Massively Overthinking: MMOs, challenge, and flow


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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