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The Rule of Simplicity

Dan Fortier Posted:
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MMOWTF: The Rule of Simplicity

Weekly MMORPG.com columnist Dan Fortier talks about the idea of difficulty in MMORPGs from what we have, to Perma-Death to a difficulty system.

Editor's Note: This is an edition of a weekly column by Staff Writer Dan Fortier. The column is called "MMOWTF" and will look at some of the stranger or more frustrating events in MMOs as seen by Mr. Fotier. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of MMORPG.com, its staff or management.

There has always been a strange tension in game communities about how difficult an MMO should be. Many players constantly gripe that MMOs are too easy and that the amount of time played, not player skill, is the overwhelming factor in advancement. Others point out that the new generation of easy games has helped the genre expand out of the niche market. Like most single player RPGs dating back to Dragon Warrior, you could always overcome a challenge by simply out leveling your foe and thus crushing him easily. With few exceptions, the concept of 'Level > Skill' dominates the industry mindset. This week's article will bridge the gap between the two camps with a few novel ideas. Break out your inhalers for what promises to be a thoroughly sordid adventure!

Before a game is released it is easy to bemoan the 'no consequence' mechanics in favor of complex and challenging systems. I've found that most people who are not playing any game at the moment are most likely to demand harsher penalties and tougher challenges in the games they want to play. Once these 'hardcore' disciples start playing, however, they typically are the first ones to get frustrated and quit when things don't go their way. It's human nature to let your eyes get bigger than your stomach when wishing for games that are tougher. Features that look great on paper can easily turn into a nightmare if not implemented properly and with suitable caution.. I'm sure, for example, a good portion of the perma-death crowd would cry "OMGWTF this is BS!" and pummel their keyboard when actually faced with the permanent loss of a character in their wonderful system.

This is not to say that games that offer a challenge have to be some ridiculously arduous 'climb Mount Everest' simulation. There are many games that create a scalable challenge, but designing a system in a MMO that can challenge a player while not isolating the fickle masses is a near hopeless venture. At some point, you have to put your eggs in one basket and stick with a system that emphasizes the strengths of your game. As anyone who has seen the WoW - LotRO 'Polish > Complexity' revolution can tell you, the less people you discourage with difficult mechanics and steep learning curves, the more people you will have around paying their subscription money every month. What kind of feature could let a player choose his/her level of immersion and risk?

How about bring back the old Difficulty Levels? It would require some serious tweaking to make it fit with an MMO, but it is doable. For example, you choose your level of difficultly when you create your character (Easy, Normal, Hard, or Extreme) and the choice determines what kind of rules you play by. Easy mode could give players virtually no death penalty, but only allow them to gain a faction of the experience from any fight. Hard could give a player a bonus to earned experience while providing for a much harsher death penalty and possibly even dropping items when they die. Extreme could enable perma-death, but allow the character to gain access to the most powerful skills if they manage to survive or allow them to earn double experience from fights. This would let players have more choices in just how much they risk without changing the basic rules of the game. Just remember, if you find a way to make it work in a game someday I'll be expecting a small royalty check every month.

When it comes right down to it, providing just the right level of challenge is extremely tricky when you are trying to do it on a massive multiplayer scale and as we can see it is much easier just to put the game on easy mode. I don't think I've ever heard a player say they were quitting a game because it was too simple and many Dungeon Masters are still holding their weekly power gamer Monty Haul campaigns without any complaints or attrition...What is the lesson we just learned today kids? Straight from some negative MMO Utopia:

Dumb is Smart, Simplicity is Complexity, Transparency is Depth.

That's all I got for this week and by the measure of most MMOs I just wrote a blockbuster hit treatise! I'm headed back to my Ivory Tower until next time when I'll bring back more broken tablets of worthless knowledge. Salute!


Dan Fortier