Tobold's Blog
Friday, November 27, 2009
Destroying challenge

Syncaine finished Dragon Age, and had a very insightful comment:
"You can actual ruin a good part of the game if you ‘game’ it too much. By that I mean it’s easy to destroy most of the challenge if you stack your party with Cone of Cold-tossing mages, kite mobs around, or save/reload to make sure you get the ‘perfect’ dialog responses every time. Once I shut the gamer part of my brain off, and just played the game as it was meant to be played, it was a far more enjoyable ride that still remained a good challenge."
Saving and reloading is a general problem of single-player RPGs: Unless you play the game armed with a complete walkthrough guide, warning you of everything, a good part of the challenge of fights, especially boss fights, is the unexpected. Like the boss appears to be alone, you attack, and adds spawn behind you, ruining your standard "mages in the back" strategy. You wipe, reload, and on the next attempt you *know* there will be adds from behind, so you adjust your strategy and win next time. The learning process is actually part of the fun, even wiping from something unexpected is more fun than every fight being predictable and won on the first attempt.

Dragon Age has some specific other problems, in that the character classes aren't balanced, and mages have a couple of spells which basically break the game in some situations. Thus choosing a mage as your main and choosing one or two of your three companions to be mages too makes the game a lot easier than playing with a mage-free group. Syncaine mentions the cone of cold, which is an excellent area crowd control spell, but there is worse: In some situations you can cast AoE damage spells on the enemy before the combat even officially begins, and in some situations the combat doesn't even start after you cast the AoE, and you can kill some mobs before they ever react.

And as I already mentioned, you can bypass a lot of the reputation system of Dragon Age by saving before critical dialogues, reloading when a dialogue option ruins your reputation with one of your companions, and then either choosing a different option, or changing out companions in your group. The dog is great here, he never complains about you being too good or too evil in your dialogues.

Now once you know all these methods to destroy the challenge of Dragon Age, you have two options: You can do like syncaine, declare that there is way to "play the game as it was meant to be played", and just stop to use all the possible tricks. Or you crank up the difficulty level to the highest possible, and try whether you can beat the game after using every dirty trick and previous knowledge in the book. The disadvantage of the latter method is that it ends up being more work, because you need to learn all the dirty tricks, and you need to replay everything from combats to dialogues several times until you hit the optimum.

So what is somewhat surprising is that in a MMORPG only the second method is every used. If you were to propose to tackle a new dungeon, especially raid dungeon, without having watched all the strategy videos on YouTube and studied all the boss abilities and their counter-strategies in detail, your guild mates would laugh at you, or even kick you out of the guild. The idea that being surprised by a boss ability could be fun, that working out a strategy for yourself instead of following a guide could be fun, is totally foreign to MMORPGs. And if I were to repeat syncaine's statement that not using all the tricks is the way to "play the game as it was meant to be played" and say this about MMORPGs on my blog, I'd get hundreds of angry responses telling me that I don't have a clue how to raid. The worst example of this attitude that everybody absolutely has to know every little detail about a dungeon before going there are the famous pickup groups which demand that you have the achievement of having finished a dungeon before inviting you to go there. You not only need to know everything, you even have to have done everything already, otherwise you are worthless and won't be invited into groups.

If, according to Raph Koster's Theory of Fun, the fun is in learning how to play, why do we do our utmost to banish learning from MMORPGs? Why is a good raiding guild considered to be one in which strategy is never discussed, because everybody already knows everything? Why do people rarely try alternative strategies? Why do we first need to destroy all the tactical challenge of the game, to then complain that the game is too easy, or to go looking for encounters in which the challenge is simply one of execution?
Why do MMO players stick with what they know?


MMOs are actually a very interesting example of evolution, in that any strategy/build that is not optimal quickly falls out of favor no matter how fun or interesting it is.
Most definately agreed! One of the big reasons for me ceasing to play raid based MMOS, it just turns into a scripted dance where the skill is only that you have to do x action at time y to win. Having Boss encounters with random abilities at random times but giving the players enough time to react and redesign strategy would be great. The oldest axiom of war should count: the best laid plans only last until the first engagement then you have to make a new one.
Fun equals learning in a safe environemnt ^^

Not purely "how to play" but also things such as the rules, the symbolism, the controll scheme, the layout of hotkeys, the goals of the game, the skills of the game, the verbs, the other players reactions, the other players circumferential interactions and so forth.

How to play is something we generally already learned very early in life. But which shape play has within any given title needs to be a new learning experience for each game. If it is not then the game becomes boring.

If WAR is not a different playground separated from WoW then WAR will not be fun. Except for the kids who got rejected and expelled from the WoW playground.
People don't play for fun. They play to win rewards what can be used as bragging rights. The easiest way to do it is to prepare before going raid. I wrote about it.

Since most people are like that, you can only enjoy thinking (and not performing) challenges alone or in small group of like-minded people.

The game company could break this by making a game where the bosses are random enough to make it impossible to "prepare" behind basic strategies (if add comes, taunt it, don't stand in the fire...). There is a reason they don't do it: the current system allows everyone to win, some just need more tries.
I'm surprised how much my success or failure relies on having enough health poultices on hand. When I'm running low I crank it down to Easy difficulty. At first I felt a bit guilty, but then I asked myself what I was trying to prove, and to whom, by face-grinding boss battles on 3 poultices.
Peer Pressure. You learn all the strategy before hand, because you know, (unless you play with people you know and they don't mind) that you would ruin their game, if you fail to beat the boss.

Competitiveness and reward. You play MMORPG (on the level cap) to advance more your character in terms of gear, not for fun of discovering new parts of the game. Your reward in dungeon is the good feeling from perfect execution and loot. Purpose of the instances in MMORPG is not to be suprised and awed by the game, the purpose is to beat it.

You don't have any peer pressure in single player game. And you don't need to compete with others or be best geared possible in order to be acceptable for your peers.
haha. Planning and researching are some of my favourite parts of Wow. I love to read about best specs, raid strategy, gearing guides, loot tables, AH strategy. Its equally as much a part of the game for me as playing. I believe its a significant part of Wow success. I read wow blogs everyday. I started playing DDO and found it a bit bland so I looked for the supporting community; blogs, spec sites, strat and could barely find anything. Perhaps if there was something out there to hook me I might have played longer.
"The idea that being surprised by a boss ability could be fun, that working out a strategy for yourself instead of following a guide could be fun, is totally foreign to MMORPGs."

I disagree with this, but in this limited context:

I was a raid leader in EQ for years. The high end raiding content that is new to each expansion rarely has all the tips and tricks spelled out. You have to learn it. Many (if not most) of the players in high end raiding guilds in EQ tend to have a great time "breaking" an encounter, getting it to farming status.

I don't disagree with the statement as relates to most guilds in WOW. But it's not 100% true to MMORPGs in general
The thing with MMORPG is that you're playing with other people and not by yourself.

If you play by yourself, you don't really care about "penalty" in a sense that if you die, then you can just reload and try again. Thus, learning process.

But in MMORPG, there's no reload. You can probably try again (after re-doing the pre-requisite quests, or timing out the cool-down timer, etc), but that's after the "penalty" occured. Penalty can be in form of loss of EXP, gold, gear, etc, but most importantly, the universal MMORPG currency called time. You lost the fight? Not only you waste your own time, you also waste other people's time. Many people are then felt discouraged to try something different because trying something new present risks that are non-existant using the tried & tested method.

MMORPG is all about time spent. People want to level up super quick. People want to kill a boss, not just to kill the boss, but to kill the boss the easiest/quickest way. That's why MMORPG players tend to pay so much attention on gears that are only slightly better that it helps kill the boss 2 seconds quicker than if you wear the weaker gear. In some MMORPGs, there are players who would call others as n00b for not wearing an earring that can let you cast a spell for 0.016 second quicker.

While not everyone is that extreme, it's obvious that the goal in MMORPG is different than single-player game.
That strikes me as a somewhat unfair comparison.

I haven't played Dragon Age, but from the blog posts I've read I get the impression that it's got a pretty flexible storyline in many respects. While problems may theoretically have an "optimal" solution, it isn't the only one. You can kill an opponent yourself, let someone else kill him, sway him, deceive him etc. and will still be able to continue even if you didn't pick the "best" option. Raiding in WoW only has one way to progress, to kill the boss. You can't hope to find another experimental solution by bypassing him, tricking him or whatever, so there's no fun in even trying.

Also, as much as we like to complain about how easy raiding has become these days, co-ordinating 25 people the right way can still be quite complex, even *after* you've read up on the strategy. If it wasn't, guilds everywhere would be one-shotting every boss after reading the strat. I think it's perfectably understandable that people are satisfied with just the "organisation and execution" part of the challenge without adding "learning the fight from scratch" to the mix.
Our ancestors (often) had 'fun' when they managed to hunt down the dear. This fun was a main motivator (next to hunger and your 'wife').

Imagine what your hunting comrades had said if you mentioned:
"Hey! This way of hunting is too easy! Let's make it more challenging; that's gonna be more fun!"

Good games use rules to simulate an environment that is fun. Therefore their developers need to consider that circumventing a challenge is indistinguishable from beating it.

It once again boils down to: Good games don't blame the consumers if they are not fun. Pull Stop.

On the other hand:
Since most games are not perfect we can try to play a game in a certain style.

I also play DAO and have set the difficulty to hard. (Not very hard- that's a joke:).

I do not reload ever unless I wiped. The game is fun this way - it's a simulation.

I haven't used exploitation strategies, except for letting the guy in plate 'tank'. Unfortunately I need two mages right now to keep him alive in normal battles.. Spamming every healing spell they have.

That's a little bit .. well .. unfunny, because everything takes forever.

What I really really miss in DAO, however, is to have the game autopause after every 'turn'.
regarding the "pugs": Because most of the time, players go into dungeons with an aim in mind, they have to, or they feel they have to ("I need 4 more emblems for 4th piece of T9") finish, achieve something for that particular run. So, they want a fast, hassle-free, smooth run.

Evolution was an excellent parallel. IF i can translate "gene-kinship" into "guild-relations" and "all others" into "pugs", then you could say that investing my knowledge, skill, patience and most importantly, time (all valuable resources in the game world, same as food and care in the animal kingdom) into a pug is not really effective from an 'evolutionary' point of view: the pug-person foresee-ably will not contribute at all in the future to any kind of positive outcome for me or my "genes" (chances are they really will not), so investing in caring for them does not merit the effort: unlike a guildie who will *probably* play with me again, help me in some other situation, or use that knowledge to our common benefit, an unknown pug might, for all i know, stop playing the game completely, change servers, change faction, put me on ignore, log in at wholly different times and without the means of some direct communication (/g or guild forums) the chances grow exponentially into "never playing again with that person" territory. Yes, I am aware all this stands true regarding the guildie as well, but i emphasize the probabilities, not possibilities.

This is all regarding big numbers, of course, a large enough sample of individual experiences put together would probably have an outcome similar to what I said.

The core of the issue is that almost no one goes into, for example, heroics for fun: they either have some quests, or they need some gear, or they need emblems, or they are looking to do some achievements. But, hey, wait a second, what "fun" is there left, if I just "discredited" almost every rational reason for doing heroics? Well, simply put, those that go to have fun will be in that group of undesired players: those that are still learning the instance, hence the novelty is 'fun' for them, or learning the class, same argument would apply. Or both. Otherwise, for most of us, fun is when the run is smooth, and people can still joke around and maybe do some crazy stuff, break speed records or whatever. But then we go back into "you need to have knowledge/skills to actually *have* that kind of fun in the first place".

An even deeper issue is the fact that almost like by automatism, we would all have deep distrust of those "still learning people" that those persons can play in any other way but really bad. That is because WoW and other games promote skillfulness as the ultimate value, even if totally self-deluded skillfulness. And with it a whole bunch of (random and not so random) opinions of what actually constitutes skillfulness or what can prove it in a relatively safe and definitely most direct and fastest manner: so linking achievements, gear, etc, come into play.

One other thing: I noticed a trend of max-level mains on their alts strictly looking for near level companions into low-level dungeons. I would say that there is a difference between how much you're ready to "compromise" in regards to knowledge/skill depending on your level.

wickEd-arathor (EU)
avinI have found some of the fun of single player RPGs in WOW by tackling group content solo.

On my hunter, with the right gear (not BIS but stuff with useful set and resistance bonuses) and build I can solo all the BC 5-mans, and so far in Wrath I've managed to solo Utgarde Keep. Level 60 raids are next on my list.

The advantage of this is I need to work out my gear and strategy on my own, can take as much time as I like and most importantly I don't have anyone ranting at me telling me I'm doing it wrong. It's much more relaxing and quite refreshing.
I think this one is easy. If I've learned anything from Syncaine it's that you aren't actually supposed to have fun in an MMO! The ideal MMO would be one that is so horrible that it beats you until you curl into the fetal position and start crying. Sounds like a great time.

Joking aside, this one is still pretty simple to me. The truth is that "Learning is fun" only applies to some people, just like hardcore pvp is fun only applies to some and playing dress up is fun only applies to some. Yes, learning dungeons and fights is fun to a group of people, but to others actually executing the fight perfectly is the bulk of the fun. And while learning CAN be fun for those people, it can also be a pain in the ass which, in removing, may take away 10% of the fun but also 80% of the hassle, a relatively logical tradeoff.
Isn't one of the points of being a bleeding-edge raider that you get to do the encounters before all the videos? Someone has to figure these things out first. Or does that happen now on the PTR?

I think you have absolutely the right idea. Walking into a dungeon for the first time is exciting and interesting. There are surprises in there. Mastering that dungeon on the third (or 23rd) try gives a real sense of achievement (and possibly and Achievement too :)). I have never understood why people want to ruin that feeling by going in prepared.

"You are not prepared!" Damn straight!
With the exception of the 0.1% of guilds that have cleared all the current content, there is always going to be a bigger challenge, soemthing that you can't beat.

Until you can beat it, it's best to raid as efficiently as you can.

Secondly, the cost of failure is higher in a MMO - repair gold and time (your's and everyone else's!). Where a save/load mechanism, the only cost is your personal time.

Finally, single player games are have no real time component. There is no race to complete Dragon's Age, no bragging rights for coming first. So why bother using game mechanics cleverly to blast through the content if it's at the detriment to your own enjoyment.
Note: The WoW community does seem to make a distinction between 'strategy' and 'exploit'.

The majority of HM raiding guilds forewent the door exploit on the Valkyr Twins, even though it would have aided progress.
I think the answer to that, lies in the type of game. In single player rpg's you play the way described.
In mmo's you play just as much for the teamwork. At least if you want to have fun in raids. Going up against a difficult boss, knowing *how* to beat him, is far from actually beating him. And that is where the team effort comes in, and that is how these:
'scripted dance where the skill is only that you have to do x action at time y to win' can be fun.

Am I saying that a random ability encounter boss cannot be fun? No. I think that would be great (we already have one in the coliseum), im just saying that maybe it isn't all this black and white.

I just want to add that there do exists plenty of guilds out there that go 'blindly' into instances and duke it out their own way.
Raiding is much more like participating sports. Where Arena's is much like a tennis match where you know the rules and options your opponent has but try to beat them with a superior tactic or skill. Raiding is much like athletics, where your are competing against a set challenge (jump over a bar, throw the javelin). The techniques aren't new but you feel some accomplishment from achieving a new high jump or distance record.

Having said that; trying to beat an encounter before any tactic was available (on the PTR for example) is much like inventing the fosbury flop in highjumping.

So there is a different type of "having fun" going on in raiding than learning how to play. It is much like trying to get that bit better with know tactics like a highjumper tries to clear 1 centimeter above their personal record. The next boss- or the next achievement, to a raider is like clearing that 1 centimeter.
There's always quickload...

At one time in Dragon Age I decided to use blood magic to kill a woman and save a child. Sounded good at the moment. Only about half an hour later I found out that one of my party members was not happy to have me kill his stepmother. I didn't bother to reload, I would have to replay too much.

I am interested to see how SW:TOR will handle things. I've raid that they want to create choices that last through the game. No quick load function except releveling so every choice will matter.

I suspect that most players will be playing with a walkthrough next to them to be sure not to make any mistakes. I probably will.
'scripted dance where the skill is only that you have to do x action at time y to win' can be fun.

This is exactly that Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero/Rockbank is build on.
You say this applies to all MMORPGs, but I think it is actually very specific to the game design and culture of WoW: long open betas, fixed raid numbers, powerful class-specific abilities, lack of in-server competition, plus the population to support the development of high-quality detailed strats.

In other games with serious PvE raiding (mainly EQ and eq2, possibly AoC) it's much more likely that the strategy will be worked out on the fly than downloaded from YouTube and assigned as homework.
Much as I respect Raph Koster it seems to me that his Theory of Fun has been disproven.

Solving challenges may be fun for Raph, it may even be fun for old school gamers taken as a whole, but it is clearly not how the majority of players want to experience games.

We want to win all the time while facing the illusion of challenge.

That for most people is more fun than facing real challenges that might beat us.

To put it in the context of WoW raiding figuring out the tactics and tweaking your methods between wipes may be fun for the three people actively participating in the decision-making but it's horrible for the 22 who just do what they're told then wipe. And for that matter even the two or three leader types would usually rather get the boss dead than enjoy the mental challenge of figuring it out by repeatedly wiping.
When you save and reload, it's immediate. Well, maybe not immediate, but quick. Or at least quicker than having to run back from a res point after a wipe and then wait for 9 other people (or at worse 24 other people) do the same and gather themselves to do the encounter again. That's key, really. MMORPG boss encounters are more time consuming, and thus why the majority of people optimize "the fun out of the game." It's a time thing more than a challenge thing. In my opinion and experience, anyway.
...the beauty of the ptr...
Actually Blizzard stated about WoW "the game has matured" and then it seems they meant "yes, everyone knows boss strategies from PTR and various websites, and we adapt to the situation".

So this time "game as it's meant to be played" is both for players and for the developers the same - "players can, will and should come prepared, we tune around it".

The difference between single-player and MMO is also than MMO has embedded rule "you are meant to repeat this content", in single player you don't "grind the same dungeon", you just beat it and move on. Therefore in MMO "surprise" moves don't pair well with "content on farm" design. The value of surprise is low, since it diminishes with time, while you're still meant to be occupied with the same content.
Solving puzzles in a single player game, at your own pace is fun. Solving puzzles with 24 other people with all the time and coordination constraints that entails is not fun for a lot of people. That being said, the best guilds will never use Youtube guides for strategy, they will always create their own.

Another thing, Tobold, is that DA:O and singleplayer games generally have never offered complex tactical gameplay on the scale that WoW does. The smaller scale does account for it, sure, but the fights are easier and tactical options fewer.
Learning delays epics. After so many years of being told that the reward for hard content is more loot, many players have lost the intrinsic reward of beating hard content. They care only for the extrinsic reward of the loot.

It's a strange phenomenon in psychology, that you can actually make someone stop enjoying something by rewarding it because by doing so you shift reward expectations.

Now that loot is the main driver, the challenge is to get that loot as fast as possible. This means downing the boss on the first try and running 10000 heroics for badge gear and running the PTR and watching tankspot videos until when the live patch comes, you're sick of the fight but at least you can get the loot quickly.
I agree completely.

It seems a large part of the player base of games like WoW want to play the game in the most undemanding way possible e.g. requiring dungeon complete achievements and knowing the instance/raid before every getting an group/raid invite. I have suspected for a while that a lot of players like to do something else (e.g. watch TV) and play WoW.

Same thing with optimum class ratios in groups. Which is a shame some of my most entertaining instance/raid runs have been with completely random class combinations...
Ignoring the social aspects of MMOs, are we? Talking about "fun" in MMOs and single-player games as if they are homogeneous is a HUGE trap.

You play MMOs with other people. Your motivations are shaped significantly by those people. The way you approach an MMO is profoundly different from the way that you approach a single-player game for this reason. MMOs aren't focused on being most fun, they're focused on establishing an environment where your social motivations are continuously reinforced, preventing you from leaving the game. It's not about fun, it's about facilitating addiction.

No one has shown Raph's theory of fun to be wrong. His theory doesn't apply to MMOs where the majority of their players aren't playing for fun. Saying Raph's idea doesn't hold because of MMOs is like saying that Newtonian Mechanics don't hold because Halo's physics are wonky. You're testing the wrong thing and drawing a false analogy.
There are people who try to play WoW "the way it was meant to be played." From the "leet raider" perspective, they are just "slackers." I have found that RPers are more likely to play "the way it was meant to be played," if you can just get them out of the taverns!

because it's so enormously difficult to organize raid groups on good nights, and because the average WoW player is barely capable of executing a strategy they know beforehand let alone learning something from scratch.

The games you can learn from scratch are single-player games for a reason.
Totally agree with Felsir above.

Raiding is nothing like playing a solo RPG or adventure game. It's a team "sport" and the other members of the team depend on you knowing how to handle your abilities and at least having some awareness of the enemies abilites. It's not about exploration, it's about coordinating teamwork and knowing your role. Reading guides and watching videos IS the exploration.

I sure wouldn't be happy if we invited some guy to fill in on my softball team and he looked at the bats and said "What do I do with those?"
Hardcore raiding guilds do kabitz about strategy. They're often the ones writing the guides and shooting the videos that are so popular on youtube.

More casual raiding guilds will often use these videos but viewing the mechanics of a fight is a far cry from the sort of "simon says" approach to raiding you have in mind. Not only is there significant challenge in the execution, as you acknowledge, but there is also significant challenge in applying known solutions to your raid's makeup. Don't have monster DPS and a shaman? Well guess what, you're not going to be able to "zerg" Sartherion with three drakes. I've never been in a guild or raid where strategy didn't emerge from a morass of videos, website strategies, and guild experience with the encounter. Often each guild I pug with will have their house tricks/conventions to/for the fight and I will add those to my own store of knowledge for future raids.

Maybe you're right about the raiding environment more generally but my anecdotal experience on a low pop, low progress RP server is quite different.
I was in a guild that was raiding about the time ZG was around. The guildmaster was completely against reading strats online. Truly one of the most satisfactory achievements was coming up with a strat that was completely your own and downing a boss. The last time we did that as a group was Curator in Karazhan. Now if it takes more than 4-5 times people get fed up and leave.
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