Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, June 08, 2004
MMORPG difficulty level

Many single-player games have options to adjust the level of difficulty. MMORPG do not have this option, everybody has to play at the same difficulty level. Your only option is to choose between different MMORPG with different difficulties, for example chose Everquest or Final Fantasy XI if you like very difficult games, but change to Star Wars Galaxies or City of Heroes if you like an easier setting. But how difficult should a MMORPG be to play?

Difficulty in MMORPG affects 3 different things: A) How long do I need to level up (or have another significant experience of success)? B) Can I play solo and still level up? C) And if I play in a group, how elaborate need the groups tactics be to beat the monsters?

A) How long people need to level up already causes the first big problems and conflicts of interest. Fact is that in a population of players the amount of hours spent online per week differs by a very wide margin. Some people play as little as 10 hours per week, others play up to 100 hours per week. Obviously the latter is an extreme, as 100 hours per week means you don't do anything else but sleep, eat, and play the MMORPG all day long. But there are quite a number of people that are on holiday, or unemployed, that spend this amount of time in a virtual world. And with a factor of 10 in hours per week between a casual gamer and a power-gamer, it is impossible to find a rate of advancement that pleases both. Achievement in a MMORPG is a product of skill multiplied by time spent in the game, and the skill factor is minor in comparison to the time factor. You can achieve anything in a MMORPG if you spend enough time on it.

The only game that ever offered a partial solution to this dilemma was Ultima Online, which had the "power hour". Every day, the first hour you were playing, you increased your skills at double the normal rate. That obviously gives a big boost to the advancement of people that can only play 1 or 2 hours per day, while not affecting people that play 10 hours a day very much. Most other games followed the example of Everquest, and used an experience point curve that gets steeper and steeper. So even a power gamer needs several months to reach the highest possible level. That suits the game company just fine, because they do not want people to quit p(l)aying, just because they reached the "end" of the game.

Unfortunately that approach excludes the more casual gamers from much of the "high-end" content. To level your first character up to the highest level in EQ takes approximately 2000 hours, which at 10 hours per week would take 4 years to complete, with leveling up only happening less than once per month in the end. Many people have correctly called that a treadmill, and simply refuse to play that way. A casual gamer can often have more fun by stopping somewhere at mid-level, and trying another character class instead. (Just for the record, I never made it past level 42 in EQ with my main character, with over 1000 hours played.)

Games after Everquest lowered the time requirement for reaching the highest level a bit. After all, the people playing 100 hours per week are just a minority (albeit a vocal one), and in financial terms they are not very interesting for the game company, as MMORPG are payed per month, not per hour. So somebody who plays 10 times more, pays the same fee, but uses 10 times the bandwith and computing power.

B) The ability to solo is also problematic. The art is to make soloing possible, but obviously inferior to grouping. In the really difficult games, like EQ and FFXI, it is often impossible for most character classes to solo beyond the initial levels. You either get no xp at all for the highest level mob you can kill on your own, or so little as to not make you advance in any meaningful time frame. But EQ had a few character classes that were able to solo using special tactics, like quad-kiting druids, and necromancers using skeleton pets. And these solo-enabled character classes were always far more popular than the other classes, with up to 20% of players on a server playing druids. That shows that there is a demand for soloing.

The other extreme is games where grouping does not give you significantly more experience points than soloing. Setting up a group requires a certain effort, which has to be rewarded. Otherwise people simply do not group, unconciously depriving themselves of one of the major fun aspects of MMORPG. A group should gain xp at about twice the rate of a soloing character, to make up for the time lost setting up the group, and the recurring interuptions from players coming and going.

The best would be, if all character classes would be able to solo. But unfortunately some character classes are support classes by design, and it is difficult to enable a character to solo, when his main purpose is healing, or crowd control. In games like City of Heroes, where your character is more defined by the skills you chose than by just his character class, you still have the problem that a healer that choses skills useful for soloing is making himself less useful in a group, and vice versa.

But nothing is worse for a player than having the feeling to be "stuck", because he is too weak to solo, and for some reason doesn't find a group. If a game progresses by giving the player missions, or if certain essential items or skills can only be reached by a quest, those missions and quests need to be soloable. Worst offender in this category is FFXI, where many essential gameplay features can only be opened up by quests requiring groups of 6 or more players.

C) The difficulty level of a MMORPG requiring special group tactics is a mixed blessing. On the one hand it is nice to know that the skill with which you play your character is making a difference. On the other hand the tactics needed to defeat a mob quickly become well known in the player community, and then begin to solidify into a set of unwritten rules that cause all sorts of problems. Most of these problems lead to people being excluded from joining a specific group, because they don't have the "right class", "right race", "right skills", and so on.

If the monsters of a game are unbeatable unless you have a tank with taunt, and a healer, and a damage dealer, and somebody with crowd control in your group (again EQ and FFXI), setting up a group gets really difficult. Especially if there are also limits on how much of a level difference the group members can have. If you combine that with B), you end up with a game in which you can not play alone, and setting up a group takes an hour. That strongly discourages people from playing at all, especially if they only have an hour or two for this play session.

In summary, over all three aspects, it remains difficult for game developers to set their game to a difficulty level that pleases everybody. If a game is no challenge, it is no fun. But if it is too much of a challenge, it only frustrates. And the mass market, where the money is, certainly requires games to be accessible for the casual gamer.

I wonder if one day a MMORPG comes out where the player can set his desired difficulty level at character creation, or by creating servers with different difficulty levels. Set difficulty to easy, and you can solo mobs easier, and gain more xp per hour. Set it to hard, and you need a lot of skill and determination to reach the highest level. Of course it would need to be highly visible which difficulty setting you have chosen, to motivate the achievers to play the game on hard, and be able to brag about it. And the casual gamers would gain access to the high-level content, at the cost of others knowing that you only got there by taking the easy way. But it can only be good if all the content of a game is available to all the players, it makes more players happy, and the higher rate of utilization of the high-level content makes coding more productive for the devs.
I totally agree with you. I have gone through 6 MMORPGS with my boyfriend in this year and we just do not want to group. Soloing is so important, yet these games and the developers seem to think players like grouping with total strangers who make snide remarks while playing or ragging on how you play. It just isn't fun to play in groups. I really despise it. I feel like it's a metaphorical sort of rape. The being forced or being "stuck". Forced to group, forced to play with people you don't want to socialize with.

I am so sad. I think WoW is a terrible game. After 60 you need to get in these insane groups to do raids and take orders from people who "always lead the raids" and I am no follower. I rather solo these quests.
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