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.
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.
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.