The problem of difficulty in CRPGs

Challenge in RPGs has been a mixed bag at best for designers.

If they ramp the challenge up in an encounter, and classes/ builds differ noticeably in any way, then it favours min-maxing. A game with lots of these challenges can become largely about figuring out this optimal setup.  There’s room for a genre of games which are about figuring out the best min-maxed party  to beat encounters and then executing it. But the current theorycrafting metagame is largely an accident of fate. ie. if you wanted to design a game that invited all players to figure out through play the optimal setup, you wouldn’t design it like an MMO.

If we also want the diversity and flexibility in games of being able to try unusual classes or builds, or trying abilities because they sound fun rather than because they’re in the optimised setup, then this high-challenge scenario is the wrong one to be playing. Originally there was an assumption with MMOs that devs would provide a large game world with lots of ‘stuff’ in it and players would find their own level of challenge. Although you can still do this in most games, endgame tends to be situated around fixed design challenges.

Part of the popularity of Skyrim is as an antidote to this style of game design; it’s an entire game world which invites players (in a single player environment, naturally) to go explore and try stuff out. Yes, you can outlevel the content and make the game far too easy for yourself by minmaxing. Yes, you can also head into killer dungeons way above your level. But by and large no one is going to tell you that you’re playing it wrong if you do any of those things. It is flexible.

Maybe it was inevitable that massive multi-player games would end up favouring optimised character setups. Maybe the incessant focus on combat meant that optimising for combat was always going to be the end result. Maybe the freedom to experiment without being oppressed/ farmed by the hardcore section of the playerbase for not doing things the way they do can only ever happen in single player games. It isn’t that the player base is the problem exactly, more that in a multiplayer game people will eventually be pressed into conforming and competing with the rest of the online player base. And the ‘golden age’ of MMOs that Wolfshead waxes lyrical about was simply a pre-evolutionary stage, before the push of gamification, when being online with other people in real time in a virtual world was so exciting in itself that players were more patient with each other, and before there was much competition for the few virtual worlds that existed.

But one thing is for sure, that type of challenge design doesn’t work brilliantly with heavily story based games, unless the challenge can be tailored to the character/ group more closely. Because if a player feels torn between picking a character/ class for story reasons and picking one for minmaxing reasons, there will always be more pressure on them from other players (and the game environment itself) to optimise.

I think players who enjoy more flexibility do feel oppressed by the optimising hardcore, because it’s pretty rough to always be told that you’re playing the game wrong. And that’s not the same as being a bad player (‘bad’ is very much a social construction in computer games, and can  be used equally to mean someone with slow reactions, someone who doesn’t watch the youtube video of the boss kill before zoning into a raid,  someone who hurls abuse in general chat, or someone who never listens to advice and never seems to learn.)

18 thoughts on “The problem of difficulty in CRPGs

  1. In a way you can do something similar in MMOs as Skyrim, by outlevelling content, acquiring higher level skills and gear to make content easier, what can’t be done is adjust the difficulty using a slider on the fly. Easy/Normal/Difficult raids (WoW/Rift) is a nice start, but the reward system just messes things up, if each mode offered the same rewards but the content could be adjusted on a slider by the group leader to suit the ability of the group then a lot of the current audience would freak out. There’s so much anxiety about what other people are doing, and not enough of ‘ok the rewards are the same, let’s adjust the challenge to suit the current group’. Splitting the community up based on gear is well dated, finding people with similar ability/outlook is hard enough without having to take progression into account too.

  2. Some games give you a world with encounters whose challenges are not dependent on the player. The players go where they want to be.

    Those who seek challenge go to the more difficult areas. Those who seek diversion go to the easier areas. And since there is no instancing, everybody can see all the content if he just joins a group of enough players.

    • This is very much how I remember my experiences in DaoC. I think fixed raid sizes along with fixed encounter difficulty is anathema to this sort of concept though (and I wish games would drop the fixed raid size).

  3. I didn’t take up MMORPG-playing as a hobby in order to consume prepackaged entertainment. I have books and movies when i want to settle back and let someone tell me a story. I use the MMO worlds as background and building blocks for adventures I make up for myself. It’s a way of being nine years old forever. 2012 MMOs work just as well for that as 1999 ones ever did.

  4. “But by and large no one is going to tell you that you’re playing it wrong if you do any of those things.”

    Well, this is because there’s nobody else *there* in Skyrim. It’s perfectly possible to play (most modern) MMOs that way…as long as you toggle off chat and don’t group. The instant you start dealing with other people, the pressure to conform will be right there waiting for you, though.

  5. I dunno about any Golden Age. I remember people gaming the system in Ultima Online to get an edge.

    I think it probably has more to do with the rose coloured nostalgia glasses than anything.

  6. I think that may be down to where you’re looking, and the fact that you have to. I can’t speak to Skyrim (I’m following my usual policy with ES games of ‘wait for the goatee edition to hit a Steam sale for under $10’), but I can recall seeing plenty of minmax and build guides for Oblivion, Morrowind, and even Arena. The main difference is you have to go look for them, rather than having some ‘helpful’ soul in your party asking ‘y u no spek [TALENT] nub? lolololol u loose .0000004 deepeez.’

    L’enfer, c’est les autres.

  7. @Pardoz – That and in Skyrim you’re choice of skills and playstyle isn’t necessarily open to valid critique from those random people online. If I REALLY like the look of the Steel Greatsword I can use it to my heart’s content because I am not harming anyone else’s gaming experience by doing so (That and if the low damage bothers me I can “cheat” and mod the game to make the Steel Greatsword’s damage closer to Daedric).

    • I think also they made some deliberate design decisions in Skyrim to encourage people to take it more freeform. You don’t have stats to allocate when you level up, just pick a perk. And unlike Oblivion, you don’t have to do anything really obscure with skill assignment to make sure the content doesn’t get too tricky. It’s just a very chilled out game, don’t need to minmax, you can just outlevel the content if you want to make it easier.

      • That isn’t a new concept; Phantasy Star III remains one of my favourite games because there was more than one way to skin a cat (or complete a dungeon). I could go for a party with longevity, one with physical prowess, one with magical strength, stock up on trimates or just grab a few more levels or gear pieces.

        More ways to solve problems is cool and adds depth; taking options away to “optimize” removes it.

  8. In any game where there’s choice, there’s going to be an optimum build. This is unavoidable. In any two choices, one is always going to be better than the other unless the choices are essentially meaningless.

    In a single player game, it doesn’t matter. Because you’re doing your own thing. It ain’t hurting anyone.

    In a multi-player game, espeically one where you are performing in groups to achieve a shared goal, it does matter if you aren’t optimised, since you’re making other people trying to achieve the same goal lives harder, since they have to make up for your shortcomings. It’s not min-maxing. It’s part of the social contract to pretend yours isn’t the only fun that matters in much they shouldn’t yell at you for being crap, you shouldn’t be crap.

    Though, on Skyrim, I have issues with that game in so far as once it got easy, it got really, really easy, even without any character planning beyond ‘I want a guy with a big axe and maybe that hat you have in the previews for the game’

    • It is minmaxing when a vociferous playerbase shuts down options that would have been perfectly viable, just because they aren’t /optimal/. I don’t buy that you owe it to your team mates to be perfectly optimal all of the time, you just have to be good enough (and good company).

      eg. in WoW, you don’t need a perfectly optimised group to knock out hard mode instances. You just don’t. You need a reasonable range of roles and people who know how to play. There’s no need of talk about how the minmaxers have to make up for someone’s shortcomings when the group would do fine without a minmaxer in it.

  9. Personally, I believe this has far more to do with WoW’s bland design of content these days than anything else. More tragically, new MMORPG’s seem to think that it’s purely WoW’s raids that hold the key to its success.

    If the only way to beat a boss is via throughput (Cataclysm), min-maxing happens. If there are multiple ways to beat it (The Burning Crusade), you can be more free-wheeling with your choices.

    • I don’t know about content being bland, what I saw of Firelands was that the boss encounters seemed quite cool. But yes, I agree that this increasing emphasis on dps throughput has been quite relentless.

      And it’s ended up with a playerbase who are convinced that dps throughput is the only relevant stat in deciding if someone is a good player, which I do find problematic.

      • Firelands lacked depth; there was no other way to deal with the “mechanics” of Lord Rhyolith, Beth’tilac or Alysrazor, other than mastering the pre-determined gimmicks attached to them. Even Ragnaros heroic suffered the same fate – you either learned how to execute what the game told you to execute, or you failed.

        This is what makes me sad when developers write off talent trees because the choices weren’t interesting enough for players. The “utility” talents were routinely ignored because raw throughput solved practically any problem a raid group came across. It wasn’t that the talents were bad by default, they were simply superfluous for the content.

        And as you say, this all leads to one destination:

        The relentless pursuit of more damage, accompanied by a complete disregard for everything else.

  10. There’s a difference in boss or raid design between the old DAoC world bosses and the modern ‘WoW-style’ raid boss, and I think it’s the difference between the designers giving the players a mission statement and a recipe.

    The old-style design set down a challenge – here’s a giant demon, X many hit points, damage output Y, farts a fireball every 45 seconds, summons adds every five minutes or whenever he incinerates a rogue. It was then up to the players how they solved that problem. The fight might take longer some ways, but if the players had more tanks and less DPS than expected at least there was a trade-off that the adds were easier to cope with.

    The new style is more like cooking from a recipe book – for a Downed Dragon (Avec Loot Coulis) you need TWO tanks with THIS much mitigation and three healers with THAT much throughput and FIVE DPS who together should add up to THIS MUCH on their epeen meter while not standing in the fire. There’s no room for flexibility there. You do the encounter as intended or not at all.

    What I can’t figure out for the life of me is why anyone thinks the new approach is so much better than the old way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s