Saturday, September 26, 2009
In favor of variable challenge levels
Spinks has a great post up on games which are fun even if you aren't very good at them, with obvious implications for MMO game design. Being "very good" at a game implies being part of a small minority, ahead of more people who are just "good", lots of people who are "average", and so on. If a game is only fun for those who are very good at it, it is not fun for the majority of players, who in the case of an MMO will then stop playing and stop producing an income for the MMO game company. Thus the often leveled charge at Blizzard to have achieved multi-million subscriber success by making the game "too easy", or rather easy enough for the average and maybe even sub-average player.
The underlying wrong assumption behind that train of thought is that a MMO necessarily has to offer the same fixed challenge level to everybody. As spinks noted in her description of The Sims 3, the reason why it is fun for everybody is because you can set your own goals, according to your abilities. To some extent that is already possible in a MMORPG, where you can set yourself different goals beyond the standard leveling up and getting the best gear route. But the standard route more often than not has a fixed level of challenge. During leveling you can still have some variability, with players who are very good battling monsters of higher levels than they are, while sub-average players still advancing by battling monsters of lower level than themselves. But that often breaks down at the level cap, where the challenges are fixed to some level of performance. If you aren't *this* good, you can't raid.
Why would that have to be so? What would be the interest of a game to exclude the less good part of their demographics from a major element of gameplay? The trick is that instead of making everything so easy that everybody can do it, you replicate the same content in different difficulty levels, with different rewards, so there is something at an appropriate challenge level for everybody. Blizzard is already going into that direction, with dungeons available in normal and heroic modes, and various "hard modes" for raid encounters. I'm not saying that WoW's implementation is already perfect, or the only viable solution, but the approach is the right one: Variable challenge levels, where the lowest difficulty setting is designed to allow for a majority of players, and offering incentives for them to evolve and become better and tackle the harder challenge modes for better rewards. As much as you might despise the "n00bs", keep in mind that it is the subscription fees of millions of n00bs which creates the money that allows the developers to build more raid content for the l33t. Why not let them have an "easy mode" version of that raid content, so they can have fun at the game even if they aren't very good at it?