Vague Patch Notes: The philosophy of challenge in MMOs


Today, I want to start thing off by talking about Final Fantasy. This is not entirely surprising. What may be surprising is that I’m talking about Final Fantasy Tactics, which is not online and yet still a helpful example when we talk about challenges because players found an impossible challenge and then beat it.

The Straight Character Challenge was an idea developed by an enterprising fan of the game to breathe new life into the game. FFT is not a difficult game, especially since it’s easy to find all of the best abilities and slap them on to a single character. But what if instead of playing the game that way as intended, you played the game by picking out one job and having your entire party consist of just that job? No abilities outside of that job whatsoever?

It probably sounds difficult. But that’s without getting into the fact that one of the game’s jobs relies entirely upon other job abilities to even function. Calculator, as a job, is characterized by being exceedingly slow and weak but casting instant spells that can target almost anyone. Except it doesn’t learn those spells itself… and in an SCC playthrough, you aren’t supposed to learn them. This made it seem impossible.

You’ll note that I used the word “seem.” That’s because it wasn’t impossible, as it turned out. Through a great deal of deep mechanical knowledge and a number of tricks of the game engine, it turns out that you can beat the game with this intensely weird selection of units. You need a whole lot of patience to reset the game multiple times and deal with a lot of random chances, and you need to fine-tune your understanding of every part of the game, but it can be done.

Is this part of the game’s challenge?

Obviously, this is challenging. It’s using the single worst job in the game for this task to beat the game, a mage with no spells smacking its way across the world. But it’s also playing the game so far outside of its intended design that it no longer seems like something the developers intended. Various bits of the game can rely on elements that otherwise never come into play. It’s not filled with glitches, though… so is it part of the game’s challenge?

Going nowhere, going nowhere.

Here’s the funny thing about challenging content in any game: it’s designed to be beaten. No matter how difficult it might seem, it’s always meant to be beaten in one way or another. But sometimes the way that you’re supposed to beat it isn’t the way you’ll actually approach it.

Every week in Final Fantasy XIV, there’s a set of challenges in the Masked Carnivale for Blue Mages. The week I’m writing this, one of the challenges involves fighting an enemy who reflects all spells and can stun you with a room-wide gaze attack, leading to almost certain death. What you’re supposed to do is hit her with Ink Jet, which reflects off of her shield and then afflicts you with Blind, thereby rendering you immune to the gaze attack.

This is not what I did. One of my characters had Final Sting, and it’s possible to blitz her down and then massively buff Final Sting so that it counts as victory even when you die. The other did not, but you can very carefully avoid the gaze attack by running into a damage field and then out; timing is close, but you can survive it and win even though it should be impossible. Were those actions part of the challenge? Was “farming Final Sting” a challenge? Should it have been seen as one? Were these “genuine” wins?

All of the content in a given game is meant to be beaten. The hardest bosses who have loot tables were meant to be killed because that’s why they have a selection of things that can be dropped. And it’s here that you can start wandering into the woods about what constitutes “real” challenge, a debate that’s infinitely maleable because there are so many different version of challenge to chase.

Consider Ragnaros in World of Warcraft. No, not the version in the Firelands; the original one, the old-school fight. If you remove the numbers from the equation, the fight itself is pretty straightforward. Ragnaros knocks people into lava, so get out of the lava. He summons adds, so kill them to make him resurface. Chew down his health until he dies. Simple and straightforward.

What made that a challenge? It wasn’t the mechanics, it was the numbers and the coordination. You needed enough people capable of following the mechanics reliably and with good enough gear to finish the whole thing. The actual boss fight was pretty easy and consisted of, well, rinse and repeat.


Does that make it more or less challenging than more modern fights? Is it more or less challenging than if you had to fight him solo? A solo fight would mean that victory is entirely in the hands of one player, which means on one level that it’s more challenging. At the same time, it also means that the mechanics are by necessity reliant solely on one person being present; you don’t need to react to the same number of things or have the sense of group awareness. And you don’t have to deal with the challenge of gathering and coordinating players.

We say that we want things that are harder, like they used to be. But a lot of these things weren’t really harder in the usual sense. I’m picking on Ragnaros not out of any malice or bitterness, but because the challenge revolved more around making sure that most of your party could handle him reliably. The mechanics were pretty simple, but it could be hard to find 39 other players who could manage the mechanics and keep up good damage and remain situational awareness.

A while back, I talked about how there are lots of different sorts of player skill in MMOs. Some skills are ones we acknowledge, others aren’t. And all of them contribute to whether you find a particular challenge too hard, too easy, or just not worth doing.

Indeed, I suspect older MMOs could sometimes feel harder just because a lot of their challenges required nearly inhuman levels of time and dedication, which was certainly a challenge but not the sort that appealed to a good portion of the potential playerbase. So there were things that you just knew you were never going to accomplish or see, and if that changed it was amazing. Being able to see Ragnaros felt like a big challenging moment, even if the challenge was less about his mechanics and more about numbers and basic execution.

As is sometimes the case in this column, this is more a series of musings than an action plan. I think the idea that we have swirling around “challenge” in MMOs in particular (and, honestly, video games in general) is kind of odd and inherently contradictory in some places. We want things that feel difficult that we still think we can accomplish, or at least that we could theoretically accomplish. A challenge just hard enough that we feel like there was effort put forth, but not so hard that it feels like it’s not worth bothering, so we can trick ourselves into thinking that we weren’t supposed to defeat it when we always were.

Unless, of course, you take it on in a way you weren’t supposed to. Video games are weird.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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