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The Quinquennial (or sometimes more often)

Various thoughts on online gaming, often pulled from articles I've written for other sources.

Author: Quizzical

Toward a coherent notion of difficulty

Posted by Quizzical Tuesday January 20 2009 at 2:10AM
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Pick your favorite game with mobs of various levels, and pick an arbitrary level 20 mob in that game. Not a boss or one with something special about it, but just a typical level 20 mob. Is that mob difficult?

The question, of course, doesn’t make a bit of sense. For a level 1 player, the mob will likely be unbeatable, at least solo. For a level 50 player, defeating the same mob would most likely be completely trivial. It thus does not make sense to speak of the mob as being easy or hard, as this varies too wildly by level. All that one can do is to say that the mob is a reasonable challenge to a player of this or that particular level.

There is nothing peculiar about level 20 here. The same could be said of mobs of most other levels. The handful of mobs that are easy to kill solo at level 1 with starter gear could perhaps be said to be easy, period. At the other extreme, mobs that would be difficult to kill even at the level cap with the best possible gear, in a group (or raid) of the maximum size allowed, with the ideal class distribution and all of the rest of the players comparably leveled and equipped could perhaps be said to be hard. That is, if the mob is difficult no matter what you have in your group, then we’ll say that it’s a hard mob.

But hard mobs scarcely exist in MMORPGs. PvE content is meant to be beaten. If something in a game is hard, some players will get stuck on it, and be unable to move on. Those players will most likely quit the game, and hence stop paying the monthly fee. If there is quite a bit of content after the hard mobs, that’s content that the players will never see before they quit, and months of potential monthly fees that will go unpaid. For business reasons, a company cannot allow this.

There are perhaps a small handful of genuinely hard mobs here and there. These generally don’t gate off content beyond them. Sometimes they’re meant not to be beaten, such as the Black Ship from Puzzle Pirates. But these are necessarily scarce enough to not add up to a difficult game.

Let’s try another question. Is it harder to kill ten furbolgs, or to kill a thousand furbolgs?

The obvious answer to that is that it is harder to kill a thousand. Indeed, this entails killing ten, so it certainly cannot be easier.

That is not quite right, either. How many players are there who can kill ten furbolgs, but could not kill a thousand if so inclined? A player who has killed ten furbolgs has repeatedly demonstrated that he can kill furbolgs. There is rarely any reason why he could not repeat this enough times to kill a thousand if he cared to. Indeed, since he may level in the process of killing furbolgs, and certainly learns something about their spawn locations and AI, the last ten furbolgs are probably easier to kill than the first ten.

Someone who would claim that it is harder to kill a thousand furbolgs than to kill ten probably meant that it takes longer. And so it does. But to say that something takes a long time is a very poor substitute for difficulty. That would be to argue that anything that takes a long time is difficult, a conclusion which is completely absurd.

For example, in Guild Wars, is it difficult to be awarded a third birthday present by the game? It does, after all, take three years, and there is no way to speed up the process. Surely it cannot be considered difficult to do something that consists only of creating a character and then waiting three years.

Single player games don’t have this problem. If there are ten levels in a game and you get stuck on the seventh, the company doesn’t particularly care that you never see the last three. You’re not paying subscription fees, anyway. Not that many players ever beat Who Framed Roger Rabbit because Judge Doom was so hard, but from a company’s perspective, that was just fine.

Still, if an MMORPG wishes to make a game challenging, they have to create ways to get around the challenge. If the ways to get around the challenge are too easy, players will just use them most of the time and skip the challenge--that is, players will skip most of the game. See, for example, how commonly some players like to tag along while much higher levels kill everything, or take larger groups than intended.

The key is to make it so that taking on the challenge in the proper manner levels you a lot faster than trying to avoid the challenge somehow. For example, if you’re level 31 and try the level 31 content and beat it in the intended manner, that makes you level 32 immediately. If a good player takes an hour to beat the content, and someone else could have spent an hour grinding mobs to get from level 31 to level 32, then a lot of players will do that and skip the challenge.

If grinding mobs without attempting the challenge makes it take ten hours to get from level 31 to 32, then that would push players to try the challenge in the intended manner. Still, that would provide a way out so that people don’t get absolutely stuck in one area forever. Try a dungeon, get reasonably far into it, and then fail, and you still get some experience. Do that a dozen times and you get the level without having to beat the dungeon, so that you can move on if you wish.

The common exploits of bringing a high level player or more players than intended would also have to be shut down, to avoid letting players level fast by these methods. I don’t know of a way to cap the number of players apart from instancing, but that has been used in a lot of games and works pretty well. The automatic level could be awarded only if your group doesn’t have anyone over the intended level for the content. A sidekick system somewhat comparable to what City of Heroes uses could allow higher level players to help their lower level friends without making the content completely trivial.

Thus, it would be possible to make PvE content in an MMORPG that is genuinely challenging. Stupid hassles like grinding timesinks are a poor substitute for a genuine challenge.

tbiaslorin writes:

I'm not sure I see a neccessary change.  Why is a particular 'challenge level' necessary?  You talk about 2 players, one who beats a challenge in an hour and gains a level, and another who grinds for an hour and gains a level.  Does it really matter that they gained a level in a different manner?  Isn't having more options generally a good thing?  Is forcing them to do the challenge just a way to keep them on a linear path, something many MMO'ers hate? 

If it takes an hour grinding, doing a challenge, or PvPing, that would be even better.  You are more than welcome to do the challenge, someone else can grind, and a third person can PvP, and all gain a level in an hour.  You've satisfied 3 times as many types of players, and that likely means more paying customers.

Also, could you define the difference between a grinding timesink and a genuine challenge?  If both methods take an hour to level, I'm not sure there is all that much of a difference, except that one of them probably has storyline to go with it.  Is challenge really just the likelihood of dying in a particlar instance? 

Tue Jan 20 2009 10:05AM Report
axlezero writes:

Every mmo I've played already has a mix of challenging content and easy content (Solo content).  Most challenging content is full group stuff that requires teamwork, and compensates you accordingaly, meaning you can advance and level twice as fast as your typical solo player.

I am strongly against instancing, because MMO's have a persistent world which instances are most definitely NOT persistent. If a game has to resort to instancing to fix its problems, then the game isn't worth plying.  The only thing I don't mind it in is pvp type stuff like arenas, or as in WoW the battlegrounds.  Unless its like eq2 where you can still swap between the instances of the area, and they allow up to 100 players per instance.  Its still somewhat pesistent, but again I still think its a poor game mechanic.

Timesinks are a necessary evil, unless you prefer sandbox games, which I don't.  It just depends on how they do it, all raids generally are timesinks even if you don't see it that way.   They are generaly defined by whether the player thinks the content they are doing is boring or fun, boring equates to timesink, fun does not (even though it most likely is)

As far as a high level helping you out,  I see nothing wrong with that.  You have a max level friend that wants to help you catch up so you can group up with them more power to them.  Community is what mmo's are founded upon and if a high level wants to help young players, I think thats pretty cool of them.  I remember playing EQ for the first time, a high player helped me out, gave me some gear, and taught me some things.  I thought that was the coolest thing in the world, and I still to this day continue to do that for other players in MMO's I play, because I remember how lost I was and how much the game turned around for me, because of one players help.

Tue Jan 20 2009 11:20AM Report
Quizzical writes:

A real challenge is something that you could plausibly fail, other than by reason of being too low level, insufficient gear, too small of a group, or non-skill related things like server crashes.

Certainly, there are a lot of people who like games where winning is pretty much automatic.  There are plenty of games for such people.

One of the things I miss about single-player games is having an actual challenge.  If I try a level in Super Mario World, for example, it's not automatic that I'll win.  I could easily fall off a cliff, run into mobs, or fail for various other reasons.

There are, of course, ways to die in MMORPGs.  In most of them, the ways to die are basically trying something for which you're too low level, don't have good enough gear, in too small of a group, or whatever.  In other words, about the only way to fail PvE content is by intentionally making things artificially harder than they could have been.

The reason the post had to be so long is to distinguish an actual challenge from what a lot of people mean when they say they want something harder.  Something that takes more grinding, or requires a larger group, or things of that sort is not "hard".  It's just a stupid nuisance.

You ask what's the problem with a game where you can level while making things artificially harder for yourself, or you can level by simple grinding.  If I try something interesting, then maybe I gain the level in an hour, or maybe I mess up and wipe, spend the hour, and don't gain a level.  If I tried something trivial and boring, then I'd be all but guaranteed to gain the level in an hour.

In other words, the game discourages players from trying anything interesting.  Instead, the game pushes players to just go through the motions of doing something stupid and boring.  See the problem with that?  I think it's better if games are interesting.




Tue Jan 20 2009 11:29AM Report
Quizzical writes:

axlezero, you're effectively arguing that a game should not have anything in it that makes it remotely challenging.  I guess it's fine for some games to do that.  I'd like to see some put in some challenges, though.

The only MMORPG I'm aware of with PvE content that is remotely hard is Puzzle Pirates.   The way they do that is that when you go out fighting, the game spawns ships specifically to attack you, and if you keep winning, it keeps spawning harder ships for you.

Guild Wars did have some challenges briefly after the introduction of hard mode, but then lightened them considerably with PvE-only skills, and then killed them entirely with GWEN.  One can create artificial challenges by avoiding those things (which is what I did), and at least in Guild Wars, since you're not leveling, it means you don't fall behind other players by doing so.

Tue Jan 20 2009 11:42AM Report
tbiaslorin writes:

Well, I don't think it discourages people from trying anything interesting.  I don't mind there being challenges in games; however more what I am saying is it is ok for there to be challenging parts for you and players like you, grindy parts for players that want to do that sort of thing, and PvP for those that enjoy that.  I think dictating the style a game should take when instead it could take all those styles instead would limit the game and the players.

In all the MMO's I've played, each day I can choose what I feel like doing.  Some days I feel like doing the grindy things for whatever reason (oftentimes craft-gathering), some days I do the challenging thing (when I'm looking for adventure), some days I spend all day crafting and not doing anything either grindy or challenging.  And in the games I can, some days I PvP as much as I can (which can sometimes feel grindy and sometimes challenging).  And guess what?  They are all valid playstyles, and if others want to divide their experiences differently, more power to them!

'Certainly, there are a lot of people who like games where winning is pretty much automatic.  There are plenty of games for such people.'

No offense, but I think this is pretty judgmental.  I could just as easily say MMO's are those types of games, and if you want a challenge, you should go back and play Mario as you suggested.  . What's good for the goose is good for the gander and all that.  Personally, I think it's a false choice and that each playstyle can be fulfilled in an MMO, and it's not up to me to tell you that your playstyle is wrong for an MMORPG, and vice versa.

Tue Jan 20 2009 1:49PM Report
Quizzical writes:

So you don't think that making purely grinding level you a lot faster than trying something that might be fun discourages the latter.  But you do think that making completing fairly challenging tasks level you considerably faster than grinding would discourage grinding?  Make up your mind!

Tue Jan 20 2009 2:51PM Report
tbiaslorin writes:

Heh.;) I think you misunderstood; my position has been consistent, and that it is ok to have all playstyles level at the same rate, and the more playstyles available, the better.  (Tthe difference, according to your comment, being the 'challenging' route has the potential of taking longer because they might fail.  However, this is not necessarily true, because even if you fail, you are likely to end up with at least some EXP/loot from the mobs you did make it through, though you might miss out on a 'completion' reward.  In the end it's hypothetical, because my point is that it is okay for grinding and challenges to level a person at the same rate.) 

Some people like challenges, some don't, so no I don't think it is discouraging to offer 2 routes to a level (or 3 if you count PvP).  Because if you alienate one type or the other they might leave the game altogether, and that hurts everyone.  You like challenges, so part of your 'reward' is that you are challenged, not that you deserve more exp.  If another likes grinding, why deny them something just because they are different from you?  You might be talking about a third type of person, very common in MMORPG's, and that is the type of player that will do whatever it is that will level them fastest, no matter whether it is grinding, counting purple cows, or swinging around a maypole.

So just in case my words get parsed differently than I meant them:  'I believe it is ok for all playstyles to level at the same rate.' =) 

Tue Jan 20 2009 3:37PM Report
Quizzical writes:

I believe it is okay to make a game that everyone who plays MMORPGs will absolutely love.  In theory, that's great.  In practice, it's impossible.

The only way to make a game in which everyone levels at the same rate is to make leveling not depend on what you do--so if you go AFK, you still level at the same rate.

Short of that, leveling by some methods will be faster than others.  There's simply no way to avoid that.  You can try to balance the leveling rates of as many methods as you can think of as much as possible and end up making it so that method A is twice as fast as method B in one part of the game, and vice versa in another.  Realistically, the multiplier will be a lot more than 2x in a lot of places.  That really only leads to a jumbled mess of a game.

Short of that, you really have to pick that this particular method will level you faster than that one, and stick with it.  That way, you at least appeal to one type of player, rather than to nobody.

If there is nothing difficult in a game, then there is nothing to achieve in that game.  The accurate statement I guess is rather that there is nothing to achieve in the game that game mechanics will recognize as an achievement.  Does that not, in itself, exclude players who might like to achieve something?


Tue Jan 20 2009 3:51PM Report
tbiaslorin writes:

Hmmm...interesting and thought-proviking reading.  I guess my thought is, why does one person's levelling rate matter to another? (I do know it does to some, but it just never bothered me that much) (thus, why should a game's levelling speed matter to any group, if they are all having fun?)

You are right in that there is no way to ever truly 'balance' something, but often things turn out not the way we think things should be.  For example, in WAR, I only did quests/PVP for levelling.  However, some people told me (and I can't comment because I don't know) that they could level much quicker through AOE-grinding mobs.  Personally, that didn't appeal to me, so I never figured out how to do it.  Did it bother me that those folks said they were levelling faster?  No, not really, because how fast they levelled didn't really affect me in any important way.

So (to me) in the end, as long as there is enough content for everyone, I don't really care who levels fastest, as I am just going to do what I enjoy the most. 

I am playing Atlantica now, and many of my apprentices (who I started out 40 or 50 levels higher than) have now surpassed me level-wise.  Why?  Because I enjoy many parts of the game that don't provide alot of experience, mostly crafting and PVP.  Both of those provide me with 'rewards' in terms of enjoyment, completely independent of the fact that I level slow as heck!=)  I would never consider petitioning to increase the levelling speed for my choice of activities, and it doesn't matter to me that I am 'behind the curve' when it comes to most of the other players.

It's interesting you mention levelling when AFK...that might not be such a horrible idea, though we might recoil from it initially.  I absolutely adored Eve Online's ability to continue to gain skills without logging on.  A week on vacation?  Just set a weeklong skill.  I think it is the nicest skill system I have seen in any game, though I guess part of that is that I don't care that people are in essence getting 'something for nothing.'

Once upon a time when I was DM'ing a pen-and-paper D&D game, I was a purist, and made everyone start at level 1, every campaign.  Eventually though, it became obvious that everyone enjoyed the game a whole lot more when they were level 5-15.  So once, I started a game where everyone started at level 3-4, to be closer to the 'magic level' and it worked great, and everyone enjoyed it more than the normal level 1-2 'grind'.  If keeping subscriptions, weren't such an issue, would it really be that bad to let people start at whatever level they felt like?  I would definitely need to think through the repurcussions to PvP (if it was a PvP game), but if everyone had the same opportunity, would it really matter?  It might be a terrible idea, just something to think about.  (and now that I think about it, Eve does something similar to this...I knew many players who would make characters and log on only to train, until they got to 'the right level' to actually start enjoying the game; for some that was 2-3 months!)

Tue Jan 20 2009 4:45PM Report
Quizzical writes:

If a game wanted to let everyone start at the level cap with the best possible gear, I'd be fine with that.  Much of the above post is to explain how a game could offer some challenges without having to go that route, since most games wouldn't want to do so.

To me, the main issue here is that a game should have something challenging that you can try to do, without having to make it artifically harder for yourself.  If it's easy to evade the challenge by dragging along a high level to kill everything for you, then avoiding that is artificially making it harder.

If the content requires grouping, many (most?) other players with whom you could group will want to clear it in the fastest method possible.  Trying to create an artificial challenge may well make grouping impractical entirely.  If the challenge is intrinsic to the game rather than something players would create via artifical restrictions, this isn't a problem.

Tue Jan 20 2009 4:58PM Report
Cydmab writes:

My first reaction to say that yes, it is not feasible to gate content behind challenges in an mmo, because it will annoy alot of players. This includes granting levels or high-powered gear from completing challenges, because those are also a form of content-gating. But I also agree there should be some sort of reward for completing challenges. So the natural answer to me is to use prestige rewards, like badges or pretty clothing.

Tue Jan 20 2009 9:12PM Report
eldanesh117 writes:

The reason why this sort of gameplay is generalized as "difficulty" in the MMO genre is simply because it's not fully realtime. It's not about how fast you can dodge the enemy's attack, or how fast you can click, whereas opposed in games like shooters where your actual skill makes all the difference. Most MMOs are generally turn-based combat at heart (you hit, they hit back, wait, repeat) with skills thrown in for extra damage, but essentially following the same system.

In response to tbiaslorin's post, I also enjoy parts of the game that most players don't tend to take part in. I also enjoy just sitting around and talking to the community, but I myself am not a PvP sort of person (I'm a carebear, I can't let go of feelings and let loose the cannon). Also, I find it mildly irritating (but annoying nonetheless), if I see someone that starts the same day as me, but can miraculously hit about 40-50 levels above me by the next day.

Another factor that should be taken into consideration is the motivation factor. If I kill 1000 Furbolgs, but am only rewarded with only a measly weapon that's one level below me, then of course I would not do the quest. However, if it were to offer higher incentive, like moderate EXP gain or much needed cash to buy other items, then I would. But that would only bring up the point of players abusing it to easily avoid the difficult challenge.

Grouping is fine, so long as it does not overwhelm the players so easily. Grouping, to me, is best identified as mobs that are nearly impossible to solo, but moderately easy to beat as a group, provided everyone does their part right (forcing everyone to participate). Honestly, I find much fun in this method, but it can also cause more frustration and difficulty if the party members don't do as they are told.

For me, I only level simply because of one thing: aesthetics. I could honestly care less what my character is, only that he looks cool and looks even cooler while he fights (sounds a little conceited, but that's how I roll). I could spend hours grinding to the next level just so I can wear that new cool looking armor, or to wield that awesome looking weapon.

Not sure of the AFK leveling subject, though I do say that all forms of it should be removed. It might give leverage to those players that don't enough time, but it also only serves as another fallback to those that do.

Sorry if my comment seems a little biased and short-sighted. I'm still sort of new to the MMO world and just learning the ropes.

Tue Jan 20 2009 9:21PM Report
Quizzical writes:

The tempo of a game has little to do with the amount of skill involved.  Chess is completely turn-based, rather than the kind of turn-based but more real-time than turn-based system of many MMORPGs, but surely you'd recognize that skill plays a huge role. 

Tue Jan 20 2009 10:15PM Report writes:
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