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Player Versus Player: Have MMOs Become Too Easy?

Column By Christopher Coke on October 23, 2013

Welcome to Player Versus Player, the column where we take PvP out of the arena and into your feed reader. There has been an ongoing debate in recent years, one that is fueled by equal parts nostalgia, experience, and modern sense. We’re talking about the difficulty scale and just how perilously, if at all, today’s MMOs have shifted toward ease and accessibility. Let’s get into it.

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The Issue: Have MMOs become too easy over time?

The sides:

Bill “Old School = Overrated” Murphy: Bill is the Managing Editor of MMORPG and believes in the evolution (slow though it might be) of MMOs.

Chris “Walked Both Ways in the Snow” Coke: Chris is a columnist and podcast host and has played enough MMOs to know that what’s newer isn’t always better.

With that, we’re dropping the flag. Have at it boys.

Chris: Glad to be back at the podium with you, Bill. When it comes to this topic, there’s something I have to say up front: I don’t think these games have ever been all that difficult. Even back in the EQ and Ultima days, MMOs have objectively offered less real challenge than almost any other genre. What they had back then were time gates and commitment blocks. Important challenges to our genre, yes, but not exactly skill-based. Even raiding, something undeniably skill-based, has more to do with orchestrating players than outsmarting game systems.

Bill: I think you’re absolutely right, there. The games have traditionally been more about managing numbers or skill rotations and min-maxing, rather than something that takes real player skill. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t ever some sort of meta-skill involved in those games of old. And lately, I see the genre really hurtling towards requiring more gameplay awareness and dexterity than ever before. Along the way though, in the wake of Warcraft, there were bound to be a few “let’s just make it easy so everyone can play it” kind of games.

Chris: I’ll admit that MMOs have evolved since the old days. Battling enemies isn’t the stand-in-one-spot watch-a-keybar affair it used to be. Now we have “action combat.” What should have made games more challenging has in fact done the opposite. These days, we’re lucky to get a handful of attacks to strategize with. The extra abilities we lost now boil down to dodge-rolls and self-heals. We might be moving more, but developers still think we need hand holding and too few options to get wrong.

Bill: I have to disagree a bit here, only because though some action combat systems may be simple... but others?  Others can be truly difficult to master. I don’t think the number of attacks or skills we have has anything to do with difficulty.  Well-done AI, well-paced combat, and the need to maneuver and react in combat is always going to outshine those games that are simply “button-mashers”.  But yeah... I’d agree that too many games lean towards hand-holding.  No argument there.

Chris: The cattle call of the last generation of MMOs (I do believe we’re moving into a new one) has been accessibility. Let’s look at what we lost with that: meaningful grouping, long term goals, dangerous worlds with real risk vs reward, being able to excel beyond the “level playing field.” That’s a shame because I was under the impression we were playing in virtual worlds. The games of today feel a lot more like playpens where nobody’s a loser and everybody wins.

Bill: Why must you make it so hard to argue with you? Like I said earlier, I think a lot of games erred on the side of caution by making their content accessible for everyone. I really hope WildStar’s insistence to provide content to the hardcore doesn’t bite them in the arse, because while I’ll likely never see the 40-man raid content in Nexus, I’m actually happy that there’s something which will take skill and teamwork to achieve in that game. But what I really want back is a game that not only makes it possible to die, but gives you a reason to be afraid of kicking the bucket. Look towards Pathfinder and its corpse-run plus lootable items for that notion. Would death be frustrating in this form? Yep. But just because it’s a game doesn’t mean it shouldn’t come without a sense of danger. And I think developers are remembering this in upcoming titles.

Chris: Sure, I can see that.  I don’t want to beat a dead drum here but equality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Today, everyone needs to be the best in everything. Everything. Whoever decided that all players should reach the level cap moved this genre from journey to destination. Anyone who wants to see the whole world can. Anyone who wants to be a master crafter can and on the weekends. This raises the question, if everyone can do everything, why is any of it special? That might well be why these games wear out after 90 days. There’s no more mystery left.

Bill: I think you’ve missed the point of the last generation of MMOs. They’ve been overly easy, they’ve tried too hard to emulate a phenom’s success, and they’ve suffered because of this. And it’s all been very public. Then you have games which push the envelope in a number of ways, but sell poorly for other reasons like Funcom’s The Secret World... arguably the hardest game in terms of quests and content of the last ten years.  There’s no magic bullet, and just like any genre we’re going to see games that are easy and games that are “hard”. But one will likely always sell more, based on past examples set in other genres: the mass-appeal and easy/accessible game. But that doesn’t mean that a resurgence of the old days isn’t coming back.

Chris: I’ll end with this: the biggest reason I believe MMOs are less challenging today is that developers are assuming far less of us than ever before. They don’t want us to leave because they ask us to try hard. Maybe that’s a necessary evil when there are more players and more options than in the past, but accessibility has turned out to be a double-edged sword. The players these “accessible” designs were meant for aren’t newbies anymore. They want meaty designs like the rest of us, so it’s time this industry re-targets actual MMO players instead of potential ones. Danger, intrigue, exploration, cooperation, progression, and reward. That’s what it’s about and too many of those elements are missing in today’s games.

Bill: I’ll end on a positive note, Chris, because I think we’ll all see much improvement in the “danger, intrigue, exploration, cooperation, progression, and reward” you crave over the next few years. The rise of the Indie MMO is a real thing, crowd-funding is making it so and we’re seeing some truly unafraid developers go with their guts. Let’s hope their designs pay off, and we’ll see more and more mainstream publishers and developers go the route of CCP and less trying to ape Blizzard’s formula.

That’s all from us, folks. Time to sound off with your opinions in the comments!


Christopher Coke / Chris has been an MMO player for years. He believes in the potential of MMOs and is excited to see virtual worlds evolve and grow. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight

Bill Murphy / Bill Murphy is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.

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Player Versus Player
Every so often (or all the time), there are arguments brewing in the MMO fandom. This column pits two players against each other to face off on either side of a hot topic as they vie for your support.
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