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).

5 thoughts on “It’s hard to make easy games

  1. I think as MMO veterans, most of us underestimate how difficult and daunting some of these games can be to beginners. For instance, WoW is meant to be the easiest of the easy and yet my brother, who just started playing, has struggled with some of the most basic aspeects of it. I can’t really fathom him trying to get into a more complex game like EQ2 or, heaven forbid, EVE Online.

    Most games, especially MMOs, seem to assume a certain amount of knowledge and experience from the player when they drop them into the world. I’d hazzard a guess at that it’s one of the reasons why WoW was so popular – Blizzard didn’t try to target current MMO gamers, they went out and found new ones and made it easy enough to appeal to them.

  2. You are making 2 big assumptions:

    1) You are assuming that people don’t like “figuring things out,” that this is only a hassle. Do you consider writing this blog a hassle? It certainly would be more fun if you just gave up the blog and played Bejeweled or something.

    I think figuring things out is a big part of the enjoyment. Having a better talent spec makes you feel smarter than a poorly specced player. Figuring out how to beat fights makes you feel like a better strategist, even if you only looked up those fights online. It is all part of making the player feel superior.

    2) You are assuming harder = more fun. Failing more often is not more fun. Difficulty is only a necessity because if things are TOO easy, they are devalued as an accomplishment.

    However, this is largely based in perception. WoW does a great job of convincing mediocre players that they succeed in things not because those things are easy, but because they personally are skilled players. People want to think the things they are passing are hard, but first and foremost they need to pass them.

    • I think that figuring things out is very fun, but the typical MMO doesn’t give you the same sort of learning curve, tools, and guidance that a game like bejewelled does. They don’t even come with damage meters as standard to let you easily check if one rotation produces better results than another. Even a game as simple as bejewelled will notify you when you got a higher score than a previous attempt.

      So the only way to figure things out for yourself is to take lots and lots of logs and figure out how to parse them offline. I’m not assuming that people don’t like to figure things out (although I’m pretty sure a lot really prefer not to), but I am absolutely certain than in current MMOs, the majority of people just look stuff up. How does having a better talent spec really make you feel smarter than anyone when all you had to do was look it up on EJ? How much figuring out really went into that?

      There’s still enough to figure out in MMOs, mostly to do with positioning, handling specific encounters, and situational awareness. I think they’d be better as games if they were designed such that people genuinely could figure out their classes enough to play in endgame just by levelling them.

  3. Heh, what figuring out? You read theorycrafting and follow a loot list. You read faqs for every event you do and follow them. What most players do is the equivalent of hitting up gamefaqs for an offline game.

    A small portion of the playerbase actually figures the game out, often by hacking. In FFXI people dat hacked the quest text and put it on forums before the update even was downloadable. The rest just follow the lead, the noobs don’t know it exists or ignore it.

    I’d love to be able to actually figure out instead of being told to google it or use third party tools.

  4. Some helpful Ghost, who was tired of my explanations about Warcraft, kindly guided me to this particular Blog Entry.

    First of all, let me say, I agree with your observations and your general assumptions.

    But I would summarise your observations to the more striking pronouncement “the Game lost it’s female touch”.

    Looking around our community (we do not call it a guild, since it is not limited to WoW, nor do we play on one Server), we started
    wit a ratio of 40/60 female to male. Mostly because our girlfriends or wives, who up to WoW just wrinkled their noses when we were playing,
    instantly fell in love with the tiny gnomes, elegant nightelves and the pinky world around them.

    Although the systematic of the game itself was quiet new to the majority, the gamplay was intuitive. They recognised how to manage their ressources,
    they learned the meaning of “Aggro/Hate” and found their way into the game.

    In general, fighting was more a matter of reacting to a certain situation and chosing your ability, rather than knowing which action the Boss will perform and executing a learned rotation.
    Our Ladies, rarely read any Guides or Spreadsheets, and at the beginning, their favorite class was the druid, followed by the priest later. Today we mostly find Ladies playing healer, since the healer’s job usually is more intuitive rather than calculated.

    If I compare my girlfriends UI today with the one at the beginning, it apears to me, like a different mini-Game within the Game, where she hits a pulsing button with a certain Click combination as fast as possible without realising much of the fight around her.

    The point is, that the game design at the moment, allows or even encourages this “game slot optimisation”. Most DDs are caught in their routines and supporting Addons.
    Although we are a very “settled” community and we know each other personal for years know, I am still surprised how often the Question “What happened” arises. Not that they are not paying attention, but the game directed their attention away from the Encounter. What is even more puzzling, is the fact that even though Boss Mods guide you through a fight, in many cases the relevant information does not reach the player, because dozends of Messages, Raid Warnings and Timer are turning his Screen into an Asian Version of Bloomberg.

    So, as you already have guessed, my concern is that the game has become to mathematical.

    A rotation is the best combination of Spells in a set time.
    Spending your talent points is the best combination of talents to fullfill your role.
    Boss Encounter are based on the calculation of damage, interrupting the players and avoidance.

    Most essential information can not be acquired in the game. You will not find any information about capable Statts like Hit, Expertise or Defense.

    We do have talent trees with wounderful utility talents, but at the end it comes down to a handful of “cockie cutter” builds, all optimised but no
    fun at all.
    Remember your first 40 Man Raids, when Healing was such a problem, that your meeles get used to bandage themselves? Now imagine your
    Retribution Paladin and his supporting heals in that situation and listen to your cheering rogues.

    Our current system has no room for utility, because utility is incalculable.

    Out of curiosity, we flicked through Blizzards Job posting in the US and were quiet surprised that they even hire “Scouts” on certain Universities.
    So their focus is on a males,between 20-25 Years with a mathematical background. Mathematical in this case is meant to be the thing in common to
    technical, IT or natural Science.

    In other words, the game is more “arcade” to favor its clientel. You could easily make the game more challenging by bringing Mana and Aggro back into
    the game, but the average Nerd would not consider that to be fun, since it adds the tactical element.

    I know this may sound a bit wired, but as it is just thrown in, I did not have the chance to sort my ideas in a fashionable way. I still hope, the basic thought comes across.

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