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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3 years ago

Very difficult question.

What is difficult ? The gaming audience has grown so much that it has become mainstream. I played my first videogame in the 80’s and the community was very small these days. And yes games used to be more challenging back then but imo gamers could put more time into games these days.

At least me, since i went to school at that time and no full grown adult that i knew off played video. games. Today a lot of adults, fathers, mums and even grandpa’s and grandmum’s play video games. So difficulty had to adapt, a lot of people do not play games for the challenge, they play them for fun, for distraction after a hard day and for thousand other reasons.

In mmo’s, at least the AAA ones imo it is important that content is available for everybody be it a hardcore or a casual player.

3 years ago

I have to agree that the term difficulty in regards to mmos is very hard to really pin down and define, because as others have stated, what’s difficult for you may not be for me, and visa versa.

The better approach I think for mmos to take is to stop attempting to cater to as many players as possible, and specialize in niches they can milk. That way they can create challengong experiences for those players, and are more likely to create long term customers.

Jon Wax(@jon_wax)
3 years ago

The systems in place are too easy to learn. Lock picking in eso was the most interesting tactile mechanic I’ve seen in a while(esp with rumble on) but the mechanic is way to easy to master

Stat bars in general are a turn off. The more time and experience you have invested in an action or object, you get progressively better,mbut the linear nature kills any organic sense of learning or improvement.mlevelling just gets you harder ai. So to offset it, they toss in cosmetics.

Disney Shooter. The day one retail and 6 month later purchaser are expected to have the same experience, hence the vanilla design aspect and linear progression of most games. FOMO causes devs to design along repetitive pathways

Consistent rewards for too many minor actions. Too many toy prize drops. Hit that dopamine switch lightly, but often.

Environments that are too small, to easy to travel, too much free time allows for op players to merc noobs. Idle minds are the devils playground, the world has to be this way or noob won’t last an hour or op gets bored. Eventually everyone is op and everyone is bored.

I want a game that feels more like nurturing a living organism in a living world by nudging it in certain ways, not just rails and lore dictating the the distance this thing will go. And if the organism dies, I want emotional connection to that loss. Most games feel empty in that regard.

3 years ago

I’ll tell you what’s not difficulty: simply giving mobs 10x the hit points so time to kill approaches a minute per mob.*

*as you might infer, I’m leveling a toon in RIFT from 65-70.

3 years ago

To me, difficulty in MMORPG combat should be more of a resource management game than “don’t stand in red ring, because you’ll instantly die” although that can be fun in a few encounters.
I think way too many games go for the cheap one-shot kills, but I don’t really like that. If I’m slowly taken down, I feel more of a sense of getting overpowered rather than “shit, I messed up” but I guess it’s also easier to learn people not to die from powerful attacks rather than to manage their resources.

World of Warcraft has quite a bit of resource management going on and doesn’t often go for one-shot bullshit. Guild Wars 2 has a lot of one-shot bullshit, but in that game, you can revive each other, so it doesn’t matter as much. So in that sense, the amount of people kind of count as resources. That’s why I enjoy group content in Guild Wars 2.

Ludovic Darkstar(@ludovic_darkstar)
3 years ago

Too easy to me is mowing down multiple same/higher level npc’s with very little chance of dying.
Fun is risking death and being rewarded for taking down a slightly higher level npc, by utilising every trick in my characters book.
Fun is returning at a later time to claim revenge for those deaths!

Fun is risk vs reward
Not fun is reward for no risk
Not fun is an I win button

3 years ago

“risk” I think is an important component of the “easy/hard” conversation. If there is no risk, or minimal risk then something can be perceived as easy, because it can be repeated or attempted without fear of loss.
“quality of life” aspects of games are also an important component. I am not so sure that things typically added for QOL really do add “quality”… because the “required effort” is itself a quality in some games. If a game adds bottomless, self-sorting bags, instant teleportation to locations, instant access to mail/bank/storage from anywhere, etc.. people can easily see these as making the game “too easy” as it is removing what used to be part of the effort to achieve something.
It’s a different conversation for every different category of game as well. What I like in Overwatch I would hate in an MMO.

Dug From The Earth(@dug_from_the_earth)
3 years ago

I think this concept has been allowed to go on for to long without anyone really setting a precedence. The result of which has lead a much larger than should be group of gamers to believe that “Difficulty = Time Spent.”. Examples:

– If it doesnt take 3 months to hit max level, its too easy
– If it doesnt take 6 months of solid raiding to get all epic gear, its too easy
– If you dont grind rep to exalted (ie: time) then you didnt put in the work to unlock the rewards, and shouldnt get them so easily.

The list is huge. Its all about time spent… which is nothing more than time spent. Not challenge, not difficulty, not even skill.

Players have been duped into thinking this way by companies business models, which are specifically designed to do 1 thing. Take up as much of your time as possible, so that you either 1. Want to subscribe, or 2. Buy things to speed up the process. Getting to max level doesnt take a long time because its difficult. It takes time because the game company needs you staying in the game so they can make money.

Think about it… Getting to max level doesnt take time because you keep failing at things that earn xp. You dont keep dying because of the challenge, which slows down the rate at which you level. It takes a long time because of the sheer amount of xp they require you to have to level up. Period. This doesnt represent difficulty (maybe the difficulty of staying awake the whole time.). And yet, many players believe these time gated activities are the pure essence of difficulty rating.

3 years ago

It’s why I always decouple how hard something is from how much effort it demands. Something can take a lot of effort while being boringly easy (like, say, just about every rep grind I’ve seen in any MMO).

I also decouple difficulty from losses and rewards. The way I see it, difficulty is how likely you are to fail; anything that happens after success or failure is already defined has nothing to do, at all, with how difficult a task is.

3 years ago

I’d like to see difficulty scaling and/or difficulty settings (set by the player) in MMOs (at least for any solo or instanced content), perhaps with correspondingly adjusted rewards. Such settings are pretty common in SP games.

As an example, I’d like to see such settings in GW2 for the zone story/living story missions, which I often find quite difficult, missions some (better!) players think are “just right” and still others consider “too easy.”

MMO players are never going to all agree on what’s easy or difficult because player abilities are so diverse. I don’t see why it would “rain on anyone’s parade” if fellow players are completing story-based missions in an easier or harder mode. Correspondingly, rewards (gold, xp, loot, etc.) should be scaled to whatever mode or setting (easy, normal, or hard) in which certain types of content were completed.

I’d also like to see some kind of scaling implemented for bosses in persistent worlds and areas that adjusts to the number of players involved or nearby.

In GW2, again, it is extraordinarily frustrating to make your way to some hard-to-reach Hero Point boss only to have to wait, and wait, and wait for more players (or else a “zerg train”) to show up to help you defeat it.

3 years ago

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.

I disagree with most of this in a number of ways. In my comments I am referring to Everquest, and not UO since those games are as different as night and day.

A general note about the statement that rng, withholding information, grind, raids, long progression etc is not difficulty.. maybe not as single mechanics on its own but combined I find that all those are factors that add to difficulty. I have not seen much of other kinds of difficulty in mmos; maybe some rare cases of co-op action combat, but I certainly don’t consider “don’t stand in the red circle” or zerg-and-try-not-to-die combat difficult.
Also as mmos have become much less co-op (roles) based, the simplicity on combat has increased with it, and there is really no mmo that on the combat side reaches Everquest complexity. If you think mmo combat has increased in complexity, then you probably never dived into Everquest on a deeper level, or you have a very different idea of what constitute difficulty (twitch reflexes counting as difficulty and co-op and tactical decision making not counting ? shrug).
Is zerging in GW2 difficult ? is spamming abilities while dodging at a fast pace in Barbie Doll Online (sorry I mean Black Desert) difficult ? There is a little challenge in the learning part of it, but for me it doesn’t count for much in a difficulty definition.

On a non combat note, is it difficult to get herded through story quests versus figuring stuff out yourself (withholding information) ? Is it difficult to have no roles versus even just a simple trinity like wow or how about a real complex system like Everquest with actual meaningful CC, debuffing, and all kind of important situational auxiliary roles. Is it difficult to have no RNG or fail mechanics versus actually having the joy of completing something … yes difficult!.

My point is complexity = difficulty to a very high degree. And all mmos are continually decreasing complexity on almost all levels and have been for many years. You just can’t have difficulty without complexity. You can hate grind and rng or relying on others for co-op or raiding and various other personal (completely valid) ideas of what is fun and what is not, but if you just remove all those complex things and don’t replace it with something else (“difficult”) then you are only removing difficulty from the game.

Anyways difficulty for me is: giving me freedom and choices, letting me figure things out on my own, providing as much complexity as possible in every system from combat to exploration to how I choose to interact with the world, npc and players. It is giving me the option to fail, to be frustrated, to feel accomplished (which all goes hand in hand, nothing without the other). To interact with other players through co-op combat, meaningful trade and many other ways.. And a bunch of other things, which all in all build up a web of complexity for a game aka .. difficulty.

Robert Mann(@robert_mann)
3 years ago
Reply to  kjempff

I agree, in fact my “Seek a difficult situation to overcome” has basically turned into “Well, I solo’d a raidboss on level for hours since the only difficulty was avoiding bad and dealing with the HP sponge factor.”

Honestly, when I can clear to and solo bosses on level where a raid of at least 10 is meant to be, something is very clearly too easy.