[Wildstar] Game difficulty, player confidence.

“… each struggling MMO is struggling in its own way.”

— Tolstoy (sort of)

I have read a few blog posts this week about Wildstar, and the inevitable subscription drop-off and server merge. I’d be hard pressed at this point to name a recent subscription MMO that hadn’t experienced a drop-off after the first couple of months. Players have wondered whether the game’s difficulty compared with other similar MMOs may be part of the explanation for why the new MMO on the block has failed to break the 3-monther pattern.

I played the game in Beta and wasn’t hooked, but at the same time, when so many other MMOs have trodden the same path it’s hard to pick out anything exceptional about this one. Except that the magical lightning-in-a-bottle MMO factor that will get a game to go viral and grow the playerbase rather than shrinking doesn’t seem to be there. It isn’t doom for Wildstar though – other games such as SWTOR and Final Fantasy 14 have recovered from the slump and stabilised the playerbase at a lower level. At this point no MMO is going to go viral unless its new and different, or appeals to a wildly different audience from the usual crowd. WoW did it. Minecraft did it. Lots of other games were decently successful but without setting the world alight, and that’s fine.

At the same time, if their target core audience was hardcore raiders, that was only ever going to be a small proportion of the player base. And it was always likely that unless those people were very burned out with WoW, they’d be tempted back for the next expansion. It’s certainly possible to raid hardcore in two different games at the same time, but not when one of them has a new expansion out.

I did like Keen’s analysis of ‘the quit wall’ in games. “People reach the wall and they quit.”  It could be a frustrating grind, or a really hard solo quest, or dungeon that it is impossible to find a group for – whatever it is, it becomes so frustrating that players no longer enjoy the game because they cannot see a path to the next goal that looks achievable.

I think of difficulty as being in two types:

  1. Something you could do with time and effort and/or help from other players, but it might take more time and effort (and motivation) than you want to spend.
  2. Something you just can’t do, and you aren’t confident that time and effort would change that.

When you describe it in these terms, 1) sounds like a rational choice. If it takes me 2 hours to run a dungeon and I’d need to run it 20 times to get the tokens that I need, I could rationally step back and think “Whoa, 40 hours for one doodad that will probably be obsolete in the next patch. No thanks.” Sometimes the sheer sticker shock when you realise how much hassle will be involved is enough to put people off even trying.  2) is a judgement call – how long do you try an event/ grind/ etc. before you decide that it isn’t possible?

So our judging difficulty is all about confidence. How good am I at succeeding in difficult things? (Women, incidentally, tend to underestimate this, men are more likely to overestimate – they call this ‘the confidence gap’). If people are already stressed out by other aspects of the game (eg. being yelled at for being a newbie in instances) then they are already likely to be feeling less confident.

So if you put a difficulty wall in a game, the least confident people are most likely to leave first. If your game attracts a crowd who are bullying and elitist, more of the other players will lose confidence and leave. It may be because they are bad players who couldn’t keep up. Or it may be because they lost the will to try or felt they would not be able to learn quickly enough. In either case, the player base reduces.

But still, admitting to yourself that a game is too difficult feels like failure for a gamer. It’s hard to do and even harder to discuss – I think every time I have written a blog post about where I thought part of a game was overtuned, I’ve been challenged on that by people who felt quite strongly about wanting their games to stay difficult.

So this is a tough topic. But does anyone want to share a time when difficulty made them decide to drop a game and how that felt? I never did complete the solo part of the legendary WoW quest this expansion – it was too hard for me and my shadow priest, and I don’t play MMOs because I want to do hard solo content (I’d get Dark Souls if I wanted that). And though I will play the game again, I will always now feel that the designers are telling me it’s too hard for me, and I’m probably not going to raid other than very casually. Because I got the message.

7 thoughts on “[Wildstar] Game difficulty, player confidence.

  1. This is a bit speculative, but I think there’s maybe a third consequence of high difficulty that can eventually put people off. If the average amount of focus and effort the game requires to succeed (for a given player) is too high, people can be making progress, and even making progress at a reasonable rate, but are pulled out of the flow state on the high end by the effort required to do so (compared to the rewards), and it acts a source of stress. When combined with other stressors that come with high difficulty (too-frequent deaths and failures), it can make the game unsatisfying.

    I realize introspection is not a super reliable, but I feel like that’s what put me off of the game eventually. I will be the first to admit that I am not very good at games that involve a lot of maneuvering in three dimensions and aiming, especially with the additional cognitive load that comes with managing resources. Even where I was succeeding and making progress at a satisfying rate, it had a little bit of a tinge of “this is stressful”. The game required enough sustained focus from me that it felt a little bit like driving in bad weather; not heinous, but not what I want to spend extended chunks of free time doing. I don’t demand that every game be the Lazy River Ride at the waterpark (Guild Wars 2, for example, felt fine to me, and I stopped playing that very specifically for reason #1 that you list), but the skill demands were a liiiitte more intense and sustained than I want from something that I’m doing to unwind and relax. (I don’t mind intensity in short bursts – I love games like Super Meat Boy – but Super Meat Boy doesn’t ask you to succeed at the same general task a thousand times in a row.)

  2. I don’t know if “difficulty” is the right word to use, as it’s both different things to different people and comes loaded with school-like connotations that if you fail at a test/exam, you’re ‘bad’ or a ‘failure.’

    (Or maybe this is more of a self-confidence issue, of how one views failure at a certain thing – does a person take it as a challenge to try again, or divert their attention elsewhere, or expect to succeed first go and if that doesn’t work, avoid doing it ever again, and so on.)

    Personally, since I view games as something that you can always keep trying over and over again until you learn it, I’ve never viewed a game as “difficult” per se. It’s usually just a matter of figuring out the rules of how the challenge is programmed and repeated practice until muscle memory sets in and some kind of revelation or mental understanding of a concept gels together.

    HOWEVER, I’ve certainly looked at many games and decided that the effort and time it would take to experience the whole understanding process to “get good” or master it isn’t worth prioritizing at all since the personal payoff is so low.

    Random example: Eve Online. I was very intrigued by its many systems and wanted to master its economical intricacies. But a) the actual experience of combat or mining doesn’t return any visceral thrills to me, since it’s mostly watching something very plain repeat on autoattack, while the challenge lies more in the tactical aspects, b) I would have to pay a monthly subscription and c) other people could set back my progress on learning these systems, and I’d have to navigate long and involved social systems and networks that could contain drama, betrayal and real life bleeding into a game to do so – not an experience I personally enjoy.

    Ditto many games involving vertical progression stat systems and raiding. The “difficulty” in those games lie in scheduling and putting in the time dailiy/weekly to attend group events and perform certain actions over and over again, while waiting for a random reward to finally fall your way and upgrade your stats to a level where you can do another event. Sure, I freely admit I find it ‘difficult’ to arrange my time in this manner and I get very little personal payoff for doing so, since I don’t value external items or belonging to a group to make me feel special.

    Could I do it, if motivated to? Probably. Do I want to pay money and spend my limited leisure time to do so? Nope.

    Or take League of Legends or DOTA2. Very intricate concepts layered on top of each other, a control system that’s different from what I’m used to, sometimes reliant on split-second reaction times, requiring good verbal communication with a team of players, preferably people you would play with over and over (cue regular scheduled time committments.) I’m happy to dabble with either at an absolutely amateur level, but I certainly wouldn’t call myself a regular player of either.

    Or take platformers like VVVVVV and Super Meat Boy. Apparently they require pixel perfect precision of jumps, excellent twitch and muscle memory, good normal memory to remember the sequence, and the willingness to repeat a sequence over and over again until things just fall in place for that one magic moment. “Difficult?” Some people would say yea.

    I’ve never bothered to try or finish either. The anticipated payoff didn’t motivate me enough for those two games.

    But I did do something similar for Eversion, which was a short enough platformer with an interesting schtick that I wanted to get to the end to see how the story played out. There were many deaths, much raging, lots of walkthrough video watching and swearing that I was doing the exact same thing and not getting the desired result, but it eventually got done.

    Generally, if I drop a game, it’s because I decided it wasn’t worth it to me to finish or attempt, or I know I’ve hit a personal limit for the time being and I just tell myself, “I’ll get to it another time, when I’ve rested, taken a break or feel like it again.” That time may never come, if I find other things more worth doing, but that’s how life goes. I certainly wouldn’t feel like a failure for doing so.

    I don’t master X martial art or Y musical instrument or Z programming language because I don’t want to invest the time/effort into doing so, and I don’t feel like a failure for not doing those either.

  3. The confidence problem isn’t helped by gaming communities, either – the most vocal segments are quick to proclaim everything to be trivially easy, which is an absolute kick in the teeth when you’re already doubting your ability to succeed at something.

  4. I think its strange for us (gamers) to be in the midst of this evolution in gaming really. It’s really hard to see which forces are driving us where. Up until now we’ve all said that Blizzards success in the MMO space is an anomaly. And while I still think it’s true, it doesn’t give them credit for something their competitors almost always lack: an understanding of their players. Blizzard, like it or not, knows who their players are and I really mean *they know them*. They know how to get them to engage the content, how to get them to like it, and what kinds of things they want to see. Now I don’t think they do “game design” or the like (their content, on it’s own, is quite bland and sometimes anti-fun), but they know how to set up an interesting environment. And for MMOs, that’s everything.

    I’ve played lots of MMOs, like many of us. I think the predictable shortcomings and failures of MMOs has a lot to do with how they try to be everything to everyone. And nothing screams “I don’t know who will play this” more loudly than that kind of design. Wildstar, I felt, knows who they want their players to be (hardcore raiders). But they’ve done a few things to try to make it as WoW-like as they can, but I don’t think it’ll fail.

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  7. I’ve had another frustrating run in WS the other night with my old WoW buddies, people I have raided with for years and cleared almost all content possible, and it was basically a discussion of ‘how is this worth it’? Yeah, we can probably reach raids but given that raids are no better than dungeons, do we really want to?
    There was a time when I took pride or at least satisfaction for besting silly content full of RNG/luck and put up with setup restrictions, but nowadays I feel like I’m over that. It needs to be fun first and I want to be able to take my friends with me and have a good time – which is less and less likely in WS. I think you can outgrow this type of elitist content as a gamer and we’re probably there now. Prios have changed, time is precious. Oh well. 🙂

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