Massively Overthinking: MMOs, challenge, and flow

    
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A couple of weeks ago, MMO developer Mark Kern tweeted a controversial claim about how challenge and interactivity is the point of games (and therefore that removing challenge from a game destroys the medium). That’s not what we’re going to talk about today because plenty of people already did that dance and do we really need another fight over gatekeeping and hardcore and difficulty? (We do not.)

What we are going to talk about is flow. Theoryforge’s @MSandersonD responded to Kern’s comments with an underrated note about how just cramming more difficulty into a game is the opposite of what good game developers do, that balancing difficulty for a variety of player skilltypes is critical to getting players into “the zone.”

“If you want to reach the most players possible and have them enjoy your game you must take into account a players ability to reach a state of flow. A central feature of flow is challenge balancing with skill. Player’s skills are not equal. Thus you adjust challenge for them.”

This isn’t new stuff – pundits and academics have been discussing how the “flow” state is generated in humans for a long, long time. But clearly it’s something some game devs haven’t internalized. So for this week’s Massively Overthinking, we’re going to talk about the idea of “flow” in MMOs. Where have you seen it used best? When has it been most effective for you? How reliant are MMOs on getting players to achieve flow, and is it more or less so than for other types of games?

Andy McAdams: Flow and “the zone” isn’t as clear today as maybe it was a few years ago. Flow is always a balance in my mind: You not only have to create that “just one more thing” vibe and accomplish something but have to provide exits to the flow. You need to have logical stopping points in the flow so people can gracefully break from the game feeling fulfilled and gratified. In the past, these exits to flow were spaced out differently than today – hours apart, if they existed at all. You would often do days upon days of work without any real milestones or wins along that “flow” path, which feeds into that hardcore vibe. Today, flow-exits are spaced much closer together, as we’re able to feel as if we accomplished something within a half hour or so.

I think that flow is super important in MMOs because they last forever. All of this is wrapped up in what flow actually is, how to gracefully enter and exit flow and why you would want to do both. Flow requires that you can attain that feeling of accomplishment with whatever the minimal play session is. If your minimum play session to achieve something is two hours, folks playing less than two hours likely won’t achieve a satisfying flow because they aren’t accomplishing anything. That’s why most modern MMOs have play sessions that are shorter: The number of players who can consistently provide two-hour uninterrupted play time is much smaller than someone who can provide 30 minutes of interrupted play time.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I see the “flow” argument as one of good game design, and it’s not just about appealing to a wide base of players; it’s about making them feel good and in the zone once you get them into your game, to feel one with the game and almost lost in it. One of the papers I linked in the intro even compares flow to immersion, and every good MMORPG needs this badly: They want you to feel invested in the game not just while you’re in it but also when you’re finished with it, so that you remember it fondly and want to go back.

I actually get into my best flow modes in non-combat, non-challenge activities, personally, I suspect because they are lower stress, lower anxiety. I don’t usually want to do intense group combat for more than an hour or two; it’s mentally exhausting to me. But I can solo combat grind for hours, and I have sometimes been crafting and vendoring in sandboxes only to look up six hours later and wonder where my whole day went. It’s easy: I was in the zone.

And because I can’t help myself: Arguing that challenge is the point of games says a lot more about the person making the claim than about games. Got kids? Then I guarantee you play games with them that aren’t at all about challenge – they’re about stories, luck, and cooperation just as often. So it is with many games that are actually just virtual worlds, where the point is living, not necessarily striving or toiling (and failing and losing).

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): This is one of the reasons I play Black Desert: The grind gets me into that flow. It’s that relaxing state of simply existing that gives the game that charm. The last game where I got that state of flow was from Diablo III. It was all gameplay, and after I experienced the story once, there was that mode designed for just pure gameplay.

I do get my flow from playing bullet hells like Ikaruga and Dodonpachi too. Even though it’s been a while since I’ve played them, I recommend playing them if you’re looking for a quick shot of flow.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I’m pretty sure Eliot touched on this in his most recent Wisdom of Nym about how Final Fantasy XIV is fun because it tries to include as many people as possible. Including people, of course, isn’t the same as catering to a gameplay style, and making a game that has a certain style will certainly draw a kind of person in, but there are still different skill levels for those kinds of people, and if you make that style of game more accessible or interesting for the lower-skill folks, then they’ll perhaps want to stick around and improve themselves. Follow the flow, in other words.

Final Fantasy XIV is one such example of a game that has good flow. Another is Blade & Soul, where I found myself moving from a basic character to a combo-laden machine as I made my Assassin character do some seriously neat stuff. I’m still hunting for a sandbox MMORPG that has good flow; right now all I’m finding is a kick in the pants and a wave.

When does flow work for me? When it feels inherent and natural. I don’t necessarily need a tutorial all of the time, but moving from zone to zone or improving in levels should see abilities string together in obvious ways with enemies that let me engage those skills to see how they operate. Difficulty should be a grade, not a sheer cliff.

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): Please, forgive my use of roleplaying terminology, but I believe that it is the best way to describe what I consider good flow in an MMO. The best flow for an MMORPG happens when the mechanics of the game synergize with how your character is developing from a story perspective. I like to say it’s when IC (in-character) meets OOC (out-of-character). Unfortunately, I have not played an MMO with that kind of synergy for a long time. When I was an ignorant MMO player, I would have said that Star Wars Galaxies had that kind of balance because much of the leveling process coincided with how I wanted to develop the character. If I wanted my character to learn how to fire a blaster pistol, I started shooting things with a blaster until I got better at using that weapon. If I wanted to learn to dance, I would start dancing and ask other players to help me learn specific dances. Now, I would consider that too much of a grind.

If I take that same concept into the modern MMO, I’m not really going to find it in a themepark MMO like Star Wars: The Old Republic. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to find a true MMORPG that exhibited a good gameplay flow where I could get lost forever in the ever-escalating challenges. Even though I really like games like Elder Scrolls Online and SWTOR, I have to admit that I play them for an enjoyable story and less for the mechanics that make it a game. MMOs have really taken a nosedive when it comes to balancing content challenge. At the lower levels, content is so easy that it’s boring, and at top-level, the content takes an extreme turn toward being too difficult to be enjoyed or gated behind an exhausting grind.

Although I can’t speak to its most recent additions, Conan Exiles presented an interesting synergy between character IC growth and the OOC mechanics to get there. For the short time my group played that game after its launch, I found that the challenge of the mechanics, which could be extremely difficult at times, seemed to pair nicely with my desire to explore more and more of the map. That’s not really IC character growth in the truest sense, but I do know that I spent hours and hours in that game completely immersed in both its mechanics and the story (as limited as it was) that the game presented.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): I find that I get into a flow state when approaching slightly challenging content that doesn’t throw a lot of random interruptions in my path. Grinding at the top edge of my ability in BDO does that. It’s fluid, and it requires me to be on my toes, but doesn’t throw too many surprises at me. Even having some PvP thrown into the mix doesn’t knock me out of the flow.

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): I’d say flow is something that single-player and themepark MMOs do well and have a good handle on – even some of the older sandbox MMOs too.

It’s partly why WoW was such a hit. It was fun while constantly providing a carrot. The difficulty of grabbing that carrot would gradually increase while you played through dungeons and raids increasing to heroic and epic difficulties.

I feel Guild Wars 2 does a really great job with this in general too. However, looking at Heart of Thorns you can instantly see how a game that players already understood how to play can completely screw up the flow with just one expansion. Anet thought it could just crank up the difficulty and everyone would be happy still. And I really don’t think it was even that hard, but the flow just wasn’t there. It felt abrupt and was simply not as fun an experience.

One of the big problems with many of the Kickstarter hardcore games is that they want to remove the flow of good game design and instead tell you exactly how difficult their game is. You want to play here, then git gud.

Tyler Edwards: Interestingly I’ve just started researching principles of positive psychology, which includes “flow” as one of its core features. Honestly, thinking back, I don’t feel that gaming gets me into flow very often. I’m easily bored and have a short attention span, so I guess flow just isn’t an easy state for me to achieve generally. Gaming for me tends to be more simple distraction, akin to watching Netflix.

When I do hit a true flow state in a game — losing track of time, being totally engrossed in the experience to the exclusion of all else — it’s usually when I’m very engaged in the story. I know, big surprise. The other thing that seems to do it consistently is RTS games. There’s always something to do in an RTS, so there’s never much time for the mind to wander. MMOs, sadly, are pretty bad at flow. Too much downtime, too many inconveniences, too little opportunity for novelty. Pretty hard to get into flow in a game you’ve already spent a few hundred hours in.

I do think challenge can help foster a flow state, but it does need to be measured. Beating your head against a brick wall of difficulty isn’t conducive to flow. I think the ideal is to be pushed almost to your limit, but not quite. Enough that you have to be on your toes and fully engaged, but not enough to be truly stressful.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!

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Anstalt

I find this concept of “flow” very interesting. I’ve obviously heard of being in the zone, but haven’t heard it referred to as flow before, so I went off and did some reading.

I don’t experience flow very often. According to the research, to achieve a state of flow, your own perceived skill level must be high and the challenge you are attempting must also been perceive as difficult (but achievable). You must feel like you are performing well, that you are in the zone, but the challenge makes you think that you could fail if you stop performing so well.

That is so rare (for me) in games in general, and MMOs specifically.

I have a relatively high IQ – I’m no Einstein, but I’m in the top few percent. This means that for me, the perceived challenge in games is sorely lacking. What is worse, a lot of what we call “challenge” or “difficulty” in games is not real difficulty. It has nothing to do with me, as a player, and everything to do with my character. For example, making a boss that requires a certain level of mitigation to survive has nothing to do with me as a player, but instead just means there is an arbitrary hoop I have to jump through in game before I can win.

this is why I love endgame. It is generally the only time in the entirity of the MMO when everyone has hit their peak in terms of power advancement. I can no longer overcome a “challenge” by gaining more power, I can only overcome it through player skill. Devs are also forced to ensure that the challenge they provide at endgame comes through the mechanics and not through the stats. This is also why I’m a huge fan of horizontal progression – if our average power level never changes then all content has to be designed with the players in mind, and difficulty can be set by making it easier or harder for the player.

So, when do I experience flow?

1) Endgame raiding. Sadly, in most MMOs, this still has very little to do with player skill and everythign to do with gear, but occasionally a game will come along where the endgame is genuinely challenging to us players. I still usually find it very easy, which is why I was a raid leader – having to play my own character to perfection as well as guiding loads of other people and keeping track of them all provided me with the level of challenge needed to get me in the zone.

2) Optimising during leveling. OK, so I hate leveling up in MMOs. There is hardly ever any challenge, all MMO stories suck (imo), and vertical progression segregates the community making grouping harder, hence less group content being developed in the first place. So, I try to optimise. A typical fight between me and a mob is trivially easy, so I try to optimise for speed. This means minimising downtime and maximising enemies killed. I am thus imposing my own level of challenge on the game – it may only intend for me to pull 1 mob at a time, but as that’s easy and boring, I’m going to pull 5, because 5 requires me to play at my very best if I want to finish the fight with minimal downtime.

What I’m 100% certain of is that I’ve never experienced flow in any game unless that game has depth. So, shallow action combat games will never provide me with flow, because the lack of depth makes the perceived level of challenge much lower than my perceived level of skill.

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Jeremiah Wagner

I know we are not supposed to be talking about Mark Kern saying removing challenge is basically break the game , but I have to say this is a total no brainer. If you don’t believe that’s true look at all the Pretty looking MMO’s that look and sound awesome but lack of any difficultly makes it boring to play with others and you can tell by the fact that NO ONE is running around meeting people and questing together. I would put any amount of money on the fact that the more challenging the MMO the more people will band together the more important things feel. Its insane how many MMO’s could have been great, but ended up broken crap after a month of playing wasted.

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smuggler-in-a-yt

I’m not sure how I feel about the use of the word “flow” in this discussion. Especially as people attempt to conflate it with challenge or difficulty. Flow is a cognitive focus state when you’re able to sort of push away a lot of the normal distractions into an autonomous maintenance bucket. Flow periods can differ drastically, entry and exits can differ drastically, and most often are highlighted by task-shifts.

The IC/OOC is a good example from below, because that can cause a cognitive dissonance moment where you have to think about how you’d formulate a response. Instant flow ender, right there.

In that way, difficulty or challenge only matters as a partial function of overall gameplay. The more difficult a game is, subjectively, the less likely someone is to maintain a flow state – stress plays a high factor. In the same way, if someone is made uneasy if a game is too “easy” then you wind up with the same problem in reverse.

So what does a game do? I think designers need to pay a lot more attention to what makes for the game. For example, in well balanced sand boxes there is enough variety that competency can be demonstrated across a wide variety of outlets. In games like WoW, that aperture narrows significantly, and in other games like any of the MOBAs or Looter-shooters it narrows even more. Which has a weird effect of creating better defined criteria for who will find successful flow states in the game but also limits the population set who can achieve flow in the game.

And that hasn’t got anything to do with difficulty or challenge. It has a whole lot to do with what sort of game are you making, and who are you making it for. Game designers need to make games for gamers.

Free advice courtesy of the internet.

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Paragon Lost

Another fight over gatekeeping? I tend to agree with Mark Kern’s opinion and it isn’t gatekeeping in my opinion if there is more challenge. Part of what has made me dislike WoW Retail is that it’s become a tedious lack of challenge treadmill. Nothing feels like I’m accomplishing anything. :/

That out of the way, I’ll agree that mastering flow is an important factor to helping draw players in. Just as immersion, game lore depth and expansive mechanics systems are. Added to the point that Kern (who I am not a fan of btw and it sort of irks me to agree with him) made about challenge. It all builds the “whole” that is a good mmorpg. (shrugs) That’s my opinion.

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Mallus

A good story keeps me in the flow (the desire to continue playing) along with continuing character development at max level through an alternate advancement system (EQ2) or Champion points (ESO). What’s interesting to note: No one is talking about Gear Grind at max level which is how most MMOs are designed these days, maybe they have it all wrong…

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Schmidt.Capela

What actually get me in the flow most easily isn’t the game itself, but reverse-engineering and modding it. Which is a big part of the reason I value games that can be modded so much higher than ones where I can’t pop up the bonnet to see and tweak what is inside.

This is also a big part of why I don’t care, at all, for how the devs intended the game to be played; what pulls me into the game and make me lose track of time is very different from what works for most players, thus for the most part playing a game only in the way most players would do — and, thus, in the way most devs would have designed it to be played — is a subpar experience for me.

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Bhagpuss Bhagpuss

Pretty much amy game that closely follows the design principles established by MUDs, particularly diku-MUD, puts me into a flow state within minutes. It just works for me.

I dislike games that see a play session as something lasting half an hour or so. That’s very usatisfying to me. I see it as something designed to suit players with what I would call a short attention span. I have a long attention span and a lot of patience. If I’m going to do something I want to get stuck into it and for it to take up a substantial amount of time.

WoW Classic is working well for me because the flow state there rewards lengthy sessions. I’m playing in 2-3 hour chunks with 30-60 minute breaks between them, which is perfect for me. That used to be the norm for the genre and I didn’t realize just how much I’d missed it until I got it back.

Just as developers need to consider the differing skills of their players (something I totally agree with) they also need to consider the differing amounts of time players have and want to spend on their game. They either need to make games for one type of player only or to included multiple gameplay strands to suit a range of playstyles. Personally, I think making separate games for separate audiences is the way to go.

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Andy McAdams

I see it as something designed to suit players with what I would call a short attention span.

I don’t think it has anything to do with attention span at all. I would say time-available — at least for me. During the week I can play a little bit in the mornings getting ready for my day and a little bit at the end of the day. Weekends I can (and do) dedicate longer play-sessions. I just think it’s unfair to say that its just about attention span, which I think by and large I think it has more to do with the amount of time someone has available to play at one time.

and I agree with Bree – the key to success is providing for both long and short term play sessions.

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Paragon Lost

Good example with WoW Classic. Now though, if only players could be convinced that certain quality of life improvements in WoW Classic wouldn’t be a bad thing. My wife and I are having a lot of fun revisiting old WoW but there are some things that do bother me a bit.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

This is why I enjoy grinding. I remember killing ogres in WoW for cloth to sell for enough gold to get my level 40 mount. They spawned perfectly and if no one came by to kill any of them, my hunter would take them out with no wasted time at all. It was just serendipitous that they were in a circular camp. It took many hours to grind enough gold to get my mount, but it was very enjoyable because it flowed. And, there was probably zero challenge.

I’ve also spent many pleasurable hours grinding mobs for reputation items in LOTRO, where I have 9 alts with World Renown. Again, finding the right camp of mobs and taking them out in a lovely flow of continuity. I’ve done rep grinds with kin mates and it can be the same. You get in the zone. Everyone goes quiet because we’re all feeling it. Again, no real challenge.

I haven’t found that happy place in too many recent MMOs (BDO’s mob grind being the exception).

Outside of purposefully grinding towards a goal, the only games that come close are Diablo III and Path of Exile. In both these games, mob density and challenge can be perfect for your build, in which case it’s hard to avoid being in the zone.

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EmberStar

I can definitely tell in a game like Audiosurf when I’ve found just the right song for how I’m feeling at that time. Sometimes a song just clicks, and I’m dodging and weaving through obstacles like it’s the easiest thing ever. And sometimes I just can’t find the rhythm (or center, or whatever) and it’s just an unending, frustrating string of smashing into every single null. O.O

I find the same thing in Warframe – I don’t play the “supah hardcore” nodes like Mot in the Void, because I just almost never find the right pace for it to be easy or fun. Dying every minute and a half is “challenging,” but it’s not fun. And yet when I’ve been listening to music or an audio book or podcast (or just otherwise somehow in the right frame of mind) I’ve actually done Derelict survival for over an hour and been easily dancing past enemies that are MUCH higher level than the ones that annihilate me instantly on Mot.

Granted, there’s also apparently a “not mentioned anywhere ever in-game” damage scalar in Mot that causes enemies to hit much, much harder than normal for their level. But still, not getting hit is not getting hit.

In general though, I don’t enjoy games like Dark Souls, or content like MMO raids/trials/task force missions/whatever.

oldandgrumpy
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oldandgrumpy

Cannot say that I have experienced any flow in recent MMO’s that I have played.

Single player RPG’s is a different story.