The MMO difficulty curve

We had a couple of inches of snow here on Saturday. It’s a bit earlier than we’d usually get this much snow but hardly anything to get overexcited about. You’d think. Yet when I grabbed my weekly shop on Sunday, the supermarket looked as though it had been hit by a plague of locusts. I commented to the guy on the till that it looked as though the Christmas rush had hit. “You should have seen it yesterday,” he said. “After the snow.” And yet, by the time I went (a day later), the council had put grit down, the roads were a bit safer, and there was still plenty of stuff to buy in the supermarkets (in fact, they hadn’t had any issues with their deliveries anyway.)

Now that Cataclysm has been out for a couple of weeks, players have had a chance to try out the instances. They had been pronounced ‘challenging’ by most people on a first glimpse. Some have even ventured into heroics, and raid bosses have been downed too.

A couple of bloggers last week were writing about how difficulty changes over time. Tobold notes how difficulty in WoW eases off over time, and Gevlon discusses how his two healer tactic for heroics might be seen as a ‘sign of weakness’ by some players. (I suspect all new tactics will go through this stage, after which people start using it more widely and anyone who doesn’t is seen as a loser. Some people just hate new ideas because they are new.)

It’s an interesting time to watch the community, because after a gear reset, everyone should be starting out roughly equal. In practice, this means that after a crazy rush, the really hardcore guys are already farming the heroics that medium hardcore players are tentatively learning and clearing with their guilds. This is also the part of the expansion where players are exploring their identity a bit – who is ultra hardcore, who is merely a bit hardcore, etc. So there’s a rush into heroics because that’s where the progression bar is currently set. If you want to feel the hardcore buzz, the party is (temporarily) in Heroic Grim Batol.

And if anyone is curious, mmo-champion have a poll where people can vote on their easiest and hardest heroics.

And LFD is quite buzzing for normal Cataclysm instances, people are starting to experiment with speed pulls, no one bothers to explain the fight mechanics any more and most of the random groups I’ve had have been fine. (I don’t have the mental fortitude to try a LFD heroic yet.) More casual players are likely still levelling (or levelling new characters from scratch), although the levelling curve is relatively flat this time around.

It feels as if the player base in general has rushed through the introductory learning part of the expansion. LFD is definitely a factor in this. However, there are still a lot of new bosses in those instances, some of which do need some execution knowledge (do you kill the adds first? Is there a position requirement? Does a spell need to be interrupted?) so if random PUGs are tending not to explain then the quality of LFD will probably get worse (as the hardcore stop bothering with normal instance runs) before it gets better.

In fact, I think that in every successive WoW expansion, the adaptation period has gotten lower.

Is it time that heals all difficulty, or just gear?

Warcraft has always had issues with gear scaling. An instance that is designed to be challenging at gear level X will be much easier at gear level X+10. Other MMOs just don’t seem to scale gear quite as aggressively; the LOTRO instances in Moria for example are still quite interesting after you outgear them – and they’ve recently been tweaked to scale with level anyway. Blizzard could, if they wanted, make the difficulty less gear dependent. But … players enjoy being able to outgear content that was once challenging, and that’s the design choice they have made and it doesn’t yet seem to have affected the longevity of the game. The improved accessibility for non-hardcore players seems to outweight the hardcore guys getting bored.

So I imagine the current heroics will ease off a lot once everyone is in full blue heroic gear (iLvL 346 if anyone is counting). And then the complaints about the game being too easy will likely start up again. Then again, for people who preferred more chilled out runs, this is the point at which the game gets playable and more fun for them.

Point is, it’s part of the whole MMO notion that all players are thrown into the same game world together. So if the MMO gets very gameplay oriented, this brings up a slew of issues about how devs should design difficulty for such a huge range of player and playing styles. A game that was entirely designed around the hardcore, and also assumed that they’d always be in well organised optimised groups, would be inaccessible to the majority of other players. Totally inaccessible. And those same players will walk over any other type of content.

Grindfests, whatever people thought of them, didn’t really have this type of issue. Neither does PvP (it has different issues.)

Time and the difficulty curve

So what this means is that if you enjoy the increased difficulty, you do probably want to press into heroics quickly because they will become much easier. If you don’t, then don’t stress over it. In a few weeks things will have eased off, and meantime you can work on your archaeology or raise you reps in normal instances. The heroics will still be interesting, and there are some cool bosses in there.

Plus as more of the playerbase is ready to try heroics, it’ll be easier to get guild groups in less hardcore guilds, which will probably be more fun in itself.

But the fact that the playerbase adapts so incredibly quickly to the new content these days is an issue – whether it is to do with access to information, or gear, or easy LFD access.  And I suspect it’s the core reason why MMOs, as they become more gamelike, are becoming less compelling.

Which came first, the game or the story?

I’ve read a few posts recently on immersion in gaming, and Toskk summed up the problem neatly here. There are different types of immersion, and they don’t all happily coexist.

If I’m immersed in a story, the absolute last thing I want to do is stop and min-max my character stats (or worse, be forced to go back to a previous save point, redo my gear/stats and play through some of the story I have already seen). If I’m immersed in a game, I don’t want to have to sit through seventeen cut scenes and have to care about which option would give me the best reward. If I’m immersed in exploring an area, I don’t want to have to fight through some scheduled event or be forced to grind out reputation just to be allowed to enter the next zone. And if I’m immersed in a solo resource management game, I don’t want to be forced to group.

Immersion (or we can call it flow) is not only the goal of many gamers, but it is also the problem. Having to switch between a gaming mindset and a storytelling mindset not only kills immersion but also will annoy people who liked one side of the game but not the other.

Figuring out how to neatly merge some of these styles is the big challenge for the next generation of game designers. But most MMO gamers will agree that they’d enjoy a virtual world from which stories and interesting gaming challenges both flowed naturally. We know it is possible to some extent, as long as players are willing to compromise – games like Uncharted 2 merge the storytelling and gaming brilliantly well, to a limited extent. Dragon Age charmed over 3 million players with a similarly engaging take on a similar problem. And it looks as though Mass Effect 2 will be at least as successful.

Playing the game badly

It’s very easy to play a storytelling game badly. All you have to do is completely ignore the story so far when making decisions.

If you decide that your character has no social skills so you will insult everyone you meet, you’ll still get through the game. You may also get some very amusing interactions and possibly more fights. It will involve picking non-optimal conversation options, but from a storytelling point of view, it’s a perfectly good way to play through the game. And that’s a player decision, you CAN choose to not try to pick the ‘best’ option in any conversation and … it won’t lead to disaster, just a story consistent with the choices that you have made.

In a bad storytelling game (like, many old school text adventures), making the wrong decision early on can cripple you in endgame. It’s like having a sadistic storyteller just waiting for you to slip up. But a good game, like a good storyteller, will give you plenty of hints as to where a decision might lead. Or if a decision has random and unforeseen results, then you will be given a chance to deal with them.

I was pondering this when reading Ravious’ post on why he feels stressed by storytelling games. I feel he missed the point. In a good storytelling game, you don’t need to stress about making the wrong decision. If the decision is right for your character and the story you are telling, then it isn’t a wrong decision.

But what this means is that a true storytelling game should never be heavily reliant on min/maxing from the player. Because that would lead to one preferred route through the game, and would cut out any character concepts that were not in line with the min/max result.

For example, mages are really powerful in Dragon Age. A min/maxer would tell you to pick a mage, would tell you how to spec it, and would tell you which specialisations to select. But I finished the game on my dwarf rogue and never felt hampered – being able to play on an easier mode was a way for me to tell the game that I didn’t want min/maxing to get in the way of my story.

When stories flow out of games

Storytelling is all about the art of giving meaning to things that we encounter in life. If you read a good biography, it will read like a series of anecdotes (ie. small stories). No one’s life is really a story until a storyteller sits down and pats and moulds it into the right shape. A news story might be dull when it happens to you personally … until you see it written up in a newspaper at which point it becomes a proper narrative.

Or in other words, that sword +1 that you got from the GM is very dull. But Caliburn, the sword +1 which was a rare drop that you cleared an instance 40 times to get, and that you then used to go tank a raid boss? That has a story. Adding difficulty or grind to a game is one way to add meaning. When you overcome those barriers, the results feel more meaningful than if you just woke up and got your quest reward in the post.

But difficulty isn’t the only way. Seeing the virtual world around us respond to decisions we have made in the past makes those decisions more meaningful too. It’s just that difficulty is by far the easiest way to make these achievements meaningful to all players in a multi-player game.

In a solo game, there are other options. The game can adjust more easily to the player. But in a MMO … if anything is going to be genuinely difficult, it needs to be designed assuming min/maxers. So in an MMO, either everyone must min/max or else difficulty is going to be somehow adjustable and high end achievements lose some meaning.

Freeing up the stories

Then there are players like me who love the stories and the virtual worlds and even the gameplay, and don’t enjoy the min/max side of the games at all. I’d have much more fun in games if I never had to care about how my character was specced or geared. Those things are not fun for me. So I’m glad in WoW that people make up gear lists – I wish they weren’t necessary but at least they let me skip the parts of the game that I hate.

This is also why I don’t like collectible card games. I love playing them, but only if someone else puts together a deck for me. Deck Building, like other forms of min/maxing, simply doesn’t appeal. So really I’d be happier playing a non-collectible card game like Bridge or Fluxx (which is an awesome game that everyone should try) where it simply isn’t part of the game at all.

No wonder I loved Dragon Age so much. The game was designed to let you downplay gear and talent choices. And gave you a great personalised story anyway. I can only pity the people who played that game badly, because they were too scared to veer from the min/max path in case anything non-optimal happened.

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).

Impressing guilds as a tank, failing to impress PUGs as a tank, and what is difficulty anyway

This is a switch and bait post in which I attempt to cover my lack of a Star Trek Online beta review this week (my excuse is that they dropped a new patch on Wednesday and I need more time to explore and remove whines which have already been addressed – an occupational hazard of reviewing betas) by pointing at some great posts written by other people. Enjoy!

Impressing guilds with your tankitude

Rage Quit Jane (awesome handle) writes on The Nomadic Gamer about the expectations people have of tanks. And the very first expectation is that … you will actually tank stuff.

She’s coming from an EQ2 perspective, which is a game where classes have more fixed roles than they do in WoW. Or in other words, your EQ2 tank shouldn’t expect to be able to grab a couple of two handed weapons and out-dps the rogues if they don’t like tanking.

If you apply to a raid guild as an off tank then the first thing you should be doing is proving that you can actually tank. Show everyone that you enjoy the character, want to actually play the character, and make yourself available to your guild mates.

No matter what game you are playing, if you apply to a guild which uses role quotas (ie. you apply as a tank or a healer for example) then they are hoping to find players who enjoy the role in which they have applied. No one wants a grouchy tank who spends all the time complaining that they’d rather be on their warlock. If they open a spot for a tank, they want to see a happy tank who enjoys their class and their role.  That’s rather the point.

This doesn’t force you to be the guild slave. You can perfectly well say ‘Sorry, I’m up to my neck in instances this week and I need a break.’ But at least while you are on trial, try to sound and act as though you are enjoying the game and the role you are playing. Although non-hardcore players sometimes get the idea that the hardcore turn the game into a job, it’s actually more important in a hardcore guild to show how much you love your class and role. Because they’re looking for people who love it so much they won’t mind putting in the extra time and effort.

This is true of many RL jobs as well.

‘Abusing’ the LFG Tool

Relmstein writes about people who abuse the LFG tool, whereas Gevlon positively encourages people to use it to their own advantage.

Wherever you fall on this spectrum, a few things are becoming clearer to me:

  1. You cannot prevent people from leaving groups whenever they want. If they can’t do it in game, then they’ll either just log out or not join the group in the first place.
  2. LFG may end up being good for server socialising in the longer term. The more that random people ‘abuse’ the tool, the greater the incentive to actually talk to people on your own realm before queuing. Whether this means paying tanks to come tank for you, or just asking around on trade chat for people who you KNOW will want to finish the run—it’s all about the social contract.  Or in other words, social behaviour is rewarded.
  3. People will drop groups for the weirdest reasons.

Would we like more difficulty in our MMOs? And if so, how?

Tobold asks for some design help on behalf of the Blizzard team.

We have some ideas, based on our experience as serious Everquest raiders, on how to make a MMORPG really hard. But some of the team say that certain features of Everquest wouldn’t be acceptable any more for our Rise of the Leet King MMORPG.

So what ideas do you have to make the game harder, if you think it isn’t challenging enough right now? Go join in the conversation. (I am also surprised at how many people thought this was a genuine letter; it is however a great blog post.)

Can we really have puzzles in MMOs?

One of the strange things we have learned via the internet is that if you get a massive amount of people together and challenge them to solve a problem, the answer will circulate very very quickly. It’s because those dratted players will talk to each other and cooperate, or post up answers on websites, or write addons to tell you the answer. Who’d have thought that a massively multiplayer online game might end up with massive amounts of people communicating? Not early MMO developers, that’s for sure.

Of course, in the beginning it didn’t really matter because the main puzzle that people faced was how to grind seven zillion rats (in a group, naturally) without dying of boredom. But when games like WoW leaned more and more heavily on quests, then suddenly websites and databases sprung up to list all the answers to every quest and loot related question ever made.  In some ways, we should thank MMOs for leading the way with social networking, crowdsourced answers, and encouraging massive amounts of people to use the internet cooperatively to solve common problems. I find that quite a sobering thought.

Today, players are just as likely to look up the answer to an in-game puzzle as to actually try it themselves. Andrew @Of Teeth and Claws laments the rise of people looking up answers in games. And if you’re uncomfortable with that, the greatest torment of all is that it has become for many people the default way of handling online quests. Get lost or confused for more than a second? Just look it up. And if you can’t look it up then complain that the quest is unfair or too difficult! The only real puzzle left is where best to find the information.

A puzzle in this context can include strategies for beating new raids or instances. It can include optimal ways to level or to spec. It can include map addons. It can include answers to just about any problem that devs probably thought people might want to figure out on their own. In a milieu where guides to new 5 man instances are posted the day after they have been put up on a test server in another continent, where people data-mine new patches to inform the playerbase well in advance what’s on the horizon, it feels as though actually getting to solve a puzzle yourself is the ultimate luxury. Unless you are strong willed enough to avoid all the spoilers.

But even though we now understand that players will in fact talk to each other, I still see scope for puzzles in our MMOs. We can still have content that makes us think. It just requires a more lateral approach – MMOs need to ditch the debris of the old fashioned zork-alikes which depended so heavily on mazes and puzzle solving and embrace what they’re actually good at. We need devs to design massively, and players to think massively. Here’s some thoughts I had on puzzles that will entertain players just as well in MMOs as in single player games, if not better.

Puzzles that require collaboration

The easiest way to make a puzzle that needs a lot of people to work together to solve it is to give each of them a piece of the solution. Players enjoy working with others to create something or solve something, as long as they don’t have to be totally dependent on the other players. You can imagine mass collection quests where players can pool the information that they have collected or race against another team to complete mass scavenger hunts.

For example Mythic have run some fun PR events for Warhammer where they sent different clues to several different bloggers (who all blogged about it, naturally), letting all their readers in on trying to work out what was going on.

Working together doesn’t always require puzzle solving. For example, the Quel’Danas quests in TBC where all the daily quests done by every player helped to build the next stage of the city were very popular. People felt as though they were collaborating to unlock new content, without ever having to actually … collaborate. But it wouldn’t have been difficult to incorporate some kind of puzzle into the event.

The other form of collaboration of course is to incorporate the wowhead style databases into the game itself. Make filling out the answers and helping other players with information an actual part of the game.

Puzzles that no one will bother to spoil

If PvE is all about puzzles, then why hasn’t absolutely everything been broken down and posted? Because no one can be bothered to describe every single trash pull in an instance, or the minutae of how to get around an obstacle. Some puzzles are ignored, not because they are always trivial but because they aren’t directly attached to a quest or raid boss.

As a tank, every single pull in an instance is a sort of puzzle. The group needs to decide kill order, the puller needs to decide how to most safely bring the mobs to the players, and every other person in the group has to do some puzzle solving along the way. In some ways, pulling is the perfect MMO puzzle. It needs some situational awareness, can use line of sight or obstacles, needs the player to know a bit about the mob’s capabilities and their own capabilities, and can all go horribly wrong if it isn’t done properly.

This is the core of group play and it remains mostly unspoiled, at least for the first few times through. But it is true that current class design leaves a lot of this type of puzzle to the tank/ leader.

Puzzles that don’t really have one right answer

One of the problems I have with quests to model RL problems is the implication that all problems can be easily and neatly solved. But what about moral or ethical issues which have no single answer and where players will have to deal with the fallout of their own choices. We’re becoming more used to this type of problem in single player games as they become more sophisticated, but what about MMOs?

Sometimes the real puzzle is not how to solve the actual quest but to work out how to deal with the aftermath. Imagine you are sent to rescue some lost envoy and find that they are dead but their young son survived and needs to be brought home to safety. Up till now, games have thugged this type of quest out with unpopular escort missions but that’s because they haven’t really spent much time modelling what you’d have to do to look after a lost and frightened person and bring them safely home other than by fighting various spawns or patrols. And then … what do you do with them when you do get back to a place of safety?

I’m reminded of the various smart storytelling techniques we developed to solve the problem in tabletop games of: How can you run a mystery type scenario when there are player characters with telepathy? (It’s the same problem actually – if you assume PCs will instantly know the answer to any puzzle, how can you still make the game interesting and intriguing for them?)

Randomising Puzzles

What if players were each given different puzzles to solve? Or if one puzzle could have many different answers?

This is the category where randomised instances, randomised quests, and bosses that have several sets of random abilities come in. It isn’t possible for there to be one true answer because the question itself changes from day to day. Even if the only puzzle left is ‘which set of random abilities will we get today?’ that still requires some thought, adaptation, and preparation.

The drawback is that there can be balance issues – what if the randomised instance assumes abilities that the group doesn’t have? What if some classes or players adapt better to randomised content than others? And also the randomised content isn’t as polished as hand crafted instances and puzzles.  This may be a small price to pay for access to fresh puzzles, instances, and bosses.

Massive Amounts of Puzzles

There are so many puzzles that it just isn’t possible to keep up with them all, or at least it’s always possible to find something new. This would be where player created content enters the fray. Give players the ability to design scenarios, instances, levels or puzzles and they’ll come up with a vast array of content. Much of it will be rubbish but even sorting through the possibilities to find the gems will keep a lot of people happily occupied.

Constantly Evolving Puzzles

The puzzle is complex and chaotic in nature and it’s very sensitive to conditions which change either with player activity or with tweaks in every patch. Even though a player may have solved it once, there will probably be a different solution next week or next month.

For an example of this, look at the amount of work that goes into figuring out optimal dps rotations in WoW. This is a sensitive and chaotic problem. It can change when new gear is introduced. It can change when new abilities are introduced or existing abilities are tweaked. It can change when new encounters are introduced. It can change depending on which other players are in the group and what they are doing.

I hope and believe that at least some of these types of problem will make up a lot of future MMO gameplay. But it doesn’t answer the question of whether people actually like puzzles in their games or not? Or would they prefer a more predictable setting where no thinking is required beyond ‘what should I wear today?’

How dumb is too dumb?

The latest round of Ulduar nerfs has sparked off a slew of posts about games being dumbed down and why you need to be a moron to play Warcraft these days. Gevlon blames social players, riding hard on his regular strawman fallacy that ‘the pure social sucks in everything he does’. Tobold sneers that the game is skill-less.

From my perspective, I still think that current raiding is harder than back in 40 man days. It isn’t really the instances fault that players have several years more experience in playing the game and have seen it all before. It does have some depth but not unlimited amounts.  The hard modes do seem to be providing reasonable entertainment for hardcore guilds while more casual setups pick away at the normal modes.

And when you boil skill down to reaction times, how good people are at watching several graphical effects going off around them, and reading strategies/watching videos – well, some people aren’t as good at that type of video game. Twitch is not for everyone. But WoW-types with their one-size-fits-all endgame are shoehorning them in somehow.

I don’t recall the levelling game ever being difficult (I certainly managed to get to level 60 when the game was new without ever really figuring out my class) so there’s no real point beating it up for that now as if something dramatic has changed. The old days when we walked both ways uphill through the snow to our bindstones were only ‘difficult’ because they were a pain in the neck. Not because they were actually … difficult. Now there are real advantages to having some frustrating content in games (immersion for example, and downtime for socialising) but frustrating is not the same as hard.

Can we just stop calling players morons?

I get that it’s frustrating to play with people who are dragging your performance down, but how about we just quit calling the people you never ever play with names.

Sente has a great post up at A Ding World where he compares MMOs to a virtual pub (ie. a relaxed hangout) and a virtual casino(ie. much more focussed and reward oriented set of activities, owners very motivated to keep you there), and concludes that he prefers the pub.

A lot of people prefer the pub. A lot of people don’t want to have to prove themselves to a bunch of hardcore elitists who will call them morons if they commit some serious crime like … ooo … having the wrong gem in one socket. They’re not morons, and they’re not necessarily ‘pure socials’. They’re just trying to tell you that they’re in for the beer and pretzels gaming and you should stick to your own kind.

Retirement vs Challenge

This week I have committed a terrible crime which I usually try to avoid. I read something cool in a blog post and forgot to bookmark it. So if this came from you, let me know and I’ll add in the link.

In any case, I was reading this article and the writer compared the ideas of Retirement Gaming with Challenge Gaming. This is simple but brilliant. The Retirement Gamer thinks ‘I put some work into this game and got some reward. Now I want to enjoy it by having the game become easier.’ The Challenge Gamer thinks, ‘I put some work into this game and got some reward. Now I want more of a challenge!’

The best MMOs cater to both of these viewpoints. And I suspect that most players, however hardcore, enjoy both of them. After all, the whole point of repeating raids is that you get them onto farm mode eventually. If you get good at the auction house, you have a larger pot of money to play with so you have an easier time making still more.

When a gamer gets a new shiny level, ability, or item, they want the chance to go show it off and feel uber. It’s fun to go back to a zone when you’re totally overgeared and take vicious revenge on some mob that bullied you as a wee noob. It’s fun to try soloing old instances after you outlevel them. It’s a very RPG thing to want to do. I did the same thing when I was GMing pen and paper games. In order for progression to be meaningful, the player needs evidence that they have progressed. And what better way to do this than to let them ease through a fight that gave them trouble in the past?

Who is really harmed if older zones become virtual pubs?

The question is, how many people really do want more of a challenge? A lot of people will say that they want more difficulty. But is it true? Gear based games have an easy answer to introducing more challenge – just up the health/damage of the mobs, or throw in some extra adds or a vicious ability on a cooldown. But there still comes a point where you’ve gotten most of the depth from the game that you’re going to get. After that, it’ll be down to twitch skills, knowledge of game mechanics and how good you are at finding X other people of the appropriate class/spec/gear/twitch skill/dedication.

And at that point, you may find that you get more challenge from playing a different game with new mechanics to learn and master. Challenge gamers in an MMO will find that their game has an end, a natural point at which the best way to find more challenge is to switch games.