Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, December 06, 2017
Uses and abuses of challenge

Once upon a time, in a past so long a go that few people remember it, computer games came with an options menu in which you could choose the difficulty and challenge of the game yourself. The idea was that all of us would like games to be both winnable and not a pushover, but because preferences on how easily winnable a game should be, as well as experience and skill in a game, vary from user to user, it would be best to have several options in order to please everybody. Now that was way back when games still came in a box. With games increasingly switching to a "game as a service" online experience, difficulty settings fell out of favor. Somehow it appeared to make more sense if the same orc in World of Warcraft held the same challenge for each player, with the only variable being the power level of the player himself. With less and less single-player games around, and PvE games being more and more replaced by PvP, difficulty setting have become increasingly rare.

I've been playing a bunch of pseudo-PvP games on my iPad lately. Pseudo because I don't necessarily fight another player online at the same time, but my army fights his computer-controlled army. That usually was nice enough at the start of the game. But then with each win I gained some sort of trophies or ranking, so that later I was matched against more and more powerful players. Ultimately it was obvious that this was a no-win proposition: The better I did, the more likely it became that I would lose the next game. The only strategy that worked was to deliberately lose games, to drop down in rankings, to then win the now easier PvP games in order to achieve the quests and goals the game set me. But that sort of cheesy strategy isn't exactly fun.

The other type of game I played recently is the one in which your performance doesn't actually matter at all any more. I played Total War: Arena, but many team vs. team multiplayer games fall into the same category: The contribution of any single player to the outcome of a 10 vs. 10 battle is only 5%. That gets quite annoying if you come up with a brilliant move and outmaneuver another player and crush him, only to find that the 9 other players on the enemy team obliterated your 9 team mates, and you lost the battle. Especially since in Total War: Arena you end up with more rewards having done nothing much in a won battle than for a great performance in a lost battle.

Finally my wife was complaining about a problem with challenge levels in her iPad puzzle games: The games are free to play, they get harder and harder with each level until you can't beat it any more, and then the game offers you a way out: Use some sort of booster, which of course you need to pay real money for, to make the too hard levels easy enough to win again.

Somehow I get the feeling we lost something important when difficulty sliders went out of fashion. However the discussion of difficulty and challenge is complicated by the fact that this is one of the issues where gamers are the most dishonest about. Gamers tend to say they want more challenge, but when you observe what they are doing, e.g. attacking the enemy castle in a PvP MMORPG at 3 am in the morning, it is clearly that they are mostly occupied with avoiding or circumventing any actual challenge. Pay2Win and loot boxes wouldn't be such an issue if gamers weren't actually spending their money on improving their chances to win. If most gamers were so interested in challenge, then why is there so much cheating and botting going on? People want to win, by any means, and by talking up the challenge they want to make their win look more impressive. Which is kind of sad, if you think about it, that their positive self-image depends on being a winner in a video game. Many a fragile gamer-ego can't admit that they'd quite like a relaxing game that doesn't constantly challenge them to the max. I do.

Pretty sure those big box games still have difficulty (World of warcraft, Wolfenstein to name 2). It is only crappy iPad pay to win or EA skinner boxes that cost money to make it easier. I guess maybe it depends on the genre?
World of Warcraft has a difficulty slider? I don't think so. You can do the same dungeon at different difficulties, but that is a group choice and not an individual choice. And you don't get the same reward. If you go to Elwynn Forest and see a Murloc, that Murloc has exactly the same difficulty (hit points, damage, etc.) for everyone in the game.
I would say that WoW has several difficulty sliders. Mithic+ dungeons, LFR/Normal/HM/Mythic raids are all "sliders".
Even in solo play you have a slider: you choose where to go and how to gear up. If you want a harder game, remove half of your gear and you'll get harder game.....
The problem is that, as you correctly diagnose, most players say that they want more challenge, but in reality they don't. They only want the result of beating the challenge (be it loot, an achievement or recognition), while deriving no pleasure from the act of playing a hard game by itself.
The simple fact of playing a game should be its own reward (= the fun you're deriving from it), if you need more then something is wrong and it's time to Alt-F4 Uninstall and look for a better game.
As mentioned by Helistar, World of Warcraft's difficulty settings are more advanced than a mere slider. Any player can make that game as easy or difficult as they want by changing their gear, their group composition, their talents. The Murloc example is antiquated, by the way, in most Legion outdoor areas the mobs do have different hit points, damage, etc. based on the player that is fighting them. This is true inside dungeons as well.
The only single player games I can think of that don't have difficulty options are the hardcore "roguelike" type of games, which seem to appeal to players not because they enjoy playing them, but knowing that they did something most other players did not. You can see how an "easy" setting would ruin this, because without the "exclusivity" through difficulty, the game usually isn't that fun.

For most games, particularly online games, rewards are used to direct people to content, knowing that players will overwhelmingly do whichever content provides the best or fastest reward. If WoW released a repeatable quest where you could spam the dance emote for 20 minutes and get a piece of mythic raid gear, it would be the most popular quest in the game and raid participation would plummet. A great number of idiot developers would conclude players just love dance emotes, all while players complained that the game was ruined, even though all the same content as before is still available.

This is why you can't just provide a difficulty slider in something like WoW. Suggesting that players play the content at the difficulty they prefer is highly naive, the reality is virtually all of them would do the easiest difficulty all the time, even if they found it boring. The only compromise I can really see is a casual path that takes much longer, versus a more challenging path that is obviously harder but provides the rewards more quickly.
Not all game genres are doing away with difficulty choice, it's just that with the recent monetization schemes and the "multiplayer first" design meme pervading the industry, MTX/Loot boxes make the most sense for publishers from a financial standpoint. If you give the developer/publisher a choice between providing a slider and a system that benefits the publisher financially, do you honestly think they will go with the former?

Thankfully, there are quite a few genres that still offer difficulty scaling based on gamer preference. It's also not necessarily difficulty scaling stemming from a "need for skill", but scaling done with hint systems, as in how much hand holding you want the game to provide. Hidden Object Games(HOG), Full Motion Video(FMV) Games and many First Person Shooter games still employ difficulty options that make replay ability worthwhile.

You are correct that the "games as service" model is all but destroying challenge and the need for skill or intellect. Luckily, I can still go to Wal-Mart and buy a CD full of HOG's for less than ten bucks and enjoy a few months of immersive gaming in my old'ish age. =P

At any rate, every once in a while I'll invite a random nephew over, plant them in front of my 65 inch 4K TV, give them a set of headphones and fire up System Shock 2 for them and let them experience firsthand the things that made gaming great at one point in time. I've yet to have one that didn't BEG me to come back and finish the game. A masterful storyline, award winning sound and RPG'ish design/difficulty elements that totally caught the industry off guard with its innovative approach to game design.

Not saying that SS2 should be copied ad-infinitum like the mindless COD(and others) clones, but it does illustrate what is being lost in game development as capitalism and greed become more dominate.
It's not about wanting to win - it's about wanting to enjoy playing. People ask for difficulty sliders (or, more appropriately, options) in MMOs all the time and many developers offer them. Personally I think they all should.

The only compromise I can really see is a casual path that takes much longer, versus a more challenging path that is obviously harder but provides the rewards more quickly.

WoW has been around for ages now, and has tried many different approaches to balance grind in the hopes of appeasing everyone. So when you say "versus", do you really mean "in addition to"? As in, providing both and let the player choose which one they will pursue? A lot of gamers would argue that if your "casual path" took "X" number of hours/days to complete, regardless of difficulty(or lack of), that it plays to the "grind" elements that everyone just loves to hate/protest.

Mostly yes. However, it does need to be different options for the same reward. Otherwise, the casual players still see rewards they have no access to while the more hardcore players are more or less forced to ALSO do the casual content for those rewards as well. You may recall a few WoW expansions that basically forced all raiders to do crafting, or just flat out miss those bonuses (which you can't afford at that level).
The only compromise I can really see is a casual path that takes much longer, versus a more challenging path that is obviously harder but provides the rewards more quickly.

This phrase represents very well the general mindset of the current player population: you don't choose the path based on which you find more fun, you choose it for the reward.

Stop playing to get rewards and start playing to have fun. This is the way games were meant to be played before they turned into monetization schemes.
History of gaming in one short dialogue:
Devs: We are selling you games with a lot of content, and they also have some rewards!
Players: We don’t care about the content, we only want the rewards!
Devs: Now we are giving you content for free, and we sell you the rewards.
Single-player games still tend to have difficulty sliders. It's just that they aren't the majority of games any more.

As for WoW (and I suspect most MMORPGs) there was always a spectrum of difficulty. Even in outdoor PvE there were a few tough challenges. Some dungeons were much harder than others. And back in the day, at least, there were raid bosses so hard that no normal player would ever see them.

(By the way, let me give a plug to Elder Scrolls Legends the CCG. You WILL obviously stop progressing at some point in ranked play, but you will never stop winning a good proportion of your games. The amount of randomness and the strong rock-paper-scissors element between various deck strategies ensure it. And there is also fun story content against the AI that you can buy for in-game gold.)

"Stop playing to get rewards and start playing to have fun."

I find this advice to be similar to "Don't worry about money, just do the job you love." It is good advice that I actually agree with. But the reality is, the vast majority of people/players will be guided almost entirely by money/rewards. All developers have to design their games around this, whether for fun or monetization.
I wonder why PvE MMOs don't have different difficulty servers.
Late to this discussion as I was away, but DDO has very in your face difficulty sliders. The content is all instanced though so that's not technologically difficult at all.
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