking my latent psychic powers. I am also impressed at how many variations there are on a simple “match three colours” game.

Raid Update: Is this what the hardcore feel like?

Have you noticed how bloggers always write “We’re not hardcore but …’” before they relate recent guild activities which sound unbelievably hardcore to the reader? There’s a lot of truth in the saying that hardcore is anyone who plays more than you, and casual is anyone who plays less.

Or in other words, players  actually have no idea how hardcore we are. And only a vague idea what that means anyway.

This came home to me over the last couple of weeks. The last time I wrote about our alliance’s raid progress, I said that I thought Ulduar was tuned perfectly for us. And then they nerfed it.

Everyone who expressed an opinion on the private forums was disappointed. This was an unusual situation for us, we’re not usually in a position to be complaining that raids aren’t hard enough. I had a pang of empathy for the hardcore (I mean the real hardcore obviously, not me) who complained when Sunwell was nerfed.

We haven’t cleared the place yet and there’s plenty of challenges left. Plus when we do there are still hard modes. But I think we’d all shared that feeling that the place was perfect the way it was.

Were Blizzard right to nerf Ulduar?

They were absolutely right.

Whatever else it is, Ulduar needs to be accessible. And that means accessible to irregular raiders, raids with a few sub-par dps, and people who found Naxx challenging but will soon be finished with it.

The new paradigm says that the extra optional difficulty will be in the hard modes, and in a sop to the hardcore there’s an extra boss that requires completing all those hard modes to unlock.

Optional is a very key word here. With Wrath, difficulty became optional and we haven’t yet seen the results play out. How many players, if given the choice between raiding 4 nights a week and 1 night a week would decide that they’d rather have the extra free time than the hard mode achievements?

There will be inevitable jibes about people being poor players (I’m being kind here because I detest the retarded jibes — it’s neither retarded nor fair to the mentally disabled to plonk people in that category because they want to play less) if they decide that hard modes don’t motivate them.

Also the only real reward for being hardcore in the current environment is that you get to power through the content, possibly get boasting rights that a lot of people don’t care about any more, and then be bored for longer than the more casual raids.

Expect to see a lot more pressure on hardcore guilds to keep recruiting, because it’s going to be harder than it ever has been before. Give it a couple of months or so, I think a lot of them will be breaking apart. The game simply no longer provides the sort of content that they were created to beat.

Two more bosses down

My alliance usually runs 2-3 raids per week of three hours duration each. Two weekly raids is more common, and that’s what we did this week.

So we got the Iron Council and Kologarn for the first time, as well as all the previous bosses, and had some good attempts on Auriaya (nicknamed Maiden of Biscuits by the raid and I’m still not entirely sure why). Another achievement for us because it was the first week in ages that our main raid leader was away and I think it was good for confidence (and I’m sure he’ll be delighted also) that we still got stuck in there and made good progress.

Despite all this, although there was a third raid scheduled for Sunday we didn’t make the numbers. And we’re starting to see people drift away. One friend transferred to a PvP server, and another decided that he wanted a break (he says until the next expansion).

I don’t think this is specific to my alliance, it’s more illustrative of a general malaise. Also MMOs always lose numbers during the summer, I don’t think I have ever played a game that didn’t.

We also pulled a 10 man raid together last week and waltzed through the outer and antechamber bosses, picking up achievements on Razorscale and Flame Leviathan on the way. I’m not able to run them on weekends at the moment which severely limits the time we have in the instance (3 hours per week). So we really have to pick our goals so as to maximise the time available. I’ll probably write more about that later this week.