[Wildstar] Game difficulty, player confidence.

“… each struggling MMO is struggling in its own way.”

– Tolstoy (sort of)

I have read a few blog posts this week about Wildstar, and the inevitable subscription drop-off and server merge. I’d be hard pressed at this point to name a recent subscription MMO that hadn’t experienced a drop-off after the first couple of months. Players have wondered whether the game’s difficulty compared with other similar MMOs may be part of the explanation for why the new MMO on the block has failed to break the 3-monther pattern.

I played the game in Beta and wasn’t hooked, but at the same time, when so many other MMOs have trodden the same path it’s hard to pick out anything exceptional about this one. Except that the magical lightning-in-a-bottle MMO factor that will get a game to go viral and grow the playerbase rather than shrinking doesn’t seem to be there. It isn’t doom for Wildstar though – other games such as SWTOR and Final Fantasy 14 have recovered from the slump and stabilised the playerbase at a lower level. At this point no MMO is going to go viral unless its new and different, or appeals to a wildly different audience from the usual crowd. WoW did it. Minecraft did it. Lots of other games were decently successful but without setting the world alight, and that’s fine.

At the same time, if their target core audience was hardcore raiders, that was only ever going to be a small proportion of the player base. And it was always likely that unless those people were very burned out with WoW, they’d be tempted back for the next expansion. It’s certainly possible to raid hardcore in two different games at the same time, but not when one of them has a new expansion out.

I did like Keen’s analysis of ‘the quit wall’ in games. “People reach the wall and they quit.”  It could be a frustrating grind, or a really hard solo quest, or dungeon that it is impossible to find a group for – whatever it is, it becomes so frustrating that players no longer enjoy the game because they cannot see a path to the next goal that looks achievable.

I think of difficulty as being in two types:

  1. Something you could do with time and effort and/or help from other players, but it might take more time and effort (and motivation) than you want to spend.
  2. Something you just can’t do, and you aren’t confident that time and effort would change that.

When you describe it in these terms, 1) sounds like a rational choice. If it takes me 2 hours to run a dungeon and I’d need to run it 20 times to get the tokens that I need, I could rationally step back and think “Whoa, 40 hours for one doodad that will probably be obsolete in the next patch. No thanks.” Sometimes the sheer sticker shock when you realise how much hassle will be involved is enough to put people off even trying.  2) is a judgement call – how long do you try an event/ grind/ etc. before you decide that it isn’t possible?

So our judging difficulty is all about confidence. How good am I at succeeding in difficult things? (Women, incidentally, tend to underestimate this, men are more likely to overestimate – they call this ‘the confidence gap’). If people are already stressed out by other aspects of the game (eg. being yelled at for being a newbie in instances) then they are already likely to be feeling less confident.

So if you put a difficulty wall in a game, the least confident people are most likely to leave first. If your game attracts a crowd who are bullying and elitist, more of the other players will lose confidence and leave. It may be because they are bad players who couldn’t keep up. Or it may be because they lost the will to try or felt they would not be able to learn quickly enough. In either case, the player base reduces.

But still, admitting to yourself that a game is too difficult feels like failure for a gamer. It’s hard to do and even harder to discuss – I think every time I have written a blog post about where I thought part of a game was overtuned, I’ve been challenged on that by people who felt quite strongly about wanting their games to stay difficult.

So this is a tough topic. But does anyone want to share a time when difficulty made them decide to drop a game and how that felt? I never did complete the solo part of the legendary WoW quest this expansion – it was too hard for me and my shadow priest, and I don’t play MMOs because I want to do hard solo content (I’d get Dark Souls if I wanted that). And though I will play the game again, I will always now feel that the designers are telling me it’s too hard for me, and I’m probably not going to raid other than very casually. Because I got the message.

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.)

[SWTOR] In which Bioware finally nail single player gameplay

A funny thing happened to me this week while playing Star Wars: the Old Republic. My Sith Warrior chick (partner says accusingly, “She looks evil!” but I think he’s just influenced by being in the same room as me while I’m playing) is in the final stages of her class quest now, and I’ve noticed a couple of difficulty ramps in the single player game as I go. But the funny thing is that this week I realised that I was enjoying the single player difficulty, in fact I’m enjoying it far more than WoW.

I may have noted previously that Bioware have done a good job in making the set piece, end of plot arc, boss fights harder than the comparable missions while not being minmaxingly hard (ie. you can beat them if you play carefully even with a randomish build and your choice of companion). But looking back, they have also been teaching you as a player to figure out how to work out a decent rotation (ie. which of your abilities do most damage so you should use them as soon as they come off cooldown, etc), how to use interrupts, using the scenery to help, figuring out how best to handle groups of linked mobs, using your companion to help out, and so on.

For example, I struggle to take on two strong mobs of my level … unless I let my companion pull one while I kill the other and then taunt the spare one back. Even the wimpiest of companions, assuming they’re geared at their level, can tank a mob for awhile on their own. Where there is a strong mob with one or more normal ones, the normals usually do more damage and die faster so it’s best to kill them first. Corner pulls can be used to drag ranged mob out of a room. As an MMO dino, I’m familiar with a lot of these tactics, but I get a kick out of how much more manageable the game becomes when I start using them rather than just piling straight into a fight.

And what’s more, I’m finding that the difficulty supports the storytelling. Not in every case for sure, but the way the single player class quests balance increasing difficulty with increasing story importance has worked really well to draw me in. And in a way that DAO/ DA2 never quite managed (much as I enjoyed them as story games).

I like that as an MMO, players can also choose to level up or bring friends to make the quests easier if they prefer that route. Choices are good. But I think Bioware have hit on some very solid  gameplay in the single player quests, still in the MMO mould for sure, but a subtle improvement nonetheless.

Now the interesting thing about single player difficulty is that part of the difficulty is because you’re still learning the game and the class. I’m sure if I played it through again on a new Sith Warrior, I’d find the quests far easier. Partly because I know what’s going to happen in the fights, and partly because I’ve learned how the class handles. So I want to record that NOW on my first ever playthrough, without looking up builds, gear, or rotations and learning as I go I found that the difficulty level was fun and appropriate. I like only having to worry about one companion, as opposed to the party based DAO, it keeps things fluid and dynamic while not having too many NPCs to gear up and worry about at the same time.

I hope that this is something Bioware can build on in future content. I don’t expect single player endgame to be their main focus, but in SWTOR, they may actually have built one of the more solid gameplay engines of any of their games that I have played. So I found it interesting that Tobold wondered today whether the game will be appealing once the stories have run out — it’s a valid thought, and I enjoy the stories, but I think the gameplay has a lot of merit too.

[SWTOR] Let me tell you about my character (Sith Warrior – minor spoilers), and notes on difficulty

Fortunately (?) for my loyal readers, Bioware decided to put a maintenance window in from 10am-4pm local time today. Which means that now that I’ve figured out screenshots, I can talk more about my sith warrior and why I love it.

EA did note in a recent press release that over 850k sith warriors have been created over the holidays, so I don’t feel particularly special in that respect. Still, this one is MINE. EA are also claiming “fastest growing subscription MMO ever” which I’m sure is true, and it will be interesting to see if/when they break 2 million subscriptions. (More of an if really, because that would definitely put the game in a different ballpark than anything other than WoW.)

I make no predictions as to what the community/size will look like in 3 or 6 months. But then, I’m wavering on whether ANY new MMO could retain the majority of customers for over 6 months these days, sandbox or themepark. Bioware have already announced that they’re working on a new operation (raid) and flashpoint (instance) for the next update and it would make sense to focus the first new content on the hardcore since they’re the ones who rush through to endgame most quickly.

Anyway, on to my sith warrior… with pictures!

spinksSW1

The top picture here is Spinks riding on a speeder in Tattooine, this isn’t my personal transport (sadly that looks more like a floating lawnmower), it’s the local public transport but I thought it was a nice design. Bottom left is Spinks looking out on Nar Shaddaa which is a moon/planet taken up entirely by a Bladerunner-esque city. And the bottom right screenshot was taken inside an instance, in which I’m standing next to the viewing platform in a spaceship looking down at a planet’s surface.

As you can see, my whistle stop tour of the known galaxy to spread mayhem and destruction is going pretty well. The planets are beautiful, with plenty of open space to explore and maybe find lore objects or holocrons (unless you are totally cheating and look the locations up online in which case you can’t really call yourself an explorer). Each one has a theme, backed up with its own music, colour scheme, and architecture. So you never really get the jarring zone transition of going from a desert to a jungle that’s such a feature in many open world MMOs.

One thing that Bioware have executed brilliantly is lots of large cities that look like actual futuristic cities and not just a small collection of houses with a corner shop and pub. The urban architecture on SWTOR is absolutely stunning. It’s not true open world  where you could go into every house and interact with whoever lives there, start your own business, build your own house, but in truth very few games are. SWTOR has gorgeous themepark style cities to explore, and I love them.

The gameworld itself feels spacious. Aside from the large open vistas when you are outside a city, Bioware are comfortable with making huge cathedral-like buildings when they feel like it, even for a one man instanced class phase. There are small buildings too, but I think the larger ones add to the general epic feel.

The main hub though is the fleet which is where you’ll tend to go to meet up for flashpoints, use the auction house or bank, train crew skill recipes et al. If you don’t fancy the fleet there are other cities you could use as your own personal hub but they’ll tend to involve a slightly longer journey (Kaas City and Nar Shaddaa for Empire both have auction houses, trainers and banks, for example.) Actually travelling from one planet to another is done via your space ship, which you acquire via class questline on the second planet you visit. So you have to get to your ship via the local space port, take off, select your destination via the star map, warp through, and then exit. This doesn’t actually require any piloting ability, it’s similar to the Mass Effect style of teleporting to your destination. It does take a few minutes though, especially if you are lagging.

spinksSW2

Top screenshot here is inside a palace in Aldaraan, with my handy companion and a rebellious noble who I captured and am delivering to justice (or my personal variant that once met justice for an awkward blind date before deciding that they really had nothing much in common.) My class storyline is exciting mostly because I’m starting to care more about it and the various characters involved. I want to see what happens next, I recognise foreshadowing as it is happening. It isn’t a coincidence that a couple of the quest NPCs associated with long planetary questlines recently have both warned me about my sith master, hinting that my long term interests may not be his.

The second screenshot is from Tattooine, and an encounter that I had with my darkside shadow (that’s why she’s looking especially murky) who also told me off about being overly light side. She was extremely convincing. I am reconsidering my character’s morality strongly right now, and this is the kind of story based experience which is making the game so compelling.

Tattooine, although I didn’t realise it at the time, has also hosted a couple of the most memorable quests I’ve run so far. One was part of the class quest, where your warrior is instructed to go search out a sand demon and bathe in its blood. “Simple,” you think, “Mr Sand demon, meet Mr Lightsabre.” But the Jedi you are tracking down apparently accomplished this without killing. So the question is, are you feeling competitive enough to say “Well if she could do it then so can I!!!” or do you just kill the thing and get the blood and have done with it? I went with the first option, and felt pathetically proud when I was able to pick out responses that allowed me to do it. Clearly at some point you’ll be able to look this stuff up online – but by doing that you’ll miss out on how it /feels/ to think it through yourself. This is what MMOs have lost by getting rid of puzzles that require you to think things through.

The other Tattooine questline I enjoyed was about an ancient alien artifact with a corrupting influence. This for me was a great example of how good questing can be. There was lots of travelling, fighting, talking to NPCs, and the final fight in an ancient tomb was very well balanced for me. I won, but used all my cooldowns and ended up on a sliver of health.

SWTOR isn’t a hard game, but I do find it entertaining that the harder bosses in the single player storyline are noticeably tougher. It’s a place where the mechanics really underpin the storytelling. Although there was one fight on a hidden orbital station that I found really tough, only to realise afterwards that there were two tanks full of healing gas that I could have broken mid-fight to heal myself up. “Oh!” I thought, “that’s how I should have done it.” But there was no time before the fight to explore the scenery and figure that out.

In which I remember I was going to talk about flashpoints

I have not been religiously running every flashpoint or heroic/ group quest as they come up for me, but the flashpoints I have seen so far have ranged from “really fun” (Black Talon) to “kind of cool” (Athiss, Mandalorian Raiders — both of which are more similar to WoW instances  in terms of the layout).

My sith warrior is Vengeance specced. That means her advanced class is Juggernaut, but I’m focussing on a dps tree. I still do get some baseline abilities that help with tanking and I have been tanking the instances. It would be truer to say that we’ve tended to dual tank them, which works quite well given that I’m not currently full tank spec. The sith warrior (unsurprisingly) reminds me a lot of Vanilla-esque WoW warriors in that their AE threat isn’t very impressive, and they have a sunder armour type debuff and an AE thunderclap-esque ability. They also have a variety of response skills (ie. things you can use after you have parried, or when your opponent is stunned et al) that do good damage if you use them appropriately, although elite mobs are fairly resistant to stuns and knockbacks. So being adept at target switching when you are trying to tank more than one mob will come in handy. I’ve heard complaints about the Sith Warrior’s tanking, but I’m finding it fine.

Generally, the trash mobs are fairly simple but the bosses may have more involved mechanics. None of them so far have been especially complicated, but using interrupts appropriately makes many of the encounters MUCH easier.

Mandalorian Raiders was the first instance where mobs really started to use knockbacks against us, handily knocking me off a platform mid fight. (This is where having multiple tanks gets really useful.) Lesson learned, in future I’m tanking with my back to the wall. The final boss was also good fun, teleporting around the room while turrets fired on the players from all corners. It felt like a very interactive fight, with me (as the tank) keeping the boss occupied as best I could while dps took out the turrets and Arb’s healer somehow kept us all up with some phenomenal multitasking.  I’m looking forwards to trying out the others as we level up a bit — I keep hearing that The Foundry has awesome lore, so that may be a particular high point.

[WoW] What goes up must come down: how easy is this patch exactly?

I’m not playing WoW at the moment but after a week of irritating computer problems at this end, my beloved was able to log into the new patch this week and try running some of the new heroic instances with a mixture of PUG and guildies.

His thoughts: They’re fun, but that was easier than I was expecting.

He’s not the only person to have that reaction, Green Armadillo was reflecting on the same issue. BBB seems to have had the same reaction but is assuming this is because his characters had firelands gear, and wonders how a new 85 would find them.

I’ve heard reactions from friends that the LFR versions of the new raid are also easy. Not having seen it myself, I can’t really judge, but that would be in line with how Blizzard were presenting the raid finder (ie. it’s not meant to be frustrating in the same way that regular raiding can be.)

Have you been playing patch 4.3, what did you think? (Will post more analysis over the weekend.)

Brief posts: World of Darkness ‘news’, difficulty in MMOs

Posts are likely to be getting more sparse over the next few months since I’m back at college. This is going to be challenging not just because of blogging but also because of Diablo 3 and SWTOR. I’m all for casual gaming but how easy is it to play games THIS casually – we’ll find out!

CCP/ White Wolf made some announcements about their Vampire/ World of Darkness MMO at the recent Grand Masquerade (thread includes comments from someone who was there at the time). I don’t see any clear and actual signs that this game is anything more than vapourware yet. For a start, there’s no actual internet official announcement, just a few interviews they have given to fan sites. And also, the concept sounds … obscured. They want a hardcore LARP style game, but also the possibility to just hang out and chat/ RP socially.

Usually Vampire style games accomplish this by nominating some safe zones (or Elysiums in WW-speak) where vampires aren’t allowed to fight. But a hardcore core game might also attract gonzo griefers like Goons et al, and I can’t imagine them leaving the RPers to posture in peace. Anyhow, still no dates for this one or any demos other than pretty graphics, so I’m comfortable leaving it on the ‘probably won’t happen’ pile for now.

Who are these people who want difficult MMOs?

If you want your MMOs to be difficult in any sense other than socially then you have my permission to leave already and go to a game designed more specifically for ‘gamers’. You won’t ever have to worry about annoyances like story or lore any more.

The one unique selling point for MMOs has always been the virtual world and being able to be part of a virtual community. Pushing hardcore game mechanics on top of that has never really been a comfortable fit. Activities that busy people around the game world are good, especially if they are thematic. This is why we shouldn’t be so down on the concept of grinds. But I don’t see where intellectual difficulty became some holy grail for MMOs – it should be difficulty enough building that community and organising things together.

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.)