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).