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Justin Webb: That's What She Said

Column By Justin Webb on February 09, 2010

This week I have mostly been playing Demon’s Souls. In addition to its mischievously placed apostrophe, it’s also astonishingly hard.

Its learning curve is more like a learning crevasse, where every mistake is rewarded by being flung flailing into the abyss. Some of the design decisions in the first level are astonishing:

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  • You can’t exit the level without beating it.
  • Every time you die, you must start the level again… and all the monsters respawn.
  • Many monsters can kill you in one hit if they get the drop on you.
  • Every time you die, you drop all your souls – the game’s xp and currency. If you die again without picking up those souls, they are gone for good.
  • You start out in human form. If you die, you turn into a spirit with reduced stats and half as many hit points. To resurrect, you must finish the level.
  • It can take a good 15 minutes to fight your way back to your dropped souls.
  • There is a “go left/go right” decision halfway through the first level, where going right takes you to a monster that is unkillable.
  • After finishing the first level, to be able to level up, you must talk to an NPC who is hidden so well that you will want to tear your face off.
  • It has a PvP mode where other players can “break into” your game and hunt you down and kill you.

While, normally, playing a game that punches me in the face repeatedly every couple of minutes would seem like a fruitless exercise in masochism, playing Demon’s Souls is surprisingly actually a lot of fun. I’ve come away from the experience bloodied and humbled, but I’ve loved it. And I’m not sure exactly why.

Maybe it’s because it’s such a cruel mistress and that it reminds me nostalgically of my formative gaming years.

As time has gone by, video games have become easier and easier. In the early days of micro-computing, video games were routinely extremely difficult, almost impossibly so. I remember playing Jet Set Willy on my Spectrum as an impressionable spotty teenager and getting absolutely nowhere near to finishing it. None of my friends got close either. It was just too damn difficult. However, “everyone” was playing it and loving it.

Back then, completing a game was a BIG deal.

Nowadays, it’s rare indeed if a game’s single-player content isn’t a total cake walk. (What is a cake walk anyway, and why are they “easy”?) Games now are about maximizing “accessibility” instead of creating meaningful challenges. They are content tunnels. And that’s OK. It’s where games have evolved to. However, it’s reassuring to know that every now and again a Ninja Gaiden or a Demon’s Souls will come along, like a fiercely-swung cricket bat to the teeth, and remind us of all the insanity we used to endure and adore.

MMOs too have not been immune to this trend. The first MUD I really invested any time in was Terris (originally on AOL). It was quite forgiving compared to the other popular MUD variants, but still had brutal features that you wouldn’t be able to get away with today. In addition to having to contend with human sysops killing you whenever they drunkenly felt like it, when I first started playing, you lost XP when you died, and you died a lot. However, I loved it, and Terris cemented my love of the MMORPG. Back then, MUDs had features that really punished players. But it was expected. Video games were supposed to be hard, so why should MUDs be any different, right?

When Everquest came along in the summer of ‘99, it took the design sensibilities of DikuMUD and added a novel third graphical dimension. It was massively popular and extremely successful. However, I remember bouncing off Everquest really hard. I played it first during the beta, then again at launch, and tried again for a third time a few years later. What really repelled me was that I couldn’t play it the way I wanted to (without having to group), and it was really, really hard (if you didn’t group). You see, since my early Jet Set Willy days, I had very gradually become spoiled into expecting that I wouldn’t get curb-stomped every time I made a mistake. Everquest just seemed to go out of its way to make me miserable… and to waste my time if I screwed up, which is inexcusable in an MMO.

Then WoW came out … and, with it, MMO easy mode, marking the end of dicking around your player base for no good reason and expecting to make any money. It soon became obvious that Blizzard had made a big list of every feature in Everquest that pissed people off, and replaced them all with more forgiving versions. And that’s one of the reasons why, in November 2004, WoW demolished EQ2.

While we can argue the merits of the perceived simplicity of WoW versus Everquest, what cannot be contended is the fact that since the mid-nineties, the general MMO landscape has become easier and easier to navigate … less pointy and more “accessible”. There’s that word again. As an example of a recent AAA MMO release, Star Trek Online is phenomenally easy, to the point that it’s actually quite difficult to die while playing, at least during the first 11 levels that I played.

Of course though, there is room for niche product. EVE Online is a great example of a successful game that hasn’t pandered to the easy trend. And Conan appears to be making a comparative comeback too. I’m sure WoW raids are very challenging too, but that’s endgame, and not representative of the game’s overall difficulty experience.

So where does that leave us? Are we just stuck with easy MMOs now? Can we expect to see any face-meltingly difficult MMOs any time soon? Or should we leave those painful experiences back in 1995 where they belong? Should MMOs make a stand and revert back to their back-breakingly difficult roots, or should insanely hard MMOs be jettisoned into space along with their beard-stroking aficionados?

Let me know what you think.

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Justin Webb
Justin Webb is a veteran MMO designer and curmudgeon who has worked for Hasbro, EA, and Tencent.

Justin's column will appear every Tuesday here at MMORPG.com.
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