The Daily Grind: Where do you stand on difficulty modes in MMOs?

    
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There’s a meta discussion happening across games Twitter and elsewhere over the last week or so thanks to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. In a nutshell, some folks think it’s too hard and would like an easy mode so they can get through it for whatever reason. Others posit that the hardness is the point and the developers shouldn’t compromise that vision for any reason.

Now, Sekiro is a single-player title and not something we’ll ever cover here, but the easy-vs.-hard argument is one had across the MMO genre all the time. I kinda can’t believe we still have to have it; its design-criminal that every MMO doesn’t have City of Heroes’ difficulty options. I want as many people in an experiencing MMOs as possible; that makes difficulty sliders an absolute necessity. That way everyone can play, whether they’re handicapped, young, old, gaming on a toaster, combat-averse, tired, bad, or yes, lazy. I don’t actually care why people want easy mode. I just don’t want games and game content blocked off with elitism and gatekeeping. And that goes double for single-player titles, where the idea that people are measuring their self-worth and value as a gamer and person dependent on their skill at a difficult game but only if somebody else can’t do it… well that just boggles my mind.

Where do you stand on difficulty modes in MMOs?

Every morning, the Massively Overpowered writers team up with mascot Mo to ask MMORPG players pointed questions about the massively multiplayer online roleplaying genre. Grab a mug of your preferred beverage and take a stab at answering the question posed in today’s Daily Grind!

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Anstalt

First, I find the vast majority of computer games too easy because, well, they just are.

Second, it’s important to identify what type of difficulty the game is trying to offer. Is it intellectual? Physical? Social? Or is it false difficulty, like gear-checks and enrage timers?

Third, I think MMOs have been getting difficulty wrong for a very long time. It’s generally a cake-walk to endgame then jumps up in difficulty dramatically. This leaves players like me bored for 99% of the game and in a rush to reach endgame, whilst it leaves tons of other players feeling frustrated that they can’t join in endgame because it’s too tough.

I am massively against difficulty sliders because it implies heavy instancing, which in my mind goes against the purpose of being massively multiplayer. What I’d like to see is a much broader range of difficulty spread throughout all the content, so that there is easy to hard stuff from start to finish, but generally acting as an on-ramp so players get used to increasing amounts of difficulty as they progress.

That won’t happen until some fundamental changes take place in the industry. You cannot have hard content without good rewards, otherwise most players won’t bother. But, you cannot put good rewards in there because the bad players won’t ever be able to get it. So, MMOs will need to change their progression methods from vertical to horizontal before we can ever get a better spread of difficulty. We’ll also need to get away from being so loot obsessed and maybe switch back to full player economies. In SWG it didnt matter if you couldn’t kill Ackley, because those that could were able to sell off his bone. This appoach meant there were always multiple routes to getting the best gear so nobody was left out. You just might have to grind rancors for 5hours instead…

Finally, I’d like to point out that the only real way to measure difficulty is to measure the pass/fail rate of the community. If 100% of your community can clear the content then you cannot call it difficult. It is only when large portions cannot clear it that you can genuinely call it difficult. So, other peoples failure is essential if you want to call content difficult, rather than simply being difficult for you as an individual.

Mewmew
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Mewmew

“people are measuring their self-worth and value as a gamer and person dependent on their skill at a difficult game but only if somebody else can’t do it… well that just boggles my mind.”

How does this boggle your mind? Most challenges in life people set out to do because they are hard and not everybody can do them. People find the hardest mountains to climb, the most challenging mind puzzles, etc. All sorts of challenges people go for in life are based on the fact that they are hard and not everybody can do them. Why does it boggle your mind that this same thing carries over into video games?

Although adding difficulty levels to a single player game doesn’t make much of a difference, I can sort of see how to some people it’s like having a special place on top of a mountain only the best of the best can go who can make it there, but then someone builds this easy ride system to bring everybody up there. It doesn’t feel as special anymore. Suddenly your elite place is filled with everybody who couldn’t make the climb. The magic is no longer there.

It may sound as if I’m against difficulties in games but I’m not. Single player games especially should come with different difficulty levels. I just can sort of see that a game released without selectable difficulty there on purpose to be a hardcore game shouldn’t add them later to appease people who can’t get through it. They should mostly all come with difficulty selection, but this company made a decision to have the game be hardcore and not include difficulty and they should stick with that decision. Let people having a hard time use mods or cheats to lower the difficulty if they really need to. I’ve never known a single player game of even mild popularity not to have cheat mods created for it.

For online games, it would work as long as you weren’t in the same area at the same time as people who had selected different difficulties. If you want to have instanced hard and easy areas and each are in their own area, that would work great. But I don’t want to be struggling through a dungeon because my setting is on hard, while the people on easy come blasting through killing everything I’ve been fighting my way through just because they are on easy.

If the difficulty of the areas are instanced from each other, that works fine and great, though I’d like to see the rewards be a tiny bit different as well. Like special colors of equipment or pets or something for doing things on hard that you wouldn’t be able to get doing them on easy.

In fact I’d love to see Elder Scrolls Online let us go into higher instanced difficulty areas of the main world. I would set myself to the higher difficulty and wouldn’t look back and I’d be extremely happy.

kjempff
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kjempff

As long as everyone on a server has the same difficulty, I have no objections to either easy or hard. I am a big fan of special rulesets of servers, including diffuculty, so players can choose the environment where they can enjoy themselves according to their taste.
But it can NEVER be mixed on the same server; the players must be able to compare with others, equally. Obviously content of varying difficulty can be an option, as long as it follows a risk vs reward principle (aka equal for all).

Mewmew
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Mewmew

Sure it can be mixed, and in fact it *should* be mixed as you don’t know which difficulty you may want to be in until playing the game to see how it goes for you. That and you may feel like going back and forth between the two.

You just need to have the areas instanced. You could select to enter the easy or hard instances when playing. Everybody on the same map instance would be in the same difficulty, but you could change back and forth and go in whichever you felt like for that day or time.

Now you could do things to distinguish between the two, have special badges or cosmetic items that you can only get by doing the harder difficulties. But there is no reason to have to be on different servers to do this. Instancing on the same server would work great for this kind of thing.

kjempff
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kjempff

Not much risk vs reward in badges and cosmetics, but at least we can agree that there should be something to set it apart. I think it needs to be server wide because the comparison on challenge goes far beyond the instance itself in a mmo.

kjempff
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kjempff

Removed, Doublepost

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Ashfyn Ninegold

I want them. This is strictly and entirely a personal bias. When I was younger and my reflexes were lightning fast, I loved every challenge a game could throw at me. 15 years later, advancing in my dotage, I still want to play every game that comes out, but the press of time has left me less and less able to deal with twitch heavy games. Moreover, I don’t want to walk away from a game a bundle of stressed-out muscles, because it gets harder as you get older to get back to zero.

I entirely agree with the points Schmidt.Capela and NeoWolf make below. Higher difficulties in a lot a games means the AI cheats or that bosses have a gazillion health and unavoidable attacks. While graded rewards mean that the players in most need of helpful weapons and armor never get them and for highly geared players elite challenges are face rolls.

From my personal perspective, focusing only on what the upper echelon of players are capable of, leaves those of us who have been gaming for 20 years relegated to pet fights and festival fluff, the rocking chair of modern gaming. The longer gaming exists, the great the age range of gamers, the nicer it would be to have the ability to play at less competitive and more relaxed difficulties.

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Nathan Aldana

My stance is that if an easier mode makes a game accessible to people who want a good story and some fun, or people with literal disabilities, and the harder modes are still there for the “GIT GUD” crowd, I’m operfectly fine with easy modes. Games should be fun for as many people as possible, and if some shitlord cant comprehend a game being fun if /someone else/ is playing on an easier difficulty, then fuck em.

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NeoWolf

Well i did post a response to this topic with my own thoughts on difficulty in games but it seems to have magically vanished…

Andy McAdams
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Andy McAdams

I think Difficulty modes are fine, but I think we think about them kind of one dimensionally. We basically say “the moar ‘roided up the boss, the harder-er the content!” which is true to an extent, but it’s also a pretty limited definition of harder.

You could, for example, take the same boss with the same stats and mechanics and make it harder by limiting skillsets of the players. Or limiting the overall effectiveness of their armor, or making the MMO versions of ‘Slapers Only’ mode. Kind of like the achievements for the red protodrake in Wrath/WoW. They were all these artificial constraints which made encounters more difficult without actually changing the encounters. I thought was really awesome, and really smart difficulty design.

I think there’s a question of rewards. We tend to have the opinion that harder means better loot, because … reasons? I mean, there’s not a great reason for it. We are pretty good at lying to ourselves about how harder requires more skill, but in modern MMOs I think that’s rarely the case. I don’t have an answer — maybe make items destructible?

I dunno.

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Schmidt.Capela

We tend to have the opinion that harder means better loot, because … reasons?

From a balance point of view that is actually a trap.

Players capable of clearing harder content are already more effective; from a balance point of view you need to make the game harder for them. But for whatever reason we got used to rewarding with items that make the game easier those players that can, and often want to, handle increased difficulty. Meanwhile, for the players that aren’t capable of handling the challenging content we comparatively make them even weaker.

This can kinda work for instanced content when you segregate those players apart; the “hardcore” are in their “mythic” runs, the “casuals” in the “PUG difficulty” runs, at the cost of extra development time due to having to balance everything around not just a wide range of player skill but also a wide range of gear effectiveness. It completely breaks down when you need to mix those players in the same open area, contributing to the same goals, without making the “casuals” feel like they are worthless, though.

IMHO the rewards for content at all difficulty levels should be equally effective, with the only difference being bragging rights. This would help a great deal with balance, in particular open world balance.

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Schmidt.Capela

BTW, an interesting side-effect of this is that in games with multiple difficulties and where the rewards are better in “higher” difficulty modes it isn’t uncommon for those supposedly harder modes to be actually the easiest in the end. After all, better loot does make the game easier.

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NeoWolf

I have little use for “difficulty” modes as by and large they are false advertising be it in MMO’s or otherwise.
Sadly Difficulty does not equate to better, smarter A.i opponents making better and more tactically challenging choices making them more akin to their fleshy real life counterparts..
Nope difficulty largely amounts to cheats/exploits to give the a.i an edge.. be it artifically raised health and damage numbers (the most common difficulty change) through to other games where difficulty may amount to free units, shorter build times, lower costs, teleporting movements, free unit spawns, knowledge of an entire map and where things are despite fogs of war, ability to pull off difficult combos without any chance of failure etc..etc.. etc..etc..
Do these “cheats” make it challenging and therefore more difficult.. sure, but it isn’t REAL difficulty, Not even close, its exploit difficulty.

Ask yourself if you were playing against another real life human and they had such exploits at thier disposal would you call your encounter with them a fun and difficult challenge or a total hack fest and report their cheating backside? EXACTLY.. that sort of difficulty is an illusion, it isn’t REAL chalenge, its artifical cheating.

Actual computer a.i in gaming is almost always a fairly simplistic chain of logic gates and IF statements with access to exploits thrown in based on the difficulty level and nothing more to make it SEEM difficult…
And while that remains the case then difficulty in games will remain meaningless to me and far less challenging than say the electronic chess game I bought way back in the 80’s that frankly has more scope to it in its ability to at least pretend to make more diverse choices in order to challenge me without any exploits at its disposal to do so.

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Utakata

I take the Pinkilocks & The 3 Bears position! That is, neither too hard or too soft. So just about right! <3

…I am also very much on the side of players scaling difficulty within instances.