Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, July 01, 2015
The purpose of challenge

I have long been puzzled by an apparent contradiction about challenges in MMORPGs: On the one side a lot of people say that they want challenging fights. On the other hand the majority of the time spent in a MMORPG is for your character to become stronger, which makes any given fight less challenging. If we want challenging fights, why do we chase after those epics that remove the challenge?

Today I had a thought, that maybe I need to approach the subject from the opposite angle. What if what we really want is character progression, getting stronger? Then the "challenging fight" becomes not a purpose in itself, but rather a yardstick, a unit of measurement. It isn't the challenge which is important, but the status of being able to overcome that challenge.

Hmmm therenwas a very interesting post on the subjet which I read along time ago, but I absolutely cannot remember where....

Anyway.... If you look at high-end players, this is what separates them from the "normal hardcore", i.e. searching for challenge for the sake of it, so for example using weird raid compositions for farmed fights, or less people, for example. The idea is to keep the excitement up, making sure that the fight is always challenging. On the contrary, for a "normal" hardcor group, farm fights become a chore to complete as fast as possible just to get the last loot someone need. They face the challenges the game gives them, but they don't go out of their way to create them just for the sake of it.

I do not look for increasingly challenging content, nor to see my character grow stronger. I want something slightly different to my recent experiences want content that requires some effort to defeat.
There are many, many special interest groups contained in the palyerbase of any successful MMORPG. There's usually a vocal faction that does indeed express a strong preference for "challenging fights" but we have no means of knowing whether that faction represents a majority viewpoint or even a substantial minority. We just know they make a lot of noise.

My uneducated guess would be that for most games of almost any kind what the majority of players would prefer is the illusion of challenge rather than challenge itself. Content which has a small, easily-achievable learning curve has the effect of making players feel good about themselves for overcoming it without making them feel frustrated. That's the sweet spot where you tend to find the big clusters of activity.

You can see this playing out very clearly in GW2's Tequatl event right now. It was extremely difficult when it was first introduced a long time ago and there were huge complaints about that. It was subsequently tuned to be more forgiving for less-skilled (and especially less-organized) collectives, after which popular opinion became more favorable.

For a year or so Teq has been "on farm" and most people seemed pleased enough with that. Then recently a change was made that returned the event to something nearer (although not all that near) to the original "challenge". There was outrage from many but a minority cheered because they perceived the event had been made less forgiving.

Very quickly, however, new strategies were developed to deal with the increased challenge and chances are that, even if ANet do nothing to revert the event to an easier state, players will do so themselves, suggesting that the majority will is towards challenge that doesn't actually a) take a lot of time or b) stop anyone getting their loot.
You're dead on. Most MMO players will do anything to make things easier (grind gear, read strats, etc) and for them it's all about getting more powerful, not facing a challenge. There is a significant minority that *do* care about the challenge (I like to think I'm one of them) but mostly we clash with the majority and give it up to be able to play anything (see getting kicked for not gearing properly, not having read up on bosses before facing them etc.) I ran with a Group of friends in the Secret World (who has awesome bossfights in the 5-man Dungeons) - one of us, who usually tanked, point-blank refused to do a Dungeon With us before he'd been run through it once to "learn" it (by somebody who'd done it dozens of times). He also grinded out bullions to Upgrade his gear, and wanted to quit a Dungeon if we couldn't Down the boss in a couple of tries ("need more gear"). I loved nothing more than going in blind, undergeared, and wipe dozens of times to see if we could learn the fight and beat it. I refused to use bullion (I think the gear Upgrades in TSW way outpaces the Dungeons, as the game never got the funding to provide the "NeXT tier" of content).

So every time he'd walk us through a Dungeon boss I'd simmer quietly (I wanted to try it first, dammit), and every time I'd convince the group to continue wiping he'd be really annoyed ("what's the point"). He geared up his character, annoying me (viewing it as his toon being overgeared and boosting us), while I refused, annoying him (holding us back by not progressing properly). Fortunately we had a third guy annoying us both with excessive theorycrafting and dps hounding! Amazingly we're still all friends.

I think the only point these two types can really meet is at the very bleeding edge of world-first raiding. At that point you gotta squeeze every drop of advantage out of gear and spec anyway, and the challenge is still there for the challenge-seekers. The "progression" people get the satisfaction of knowing that they really are the best of the best.
Getting epics isn't a way to "remove challenge". It's the way of "overcoming the challenge". It's like running a Marathon. After all it's just lots of running, it needs no skill like fencing or tennis. But it's an accepted sport and those who complete it get a badge.

The word that doesn't belong to MMOs isn't "challenge", it's "skill". Raiding in Mythic is a challenge that I (or you) can't complete. Not because those who complete it are using their spells and movement keys better. It's because they have a higher tolerance for frustration, boredom and annoying people. These are important abilities and I fully accept that Mythic raiders are better on these fields than me. I also fully support their will to have a game which put these abilities to the test and accept that if I play their game casually, I will not receive top rewards.

I personally like being steamrolled by new content and slowly progress through it over the course of the weeks, up to the point where I am the one who steamrolls the enemies.

Tanaan Jungle is a nice new zone to practice hide and seek: as soon as they zone in for the first time, some classes can't pull "everything" and mass-AOE the entire screen. Also, not being able to fly means you're forced to walk and meet some patrols/rares sooner or later. That's a good thing, until it lasts.

Of course time passes and Tanaan will inevitably become easy for everyone in few weeks.
I don't see a contradiction? Player wants are complex when it comes to MMOs; yeah they want challenge but they also want progression and reward. I think your "conundrum" isn't so much challenge vs. progression - it's really about wanting to be rewarded. Becoming stronger is one form of accomplishing tangible reward. You can think of other systems where progression exists without the same classic char development. Many MMOs determine 'EXP' as a stat that influences character strength but it does not need be this way.
The casual guilds I run with seem to be split down the middle. Both groups want better gear for the obvious reason that it make you more powerful and therefore increases the chances for boss kills.

Since we're fairly casual (Both guilds raid twice a week, in 2 hour sessions.) We are perpetually in "Progression". In truth, we have nothing on farm... sure, Normal Kargath has a 99% chance of dying on any single attempt, but even that is not a complete rollover as there are perpetually new people or people that can't seem to "Get out of the fire."

So for me, every boss fight is a challenge, and every challenge is penultimate. By that I mean I don't look past the boss after this one. There is the boss my team is working to kill, and the boss we can't do yet.

Before I said "slit down the middle", by that I mean that while everyone wants better gear for the obvious reason, about 50% also strive to hone their skills to maximize that gear, while the other 50% seem to feel that gear is all there is, and that facerolling the buttons without analysis of the outcome is "playing the game."

It used to piss me off that people were slacking, and were essentially being carried. But if they didn't do that, if everyone was like me... we'd crush all the bosses and there would be no challenge except for "Mythic Mode", which looks like it's set up to be soul crushingly difficult.

I like the perpetual, penultimate challenge position. I never stop increasing my skills, and I never run out of content.
I think it comes down more to what the rewards are versus the challenge. Players will put up with almost anything if they feel like the rewards are worth it.

To use Destiny as an example the top level activity in PVE is the level 35 Prison of Elders encounter. It is the most challenging PVE activity in the game right now. Players rarely do it every week, however because the rewards for it pale in comparison to the time and effort it takes to complete it. I myself did it once and will probably never do it again. I loved the challenge and beating it was fun, but with no rewards I want there is no point in spending the time and effort to do that again.

I believe that basic principle applies to any game, but even more so to MMOs. For some people just beating the challenging content is reward enough, but I would guess that's not the case for most people. I would be willing to bet that if Mythic Raids gave the same rewards as Heroic Raids you would see almost no one doing Mythic.

People play games to feel rewarded whether they realize it or not. If a person feels like whatever they are doing is not rewarding they will stop doing it.
I see this as the "sport vs virtual world"

In sports and exercise, challenge is a good thing.

In the real world, challenge may be required, but it is something to be minimized. It is more challenging to drive in rush hour during a heavy snowstorm. I avoid that. I prefer products I develop and companies I invest in to compete with Blackberry not Apple/Google. If my soldiers have night vision goggles and the enemy does not, we attack at night.

I tend to think challenge is a bit less desirable in these "here are the 9 MMOs I play this year" marketplace than in the "I played this MMO for a decade"
The challenge experiment was recently done in Wildstar, and we can see how that turned out. When most normal mobs can kill you if you aren't circle-strafing 24/7, just being out in the world is exhausting. Challenge is good in small doses as an impetus towards progression, but most people playing MMORPGs desire the progression, not the challenge in of itself.

Otherwise they would be better off playing games like Super Meat Boy and Dark Souls.
Not challenge, but engagement.

Compare three fights.
1. Run up to a guy, stab him, and he dies immediately. If he gets in a lucky hit before he dies, he doesn't do much damage to you anyway.
2. Run up to a guy, stab him a few times, dodge his attack, try a different attack, dodge more, then finish him. And he hits you hard enough that you have to dodge, but won't one shot you.
3. Run up to a guy, perform an elaborate series of attacks and dodges and if you mistime or in any way fail to execute, you lose.

The first fight is too easy, the third fight is too punishing, the second is just right, it forces you to stay engaged, but never feels hopeless. When I fail at the third fight it's because I'm not perfect. When I fail at the second it's because I'm bad and need to get better.

Character progression can turn a fight 3 into a 2, which is that yardstick measure of power improvement, but really that's just about adding variety, so you don't get so practiced at a fight 2 that it becomes essentially a fight 1. Character progression directly combats skill growth, by forcing you to fight something new in order to get that same level of engagement, of challenge.

I was thinking the same thing. We all have a "budget" of how much challenge we can handle in games. Mine is 6 to 8 hours a week, and I get all that with my current raiding schedule. Some people are challenge junkies, and never get enough. Others have very low tolerance for it and fatigue easily.

It's like working. Unless your job is to sleep all day, you only have so many productive hours you can spend in a day, and you need to budget them carefully.

If you're over budget on either, and you still have time to spend, you're going to be drawn to low difficulty tasks like watching TV or easy resource gathering in game. You're not going to want to deal with things you find challenging.
In addition to agreeing that MMORPGs are about progression more than challenge, I also agree with Azuriel and Smokeman. This is something I have argued before, we don't just want one certain level of challenge all the time. It needs to be broken up, like action scenes in an action movie. Two hours of straight action and no dialogue would be terrible.

Another factor is having a basis for comparison, in terms of how the game makes you feel. If the game is fairly easy a lot of the time, the player can accept the challenging parts of the game that make players struggle. If the game is a struggle the whole time, it doesn't feel like a big challenge you are overcoming, it just feels like you suck at the game.

Now, this doesn't necessarily apply in ALL games, but MMORPGs are about "power fantasy" more than anything. Playing a power fantasy that makes you feel like a weakling doesn't work.
@Samus I think there are some exceptions to your rule about action scenes in an action movie. Pacific Rim, for example, becomes a dramatically better movie if you completely remove anything that doesn't involve giant robots fighting aliens. :D
I think this whole problem goes back a long way to when role-playing games were first made. Computers (and the PnP systems predating them aren't much better without a great deal of player effort) can't easily support actual character development, so instead they 'develop' characters by giving them extra powers and such. That's entertaining enough in its own way, and probably just fine for those who enjoy the mechanics more than the role-playing anyway.

Anyway, after decades of development / reduction to the highest-paying common denominator, CRPGs have degenerated into ever more thinly disguised treadmills.
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