Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, September 04, 2012
 
On the difficulty of difficulty

It is extremely difficult to discuss the difficulty of MMORPGs. Somebody involved in the design of one of the early MMORPGs decided that because it was a persistent multiplayer game, a MMORPG should not have variable difficulty like a single-player game. Instead we got different activities in the same game, each with its own difficulty. Any phrase that starts with "The difficulty of this game ..." is automatically wrong, because there simply isn't *one* difficulty to discuss, but many.

Difficulty is generally a weak point of MMORPGs, and one that is debated a lot, because there is something like an individual perfect difficulty level. If the game is exactly challenging without being neither trivially easy nor frustratingly hard, it maximizes your fun. Only that of course your perfect difficulty level is different from the difficulty level of the next guy.

My main complaint of difficulty in World of Warcraft over the years is the lack of consistency, and the increasing gap between difficulty of the leveling game and difficulty of the "endgame". The leveling game wasn't hard to start with, and has been made easier over the years to cater to a special population of people who hate leveling and would like it to be over as fast as possible. Thus we are now at a point where my wife, who is an extremely casual player who has to ask me for help for every jumping puzzle or vehicle quest considers leveling in World of Warcraft as being boring because it has become too easy. She is complaining that she is leveling too fast, everything feels rushed. And the mobs drop like flies even if you only use a single button for combat. And then you do that for 85 (soon 90) levels, and suddenly you are supposed to be able complicated dance moves in heroic dungeons and raids. When nothing during those 85 levels even remotely demanded similar skills than those demanded in the endgame. You can get a tank to max level without ever taunting, or a healer to max level without ever healing. And then everybody is surprised that it is hard to find good tanks and healers at the level cap. Blizzard is constantly fiddling with the difficulty level of the heroics and raids, when in fact what they would need to do is to make the game before the level cap prepare players to whatever they planned for after it. If it was true that people wanted such an easy leveling game (and I doubt it is), then the logical consequence would be to make the endgame as trivial. If a challenging endgame was driving sales (which is possible), then the rest of the game should lead up to that instead of being trivial.

Phantasmagoria wrote me with a comment remarking that both The Secret World and Guild Wars 2 appear to have adapted a different model. The leveling game in both of these MMORPGs is considerably harder than in World of Warcraft. And at least in the case of Guild Wars 2 that doesn't appear to have had any negative impact on sales. I would say the difficulty of the leveling game in GW2 is a lot closer to the optimal fun level of the average player than it is in WoW. What remains to be seen is how that leveling game leads up to the endgame. Both the events and the PvP I have seen up to now I would categorize as "unstructured" group play, basically a chaotic zerg where you don't watch or care what the guy next to you does. It will be interesting to see how difficult a more structured group play will be. Up to now it appears Guild Wars 2 has a better grasp on difficulty than World of Warcraft. Let's hope it doesn't recreate the same stupid gap where 90+% of the player base are excluded from the endgame due to difficulty.

Having said that, it appears that progress is being made on the idea that maybe variable difficulty is possible in MMORPGs. Blizzard is experimenting with the concept in Mists of Pandaria, offering challenge modes for those who desire more challenge. One day some company will have the brilliant idea of making a simple difficulty selector "easy - normal - hard - impossible" for any type of content in their MMORPG, just like many single-player games have, and if they will make a killing if their game is otherwise as good as the others. There really is no good reason to force everybody into the same difficulty level.

Comments:
And at least in the case of Guild Wars 2 that doesn't appear to have had any negative impact on sales.

Why would it? Difficulty problems only show up in the data for sustained play, not initial sales.

The notion that harder leveling content will prepare people for endgame is dubious. Endgame participation wasn't higher in Vanilla or BC compared to Wrath, even though Wrath had easier leveling. What controls endgame participation is the endgame.

Blizzard's attempt to appease the hardcore by making difficult endgame content has been self defeating. It divided those capable of handling the hard content into two groups: those willing to ditch friends and segregate themselves into the elite, and those unwilling to do so. The former isolate themselves from the rest of the player base, which becomes less effective as a result. The latter eventually become frustrated and drift away.
 
I'm reminded once more that leveling in the BC starting zones helps you out with basic concepts (such as not standing in the bad in the troll catacombs in Ghostlands) that the redesigned starting zones don't seem to help you with so much.

Going from a relatively easy leveling experience, such as WoW, to a hard one like Age of Conan, can be a bit of a shock to the system. Mobs that swarm you are a surprise, as well as mobs that hit so hard that more than one at a time is instant death.

I sometimes wonder if WoW is doing the MMO community a disservice by making the leveling game so easy. Of course, they probably figure that's the only way to get a new player to even want to make it to 90 levels.
 
It's not exactly what you're talking about, but there's an upcoming indy mmo, the Repopulation that will offer the option to choose classic mmo style play or active play, where you are required to aim, dodge etc. Looks promising.

 
"Both the events and the PvP I have seen up to now I would categorize as "unstructured" group play, basically a chaotic zerg where you don't watch or care what the guy next to you does. It will be interesting to see how difficult a more structured group play will be."

The question is if there is any stuctured group play at all, pve wise.
GW2 and the dynamic events lack the ability to exclude certain players that are either unable to perform or are willingly sabotaging progress.

Yesterday I was in the Harathi Hinterlands. The zone boss/event chain ends with the boss trying to summon an earth elemental. The difficulty is that you have to wait for the summon to complete while the hands are attackable. The summon fails if the hands are killed.
The whole zone chat revolves around the fact that you should not touch the hands but needless to say that there are a few individuals that either don't read the chat or get their joy from griefing the event.

I don't know if the summon is just a gimmick and is always doomed to fail or not but I would like to find that out by waiting and observing what happens.

I would prefer the ability to kick those who are unable to follow orders.
 
Choices are always a good thing. Difficulty of a choice should in theory be accorded an appropriate award. The problem with most MMOs is a very narrow vertical progression path. There is no choice, or no options worth considering as to make them viable. Easier choices should either have lower payoffs or require more time and/or less money.

For games that are not only about item level, such as Eve where you a player has many paths , this is not a problem.


 
EVE Online do this pretty good. The first "quests" are similar to the last one in their respective difficulty.
 
I certainly agree with the analysis of WoW and how damaging to the game the ridiculous ease of leveling has been.

I think difficulty modes are a contentious 'feature' for an MMO to implement. Of course DDO has had them since launch in 2005 - but are they not a developers trick for easy to make 'content'? Why bother adding new instances if you can add a new difficulty rating to existing content by upping health pools and maybe adding a new attack move on boss encounters?

Personally I'd rather Blizzard add new dungeons than convert old ones to new heroic mode versions.
 
Choices can be a bad thing. People can easily subvert their own enjoyment of a game by making choices that reduce challenge.

As for WoW, it's become a top-heavy monster, but how do you fix it? Half the content needs to be thrown away or recycled as alternative levelling paths. But doing that might be as much work as building a new MMORPG.
 
I'm not sure if structured end game content is part of GW2. Do they have instances for end game pve? Without the trinity structure, I would expect even end game is a disorganized zerg.
 
I am surprised no one mentioned this yet, but City of Heroes has the exact difficulty slider you're talking about (in addition to scaling missions by group size). That was one of the many features that other games should have been stealing, especially if you have limiters like GW2.
 
As for WoW, it's become a top-heavy monster, but how do you fix it?

Well the easy fix (i.e. the current solution) is to just shuttle everyone to the top so that while it's technically "top-heavy", the top isn't all too far away. It's not a wholly bad solution, especially for the hardcore who don't care for the levelling game. It's just a solution that spirals into creating an even more top-heavy game and has no escape.
 
When describing the difference between TSW and GW2's combat, I've always kind of wanted to suggest that GW2's feels kind of... spammy.

But that's sort of misleading, because the actual button presses of TSW are also very 'spammy'. You will be spamming the same attack over and over again out of 7... but it just feels like the difference is that in GW2, you're far more likely for another player to jump in and the mob's threat to go crazy random, whereas things are a touch more predictable and controlled in TSW. Which is just as well, because the mobs in TSW are harder.

Once you have combos and synergies set up (and practically required for some mobs), the combat feels more... deliberate.
 
deliberate

that's a key word for the feel of TSWs combat..


 
Well, the reason some people hate leveling is because it is made up of about 10 different quests you have to do 1000 times in a variety of forms. T

WoW got a lot better about adding quests that are just fun or different as things went along, but I dare anyone to tell me that the original Westfall zone was anything but a dreary slog for pig livers and murlock eyes. Most zones were more or less like that. It took me around 20 days to level my first WoW toon to 60 (I did pretty much everything you weren't supposed to do because I didn't know any better).

That's way too long. 10 days, which is what it took with no rest XP, is too long. It wasn't too hard, it was too long.

And of course when you are on your fourth or fifth max level character, rerunning the same crap that was pretty boring the first time isn't any fun.

So that's the perspective from that special group that hates leveling. I think we have some pretty legitimate points.
 
Well, the reason some people hate leveling is because it is made up of about 10 different quests you have to do 1000 times in a variety of forms.

So you'd much rather do the endgame which is made up of about 10 different boss abilities you have to do 1000 times in a variety of forms?
 

So you'd much rather do the endgame which is made up of about 10 different boss abilities you have to do 1000 times in a variety of forms?


And that is precisely the problem with MMOS.

But yeah, because at least with those you are doing them with people.
 
Spamming will get you nowhere in later GW2 levels or quality PvP.

Example: if you mindless spam while the enemy has retaliation up you'll learn sooner or later.

There is a good reason the first dungeon is for level 30.

Also, GW2 has combos just as well but they're not advertised as such. What I like about them is that they make logical sense to work the way they do once you figured them out. The puzzle element also works.

As far as I am concerned though it is cumbersome to find the combinations in TSW as well (no, not the CP and their finishers that is as simple as playing a feral druid; the synergies)
 
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