Vague Patch Notes: In defense of easy fun, in MMOs and elsewhere

    
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Give me hope that help is coming when I need it most.

I don’t play video games to be challenged. I play them to have fun.

This isn’t to say that these are inherently separate propositions. People who know me, for example, know how much I love Mega Man titles, and those can be grindingly difficult at many points. The fact that I can effortlessly clear my way through Mega Man X doesn’t mean that it’s easy; it means that I’ve practiced at this so much my muscle memory allows me an easy ride through the game’s bosses just through sheer experience. I enjoy a lot of roguelike titles where new challenges await around every turn. I voluntarily take on several challenge modes in games I like enough just for the joy of it.

Rather, the point of the statement is to acknowledge something that seems all too difficult to find in certain corners of the gaming space and MMOs in general: It’s possible to have fun without needing to prove your mastery all the time. I’m playing games to have fun. And it shouldn’t be a dirty word to go with the fun option instead of the more challenging option because of some misguided ideas about challenge being a more “pure” expression of video games.

Let’s be clear, this is not new to MMOs or video games in general, nor is it unique to players or developers. There were plenty of players who were happy to point out that the challenge of Ultima Online in the days of open PvP everywhere was the best part of the game, and there are plenty of developers willing to tell you (and design around) the idea that the only real parts of the game are the most difficult parts of progression content.

Nor does any of this change the fact that our discussion of “challenge” when it comes to MMOs is still woefully imprecise. WoW Classic is not difficult; it’s slow, it’s grindy, and it’s not very well tuned, but in terms of mechanical precision, most bosses require you to keep track of significantly fewer mechanics and are almost trivial with modern connections and knowledge. (Ragnaros, for example, is about as complex as a modern dungeon boss.) I’d talk about how inconvenience isn’t challenge, but I’ve already talked about how it isn’t immersion and it’s the same basic conversation.

But let’s not be negative here. Let’s talk about joy, and above all else, the singular and unforgettable simple joy of being able to just zone out and relax.

Big time.

Do you know why I really like leveling in modern World of Warcraft, with the revamp in place? Because it’s peaceful. Because I can just put on a television show on my second monitor and split my attention between the show and the game as I slowly glide through quests, never really being challenged in any real way, watching levels tick up. It’s peaceful and almost meditative. Things happen, levels go up, nothing is ever all that difficult and I plow through various monsters with blissful ease.

Someone might point out that I could make it a lot harder on myself, and you’d be right. I could stop using heirlooms and rely on lower-power equipment, for example. But I’m not looking for a challenge right here, and the fact of the matter is that this is as valid a way of playing the game as anything else. It’s all right to not be looking for a challenge.

More to the point, it’s all right to not be looking for a challenge right up to the end of the game. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t be trying; I mean that it’s perfectly valid if you never want to do the more “challenging” content and mostly want to just do queued dungeons for calming, easy fun.

You know why? It’s like pizza.

Pizza is pretty good as a food. Unless you’re really making an effort and hand-making it at your home, though, it’s almost certainly either something you get frozen or something you got by takeout. And you know what? That’s fine. It’s totally fine that sometimes you just want some food that tastes good and probably isn’t great for you but also isn’t terrible in every possible way. Everyone likes pizza. Everyone has nights when they want to just eat some pizza.

In my house, we also have nights when I want to carefully cook a set of venison burgers rare with sharp cheddar folded in carefully and gently toasted buns with fresh onion sliced atop the patties. But that doesn’t mean that those are “real” dinners and pizza nights don’t count. Sometimes I don’t have enough time to fully cook, some nights I’m just tired, some nights I’m just feeling like a good slice of pizza would really hit the spot and so I want some dang pizza.

This is something I touched on back when I talked about how grinds can actually be good. Yeah, we all recognize that grinding is on some level kind of bad, and we have that vague sense that it shouldn’t be there. But sometimes we sort of want that. Sometimes you just want content that’s never going to tax you all that much to just relax with after a long day at work. You want something fun and calming. You want… pizza. No fancy cooking, just pizza.

Jazzy handy

Of course, just as a diet consisting of nothing but pizza is going to be horrible for you, a game shouldn’t be nothing but easy content. It’s important to still have the option of greater difficulty, and ideally you’ll have several different tiers and types of content so players can engage with the game at multiple levels. Some people are going to be dedicated to seeing everything, some players really just want the challenge to prove how hardcore they are, and some players are mostly going to glide along on the easy content.

But all of those are valid. The person who just wants those easy grind experiences is not somehow less valid for never taking on the harder stuff.

This is why I started out by saying that I play video games to have fun. There are a lot of different kinds of fun out there, ranging from easy stuff I can zone out during while watching something to playing games in the general Dark Souls vein and hacking my way at increasing challenges through a hostile environment. There’s a lot of stuff in between and lots of different types of challenge. Literally all of them can be fun, and even if some stuff isn’t particularly fun for me that doesn’t mean it’s not fun for somebody else.

But MMOs in particular owe it to their players to recognize that there is a spectrum of challenge altogether separate from simple challenge. It’s possible to be having fun without challenging yourself to the absolute limits of your ability, and sometimes that’s really what players want out of your game. That’s not a failing or some great mistake wherein you need to get that player into more challenging content – it’s a case of just looking for a different sort of fun.

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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Ernost
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Ernost

I think it is simply a part of growing up. As an adult, with responsibilities, you have less time time to spend on hobbies; so that time is, as a result, more valuable. Thus I’d rather spend that precious little time actually beating a game than dying repeatedly trying to beat a game.

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Jon Wax

For me if there’s no challenge it’s not really a game. Problem is most devs try to cater to both groups. If the casual group is happy, the other players have nothing to do. If the second group is happy the first can’t play it because it’s too hard.

It was fine when it was understood that not everyone was going to play every game. Now? Everyone feels entitled to access everything so honestly we traded challenge for grind about a generation back

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Richard de Leon III

Its not entitlement to play every game. Its the fact every MMO is a business and wants as many players as they can. If they show no growth, their owners had a tendency to cut budgets, lay off people, and other nasty economic acts. You take money out of the equation, then maybe you will get mmos sticking with their niches.

Ernost
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Ernost

To add to what you said, I think Wildstar showed once and for all that catering to the Harcore players who like a challenge will not pay enough to keep the lights on.

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Schmidt.Capela

Depends on how the game is planned and executed. If you correctly evaluate the size of the niche you are aiming for and match your budget to that then you can have success with a hardcore-only game.

Wildstar did it the worst possible way, though. The devs, for whichever reason, though they could budget for, and advertise the game in a way that would attract, casual players just looking for fun and then convert them to hardcore players for that sweet extra retention. This had never worked before and is highly unlikely to ever work, as Carbine saw first hand.

Ironically, what saved me from entering that train-wreck wasn’t being aware of the hardcore push, but rather the Paths mechanic. Or, more specifically, the fact each character could only have one path and would be forced to seek groups in order to even see the solo-able content from the other paths. I hate being locked out of content, so the devs’ willingness to employ that kind of mechanic sent a strong signal that I might not really enjoy anything they would ever release.

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Bruno Brito

It was fine when it was understood that not everyone was going to play every game.

That works with niche games. MMOs are extremely expensive and have to pay themselves back. If i were you, i would just accept that the age of “challenging” MMOs is over ( honestly, it never even begun ).

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Witches

If it’s fun you play it, you don’t think about how hard or easy it is, just about how much you are enjoying it.

There are professional gamers, but i never met one while playing, still the most skilled players you can actually meet in an MMO are not the ones complaining about everything being easy, because to them everything is always easy.

The MMO notion of “hard” is how likely you are to die fighting a mob, which always translates into one or more attacks you inevitably have to block, that’s not difficult that’s just annoying.

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styopa

I’m CERTAINLY not going to tell anyone what “should be” fun for them or not…but I gotta admit, I don’t understand the entertainment value of a game that takes so little attention that you watch a movie on another screen.

Then again, I’m a philistine luddite who doesn’t “get” browsing on your phone or playing a game while watching a movie either.

Or fishing.

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Pandalulz

I come at it backwards I think. I want to watch a movie, but know that my ADHD will kick in and cause me to fiddle with my phone or do whatever else, so I specifically look for a game that I can fiddle with while watching said movie. And for good or bad, a whole lot of MMOs fit that bill.

When I want a game that will hold my full attention, I don’t play an MMO.

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jealouspirate

I’m the same way. Sometimes I want to play a game and devote 100% of my attention to it, and other times I want to watch a TV show/movie while keep my hands occupied.

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Schmidt.Capela

In my case, if whatever I’m “watching” only requires hearing (such as an interview or lecture), and the game doesn’t require reading or planning, playing a game while I pay attention to what is being said can actually increase my concentration.

On the other hand, paying close attention to the speakers will often distract me from what they are saying, so even if I don’t have a game I’ll often do something else that doesn’t take much concentration in order to better focus on whatever is being said. Which occasionally got me in some light trouble at school; turns out proving you have been paying close attention to class when accused of not paying attention can make some teachers then accuse you of intentionally undermining their authority.

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Jim Bergevin Jr

For me, it’s the notion of time. Or specifically, the lack there of. Now that I am all growed up, I have very little time to put forth to mastering challenging games, or content in a game. I need games that allow me to multitask – making noticable progress in the game while also allowing me to get the adult stuff done at the same time. That’s also why I am a big proponent of having solo options in multiplayer games.

EmberStar
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EmberStar

I watch Netflix sometimes while playing Ark. There are tasks to be done in that game that don’t require massive amounts of attention or coordination. I don’t need to be able to react with split second, catlike reflexes when I take Juniper the mammoth out to knock down trees for a construction project. Juniper is strong enough to flatten anything less powerful than a giganotosaurus or wyvern, so I’m not in danger. The most taxing part is that I have to stop every few minutes and either trundle back to base to unload the lumber, or offload it onto Duffle the Gasbags (depends on how far I am from base.)

Ditto for when I’m attempting to breed creatures. I need to be “sort of” paying attention to grab the eggs or claim infants as they’re born. (Eggs die if the temperature isn’t right, and hatch if it is. One means a lot of wasted time, the other means my base would be full of unclaimed raptors in need of a meal. OnO ) Again, it’s a task that’s simply somewhat time consuming. And in this case I can’t just combine it with resource gathering because I need to be close enough to manage the eggs – there isn’t an abundance of loose trees and rocks in my hatchery. (I need the hatchery though, because otherwise there’d be an abundance of wild raptors. And wild raptors refuse to play nice with helpless baby animals.)

Building better structures and hatching stronger creatures is a kind of progression in Ark – if I have a more efficient base I can make saddles and armor and better tools with less effort. Stronger creatures fight better and collect resources faster. Juniper is a nice mammoth, but her great grandchildren will be able to carry twice what she can, and they’ll start with more health and better melee attacks than she’ll ever have. (They’ll have her Stamina though.) But getting there is… well, a good time to work through my collection of audio books and my backlog on Netflix.

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Rndomuser

Yea. Everyone plays games to have fun and everyone’s definition of fun is different and sometimes people who enjoy certain activity in game just want to do a different activity instead. This is why a good MMORPG game design should account for all of that – allow people wide variety of activities, from mindless grinding of dumb AI or mindless crafting resource gathering (nothing is wrong with enjoying that) to playing “Dance Dance Revolution” in dungeons to stuff like large scale PvP in huge areas with destructible structures and vehicles to things like random socialization with others outside of combat (using socialization tools like player-performed music, huge variety of cosmetics and eventually using VR gear for character animations). Unfortunately most game developers are too lazy or too stupid or both and all we get is games which are focused mostly on specific kind of players doing specific kind of activity, and which eventually become abandoned even by players who initially enjoyed specific activity but who got bored of it.

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Jon Wax

I’d rather a game do one thing at 100% quality then 100 things at 1% quality each

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Rndomuser

The good game should be able to do those “100 things” at a “100% quality” for each thing, with equal attention given to all of them, so the game would be “fun” for large variety of players, for a VERY long time. And yes, it IS actually possible, the problem is, as I said, most game developers are too lazy or too dumb to even try doing this when designing their game and only focus on specific part (or focus on many parts but do them equally bad as it is the case with games like New World), alienating HUGE amount of potential players as well as existing players who get bored with doing that “one thing at 100% quality”.

And yes, it is a choice of every developer to be as “lazy” as they want to, it is still pretty disappointing that they aren’t even trying to create a good game (with variety of things to do and all of those things done well) for most people even though it is possible. Even the ones which have access to plenty of money.

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Anstalt

Good article as always, I really enjoy these “vague patch notes” so keep up the good work!

“Fun” in games is a subject I’ve actually looked into a lot, both from the gaming side and from the psychology side of things (the subject comes up a lot when researching mental health problems). I think you have come pretty close to the mark in your observations, and your suggestion of requiring a range of difficulties is spot on, but there is one key thing I’d point out:

Relaxing is not the same thing as fun.

Now, im not saying that either is more valid or worthwhile, but in the interests of being precise, this is important to note. Content that you find easy is relaxing, but not fun. Content that is the right level of challenge for your ability is fun. Content that is too challenging is stressful.

So, if you are specifically looking to have fun, then you should be searching out content that is the right level of challenge for you personally. It will require all of your attention and it should be a close-call, but your ability should match the challenge. When you find it, you’ll be in the zone, and that is when you hit maximum fun.

If you can watch a TV show whilst playing, then the challenge level is too low for you to be having fun, you will instead just be relaxing. That’s totally fine. There are many nights when I just want to relax and chill out too, and on those nights I pick easy games that dont require much attention or ability (diablo 3 is a perfect game for this, such an easy game!).

Recommended reading: “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Additionally, even if the content is easy, you can always set yourself challenges to increase the difficulty and get yourself in the zone and have more fun. This could take the form of trying to optimise kill-times during a grind, or seeing how many mobs you can take on at once. Maybe its trying to get bigger killstreaks, or get more headshots.

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Rndomuser

Relaxing is not the same thing as fun.

That’s not true. The definition of “fun” is whatever that brings enjoyment to a person, regardless of activity. This includes doing everything, from 1v1 duels to things like mindlessly grinding dumb AI monsters which pose no risk to your character, or just sitting on the bench in Ul’dah in Balmung in FFXIV and observing others while reading the general chat. All of those can be enjoyable activities and can be considered as “fun” to different people.

EmberStar
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EmberStar

Or it could be that you’re mistaken, and for some people “fun” is spending half an hour knocking down trees on their mammoth in Ark while listening to an audio book. Content that “requires all of my attention and should be a close call” isn’t fun to me, it’s stressful and not something I look forward to. Am I going to build an army of spinosaurs and meglalosaurs and fight Rockwell and hopefully defeat him? Yes, because it’s the only way to unlock certain items to build and up to an additional 15 levels for my character. And because he doesn’t drop Element (a rare resource needed for “high level” crafting in Ark) unlocking those things is literally the only reason to fight him. Once I beat him at all three difficulty tiers, I look forward to never fighting him again.

On the other maps, the bosses *do* drop Element. In those cases I look forward to breeding an army designed to exploit their specific weaknessess so that I can farm them with as little challenge as possible and no casualties. Because at that point it’s not a “challenging boss fight that should be a close call.” It’s resource collection. The fun doesn’t come from fighting the giant monsters over and over, the fun comes from collecting enough Element to build powered armor for myself and my pets, and advanced technology gadgets to make my base more efficient, and exotic gadgets like energy weapons and the Hover Skiff that would allow me to pick up all but the most massive creatures and drop them into a taming pen with almost no risk to myself or my pets.

In short, in that situation the “fun” for me comes not from the challenging boss fights and difficult taming. The fun comes when I reach a point where I and my pets are so powerful that we’re essentially untouchable. The “challenge” isn’t fun, it’s an obstacle that’s currently standing between me and what I *want* to be doing. Right now, if a rogue giganotosaurs wanders near my base I have to go into full panic mode and try to find a way to lure it out of render distance, because it would cost either a huge number of creatures or a massive ammount of rockets to kill it. When I’ve defeated the boss that unlocks the Tek Skiff, I can just pick the thing up, carry it out to sea and drown it. Then go back to what I *want* to be working on. Which is usually NOT getting half my creatures ripped to shreds by an unstoppable killing machine.

EmberStar
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EmberStar

Or to put it another way – for me in a game like Ark, fighting and making it through with barely any health isn’t fun. It means I’ve screwed up badly and wasn’t paying attention. For me the “fun” is not engaging in a fight until I’ve stacked the odds so far in my favor that I can’t lose.

For exampe, in Ark I would *never* try to kill a giganotosaurus in a straight fight. They can have over a quarter of a million points of health, do a thousand points of damage per bite, and have a special attack that causes the target to bleed 10% of their *max health* every few seconds. Fighting a giga in hand to hand combat means you have *less* than two minutes to kill it before the Gnashed effect causes everything to bleed out and die. Gigas *also* have Rage mode – if you do *too much* damage to them they go berserk and do even MORE damage per attack.

I deal with gigas in exactly three ways. A) I will use a flyer and lure it out to sea, then fly just out of reach until it runs out of stamina and drowns. B) I will lure it into a pen made of metal gates that it can’t destroy. If it’s high level, I’ll spend the hundreds of tranq darts to bring it down and claim it for my own. If it’s *not* worth taming, I have tamed a firing squad of velonasaurs. Once the giga is trapped and can’t possibly touch them, I’ll simply put them in Turret mode next to a feeding bin full of meat, and let them get to work on spending the next five or ten minutes shooting it to death.

Actually fighting a giga head-on isn’t “an exciting challenge.” It’s suicide, and it would only happen because I was being stupid and not paying attention.

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IronSalamander8 .

Great article!

This is part of why I never liked raiding in MMOs. While it’s fun to learn new mechanics and improve your play, it’s so much more enjoyable to just kick back and mess about. I won’t go too far off on the tangent, but I’ve never had anyone get mad over a game of Stick Fight, but we’ve had some massive fall outs over gear and other aspects of the more challenging content in MMOs. I’ve raided in several games over the years, including; EQ, WoW, SWotR, and so on and had a lot more fun just hanging out with friends and guildmates rather than pushing that end game cycle for ‘phat loot’.

I do like to take on challenges from time to time, to crank the difficulty up in a shooter, or play a really difficult mod, or what have you, but those moments aren’t as fun for me as just enjoying myself in games. Project: Warlock was called too easy by a lot of reviewers who otherwise liked it, but I had a blast playing through it and didn’t mind being pretty easy on normal difficulty. I’d rather have easy and fun than frustrating, although I’m the first to admit that I’m easily frustrated.

Fun is obviously subjective, but I find so many of these games that want you to login every day or you’ll miss out a lot, or you need to raid to not suck, or other such conditions less fun, for those reasons alone, than games I can just play whenever and however I like. Let me crank that difficulty up or down and play at the level I enjoy!

Edit: Tonight is also pizza night so very appropriate!

Sixuality
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Sixuality

I have a friend who does the two monitor thing quite often, but it’s not something I’d do myself as I expect the game to hold my attention on its own. That’s fine – each to their own and all that.

The problem is when the default difficulty is set to faceroll and there’s little to no challenge to be found even if the player goes looking for it. WoW has been like this since at least Cataclysm – and the level scaling that came in with BfA only made it worse. SWTOR is another habitual offender, with its godmode companions and its own dismal attempts at level scaling.

Easy is good as an option, but not as the only option. Give me at least the opportunity for something that’ll challenge me somewhere between the character creation screen and max level.

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kjempff

Tldr; fun is subjective.
Some find a hard challenge to be fun, others want very little resistance, some like repetition, some like freedom and some like to be told a story.
And.. Many switch between these things freely; over years, months, weeks or even between game genres.

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Java Jawa

Thank you, someone understands! At the end of the day I wanna have fun after a long day of work!