Tobold's Blog
Saturday, September 26, 2009
In favor of variable challenge levels

Spinks has a great post up on games which are fun even if you aren't very good at them, with obvious implications for MMO game design. Being "very good" at a game implies being part of a small minority, ahead of more people who are just "good", lots of people who are "average", and so on. If a game is only fun for those who are very good at it, it is not fun for the majority of players, who in the case of an MMO will then stop playing and stop producing an income for the MMO game company. Thus the often leveled charge at Blizzard to have achieved multi-million subscriber success by making the game "too easy", or rather easy enough for the average and maybe even sub-average player.

The underlying wrong assumption behind that train of thought is that a MMO necessarily has to offer the same fixed challenge level to everybody. As spinks noted in her description of The Sims 3, the reason why it is fun for everybody is because you can set your own goals, according to your abilities. To some extent that is already possible in a MMORPG, where you can set yourself different goals beyond the standard leveling up and getting the best gear route. But the standard route more often than not has a fixed level of challenge. During leveling you can still have some variability, with players who are very good battling monsters of higher levels than they are, while sub-average players still advancing by battling monsters of lower level than themselves. But that often breaks down at the level cap, where the challenges are fixed to some level of performance. If you aren't *this* good, you can't raid.

Why would that have to be so? What would be the interest of a game to exclude the less good part of their demographics from a major element of gameplay? The trick is that instead of making everything so easy that everybody can do it, you replicate the same content in different difficulty levels, with different rewards, so there is something at an appropriate challenge level for everybody. Blizzard is already going into that direction, with dungeons available in normal and heroic modes, and various "hard modes" for raid encounters. I'm not saying that WoW's implementation is already perfect, or the only viable solution, but the approach is the right one: Variable challenge levels, where the lowest difficulty setting is designed to allow for a majority of players, and offering incentives for them to evolve and become better and tackle the harder challenge modes for better rewards. As much as you might despise the "n00bs", keep in mind that it is the subscription fees of millions of n00bs which creates the money that allows the developers to build more raid content for the l33t. Why not let them have an "easy mode" version of that raid content, so they can have fun at the game even if they aren't very good at it?
No one wants to admit they are dependent on, or even worse, just as valuable as, those whom they consider their inferiors.

Part of the structure of MMOs is one of virtual achievement, especially in comparison with other players. Exclusion is part of that sense of achievement. Private clubs, setting oneself off from the masses. Some people are incapable of admitting that they are merely human.
One issue with the variable difficulty design is that unless the rewards are significantly better, it's human nature to choose the easiest option.

And when you start talking about groups, there is even a bigger tendency towards doing it the easiest way. As evidenced by the popularity of researching strategies on Boss websites and/or using glitches to your advantage.

And at least in WoW, the rewards for HARD mode aren't significantly worth it. For example, it's easier to do 25-man content for loot than 10-man HARD-mode for similar loot.

One thing that irritates me about MMOs is that many people equate "knowledge" to "skill". Skill is measurement of your reaction time and your split-second decision making. Knowing what talents to choose or what order you should use for a DPS rotation is not skill.

From that perspective, most MMOs have a similar level of difficulty at level 10 as they do at level 80. That's just programming for the lowest common denominator.

And while developing for the LCD is good for business, it's not exactly challenging. Instead, players are provided the "illusion" of skill by giving them better gear, abilities and levels to conquer their foes.
To fully satisfy everyone you'd need, Solo, Dual, 5-man, 10-man, 25-man raid content with Easy, Normal, and Hard difficulties, and tiered gear for each version and difficulty.
This is something I've been suggesting for years. Lots of offline games have a "Difficulty" setting, either at set levels like "Novice", "Normal", "Expert" or simply on a slider. I've never understood why MMOs can't adapt and use something similar.

Back in the days of non-instanced virtual worlds like EQ, that might have been quite hard to achieve - can't really have everyone in a 6-person group setting their individual difficulty level on the same target. But with the coming of the Instance, that problem disappears.

Currently, designers seem happy to set higher difficulty on instances - WoW, EQ and EQ2 all do it to my knowledge and I expect other MMOs do too. I can't understand why they don't just use the same mechanism to set lower difficulty as well.

I'd be very happy to do dungeons in WoW and EQ2 on a "Novice" setting, accepting lower-quality drops and less experience/faction.currency etc. All I am interested in is touring the dungeons as a visitor. (Frankly, they could put in a non-combat "Observer" mode and that would suit me best of all).

My other suggestion has always been to have the difficulty setting on the Server/World. We have plenty of special-ruleset servers already - various flavors of PvP, Roleplaying, Progression, Classic etc etc. Why not have "Novice", "Normal" and "Expert" servers?

You could have the loot adjusted accodingly, but really you wouldn't need to. You could leave all that side of it the same and as long as you don't allow transfers between servers of different difficulty levels it would make no difference to anyone; everyone who cares about competition (not me) would be able to discount the achievements of anyone playing on lower servers than theirs.

I'd play on the "Novice" servers or possibly the "Normal" servers, depending on the game. Probably both.
One thing you need to keep in mind with difficulty settings is that the value of an achievement is based on its exclusivity. For instance, I soloed Hogger back when I was a lowbie. Why can I not brag about that? It was one of the more difficult things I've done, given the limited power/gear/tools at my disposal at the time. Certainly, it was far more difficult than your average raid boss (which, as you did the math a while ago, must be embarassingly easy on an individual scale for all 25 players to have any chance of coming out mistake free for 5 solid minutes). Why then do I not value this achievement?

There is a very vocal subset of every MMO which does not want most of the game population to experience all of the game content (which given forum demographics might seem like a majority). It makes them more special that they have done something which others could not. A high difficulty is not about enjoying a challenge, it is about enjoying the failures of others and feeling superior. Easy modes circumvent those failures. This is the real reason so many "hardcore" players are opposed to difficulty settings. They want to be the only ones that can pass anything meaningful.
Well if you think about it, Blizzard's latest instance, the Trial of the Champion has two 5 man dungeons of easy and average difficulty, and then four difficulties of 10 and 25 man size, with three tiers of set armor.
ACtually dungeons and dragons online has every quest (pretty much) be a separate instance, and the difficulty is settable, for solo, easy or hard.

One part is dealing with the mentality of the raider, the other part is making sure its easy to get to the elite level. For example in bc it was very difficult to make the transition from kara to SSC/TK, because not only did you have to deal with 25 ppl you had to deal with a higher tier of content. The 2.3 patch made things so much easier, so that guilds could actually advance in a meaningful and quick fashion, and not farm SSC/TK for months to get to BT.
My issue with easy/hard;regular/heroic is simply that with the reward system currently in place, the hard/heroic crowd is also required to run all the easy content just to pick up the badges.

I love tackling the hardest content a game has to offer, but my time is limited... and gearing up for the hardest encounters requires me to run all levels of difficulty to experience it in a timely fashion.
ddo has the variable difficutly for dungeons, solo/normal/hard/epic.

I went back to ddo when they went f2p, and like it so far...much better than when i tried after they first launched.
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