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.

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