The trouble with gauging difficulty – how hard can it be?

hedgemaze2 computerguy_wiki@flickr

Mulling over recent posts*, I noted after the last WoW patch that I had no real idea how difficult the new 5 man instance was because my PUG had kerbstomped it on our first attempt. Was it really that easy? Did we overgear it? Were we lucky with the randomised bosses? Or had I lucked out with the world’s best PUG?  (They’d also got lucky in getting an experienced, Ulduar geared tank – I don’t claim to be the world’s greatest but obviously it makes things easier.)

One thing is for sure, it is hard for us as players to gauge how difficult a challenge will be for someone else, especially when you don’t know them well. We know what will make things easier: –

  • experience with the game
  • good group (if the game is group based)
  • practice
  • better gear (if the game is gear based)
  • luck (if the encounter or game is luck based)
  • knowledge of mechanics
  • hand-eye coordination (if the game is twitch based)
  • good reactions
  • … and any number of other variables that add up to player skill. And even there you can see I’ve listed a lot of ifs.

If you read official bulletin boards, you  will often find hardcore players boasting quickly about how easily they beat new content. This can be demoralising if you and your group are struggling on the same encounters. It’s easy to assume that this is just e-peen waving, the same way people boast that they passed all their A-Levels or got first class degrees without doing any work.

But sometimes, it is because they genuinely just found it easy. If it’s difficult to compare the difficulty of solo content, it’s almost impossible to gauge how hard another raid group will find the same encounter. How can a hardcore raid guild full of handpicked hardcore players in best of slot gear possibly imagine the difficulty of an encounter for a more casual group? They can’t. Their answer will always be ‘get a better guild, noob’ because that’s probably what they did. Not only that, there is no real way in game to recognise the achievements of a more casual group without comparing them to the hardcore. It doesn’t matter in any real sense but it’s a bad idea to feel despondent over these comparisons.

It is definitely worth taking advice from the pros but take their opinions on encounter difficulty with a pinch of salt. I know that I’ve read about people struggling on encounters that we breezed through (Auriaya is a good example) and vice versa. Different groups do face different challenges.

If a recently dinged 80 tank successfully steers a group through the trial of the champion (new 5 man instance)  on normal mode, then my hat’s off to them. I honestly have no idea how hard it is at that level of gear and experience, but I can easily believe that it’s an achievement of which to be proud.

Gevlon did an experiment recently in which his guild cleared Ulduar in blue gear. It proves nothing new. Back in TBC, there were guilds who completed the timed Zul Aman run in Karazhan gear. There weren’t many and the guys who did were supremely skilled. It never proved that any guild could do that, and it never proved that gear didn’t matter. All it showed was that the game was flexible enough that highly skilled players could throw away the safety net offered by better gear. In order to do it, they had to put in a perfect performance.  And still, if a new player showed up to a raid guild, they would probably prefer to see a decent set of gear if only because it shows dedication and proves that they understand their class mechanics.

Even if skill does trump gear, gear is easier to prove. This gets people into all sorts of knots with PUGs at the moment. You hear stories about players demanding to see gear, achievements, etc before issuing invites. And I’m sure this is an issue in any mature game – experienced players want the easy ride that they’ll get by inviting other experienced/geared/skilled players. Part of the problem is that you have to be a skilled player yourself to recognise skill in other people.

For example, I ran a heroic instance on my healer just before the last patch. The tank had 18k health when buffed (he was a paladin). Two of the dps looked at this and left the group before we started, and honestly it IS low for a heroic tank. When I pointed that out to him, he said “I know, but I do have 535 defence so I won’t get crit.” I figured that anyone who actually knew the defence cap for heroics (this is fairly arcane tanking knowledge) probably also knew his stuff and was worth a shot. When I failed miserably on the first boss and he died, the rest of the group immediately blamed his health. I apologised for not realising that there was a silence effect involved (hey, I’d only ever tanked that place before) and after that we had a smooth run through Old Stratholme. I’m not entirely sure what that proves except that it doesn’t matter where skill really does trump gear, what actually matters in game is what players believe.

Devs can look at the hard stats to set appropriate difficulty in encounters. They know what people are doing in game, where they struggle, how much damage they can typically heal or produce, and so on. But as players, we only know how hard it was for us.

* Present participle or gerund? What do you think? (Yes this is a shameless experiment in whether asking direct questions gets more comments – also an interesting grammatical query :P )