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.

And it was evening, and it was morning

I logged into EQ2 the other day and headed out into the unknown wilds of Butcherblock Mountains. The zone is unknown to me for three main reasons:

  1. I’ve only just poked my (small but perfectly formed) fey nose into it, so it’s all new to me, kobolds and all. I am still getting my head around the notion that EQ2 kobolds look a bit like gorillas.
  2. I still have a fog of war setting on my map so most of it really is still hidden to me.
  3. It was night time in game and I couldn’t see very far past aforementioned nose anyway. This is why I didn’t take any screenshots of the kobolds, I was struggling to find an actual screenie to link but the best I could do was one of Tipa’s epic cartoon strips. The kobolds in game don’t look as dogman-like as the room decoration she’s using here — at least not on my settings!

Lots of MMOs have included some kind of a day-night cycle. “Well of course it’s night time”, you tell yourself as you trip over a treeroot, whilst all the regular daytime beasties continue to frolic in their enforced darkness, “That’s because having day and night settings is so fantastically immersiv–OWWW!” (that was you falling off a cliff, by the way.) I do really enjoy the day-night cycles, especially when you throw in the sorts of heartbreakingly beautiful sunrises and sunsets that MMO artists love so much. If I ever pause in awe at the sheer beauty of the virtual world around me and take a random screenie, there’s a good chance that it is during in-game dusk or dawn.

Days and nights in game can genuinely be hugely immersive. It does give a sense of time passing, and of being able to see different aspects to zones that you know. In a PvP game, the difference between night and day is even more marked. I remember night time raids in DaoC where the whisper went down the line for everyone to turn off their torches and march in darkness, so as to catch the enemy by surprise. Night time raids felt stealthier and more exciting than the day time battles where you could see your enemies cresting the hill on the other side of the zone … (OK, who am I kidding? In DaoC we knew where the zergs were coming from by turning around and seeing which direction felt more laggy but you get the general idea.)

It’s because day and night don’t usually have a huge effect on gameplay (apart from walking into things) that I remember so vividly when that rule is broken. The inhabitants of Pyrewood that transform into humans during the day and into worgen during the night, for example. The schools of nightfin or sunscale salmon that only spawn at the right time of day. The quest mobs who only appear at night (I don’t recall many of these in WoW but I think DaoC had some), and so on. Pokemon actually goes the whole hog with this, synchs its cycles to the player, and includes some encounters that only happen at day or at night, and others that only happen on specific days of the week too. But while this is just about acceptable in a single player handheld game, there are issues with it in a MMO.

A casual player may not be able to either hang around until in-game nightfall, or may not want to arrange her playtime around the extra hassle of working out the in game cycles.

So how long is an Azerothian day?

So let’s assume that you decide you want your game world to have nights and days. How long should a day be?

If you set a 24 hour cycle then players who always play at the same times of day will never see the full cycle. Some of them will be stuck in virtual eternal darkness forever. If you want some content to be specific to the time of day in game (and frankly if you are going to all the effort of generating extra art, it’s tempting to do so) then there’s also a limit on how long a player will want to wait around for the sun to rise or set, so the cycle needs to move fast enough for a player to experience it all during a typical session. Alternatively you need to find ways to give players lots of other reasons to hang around in the right area, so that it’s likely that they’ll be there for several sessions and will get a chance to see both day and night.

So there’s definitely more to this than meets the eye. Also probably you want the day to be longer than the night, because falling over treeroots gets old quick. So assume that most players would like to be able to see where they are going for most of the time. There are some exceptions — some games or genres favour night over daytime. In a vampire game, most of the action takes place at night. Any grim, moody, or gothic setting might have long evenings and gloomy moonlit nights, and very short days. As far as WoW goes, I’m not certain but I think their cycles are zone specific. So some zones will be in night whilst others are in day. The darker themed zones like Duskwood might never get proper sunlight.They do the same thing with seasons — different zones are themed for different seasons, rather than changing through the year.

I always feel that it’s a lot of effort to put in the day night cycles for so little gameplay return. I love them and I know I’d miss them if they weren’t there, but Im always impressed that people bother.

When good enough is Good Enough

If a PvE challenge is too tough, you can go away and do something else and come back later when you’re tougher and have better gear. In Japanese-style RPGs (which let’s face it, is where most of the quest based play was taken from) you can do this by wandering around and killing random monsters that turn up just for that purpose.

So you can control your own difficulty by deciding just how overpowered you want to be when you take on that fight. Think of how many times you’ve gone back to a lowbie area to one-shot some annoying mob that made your life hell a few months ago. Just because you can.

At end game, this doesn’t work so well any more. There are limits there on how much more powerful it is possible to get. And it also takes a lot more time and effort to pursue end game gearing. So an end game challenge can be genuinely difficult in a way that means it can’t (yet) be beaten by being outgeared.

You  balance how hard you want the fight to be with how long you want to spend preparing for it. Or in other words, you have two resources to balance: your time, and challenge difficulty. The more time you have, the easier it gets.

So what does this have to do with being good enough?

I’ve been reading blog posts recently discussing the concept of ‘good enough’ with respect to raiding. Gevlon argues from a pragmatic point of view that some people are too competitive for their own good and as long as you are good enough to pull your weight and do your job, it’s enough.

This is very much where I stand also. If you’re good at assessing what sort of challenges you can take on at your current level, then you can save a lot of time and effort. Why put in extra work when you don’t need to?

This attitude can be interpreted as being lazy, or being satisfied with being mediocre. It isn’t necessarily either of these. You’re certainly saving some time, but whether or not it’s lazy depends on what you do with the time that you had saved. (This is aside from it being just plain weird to accuse people of playing a game lazily.)

I value my time, and leisure time not spend grinding instances is time that I can spend with my spouse, hanging out with family or friends, time to catch up on BSG DVDs, time to blog, or just time to catch up on housework. All of these things are more important to me than having best in slot gear when I know I’m already good enough to fill my role in the raids we run.

From this perspective, ‘good enough’ is all about balancing out resources. My time, my fun, my in game goals. Fun is an odd quantity, not necessarily at odds to the other two, but it’s worth mentioning because ultimately games are played for fun and if you aren’t having enough fun, you will burn out (or realise that you aren’t getting your money’s worth and go play something else).

As an aside, I do wonder if we’d value our time more if we had to pay by the hour rather than use a subscription model. I’m not sure any RMT games use this model but for any that did, I’d expect the player base to be very focussed on efficiency.

This sense of ‘good enough’ is important to project managers and raid leaders also. Groups (both in game and at work) gain morale from successfully completing tasks. Time is always a limited resource. So is manpower. iRL, budgets are also an issue. And as a leader, you have to make the judgement call, ‘Are we good enough with what we’ve got now?’

And if you get it right, then it’s a success for the whole team. Not a lazy success, not a mediocre success, but a smart and efficient success.

Efficiency, the best efforts from the least time

One of the things that marks out the real hardcore guilds in game is their dedication to efficiency. Not to doing crazy stunts just to prove how hardcore they are, but to achieving the best results in the least time.

It isn’t necessarily the 5 raids a week guys you should be looking to for true hardcore. It’s the guys who keep a disciplined 2-3 raids a week. And are able to clear content with fewer hours invested into the raids.

This is not a blog about being hardcore, since I’m not. But I appreciate the challenge of doing the best you can with the resources that you have. It doesn’t mean that you can’t improve, any good raider will always be striving to do better, and if you aim for efficiency then you want to make every minute count. But at the end of the day you have to ask: Did we succeed in our goal? Was it fun? Did I stick within my time budget? And as a raid leader, you really don’t want to make people stick around while you wait for that last perfect person to log in if there’s someone else around who wants to come who will make the raid possible.

Oh yes, sometimes good enough is absolutely Good Enough.