Tobold's Blog
Thursday, May 29, 2014
Asymmetric games and challenge

I was born in the pre-personal computer era, so as a child I played games like chess or Monopoly. And those games were symmetrical: Every player had exactly the same starting condition, and who won was determined by some combination of luck and skill, depending on the game. The early computer games often emulated that, or at least pretended to, where you would be playing a game against a computer opponent who was subject to the same rules as you were. Then quickly it turned out that artificial intelligence didn't develop all that fast and with games getting more complex the computer couldn't keep up against human opponents. So the computer was first programmed to cheat, and at some point devs gave up all pretense and gave the computer a completely different rule-set than the human player. Games became more and more asymmetrical.

MMORPGs brought the concept of persistent characters, and that concept migrated to other types of games; that migration was helped by the fact that it is harder to pirate a game with an online account. But it also brought more sources of asymmetry: Even if you play against human opponents, today you frequently don't have the same starting condition. There are many different systems of gaining levels, experience points, skills, or gear. And there are different systems on how to acquire those, from grinding to pulling out your wallet and buying them. But the end result is that one player might well have superior stats to another player in a game, and at equal skill and luck the players' chance to win isn't equal any more.

Skill and luck today are joined by a third factor: Determination. If you are more determined to win than the next guy, there usually are ways to do so. That might be a 3 a.m. keep attack or just organizing a larger number of players in a PvP game. It might be grinding endlessly for an advantage. Or it might be spending more money to advance faster. And more and more determination has become the overwhelming factor in many games, with skill and luck taking a back seat. That isn't limited to PvP games. PvE games also frequently present you with a series of computer opponents that get harder and harder, and you need to grind or pay to get stronger to beat them.

The problem of that is that games tend to be fun only in a medium range of challenge. If your opponent is far too easy, fun without challenge is limited. If he is impossible to beat, the game just gets frustrating. PvE games use the frustration of harder opponents to try to entice you to play more (or pay more). In PvP games a sort of arms race between players develops more naturally, but with the same effect. And at some point the motivation breaks down, because either the opponents don't get more challenging fast enough, or they advance much faster than you and become frustrating. For most reasonable people the determination to win a game has natural limits, because there are more important things in life. If they can't keep up with the people for who for some reason winning the game is their top priority in life, or if the game presents them with incredibly hard opponents, they just quit. There are so many different games around today that it is easy to find a new game if your level of determination can't keep up with the old game.

I would like a lot of games more if the challenge level and its slope wasn't fixed by the game or the other players, but could be modified by me. I'd love harder combat while leveling in MMORPGs. And there are a bunch of games where I found the game fun enough, but considered the design decision to make the game incredibly hard to be either misguided, or a plump attempt to get me to pay to win. A lot of games could be improved a lot by introducing variable difficulty. Challenge in asymmetric games is by definition arbitrary, and if we can't go back to symmetric games, we should at least have a better control over the arbitrary level of challenge.

Asymmetric games didn't start with the Internet. For example, there are traditional games like Fox And Geese. And many sports are quasi-asymmetric in that players take turns on asymmetric sides (e.g. Cricket).

"A lot of games could be improved a lot by introducing variable difficulty." Sure they could. But that would conflict significantly with current F2P models. This is one of the reasons so many of don't like them.

Certainly there are ways variable difficulty can be incorporated in F2P games. But it's a lot harder to do much with it than under other sales models.
It used to be that a PvE MMO put the ultimate control of difficulty in the hands of the players by allowing them to choose at what 'level' to accept challenges. If the quest or target NPC is too difficult at your current level, just come back when you've leveled up and you'll find the challenge to have moderated.

This is true whether you're talking about character level, or gear ilevel, or the number of players on a team.

This is the drawback of autoscaling (in GW2, for example). That basic mechanism has been taken out of the hands of the players, and the game always decides what the level of difficulty will be.

Flattening the leveling curve, making leveling quicker, has the reverse effect. It's hard to find enough orange quests to keep the game engaging.
While there is some truth into it, I don't fully agree with the comment about "choosing the orange quests" because artificial walls put by the game come up pretty quickly. I don't know if this mechanics has been changed but in WoW vanilla, a monster 3 level above had a 25% miss chance added on top. 4 level above was 50% miss chance and 5 level above was 75% miss chance. This made the difficulty exponential and doing a quest 4 level above was a question of luck only (if you got the lucky hits you could kill the mob, otherwise run away and repeat) and 5 level above was quasi impossible.
I think most games work like this today, including GW2 or Lotro.

What I think Tobold says -and I agree with him- is that it would ideal to get quest "at your level" but with various difficulty point, say 1* to 5*. 5* would be doable by very skilled. If you equate 5* to a quest 4 level above your level, it was not really skills at play but luck.
I completely agree with you about the miss chance.

Back when the game was difficult, that range of 3 levels below to 3 above was entirely adequate to provide whatever level of challenge was needed. That was the dial the player could turn. After the universal nerf, the difficulty range is no longer meaningful.

The player no longer has that mechanism to control the asymmetry of mmo's. That's what I was referring to when I said "making leveling quicker has the reverse effect". The player can't find enough orange quests - they turn yellow too quickly. So they attempt red quests, where they are fighting the miss chance more than the mob.

This is a result of trivializing the leveling game in favor of a rush to endgame.
IMO, a problem is trying to think of and make MMOs as games. Frequently making a better game makes a worse MMO. Games want symmetric abilities but that tends to lead to bland homogenization in MMOs. Giving the same gear to newbies as 1337 vets in MMOs has never been popular, yet that would be the expectation in "games."

And ofc people want symmetry in subsystems they don't like or aren't good at yet are quite satisfied if their area of expertise allows asymmetrical advantages.

Re determination, IIRC there was a passage in a Crichton novel that ability, intelligence and desire were about equal determinants of success and it is so much easier to measure desire.

Games want symmetric abilities but that tends to lead to bland homogenization in MMOs.

I completely disagree, it is exactly the other way around. Games can have variable difficulties. It is the simulationist approach which leads to thinking that everybody in the same virtual world would need to face the same level of challenge.
The crazy thing about challenge is that it makes for a superior experience but only if you can actually complete it. BUT, it's relative. Easy for me may be hard for you and the result is that we are both unhappy. Games like WoW have some success in what I call the illusion of difficulty. That is, it feels challenging but it's not really challenging.

There is a ride in Disneyworld where you crash on mars. You have no actual control over the flight, it's the same each time, but several children I spoke to believed they had a hand in the outcome because they were told to pilot and had a joystick to move.
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