So, what is "challenge"?
What makes a game "hard" and what makes it "easy?"
We'll throw away the LARGE part of this discussion: "It depends on the player", because we need to generalize a bit. Yes, there are players that have been playing for 15 years and have more experience with the basics than, say, a 17 year old girl that just found EQ2. But let's save that. That should be the bottom line, anyway, and we all know that. Many players claim that certain games are challenging, though, without defining what the challenge is. I can ask someone "Is WoW hard?" and they could say "No...well, it depends...I mean, do you raid? Do you like achievements?" Again, more "..it depends" type talk. But, for the record, let's say that challenge comes from two different places:
a) Finding an answer: If you don't know something, you must find out the answer. Finding out that answer can be very difficult or very easy, depending. To solve a simple riddle can be very hard, but once you hear the answer you might see how easy it is. For example:
"A certain crime is punishable if attempted but not punishable if committed. What is it?"
"I went into the woods and got it. I sat down to seek it. I brought it home with me because I couldn't find it. What is it?"
Easy ones? Yeh, and you might have heard them before. But you get the point. There have been puzzles, riddles and problems that gave us headaches, yet were remarkably simple. In raiding, the point is to find the answer. The point is to figure out where to stand, what abilities to fire, how many times to watch for a jump that signals the AoE attack. None of these stress the average players reaction times, but test their lack of knowing the answer.
Here is another simple illustration, a "Where's Waldo" picture:
Find the stuff that the artist mentions. Waldo SHOULD be in there somewhere! When you find something, it is obvious. Repeatedly looking for the same character or object is easier the second time around, even with some time between the searches. This is a simple way to illustrate how any activity can be a "challenge" at first but grow exponentially easier as it is repeated. Thus, activities that are repeated (raiding, grinding, leveling, questing) become easier by default.
b) Playing for long periods of time: This is the answer for many gamers when asked "How is your game challenging?" For some, EQ provided them with a challenge because raids took a great deal of people and dozens of hours or more to complete. For other, grinding reputation is the answer. Either way, this is one of the staples of the standard sub-model MMO, being that they need you to keep paying monthly in order to make money.
There have been games in the past (and current games) that have shown me that there are challenges that come from these two groups without being raiding, grinding or non-stop leveling. If anyone remembers Myst Online (before it shut down) you would remember how fantastic the puzzles were. You would visit entire "worlds" that were essentially one giant puzzle, and you and a friend could go through the puzzles to solve them. Many times, when you found the answer, you were so surprised at it's obvious solution that you felt stupid. The community was great and most of them even practiced strict "strat" rules by not letting out any spoilers without great warning. While the game has gone ka-put (released to the community as some kind of open source project, though) it had some fantastic ideas that other games should look at.
Free Realms, as we all should know, is a game based around mini-games. While some of the games are typical MMO stuff (fighting, delivery quests) most of them are based around simple, yet fun, "Bejeweled" type puzzles. Not only are they semi-challenging, but can get pretty darn challenging in the higher stages of the game (or when attempting a high-score.) Mini-games are great because almost anyone can play and be satisfied, and yet players that have the want can go further than others.
Puzzle Pirates kind of takes everything and mashes it into one game. Mini-games are the DRIVING source of the game, and behind every activity is a mini-game. There are some brilliant uses of mini-games, like multi-player ship to ship combat. One player is the captain and drives the boat/gives orders, one player might do a mini-game and score to make the speed of the ship increase, another player might play a mini-game to keep water from leaking into the ship, and yet another will play a game that helps control damage. All of this is in real time, and runs great.
We all know, and see, the amount of discussion and time that is spent on "end-game" content in many of our MMO's. This is, I hope, a passing fad, and soon the "end game" will not exist anymore. But, until then, we all must see our forum posts about Lore or posts about favorite parts of the game be pushed down by yet another post about how borked a raid is, or how miserable "the grind" is. There are entire podcasts/blogs about end-game content and how it is broken, and many players whose drive it is seems to be to complain about content that they play through ( while saying it is busted or wrong. )
And developers spend a great deal of time developing this content, despite not all players participating in raiding or high-end grinding. I cringe at how many questions I have recieved over the period of 2 years for the developers of Vanguard that have to do with raiding. Not only were they the same quesions over and over, but were already answered several times and in several places. For the raider, there is nothing more urgent than their particular problem. That's fine, but the only group that makes as much noise as the raiders are the pvp'ers. On any forum for any game, non end-game questions and statements are pushed down by threads discussing the same end-game subjects, over and over and over. This, in my opinion, might give developers the wrong idea about where to concentrate their efforts. While the noisy players are on the forums, the "regular" players are just playing the game, and not providing any counter-point.
Since raiding/grinding are both the same as playing checkers/hanging out, it seems it would be more efficient to spend developer hours on puzzles, mini-games, and social activities like live events and "public" type interactions. It would also be a good idea to slow down leveling, without making grinding or alt-leveling the only answer. Non-combat mini-games or alternate forms of leveling would be good, or just making "the level" less important would be great.
Essentially, it might take a year to finalize a raid, to code it and to work out the bugs. Even then, players will present flaws to the developers that the developers could have never forseen, and those flaws need re-working. All this is a lot of effort for a handful of Super Mario boss fights. Once that fight is over, players simply move on to the next one or just spend time in the same encounter. Instead of spending so much time, effort and money on developing such elaborate deliveries for such simple activities, they might try and make the vehicle to deliver these activities more efficient.
I am under the impression that many "end-gamers" play through the end-game because of lack of things to do. Every single raider I know (and I have met a LOT) look at raiding as a mini-job. They enjoy it the first few times, but after the 5th or 6th time running through the same content, it gets boring. And it SHOULD. So, they come up wioth other reasons to go like "gearing up fellow raiders" just to repeat the cycle.
It would be nice to see the cycle broken, to see mini-games and puzzles treated as they are. Take the time and effort to create a dungeon and make several times more content that does the same thing: hides the answer from the player.