Tobold's Blog
Monday, July 05, 2010
Designing games for n00bs

I suck at first-person-shooter games. There is a long list of reasons for that, starting with having a not uncommon condition that some first-person view 3D games cause me video game motion sickness. That plus my preference for strategy and role-playing games meant I never played a lot of FPS games, so mostly I'm bad because of lack of practice. Being in my mid-40s, and thus ancient by FPS gamer standards, probably doesn't help either.

Nevertheless I spent a thoroughly enjoyable evening yesterday, playing Bioshock 1 for several hours. I simply turned the difficulty level to easy, and with Bioshock not being a hardcore shooter to start with, I had no problems, in spite of lack of skill. I do like exploring Rapture, and following the story of Jack being caught up in the battle between Ryan and Fontaine. And I do like the "role-playing" aspects of learning new plasmids and tonics. And as long as I play Bioshock when rested and fit, I don't even get motion sickness. Bioshock is a very n00b-friendly game. But people who are already good at first-person-shooters can crank up the difficulty level and still have fun.

That got me to wonder why not all video games are designed n00b-friendly. There are quite a lot of games which basically assume that you have played similar games before, so they are light on the tutorial part, and the difficulty level is more appropriate for veterans than for players new to the genre. And then of course multiplayer games, even if they are PvE, usually don't have a choice of difficulty settings.

There is a common definition of "expert" as somebody who has 10,000 hours of practice, which would make many of use experts in video games, at least for our favorite genres. It is inevitable that an expert will enjoy different things in a game than a n00b, and need a different level of challenge. But that causes a big problem for game design from a business point of view: The video game experts are more likely to have heard of a new game and buy it, but the n00bs are far more numerous. And of course there are lots of people somewhere in between as well.

I think it is a mistake to design games that only target just one of these groups. Extreme hardcore games only attract a small number of players, and extremely casual games can't hold players for long enough: While playing that casual game, players become more expert at it, and then become bored when there is no depth behind it. Thus for example Farmville player numbers are already declining fast. The perfect game has all the depth needed to keep an expert interested in it for a long time, but offers a good tutorial and not too steep learning curve for the new players.

And I think the ability to crank up the difficulty is essential, which is something that isn't very well solved in MMORPGs. More often than not in MMORPGs, the level of complexity and difficulty for solo content peaks shortly after the newbie zones, and remains flat until the level cap. People who want more complex gameplay need to switch from solo to group content, either PvE or PvP, which has a bunch of organizational problems, and leads to a lot of problems of players of very different skill levels being paired either with each other for PvE or against each other in PvP.

So although there are a lot of naysayers just proclaiming "that would never work" without any evidence, I would really like to see some MMORPG experiment with servers of different difficulty levels. I think both PvE and PvP would be better if players were a bit more seggregated by skill levels. There could even be a separate common server for new characters, where players would play through the early levels of the game, and finish with some sort of solo challenge, which would measure their skill and then propose them a difficulty level, a bit like Call of Duty Modern Warfare does. And while of course there will always be people who won't listen to that recommendation and either overestimate their abilities or prefer less challenge, I think overall that system could work very well to give everybody a game which is more fun, because it is more closely adapted to differences in individual skill levels.
I see where you're coming from, but then that could cause problems on its own - if your player who likes less of a challenge chooses an 'easy' server, would that not give him the opportunity to simply gank everyone he comes across, simply because he can, thus making other players' lives a misery?

Other than that, the idea is a good one :)
I've been asking this question for years.

We have all kinds of special rule-set servers in various MMOs and forums are awash with people complaining that their MMO is too hard/too easy/too complicated/dumbed down. Yet no-one ever seems to connect the dots.

Offline games almost always have a difficulty setting that the user can select. That would be challenging, although not, I think, impossible to replicate in an MMO. Setting difficulty by server, however, would be relatively simple. It would also not be beyond the realm of possibility to allow characters to transfer between servers as the player becomes more expert.

There are many problems with making difficulty settings work in an MMO, but no more than there are with many, many other aspects of the genre. Developers blithely continue trying to make PvP work in PvE games and vice versa, or to balance two dozen classes, or make solo, group and raid play equally attractive. Variable difficulty levels should be no more nor less achievable than any of these holy grails.
City of Heroes allows you to set your own difficulty by talking to a special NPC - and the difficulty ranges from faceroll to absolute nightmare. The harder the difficulty, the more honour (the ingame "currency) you get.

Worked quite well for me, but I hadn't had the oppertunity to try it out in group content yet. But City of Heros usually is very good at getting people of different skill/level to play together (much, much better than WoW), so I'm sure they fixed that too.

The only reason I'm not playing CoH anymore is because it became very boring very quickly. The quests always been the same.
What a silly idea, Tobold. Besides, you already have that. You have normal and heroic instances, hard modes, etc.

What about different levels for a World Cup? You know, putting some teams no 'Easy' level and others on the 'Difficult' level.
Treeston, you seem to be confusing World of Warcraft with a PvP game. MMORPGs like WoW, LotRO, CoH, EQ, ... are not at all like a World Cup, because they aren't competitive at all.
Well, they are competitive for the regular player. There is always some guild aiming for world's first kill of boss X.

Even for the regular player, and since it's a MMO game, you can't have different levels of difficulty without having the players of the Hard servers laughing at the players of the Easy serves which would be, i guess, mostly empties - who wants to admit that the game is too difficult for them to handle?

I can accept what we already have (Heroic modes, ICC buff, normal and heroic instances) but creating different servers for that is silly. It would cause different problems, as already appointed, and wouldn't solve anything.
Well, they are competitive for the regular player. There is always some guild aiming for world's first kill of boss X.

By definition your two phrases contradict each other. There are maybe 200 players out of 20,000 per server competing for world's first kill of boss X, that is 1%. The other 99% of what *I* would call regular players don't play these games competitively at all.

And saying that nobody would play on easy is like saying nobody would play single-player games on easy, which is obviously false. I do, and so do millions of other players. Because in the end playing the game at the appropriate difficulty level is more important than what a 16-year old snotty teenager with a leet complex thinks of your performance in a video game.
This trend of designing games for newbies and casuals prevents good RTS games from being made. Relic (creators of one of the best RTSes released in the past five years, Company of Heroes) stated that they wouldn't make an enough money from another game in the more-hardcore Company of Heroes style, and instead have to make more casual-friendly games like Dawn of War 2 that are more spam and flash and less substance and balance.

Turn-based games have seen a similar fate. TBSes are not particularly newb-friendly and they aren't flashy and eye-grabbings, so companies have stopped making them. Now you see only a few TBSes released per year.

It's very disappointing to see such promising genres sacrificing their depth and substialness at the altar of the casual.
"By definition your two phrases contradict each other. There are maybe 200 players out of 20,000 per server competing for world's first kill of boss X, that is 1%. The other 99% of what *I* would call regular players don't play these games competitively at all."

Yes, i meant "aren't". They *aren't* competitive for the regular player.

"And saying that nobody would play on easy is like saying nobody would play single-player games on easy, which is obviously false."

Do i have to tell you that there's a big difference between playing single player games and a MMO?

(by the way, what about quicksaves and checkpoints in MMO?)
I loved the way bioshock 2 was easy enough for anyone to play on the lowest setting, moderately challenging on medium and a freaking nightmare on bard. One of the few gamesmibe played that got their difficulty setting correct.
Tobold, how do you feel about what Champions Online and Star Trek Online have done recently, which is add a difficulty slider?

On normal the game is fairly easy and can be played quite casually. You can ramp up the difficulty to make it harder, and to get better rewards. Its similar to heroic/non heroic stuff, I suppose, but you can do it for individual missions, solo content, and so forth.

Do you think that is a reasonable solution?
"but you can do it for individual missions"

Because solo missions are so hard in these days.
Do you think that is a reasonable solution?

Yes. But there can't be too many different settings, because otherwise finding a group at exactly your difficulty setting becomes too hard.
Well, you can change the difficulty slider at any time, so it doesn't segment the player base really. If you are in the mood for a harder challenge, or can't find a group at the difficulty you want, you can change it up on the fly. Also, there are only 3 settings currently, normal, hard, hardest.
Because solo missions are so hard in these days.

But that is exactly the point!!! If there is only one difficulty level, you MUST make solo missions easy enough for everybody to be able to accomplish them. That inevitably ends you up with the lowest common denominator.

As soon as you introduce variable difficulty level, you can keep the current level as the *lowest* difficulty level, and make solo missions between somewhat harder and damn-near impossible hard for the higher difficulty levels.

Thus *you* wouldn't be quite as bored any more. Or, just as well, you would at least have to stop whining that the game is too easy for you.
"you MUST make solo missions easy enough for everybody to be able to accomplish them"

And here's the difference between solo games and MMO. Right?

Besides, if the quest is too easy, go and do quests 5 levels above you - not so easy, hm? Think outside the box. And, above all, who would chose the hard level if the majority of the players just wants to reach max level? Unless you're talking about raids which already have a difficulty setting (buffs, heroic modes). In this case, and only in this case, i agree with you and your problems with FPS-style (fast reactions etc.) applied to the boss fights.
Kind of wandered off the point here. Most MMOs already have a wealth of easy/normal/hard options for instanced missions and zones. That's not really the issue.

The point is to have the entire game available at a range of difficulties by setting the difficulty at a server level. Within each server environment the difficulties of the easy/normal/hard instances would still exist, but relative to the overall difficulty of the server.

As for whether people would play on an "Easy" server, of course they would. I would. I couldn't give a flying fig for whether what I'm doing in an MMO is "competetive" or not. Just whether it amuses me.
People can already choose their diffulty.
-> Arena's: the difficulty is chosen for you to match your own strength!
-> Grinding. Having difficulties? Pick a zone with green mobs. Too easy? Go grind orange mobs.
-> Instances. Pick the default difficulty or non-heroic modes.

Plenty of difficulty sliders you can adjust in WoW.
The problem with 'just go grind orange mobs/quests' is that the rewards are not remotely better enough to justify the effort. In addition, it makes it much more difficult/impossible to follow the storylines and lore which is a big deal for some players. People would like to do a quest on hardmode for double exp even if it takes a long time because it does not disrupt the overall experience.

Preserving the flow and lore of the quests and zones is important from Blizzard's standpoint, though that is probably moreso for casual players and much less so for hardcore folks. I expect that the amount of effort and money that would be needed to revamp every mob/quest to several difficulty settings would be prohibitive, but it would be a great feature if it were feasible.

Sky -
For the "solo" part of a game, such as leveling up, crafting, etc, why not have a difficulty slider? It isn't really affecting other players, so you aren't able to take advantage of someone.

For any part of the game that has you working with others, just make sure that everyone has the same difficulty level, or you can't work together.

i.e. To join a Battleground, Arena team, or Raid group, everyone must have the same difficulty setting selected, or you can't join the group. With world PvP, a different difficulty level means that neither character can kill each other. Etc.

I'm not sure how well this type of MMO would be received, but it wouldn't be hard to actually implement, or hard to define what does and doesn't get affected by the difficulty setting.

In a way, with normal and heroic dungeons, and level requirements, this type of "difficulty" setting already exists. The only thing it would change would be the solo game experience, and would prohibit someone not on "easy" from ganking someone who is on "easy". Hell, some games already have that, whether there be a level restriction on ganking, or servers that are solely PvE.

So..."easy" mode sort of already exists and could be made for just the solo game: questing, crafting. Why not?
I would pick an easy server for an MMO because: 1) it lets me play with friends who are new to the game or wanting to try it out, 2) I don't have to work as hard to experience all the content, and 3) it separates me from all the leet/skilled players who don't want to play with me anyway.

World-first achievements could be limited to the normal/hard servers, or they could be tracked differently by server type. So a world-first kill on an easy server would be like a trophy for Little League baseball or maybe a medal in the Special Olympics. That's totally fine with me, because I'd rather put most of my energy into work and family, and just blow off steam occasionally in an MMO.
Your post today really struck a chord, Tobold. My wife has actually started venturing into playing FPS games after enjoying Fallout 3 she has completed STALKER, Bioshock 1 and 2, and plays them on easy.

She didn't grow up playing Wolfenstein, DOOM, and other shooter - girls aren't encouraged to play these kind of games growing up, but Bioshock and other 'shooters' today offer fantastic stories and absorbing worlds.

The fact is these games are for entertainment, and the demographic is going towards professionals, working families, and other adults - not teenagers with uber reflexes.

After a long day at work it can be nice to have a relaxing experience that meets the level of challenge you want, to see content, not be frustrated by repeating the same difficult sequence over and over.
How about the idea of increasing rewards for higher level and/or elite mobs? As others have mentioned, the ability to take on monsters above your level can act as a built-in difficulty slider. The problem is the incentives in most games don't encourage players to do that.
I'd call it "Games for demanding gamers" ;)
And I agree!

I, too, would like harder games. To those who think that a hard game cannot be relaxing: That really depends on the person, I guess.

Some people like to sit in front of TV after work until they get to sleep. Others prefer a match of chess with a good friend.

90% of the time, I prefer the match of chess and I don't like to change the rules of a game myself to make it artificially hard (although I sometimes do this).

In general, a game consists of the hardware (board/computer..) and rules.

So, I already payed money for good rules!
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