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.

14 thoughts on “The MMO difficulty curve

  1. Well WoW’s greatest attraction is also it’s greatest weakness. They slap huge numerical increases on upgrades so that they excite players who get them but it has the side-effect of trivialising content.

    I don’t think it’s straightforward to fix. Who would grind for a 0.0001% increase?

    But of course if you set the increase a new piece of gear gives at 20% better then the group becomes much more than 20% better because a healer with 20% bigger heals, a 20% bigger mana pool and 20% faster regen is healing a tank with 20% better avoidance, 20% better mitigation and 20% more life.

    In the end I think WoW has it right but that we need other games to be out there and entertaining us to fill in the gaps during WoW’s 2 year expansion cycles. It’s ok that WoW is intensely fun for 4-6 weeks after they add new content then becomes duller. It’s not ok that there’s so little out there to match this game.

      • In fact there is. You get an achievement called [Raid Ready] for not standing in the fire in Deadmines.

        Might not be that reliable though. A friend of mine got it by dying before the fire came out.

  2. My suspicion is that another reason the playerbase adapts so quickly is because WoW (and MMOs in general) are “maturing”.

    WoW’s six years old; MMOs as a genre are a fair bit older. The MMO-playing audience are increasingly familiar with the limited range of mechanics and strategies required.

    A simple example: I started playing during Wrath, and raiding only after ICC had been released. The first time I did BQL with my guild, the raidleader was reminding the group how Shroud of Sorrow worked. “It’s like Legion Flames on Jaraxxus — from ToC”. At this point I hadn’t set foot in ToC so I had to ask for clarification, but when we did eventually wander through ToC then “it’s like Shroud of Sorrow” was the joking prefight checklist comment.

    Fundamentally, so many boss mechanics *are* similar. The boss puts a “circle of bad” on the floor. The boss has a frontal cone. The boss places a debuff on a player which must be cleansed/healed through/shared. Etc etc.

    All of this *must* make it very difficult for developers to balance the difficult of their content. On the one hand, they have a large audience of long-term gamers who will adapt pretty quickly. On the other hand, overtuning will discourage new players.

    That’s why you should always run new content blind — it won’t belong before the new bosses are “like Marrowgar, but with a poison AOE instead of bonestorm” or some such, so take the opportunity to be ‘clueless’ while you can! 😉

  3. WoW’s problem from very early on has been gear inflation. Each tier of content gives gear that is better than that of previous tiers, so most of the previous content gets trivialised. What’s worse, once players get used to this as their primary reward mechanism, then each new batch of content has to offer MOAR EPIC EPIX or else players who are used to equating ‘reward’ with ‘better gear’ will ask “What’s the point?”

    A better design (and much harder to execute) is to make the rewards comparable but slightly up the difficulty of each tier of content. Being in tier 1 gear for your level wouldn’t automatically bar you from attempting the tier 10 raid dungeon – but the player needs to have the skills and experience to succeed at that tier. Raiding guilds would have to ‘train up’ new players rather than ‘gear them up’.

    Of course, I’m not sure how many players would run the harder raid instances if it was for the challenge and the glory, rather than the loot. Some, definitely – but not all. And it’s probably too late for WoW to take this approach after 6 years of luring their players to the dark side 🙂

  4. Hey there, Spinks! I wanted to reply to the comment that you were nice enough to leave on my WoM post, but the comment feature hasn’t been appearing correctly for me, for quite some time. So, for the time being I’m not able to comments on any of the WoM pages.

    I just wanted to say that you brought up a very good point and I agree that if someone has an interest in playing their off-spec role a bit more that they should absolutely say something to those in charge.

    I guess where I was going with that was that I see people who constantly drop hints that they want to do that, the officers thank them for informing them and may politely say it isn’t happening and they still keep pressing the issue. That’s where I was coming from.

    Badgering people to do your off-spec role is never a good thing.

    Thanks for stopping by and I appreciate the comment!


  5. To be honest gear and so on hasn’t been an issue. The numbers requirements for heroics haven’t actually been that stringent, once you know what you’re doing.

    For all the DPS standing in the fire jokes, what I ‘ve been having more trouble from tanks in heroics than anything. Mostly because the difference between a good tank and a bad tank is so utterly binary and at this point, there isn’t a comfortable layer of gear to insulate us from it.

    So any tank execution dependent fight has turned into a kind of endless death march as people keep dropping out and being replaced until none of the original group are there and a tank shows up who knows what they’re doing and Karsh Steelbender finally goddamn dies.

    • This is partly because a lot of good tanks are not running LFD PUGs in heroics. Let’s face it, who would willingly choose to /learn/ a new encounter in the company of PUG dps and healers who will be complaining at every wipe?

      But also, since there’s no special reason why tank players would be worse than anyone else, if you’re right then it implies that dps are getting an easy ride again this expansion.

      • They’ve just nerfed Karsh, making the superheated armor debuff last 17 instead of 12 seconds. Apparently they thought tanking him was too hard.

  6. Way back in vanilla they did try something a bit different – instead of handing out +20% upgrades they instead required a gradual build up of resistance flavored gear.

    Team that with weaponry that has bonuses vs certain types of mobs and you’ve got the potential for multiple alternative tracks, none which invalidate the others.

    Guilds could also be different in regards to what content they are focussing on – you could have a dragon slaying guild in the frozen tundra of the north, a demon vanquishing guild tackling the under deeps, and another dragon slaying skill retaking the fiery slopes of Mt Doomy Doom. Each equal in power and progression.

    Players would hate it.

  7. As a healer, I’ve noticed that the quality of LFD groups seems to have taken a lurch downwards over the past few days. It could be just the luck I’ve had, but whereas the initial week or so was all-CC, all the time (and trust me, I was grateful for it) we’ve now gone back to WOTLK AOE madness.

    I was actually told not to hex anything by the tank on a normal Grim Batol run, and on a run of Lost City this morning, every hex I threw down was interupted by a hunter spamming volley. This, of course, made it that much harder to heal, and led to lots of sitting about waiting for my mana to come back.

    Maybe I’m becoming less patient, or, as I suspect, the better players are moving onto heroics, leaving those without the skill, gear or guildmates to battle it out in the normal runs. Either way, I want the old playstyles back!

  8. Your argument here is part of the reason people in WotLK used to hate the Occulus pre-nerf. No matter how geared you were, the final fight was a test of your skill, because you had three drakes to choose from, and your gear was of no consequence. You could be naked, and still have a 75K health drake to do the fight.

    I remember when we first ran Hellfire Ramparts on Heroic. We wiped three times on the first pull. By the time The Burning Crusade ended, we were zipping through all bosses in the instances in less than 15 minutes, chain pulling or crowd-pulling the mobs in the instance to our heart’s content.

    In sharp contrast, Occulus’ last battle remained the same in difficulty because of a very simple mechanic: no matter who you were, your “gear” and “abilities” were forced to be at a constant.

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