Massively Overthinking: What we really mean when we talk about ‘difficulty’ in MMORPGs


Massively OP reader Steve wants us to revisit the Daily Grind on making death more meaningful without making it more annoying. His letter was long, so let me paraphrase a bit:

“It feels to me like underlying point was, ‘MMOs are too easy, so how do we make them harder?’ The question of video game difficulty is something that is seldom ever tackled head-on, as it tends to draw out a somewhat vocal minority. There are so many worthy topics about how people define difficulty, twitch skills vs. depth, easy vs. hard, difficulty vs. accessibility, easy vs. engaging, shallowness vs. depth, and so on. These are things I’d love to really see discussed more online, and very few sites will actually touch it. But I think that MOP’s community is overall mature enough to actually have some discussions about this without it devolving into a fist fight.”

I’m sure you’ll prove him right! Right, guys? Guys? So let’s talk about MMO difficulty in this week’s Massively Overthinking. What do we really mean when we talk about “difficulty” in MMORPGs? Are games easier than they used to be, and if so, is there something studios should do to change that?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I think what most people (especially non-MMO developers) think of MMO difficulty is in terms of boss encounters, akin to what stereotypical video games do. Going down this line, I feel like the original issue was just getting enough people to tackle early MMO content. That’s why it felt like most of it could be zerged if people really wanted. That’s also why loot was limited I bet, so people would balance between what was actually needed and what would be available. Capping the players able to participate via instancing helped create tighter experiences.

The next issue feels like it was about communication, especially if you look at a lot of the early World of Warcraft fights – none seemed very hard to me since I learned to “read” boss fights on console games. The problem was making sure other people understood that language too. A few were tough (like C’thun’s eye beam), but the ground actually could be used as a measurement system to help guide players- the availability of mods only made that easier. With action-based games replacing tab-targeting, yes, boss fights have become “harder,” since you really can’t type out warnings like you might have done before.

But this all ignores what makes MMOs unique in the first place: the RPG side of things. RPGs aren’t simply a set of mechanics. They’re not just dice rolls. RPGs were made to emulate MUDs, text-based games. Exploration based games. Games that asked you to think in non-linear ways, which feels like the antithesis of many modern MMOs (especially the theme-park variety).

And that’s OK for a certain crowd. Without a doubt, WoW proved there was an audience for that experience. However, the rest of us have struggled to find a solid MMORPG. Circling back to the idea of death penalties, I think properly tackling that helps. Project Gorgon actually rewards death as a stat, increasing your health or inventory space. It motivates you to risk your life, if not outright find new ways to die. And that’s the point: to explore. That should be the challenge. It feels odd to say this, but making MMOs less “massive” by WoW numbers might help, as information on niche games often isn’t as widely available. This makes it harder to obtain spoilers, increases the likelihood that you ask for help, and the odds that you actually explore for yourself (assuming you don’t quit and move on to another game before that).

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I agree with Steve that this is a challenging topic to unpack because it’s a minefield of dog whistles and proxy arguments about kids these days and casuals ruin everything and other such golden age tripe. But let’s give it a go anyway: I would define difficulty as a measurement of how much effort something takes to complete, mapped against duration, character skill/knowledge, player skill/knowledge, fun, and frustration. There’s a sweet spot there for every player and for the population as a whole.

And by that measure, I don’t think MMOs are easier than they used to be. When I look back at the earliest games in our genre like Ultima Online and EverQuest, I do not see difficult games; I see surprisingly simple and superficial games with simple mechanics and goals that frequently relied on nothing more than withholding information, randomness, extreme timesinks like grinding, and social barricades (PKing/raids) to provide almost all of their challenges, which isn’t the same as genuine difficulty (and also shouldn’t be read as an insult). MMO combat in particular is unfathomably more complex than it used to be as well as more accessible, which I consider a huge technical and psychological achievement. We’ve come a long way toward reducing mind-numbing grinds and trading it for other mental and physical challenges, like processing quests and staying out of the fire. Solo-friendly games have also removed some of the social barriers to play. More people playing and succeeding doesn’t mean the games are actually easier, and the march of MMOs over the last two decades demonstrates that handily.

All that said, I think definitely have to separate and break down “complexity” too in this discussion because while combat systems (and progression measurements like gear and DPS equations) have stiffened up considerably, we have lost design depth when it comes to other areas of the genre, like crafting depth (hey, Star Wars Galaxies) and housing depth (hey, EverQuest II). If the “games are too easy” crowd wants something to complain about, it should start there. Unfortunately, it’s far more tempting to blame the shift on some underclass of easymode gamers rather than call out bad or cheap or shallow design from the top down.

No, not wooden shields. Different kind of shield.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): Oh, boy, this is a complex one. Because, you know, the real question of “challenge” is one of those things that’s sort of impossible to answer due to being so bracingly subjective.

See, we’re starting from the question (not assumption) about whether or not MMOs have gotten less difficult over time. In order to really answer that, you first have to decide on what constitutes “difficulty,” and in my mind, MMOs have never been particularly difficult. They’ve certainly gotten less tedious over time, but not less difficult – and death penalties, as a rule, are in place to make MMOs take up more time. Assuming we’re taking the handful of permadeath options off the table, harsher death penalties just make players more cautious and discourage exploration and taking chances, which in term emphasizes staying safe no matter what.

An excellent example of this is visible in Final Fantasy XI over time. When I was first playing the game, earning more experience was incredibly slow, and you lost a fraction of how much you needed for your level when you died. At low levels, this was already painful; when you were gaining maybe 200 XP for a five-minute battle in a good group, losing 400 XP from death was unpleasant. But when you got into higher levels and would be losing upwards of 2000 XP from one death, it started to become downright crippling.

Now, however, it’s much easier to get lots more experience much faster; even discounting book pages and Records of Eminence (too complex to explain right now), I can easily earn upwards of 400 XP solo in a two-minute battle. Experience losses are also capped lower, which means that dying out in the field is still undesirable, but it no longer means waving goodbye to hours of work.

The thing is? None of that is difficult. It just requires the patience for the hours of work ahead of time and the hours of work associated with any slip-ups. That’s not actually difficult; it just requires a whole lot of patience. But, of course, if you see “being patient” as the form of challenge you want to encourage, then MMOs kind of have walked away from that particular style of challenge.

And that’s the short-circuit in any discussion about difficulty, because we all want things to be difficult in ways that happen to cater to our particular skills and talents. If you have a lot of patience and time, systems that reward that are going to cater to your particular ability to overcome challenges. If you’ve got great reflexes and muscle memory, those challenges will work out well for you. Games where the challenge is long-term planning and crunching lots of numbers are going to be easy as heck for some people and challenging for lots of others, and the people who have an easy time with it are going to be happy about overcoming the challenge instead of the people who don’t.

There also seems to be a population of the MMO crowd whose main talent was being a member of a larger group while other people did the heavy lifting, unfortunately.

In order to talk about challenge, then, you have to talk about what your goal is for those challenge and how you’re supposed to be challenging players. Just making death penalties steeper isn’t adding to the challenge, just adding to the consequences, and until you understand what sort of challenge you’re trying to deliver you don’t necessarily want to tweak that particular balance.

Patron Archebius: I wouldn’t say that games are getting easier – I would say that barriers to entry and progression are getting reduced. Just look at Fortnite, PUBG, LoL, Overwatch, CSGO; the hottest computer games right now are all multiplayer, all arena-based, and give you pretty much everything you need right out of the gate. You download it, you hop on, and you play with your friends. That doesn’t make these games easy, though. The skill cap is very high, and you’re typically measured by how well you perform against other players – the most dangerous game.

The difference is that the fundamental structure of most MMOs is based around leveling and gear, which means that as these games try to reduce their own barriers to entry, they’re not replaced by the same visceral accomplishments as finally getting 1st in a game of PUBG, or making that final push in Overwatch. MMOs are fundamentally structured around things that divide the community; if I were to try to play WoW with my friends that started back in high school, they’d either have to create a new character, or power-level me up to where they’re at. Newer MMOs try to reduce these barriers, but as result, there’s less to set players apart from each other, and the challenges are inherently different. Getting top raid gear in WoW was a full-time job for my friends; getting top raid gear in Destiny 2 is doing a weekly raid a few times.

If studios want to make MMOs more “difficult” while simultaneously pulling in enough players to remain viable, then I think they have to take a good long look at their fundamental structure. What experiences do they offer that arena games do not? What will thrill and challenge players enough to keep them around, while simultaneously not creating internal divisions in the community? What will let players stand out, while not isolating them? I have a few ideas myself, but that might be a different topic…

Your turn!

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