Vague Patch Notes: The philosophy of challenge in MMOs

    
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The terror.

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.

Struggle.

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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Weilan

I can’t think of any new MMORPG that provides a valid challenge. The only challenge I see is finding people who you click with to do stuff. Other than that, a more cynical way to put it – the challenge is to keep playing the game and not get bored after some 10-20 hours.

The only game that felt challenging to me was Vanilla WoW. I literally, for many years had this feeling in me “I NEED TO PLAY WOW”, like I was literally addicted, with pretty much every other MMO, I had to force myself to even boot the game up, because I would usually postpone for days/weeks, because I didn’t feel like playing them at all due to not having any hook or challenge in them.

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Fenrir Wolf

Thanks for this, E. Definitely food for thought, and worth a little rumination.

I have a strange relationship with challenge. I’m no stranger to it as I’ve proven to be quite the skilled gamer despite my years. There are some 2D games I can (and do) speed run with the best of them. It’s a delight. Similarly, I have a… reputation amongst those who know me for using the environment to achieve the unexpected, sometimes breaking games in the process.

Sometimes, a challenge is in achieving something that the developers had never intended upon. That they’d never even thought about.

Those are some of my favourites.

My relationship with challenge though is when it’s artificial and requires a lot of forced grind, or forced interaction to be able to see it through. There are a number of valid reasons why — from an accessibility standpoint — why these choices aren’t fantastic.

The grind is objectionable, full stop. There are always better ways to have a game be more compelling to your players than patronising them with the likes of an operant conditioning chamber and social engineering. What this tells us is that the game isn’t fun enough to stand on its own merits. There’s no challenge in any form of grind, it’s just a time investment.

A challenge is when the player is faced with an obstacle and it’s up to them to figure out how to overcome it. So I would say that, for example, Castlevania IV has plentiful avenues of challenge, whereas the majority of MMOs don’t. There’s no challenge in having spent enough time grinding that you’ve garnered numbers big enough for the game to play itself.

A challenge is immediate. It presents itself to you, and there’s a period of time where you learn to understand the nature of the challenge, the game’s mechanics, and how you might react to it. Given reflexes and a decent period of time (that’s nowhere near on the scale of that which an MMO demands), and you can surpass it. You are guaranteed to do so. It’s a matter of when.

Older MMOs took that approach and transmogrified it into something foul and twisted. Whereas once the time spent revolved around coming to understand these mechanics and how you, the player, could interact with them? It was about passing time. Like mobile clicker games.

The design is made so that you’re encouraged to grind for new sets of gear, and to feel clever by noticing some rather obvious maths. We call this theorycrafting. It’s why I obstinately stick to concept builds as I abjectly refuse to become a part of that theatrical effort. It’s all just social engineering, with the end result being that these players will hopefully feel clever after having wasted their life.

You don’t really learn anything, though. You can’t go on to speed run it, not really. There’s an optimal path via gear, and that’s it. The only challenges really are those you’re responsible for yourself, such as speed runs or doing it without the best armour.

In many games, those are my favourite challenges. I don’t really want a game to provide me with too much challenge as — for the most part — it’s artificial. I can find real ways to challenge myself.

And furthermore, I have moods. I will often play something on the easiest difficulty in order to learn the ins-and-outs of it without stress. Having autism, anxiety, and the shakes it’s just the best way for me to approach a game. Then I’ll increase it as I feel comfortable. Eventually, I may end up speed running it or getting up to other madcap shenanigans to test myself.

I don’t think that many games are necessarily good at designing challenge. A good challenge, as I said, is one that presents you with an obstacle where you have to come to understand more about the game’s mechanics and what you can do to interact with them. There was plenty of this in old video games.

A fantastic example is the Ginzo tree from Ori and the Blind Forest.

That you learn something from this is cathartic, you know that the next time you do it, you can do it better. Just as you would with a puzzle game. It feels amazing, sometimes even superheroic. I haven’t ever really had that feeling from an MMO, nor have I heard my peers describe such. Just a sense of relief that it’s over, and gratitude for the rewards they’ve been granted for having done it to serve as recognition thereof.

This is because, ultimately, the only challenge of an MMORPG — as has been noted — is in communication between players. The challenge is actually provided by the players, not the game itself. I’m surprised to see anyone else recognise this. It’s a truth. In honesty, there’s really no challenge to raid bosses or dungeons whatsoever, is there? It’s all about being able to coordinate people.

And, for that, you have to want to be coordinated on a large scale. It feels more like a business meeting than a game at that point, or at least it does to me. You’re just dealing with awkward, often inefficient players who don’t know what they’re doing and you need a very manipulative, commanding sort of person to pull that entourage together into a unified force.

That’s why I don’t like forced grouping, because those interactions cause me a great deal of anxiety. I don’t like being shepherded and yelled at, nor do I like what I know will happen if the raid fails. As when it fails, the most manipulative, cut-throat players will look to scapegoat others for whatever mistakes they’ve made, and the one who receives the most blame is the least combative, aggressive player of the lot.

That’d be me. Hello.

For that reason, I was quickly turned off of forced grouping. That kind of “challenge” is one that I could most certainly do without. I don’t need the accusations, the drama, and the pathos of it all. Even if it wasn’t targeted at me, I have way too much empathy as an autistic person that it’d likely result in an overload and I’d just get very upset.

I. Can’t. Do. Schadenfreude.

I don’t know whether it’s down to my autism or what have you, but I can’t. Others have tried to explain to me how it works and I just end up feeling dirty. I’ve noticed from autism forums like Wrong Planet that this is a fairly common attitude. So I think it is down to autism. It just isn’t in me to appreciate the suffering of other people. I don’t appreciate my own, either.

I’ve never denied that I’m a big baby. I’m very emotional and I care a lot about people. It’s part of the reason why I’m so progressive, even at my venerable age.

So that’s really not a “challenge” that I can appreciate. It seems like the kind that EVE Online players revel in, it’s just not for me and I’m completely okay with that. I even acknowledge it’s a challenge on some level, but it’s one that involves manipulating others and I’m not cool with it.

It’s why when I face content, I’d rather do it solo, just with my partner, or with us two and a couple of our friends. After that, I might build up to eventually giving grouping a go again, but — I have to stress — only because it puts the onus of good behaviour upon everyone.

If you’re being a cut-throat sociopath? I’ve already played this content solo! I have no need to do this in a group of deeply unpleasant people, goodbye! Get in touch if you ever figure out how feelings work.

>> Continued. >>

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Fenrir Wolf

>> Continued. >>

What I’d want, then, is for challenges like those old games that I can tackle with friends. I’d also like some difficulty settings so that I can enjoy the content (the story and so on), and then return afterwards to have a crack at the challenge of it without worrying about never being able to finish the game hanging over my head like the Sword of Damocles.

I’m old, I have anxiety, I get the shakes, it’s just what I prefer. I like to see the story first, and then I can actually enjoy getting stuck. If the challenge is something I fully understand, I may even go into it with the difficulty cranked up and turn it down if it becomes too much for my first run. That’s why I think that having difficulty settings like that are important even for an MMO.

Is the dungeon too hard for the first run? Tone the difficulty down a bit and get back to it, try again with it up higher next time. Is it being a breeze, and thus not proving stimulating in any way? Then crank that difficulty up! Past my first run, I can get… well, let’s say fairly masochistic with difficulty in order to see just how far I’m able to push myself despite my disabilities.

That’s why I did a speed run of VVVVVV on touch controls. It was so cathartic.

I think though that for difficulty settings to be a thing in MMOs, difficulty beyond just grinding needs to be a thing. Usually, the “difficulty setting” of an MMO is purely down to how much time you’ve spent running in that hamster wheel. If you have the best gear, then content will be a breeze.

I’d rather a proper challenge. Hit me with something like Spyro, Sly Cooper, or Thief (TheDarkMod) as content and I’ll just eat it up.

Give me something to learn. Watching numbers go up isn’t learning anything. Mobile titles have distilled that down to clicker titles, and I really can’t imagine anyone could say that one is learning anything whilst tapping the screen.

MMOs are clicker titles with many layers of obfuscation doing their best to cover it up. Clicker titles are pretty much just the new MMORPG, but without the dishonesty.

There’s no real difference between, say, AdVenture Capitalist and World of Warcraft.

Challenge comes from learning something.

And, indeed, I’ll grant you that in a raid scenario you might be learning something… but what you’re learning in that particular setting gives me hives. That’s one challenge I’ll never get the hang of… I don’t think I even want to. I think I’m good.

Good practise for the corporate workplace though, I suppose. If someone tries to scapegoat you, you’ll come prepared. That’s really not for me, not at all…

I just can’t deal with it.

A failing? Maybe. Probably. However you’d define it, I suppose. I think of it is a bonus to empathy.

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Dean Greenhoe

I for one enjoy a bit of “harder” play. Hard but smart is what I like. I have a true dislike for highly repetitive play. I also dislike RNG drops for quest items. Example: If a quest wants me to collect 5 rabbit hearts but only 1 out of 100 randomly drops a heart. That is just a dumb mechanic.

A good “harder” mechanic would be for the rabbits to migrate over time so I never know where to find them. Another thing that can help break the monotony is if there was 1 in a 100 of those rabbits that is rabid and immediately goes for your jugular. Adding some reality by makeing the rabbits run away if they see you kill one of them, forcing you to carefully hunt the outliers of the herd.

So basically I like “smart” mechanics to create the harder play not the mundane kill 250,000 creatures to reach max level.

kjempff
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kjempff

As for challenge .. there are many different ways of challenge because players view challenge differently depending on taste.
Some will say staying focused on “simpler” things for a long time is challenging, while others will call it easy and boring. Some will say complex but short fights are challenging, and others that it is just a retry grind. Some will say it is challenging to manage fast paced situations that require muscle memory and fast thinking, others will say it lacks tactical depth. Some will say it is challenging to figure out stuff by yourself instead of the game holding your hand, and others will call it bad game design and frustrating and quit (aka it will never be a challenge for them). Some like the challenge of needing to qualify to be allowed to some content (gating, keying, progression) because it create feeling of accomplishment and anticipation, and others will call it elitism and not participate so it will never be a challenge for them.
And so on…

On a side note…

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

But it did/does appeal to a good portion of its playerbase.
It doesn’t appeal to the player segment who does not like the challenge of persistence and dedication – These are the ones who would say stuff like “nearly inhuman level of time commitment” and “grindy”.
Those who does not view it as nearly impossible time commitment (probably the same who are in it for the journey and not the destination), are the playerbase of such games; and if you change that, it will also change the playerbase.. or potential playerbase as you call it, but then everything is a potential playerbase because you can potentially change a game to target any player segment.

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Anstalt

I love the concept of challenge in computer games and have spent a long time thinking about it over the years, primarily because I find the majority of games easy and used to be unable to figure out why.

I have tried to categorize challenge and come up with the following:

1) Intellectual challenge.
This is content that requires you to solve mental problems in order to succeed. If you make the right decisions, you win, make the wrong ones and you lose.

This is my prefered form of challenge as it is the most mentally stimulating, however it is also the form of challenge that is least present in the gaming world and especially in MMOs. In a combat game, you need a really deep system in order to introduce intellectual challenge but MMOs tend to have quite shallow systems, especially given how much action combat has taken over.

Also, if your system is too shallow or too simple then intellectual challenge eventually gets replaced by knowledge because you’ve experienced every possible scenario.

2) Knowledge Challenge
This is content that requires you to remember things in order to win. If you can remember everything and respond appropriately, you win. Forget stuff and u lose. This often seen with complicated boss fights, you need to remember all their tactics in order to win.

I enjoy this type of challenge, but the fun usually comes most from the learning process (which is intellectual challenge). Simply having to remember lots of things isn’t that engaging for me, but needing good memory can still be challenging. I think the reason this isn’t used that much now is everyone just looks up the tactics online, skipping the initial intellectual challenge so all they need to do is remember stuff.

3) Physical Challenge
Otherwise known as twitch skills, this is content that requires precise physical movements and reactions. Action combat relies on this type of challenge – parry at the right time, aim at someones head, hit dodge fast enough etc.

I personally dislike this form of challenge because your brain is barely needed so I get bored very quickly. Also, because success is based on physicallity, getting good at it is simply a matter of time. The longer you play, the better your muscle memory and conditioning so the better you get. Finally, due to the limitations of user input devices, the physicality involved is generally limited to your eyes and hands.

4) Social Challenge
Simply put, this is content that requires 2+ players to complete. The more coordination required, the higher the challenge.

I enjoy this type of challenge too. This type of challenge isn’t about the organisation required before tackling the content, but specifically about the social challenge of the content itself. An MMO with lots of inter-class dependencies is a good example of social challenge. You have to be aware of everyone around you, as well as the content, so that you can react not only to the AI, but also to your team.

Again, this is something that has been mostly missing from modern MMOs. Action combat kills this off, reducing it to simply tanking and healing so that most players don’t even need to care about their team, the leader just needs to give orders properly.

5) Artificial Challenge
This is the label I give to things that seem like a challenge but actually aren’t challenging, because your ability to succeed or fail has nothing to do with you as a person.

Included in this category is time. We all have the same amount of time, its our choice whether to invest that time in a game or not. That’s not challenge. Also included is stats/gearchecks/rage timers etc. Again, this is not challenge at all, it’s just a gate, a hoop you need to jump through before you can win.

Unfortunately, a lot of games use this sort of thing to give us “challenge”. It’s bullshit, its lazy design, but it tends to tie into progression systems very easily hence it’s proliferation through the genre.

kjempff
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kjempff

Very nicely put. Maybe a few other challenge archetypes could be added, if you really made a full study on it ?
Would Knowledge contain something like Experience? … as in having build up the experience to react to unforeseen situations, in the most optimal way. Foreseeing enemy reaction patterns of new situations, based on previous observations(experience); it could be a randomized placement and combination of enemies on a randomized environment, and knowing how to approach, knowing when to run and when to stay and fight, knowing how to manipulate/optimize situations by moving or by using abilities for maximum effect and much more.
I mean these are not that much Intellectual, because it is more of an unconscious decision making, but on the other hand it cannot happen without a curious analyzing mindset ?

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Anstalt

I’ve had this discussion on a few different forums and I’m certain you’re right: there are probably other types of challenge that I haven’t thought of or haven’t categorized properly.

Experience is essentially just knowledge, perhaps combined with intellectual challenge – you use your intellect to recognise the situation, then your knowledge comes into play with the solution.

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luxundae

Slightly OT, but the only not-supposed-to-be-beaten MMO challenge I’m aware of was the Sleeper in EQ. Unless I have that wrong. Any others?

This got me thinking about the sorts of challenges I enjoy in MMOs. Random musings follow…

Long coordination challenges are not hugely fun. The actual original 4 horsemen fight, for example, wasn’t great at the moment. The more people you have and the longer it goes on, the more random stuff creeps in. Someone misses a key beat because, statistically, someone will eventually. Or someone loses their internet connection (in the old 40-mans this was *common*). I’d find losing if the strategy we had wasn’t great or if our execution was poor, but it gets frustrating to lose just because the combined execution was only 90% perfect.

On the other hand, I really do enjoy attunement as a challenge. At least once you get rid of gear. Need to go on a grand adventure to get the favor of the elven queen and learn the secrets of the hidden mountain before you can forge the magic key to open whatever-the-lair-is? That makes a lot of sense to me. That draws you into the virtual world. That’s pretty awesome. Especially if a lot of it can be done solo on your own time. However, if there’s a massive gear grind in there, or if for some world-breaking reason *everyone* needs a key (huh?) then it starts to get weird and annoying.

I also enjoy strategy and build design as a challenge. The old TSW skill wheel was a joy for me.

I guess, in general, I like long and involved challenges that can be mostly done solo or in small groups. Handle those asynchronously, and then have relatively short coordination challenges. Want a difficult or involved boss fight? Cool! Make it one that requires a bit of preplanning, prepwork, and strategizing. Don’t make it one that just does through the same three phases…ten times. Two different sorts of challenges, one of which I find much more enjoyable!

I guess the real ticket is a game that has sufficient breadth of activities or, even better, sufficiently diverse classes and playstyles and two people can be playing the same content yet experiences different sorts of challenges in it. One ritualist class that relies heavily on preparing and planning and then has simple boss fight execution. One Acrobat that does the opposite. Etc.

Alright, done rambling.

Interesting piece, Eliot! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this :)

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styopa

The fight you’re talking about Ragnaros – and indeed the old 40person raids – was about group challenge, basic blocking & tackling sorts of skills, and group accomplishment. What made them so well-designed is that you DIDN’T need all 40 to be on their game to succeed…at early entry levels of FR gear it was maybe, 36-38 had to be “on”. You could bring along noobs, which was critical because there wasn’t at that time a whole cottage industry of people producing polished, scripted, and well-made ‘boss fight’ videos within moments of the fight being available. The only way you could really teach people how to run the raid was to have them there, largely being carried, and with a good enough rest-of-the-group that could manage despite the noobs.

And “Straight Character Challenge”? I thought for a second you were talking about GW2. Basically, trying to find one.

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Tobasco da Gama

EDIT: Actually, never mind. :P

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TomTurtle

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.

Oh. Of course! Not difficult. Nope. Such a breeze. *Sweats profusely* Definitely didn’t have a difficult time with it when I was younger, needing to over level just to win fights, like I did with many a Final Fantasy game.

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Robert Mann

Challenge is… a sliding scale, just like any other taste. People may also like different flavors of challenge on any given day.

To me, challenge in terms of numbers is pretty meaningless. If it’s all about having the right gear and stats, then I’m not challenged. I’m just grinding. The only challenge there is patience and persistence. Meanwhile, if I’m actually challenged in the combat, I tend to see a lot of frustrated people who are not moving forward.

Where I love the challenge, and find games that tune the world to a mindless slog to be rather boring… I also don’t want to deny other people games. Yet again, I end up with one answer, diverse offerings. Sadly, since everyone wants all the content to fit them we get nothing that really fits anyone.

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camren_rooke

I made an orc sorceress in ESO. Does that count as a challenge?