Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Skyrim and challenge

I must say I enjoy discussing Skyrim, because by talking about that game is becomes really easy to point out the inconsistencies in people's beliefs about MMORPGs. There has been some discussion in the blogosphere about a comment Loque Nahak made on my blog: "I'm 11 hours into Skyrim, right now (level 9) and boy... coming from WoW it seems I've been playing a videogame for small children, really." But if you look at Skyrim from the point of view of a hardcore WoW raider, it is actually Skyrim which is a game for small children: There is no content in Skyrim which can not be achieved even by the worst "moron & slacker" from WoW. Skyrim has so many ways, from "clever tricks" to "god mode", to remove challenge from the game, that it is completely unthinkable that somebody could not have sufficient "leet skillz" to finish the game. The hardest part of Skyrim is learning to deal with the controls and interface in the first hour of the game.

To me that shows that a lot of the things that people have been saying about the necessity of challenging and inaccessible content in games like World of Warcraft is complete rubbish. In another comment Syl remarked that there is no "offline e-peen" which would prevent people from enjoying Skyrim with mods, or other challenge-reducing maneuvers. Challenge is simply not the point of Skyrim; the world and the stories in it (both pre-packed and emergent) are.

And of course the same thing can be achieved with a MMORPG. A Tale in the Desert (the 6th telling starts December 3rd), or Glitch are perfectly good examples of MMORPGs which are about the world and the stories in it (including those emerging from interaction with other players), and not about challenge. Everybody can play these games, without having to worry that an absence of leet skillz will lead to him being excluded from something, or worse, kicked out of his guild for under-performing. e-Peen is not a necessary component of a MMORPG.

Funnily enough a MMORPG designed not around a fixed challenge would actually be more likely to provide the right degree of challenge for everybody than the current design. If you design the MMORPG around the world and the stories, you can have players deliberately going to more dangerous areas, where the monsters are very hard to beat. Instead of having to nerf down all monsters in all leveling quests to the difficulty level which your least able players are still able to beat. It is only by balancing the fun out of MMORPGs that it becomes impossible to even try harder quests, because the game just hides them from you, because it doesn't want to offer you the bigger rewards linked to the harder quests already at lower levels. But if killing the mammoth becomes about killing the mammoth, and not about the reward on offer, that challenge can be on offer to anybody, regardless of level. And if it takes a lower level player half an hour of kiting that mammoth to kill it, it just makes for a better story than any "kill 10 mammoths" quest in other games. By balancing the rewards and risks, designers ended up having to create fixed challenge levels, which are either too hard or too easy for most players. The option to tune your own challenge to your abilities disappeared.

And the potential gains from removing the concept of MMORPG as a fixed challenge are enormous. Once you stop having to balance everything, stop making sure that all classes are exactly equal, stop worrying how this cool spell would unbalance this PvP battle or that raid encounter, you gain a huge freedom of designing the most incredible content. It is said that players optimize the fun out of games, but that phase is preceded by a design phase in which the developers already balanced most of the fun out of the game. If you make the game about challenge, you end up having to make sure that nobody can do anything really cool without having to go through a huge grind, because you need to make rewards proportional to the effort exerted. If you make a game about the world and the stories, you can have people just discover cool stuff, and provide them a grind-free memorable experience. Maybe one day we will actually get an "Elder Scrolls Online" game which provides such an experience.

You're kind of reminding me of what I loved about Everquest despite being an utterly non-uber player. Verant let us get away with all sorts of fun (though probably by accident mostly).
It never seems to occur to anyone - or is taken for granted - that there would be sufficiently enough people to actually support such an MMO. As you point out, we already have games like this. And outside of EVE, which has never broken even half a million subs, where is the demand for sandbox MMO content?

Skyrim sold great... on the consoles (230k Steam users Day 1, 7 million boxes overall). Has there been a successful MMO on consoles, outside maybe DCUO (which probably can't count as "successful")? Furthermore, the vast majority of the blogs musing on "Skyrim Online" say they wouldn't want to play it because other people ruin the experience. And would we still see activity after 500+ hours in this non-balanced experience, once what plot existed was consumed to the dregs?

No doubt there is an audience out there - people still play Ultima Online. But if you want AAA Skyrim production values, you need AAA number of subs for the long-haul. Few production companies are going to take the risk NOT catering to the audience that exists, rather than some potential, future audience.
Your use of A Tale in the Desert as an example of an MMO not being about e-peen is a little puzzling.

I'd have to argue that quite a few of the super-achiever types in ATITD are motivated by e-peen. Why would they get entrapped by a flax bidding war for the first microphone, or merrily invest hundreds of hours and resources in either a selfish goal like winning a Test first, eg. Obelisk, or a 'for all the land' goal like technology donation or a specialist contribution? For the fame, of course. Their name (or their guild's name) in the spotlights. Themselves as knowledge experts.

Thing is, ATITD is also a sandbox, with a dev that hardly bothers about "balance" so one can choose otherwise, other goals and work towards those. (With the introduction of levels though, one sees the beginnings of the more typical restrictive MMO system of unlocks.)

Once an MMO goes down that path, it's a never ending cycle of tweak and counter tweak. If one is lucky, there are many steps and gradations and options of playstyle along the ladder, creating viable choices of challenge vs reward, as well as an optimistically achievable path to look forward to progress along. (aka a very good themepark MMO)

More likely than not, human error or lack of time creates a lot of gaps in that ladder, leading to bitter complaints from -some- group of players or other.

I think the gradations like Rift's normal, T1 and T2 dungeons or City of Heroes' difficulty slider controling level and spawn sizes are pretty decent examples of players being able to choose (relatively) appropriate levels of challenge.

One thing they do lose is unpredictability. Then it becomes repetitive and mechanical and "grindy." This is something I think is quite well done in Skyrim, dungeons are populated by a range of mobs, most set to give you an appropriate challenge, but a few low-level throwaways for you to one-shot and feel like there was a difference between level 1 and 30.
I hope my quoted sentence "... coming from WoW it seems I've been playing a videogame for small children" was not misunderstood. I did not mean to offend anyone, of course: it's just I felt "different" while playing Skyrim after 4 years into WoW.

Right now, when I think about WoW gameplay I immediately think about "Dora the Explorer" cartoon. My son (5 years old) loves her (and loves Diego too, of course). I often watch the episodes with him and yes, sometimes I see strong analogies with WoW quests (or any FaceBook Zynga game, Adventure World in particular).

Skyrim -on the other hand- is a bit harder to understand and "feel". Horrible interface, no minimap, no visual clues of your status, no decent inventory, no clickable icons... nothing. Just you, the cursor and your health bar.

Skyrim quests, world and (virtual) people are tailored for a more mature audience, in my opinion. While my little son could already enjoy WoW (at least in its basics), I would never introduce him to most of the adventures offered by Skyrim. Not yet, at least.
I don't think you can conclude that because it's possible to avoid any challenge in Skyrim, by taking advantage of exploits, that challenge isn't a necessary part of the game; a lot of people will try to ignore the exploits in order to maintain some challenge. So the exploits have to sit on a core of reasonably challenging game play.

Many people who do use the exploits get a thrill (and think they are overcoming some challenge) from thinking they have been clever enough to put one over on the designers and they've beaten the game that way:

Making an inherently challenging game and then putting in ways to cheat it has long been a way of designing games. Although in Skyrim's case the exploits probably come more from it not being sufficiently cost effective to do all the testing that would be required to close the loopholes in such a flexible game.
I forgot to talk about the "perception of balance" in MMOs.

It is often far more important for a majority of players to perceive or have the illusion that an MMO is balanced and/or offers a fair play field.

Than for the MMO to be perfectly numerically or theoretically balanced.

There are far too many examples of designers leaning towards the latter balancing spreadsheets, and becoming absolutely boggled when the players are still unhappy.
I was writing a 'you're wrong' answer when I realized you might be on to something.

A TES Online following the guidelines of Skyrim adapted to a MMO environment would probably work if they based the payment model on Guild Wars.

Each iteration of the game would have it's servers and they would monetize on box sales and DLC sales, etc.

I don't know what would be the cost of adding network code and how the quest design for groups would work in the context of a major story arch but maybe SWOTOR will provide solutions to it.

In this model if some players ended the quests in less than 2 weeks then fine, they already bought the box.
I do think that a multiplayer aspect could add to the enjoyment of a game like Skyrim particularly if players took up the challenge and role played characters in the world. Wouldn't it be great if instead of wooden NPCs you could talk and trade with real humans?

The difficulty would be ensuring that players could not either maliciously or accidentally screw things up for everyone else. When you think that there is even an active griefing community in Minecraft you have to wonder if this is even possible without restricting the game too much.
That reminds me of the few players who did indeed care more about the stories and killing of creatures than the obtaining of loot. Anyone remember the old Faxmonkey videos? The one I remember best was back in vanilla, as a 60 mage he soloed one of the elite bronze drakes at the entrance to caverns of time, back when it took a group of 5 to kill them.

Unfortunately, Tobold, you're right: with the game designed to discourage such behavior, the few players pulling crazy tricks are in a very small niche. =/
It's funny how you brought this topic up, Tobold, i appreciate it. I've spent such a long discussion just 2 days ago with my better half who's currently enjoying Skyrim loads (but never enjoyed WoW. instead he's a die-hard FPS player). a thing that makes Skyrim so great, and that many MMOs currently still lack, is the complete freedom to play it however you like. there's room for everyone, you can adjust difficulty, you can use console commands or not, you can slay dragons or collect dresses.

either way, YOU decide how you want to enjoy the game, it's your choice. this is perfect customer orientation in a nutshell - it's what MMOs currently strive to improve on, but still dont quite manage, although the answer is so simple. give people ultimate freedom to adjust the game themselves. this is not so unheard of: in many areas of online gaming, clan-hosted FPS servers etc., players have been organizing and administrating their own gameplay for decades. why should this not work for MMORPGs? who defines what goes and what doesn't?

some of the comments I read the past few days on this matter, have shown me (and made me cringe in places) just how limited especially some (not all) WoW-players have become in their definition of online gaming. "where's the competetive raids?" "what about the AH?" "what about advantages and loots?" etc. that all?
There's huge potential in enjoying different gameplay, a vast world like Skyrim, where maybe the whole point is to enjoy yourself with a small group of friends. play cooperatively for the sake of adventure - not achievements, loot, or competition.
I can see it, pity if others cannot.

I'm now 36 hours into Skyrim, level 17 hunter/thief. The amount of uests, side-quests, stuff, ... is just insane.

Amazing, just amazing. Can't wait for the upcoming patch, I hope it will fix some glitches and bugs.
To replicate Skyrim's success as an MMO one should focus on two paradigms.

First, yes, the freedom of selecting my own challenge. That we already have in EVE, doing fun things just for the sake of doing them, and not for some arbitrary XP points.

The other thing is managing the player interactions. If you want to avoid EVE-like atmosphere, you'd need to make the player's engage in cooperative activities, with conflict being an extension of an in-game conflict only.

IDEA: The problem in EVE is that everyone is a scoundrel and NPCs are the only good guys. If it would be profitable and convenient to live in a city and build/develop in it, there would soon be protectors of the city and trade routes that would balance out the ganker bandits, and the cities would flourish.
In theory, you can play a game like WoW in this way. Duo (or, if you're a death knight, solo) bosses in old content, work on difficult to get titles and achievements (related to cooking, fishing, archaeology, etc.) try to obtain rare pets as a hunter, collect pretty armour sets. If you truly don't care about your social standing in the world, or your character's combat capacity in absolute terms, it can become quite liberating, even in a theme park MMO. But that's a gift only you can give yourself, not count on developers to do so.

Generally, the moment challenge and any reward at all (even 'unlocking' exploration) is introduced to a group of people, competition will arise. It's inevitable. It would happen with an unbalanced MMO, where the min-maxers would simply select the most powerful path (like the little bit of monster-scale metagaming you yourself did), attack the most impressive mammoth, and kill it to progress their story quicker/in a more impressive direction.

It's the lesser of two evils to standardise competition and channel it explicitly through game design.
The only reason for challenge in a MMO is its longevity. And I prefer gating by challenge to gating by daily limits.

But otherwise challenge is overrated. The only people who feel differently are those players and developers who play the game for a very, very long time and often many hours a day.

Generally you want to have self-balancing systems in a MMO, like the one you mentioned.
I'm not exactly sure what you are trying to say. you go from one point of view to the other in the same article.

But here are a couple of issues. God mode in Skyrim is a cheat. Almost all games have cheats including MMO's. They were not designed to be played that way at all and therefore should not be brought into any argument over the challenge level of a game.

Which brings me to the main point. Define challenge? See you can't because it is based on each individuals definition. So sol games have difficulty sliders and games like Skyrim have mods and alternative ways to complete quests. BTW alternative quest resolutions does NOT take away from a challenge. It supports other play styles. Not everyone wants to be a fireball mage.

Just look at all the arguments over Blizz doing raid nerfs. Or making it easy to level etc etc. In a MMO the company has to set the difficulty for all players. In a solo based game you set your own difficulty. If you don't think its a challenge then just look in the mirror because YOU had control over that aspect of the game. And this is why MMO's will NEVER be challenging for all players all the time. It's just impossible to do.
"To me that shows that a lot of the things that people have been saying about the necessity of challenging and inaccessible content in games like World of Warcraft is complete rubbish."

I don't think any observation about Skyrim, which isn't a MMORPG, can prove that something said about an MMORPG is rubbish.

See also: Guild Wars 2, which will have the same payment model of GW1 and seeks to balance the group/story aspect with personalized instances plus dynamic, open-world events.
The reason you are confused is the specific frame of mind you are in, Goodmongo.

It's as if somebody said, "We should raise taxes for the rich and cut back on social welfare". Some people would be confused about this, because they couldn't tell whether this is "socialism" or not.

You should try to take posts for what they are, Goodmongo, instead of trying to figure out whether they are pro-Skyrim or contra-Skyrim ;)
Tobold, from what I understand, you are saying that the world and story are what people are really looking for. I think you're mostly correct. However, I also believe people are seeking meaningful choice in combat...but it may or may not be possible in an MMORPG.

MMORPG for combat-based games is somewhat of a misnomer to me. Traditionally "role playing" games had, as a feature, the ability to make meaningful choices. Take a little-known game like Arcanum (a single player game), for example. The choices you made put you further down the spectrum toward attunement with magic versus technology. The more magic ability you had, the less the technology gear would work for you. The more technology ability you had, the less magic gear would work for you. It was a continuous spectrum so you could choose where you wanted your character to end up. Half magic, half technology was a tenable "spec," and your choices prevented you from taking advantage of certain objects or storylines in the game.

Another aspect of role playing games was (and is) different paths resulting in different stories and different gear, attunements, etc. WoW had this in TBC with the choice between the Scryers and the Aldor. This choice, however, became mostly obsolete once you progressed to the end game. And even then, depending on what class and build you were going for, there was the theoretical best choice based on what gear became available through that faction. Even WoW's Alliance versus Horde decision is mostly just about what side the best players on that server play on.

In single player game like Skyrim, however, it may actually be possible because there is no net loss if you do not choose "teh l33test spec," like in an MMORPG. What is the point of "clever tricks" and "god mode" in Skyrim, for example, if you're not really creating an advantage over another actual person? To get through the content faster? Ha. People typically want expansive gameplay and replayability in a single player game. God mode is fun for exactly 1.5 seconds.

Personally, I tend to make a single player game challenging on purpose. (I would NEVER do this in an MMORPG because it doesn't matter and nobody would play with an undergeared rogue with lvl 81 daggers in WoW, for example.) Making the combat difficult is part of the "story" to me, and better immerses me in the game. In Skyrim, all you have to do is put it to the hardest mode and you already have a somewhat challenging combat game. If the combat gets too easy, just don't get the next best gear or perk or level up alchemy rather than destruction magic, for example. There is enough variation in Skyrim to make it difficult for any person, regardless of their skill level. (Cue flame war now.)
Goodmongo just said it a lot better than I just tried to do. ;)

There is way to give players control over difficulty in an MMO. Tobold even gave a few examples. Even in a themepark MMO, it shouldn't be hard to give players a "slider" for difficulty that also scales loot appropriately.

For a game like WoW this would definitely take some work going back through all the dungeons and raids to add some more difficulty controls. In a new MMO designed to work this way, it would be pretty easy.
@thander - Yes, pretty much what ANet are doing. GW2 will have two difficulty levels for the harder 5 man dungeon content. The first time through is easy mode, but on subsequent runs you can choose hard (apparently very hard) mode. Sounds like a good way of doing it.
"GW2 will have two difficulty levels for the harder 5 man dungeon content. The first time through is easy mode, but on subsequent runs you can choose hard (apparently very hard) mode."

That's basically the WoW model, until they corrupted it. Granted the rules for entering heroics were different (except for Magister's Terrace, which was exactly like you describe), but the principle of max-level heroics vs normals was supposed to be like that. (Some normals were for lower levels obviously.)
Or, to give players control of difficulty in an MMO, just take away all the level limits. If I go to Tanaris when I'm level 10 all the quests should be there for me to try. If I go to elwynn forest at level 20 all the quests show up. Take away the artificial limits that make it so a level 40 character can't hit a level 60 monster and vice versa.

Then take away the player number limits. If you want to go into blackwing descent with 5 people or with 40 people then go nuts. If you need to bring in seven or eight people to take down a heroic dungeon then do so.

Scale rewards if you must. Put in achievements for beating things with the "right" number of people to give people something to shoot for. Let everyone know how hard you thought it was suppose to be.

Just because there is a fixed world doesn't mean there are fixed challenges. In the real world, winning the marathon at the Olympics is a very hard, but for most people just finishing a marathon at all would be a massive challenge - and you don't even get any loot. Somehow our fixed world and fixed laws of physics allow us to all find challenges for ourselves. A video game world can be the same.
Any chance you'll be play ATITD again this telling, Tobold? Jongo and I plan on playing for at least the first month, and we'd love to be neighbors again.
Sorry, the timing of this telling is unfortunate. I have too many games to play, and too little time to play them.
Completely understood! I plan to have Skyrim running on the PS3 and ATITD macros picking grass for camel straw (glutons!) running on the laptop.
the thing holding back skyrim from being a perfect game is the complete lack of challenge. if it was challenging, i'd put in 1000 hours. As is, im done after 20. (beat the final boss on accident, didn't realize I was finished)
I am curious, are people playing on default difficulty? If that's too easy for you try master.

If that is still not a challenge do master and final death - ie, if you die, game over. Scrap the character. You'll be surprised how it changes your play through.

Also, wow & Skyrim are dramatically different in gameplay. One in loves watching the UI the other involves watching animations. If Skyrim added cool downs it would become more difficult. I ould hate it though.
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