Massively Overthinking: How hard should MMOs be?


This past summer, MMO dev Damion Schubert posted an epic tweet-thread about MMOs; in fact, we’ve already dipped into the part on “load-bearing” playerbases, and I said I would circle back to it later, and here we are. The chunk I want to look at today is about how different games, including MMOs, handled difficulty and inaccessibility, sometimes to their own detriment. For example, he noted that Vanguard was set up as the anti-WoW/EverQuest II, the hardcore solution to “soft MMOs for wimps,” complete with brutally punishing corpse recovery as in the Old Days.

You might notice that WoW and EverQuest II still exist. Vanguard doesn’t.

“The ‘difficulty’ angle usually comes from game devs trying to seperate themselves in a crowded marketplace. It’s HARD! We definitely went with the ‘it’s hardcore!’ angle on Shadowbane. And we found a huge, loyal audience. The problem is that the audience you attract is very, VERY gatekeeper-y. Not only are they frequently jerks to the sub audiences you need to ALSO attract, they also raise holy hell when you discover your vision needs softening. And then you’re handcuffed to an inaccessible design.”

So let’s dive in to difficulty in this week’s Massively Overthinking. How hard should MMOs be? What’s the sweet spot for difficulty, challenge, and accessibility? Which MMOs do the best job of finding the balance between hardcore and profitable, and which ones have failed miserably?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): MMORPG= Masssively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. Wikipedia notes that RPG mean “a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting. Players take responsibility for acting out these roles within a narrative, either through literal acting or through a process of structured decision-making regarding character development. Actions taken within many games succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines.”

Notice that the definition does not include combat or conflict, let alone raiding. I can’t speak for EQII, but WoW was doing well in its heyday as it made raiding more accessible while still offering a challenge to those who wanted it. So if combat’s the content you want, and you want to be a big, successful game, clearly you should go that route.

But what raids are actually memorable? How often do game sites and mass media cover the latest raid unless it’s for a guide or bug? Especially as more games are online and multiplayer, I feel looking at our genre as simply a combat delivery system is fairly depressing. What is truly interesting is how developers can create worlds and experiences for players, and it’s largely in our past. WoW alone actually seems more memorable for its events than its structured raids: the gates of Ahn’Qiraj, the tainted blood, the zombie plague… I don’t think I can remember even 1% of the raids I did, and I was a three-times-a-week raider in a top raiding guild. I remember that and player events better than even one encounter in Zul’Gurub (which I had to google to remember, and my first server-first was in there).

Plenty of players are like this. Not all, but I feel difficult combat is not only a niche product, but especially for MMOs, a niche within a niche. Why play a game and surrender your social life for weeks before you even begin to get to the challenge when games like Monster Hunter can push online multiplayer challenges within a few hours? Combat is easy to develop, easy to consume, and very easy to forget. The challenge is not in balancing the content of your raids, but balancing raid content with content that engages the community. The Asheron’s Call series will always be king of this in my opinion, but Horizons/Istaria and TERA with its political system did this well too. Heck, I’d argue EVE and the original Darkfall do this even better than most MMOs, as players have enough tools to engage in simple PvE combat before applying those items/tactics to players and player communities.

But look at A Tale in the Desert. Still around, no combat. Animal Crossing as a series may not be an MMO, but it also lacks combat and as long as the game’s been online, communities thrive for years without a lot of updates between new games (until ACNH, and many of those early updates really helped keep people playing). Horizons/Istaria failed (but is still online) because most successful MMOs have interesting combat. It’s just the main market, and the game’s memorable events (two events that required server coordination to unlock a new race, plus a disease/cure based event long before the WoW blood glitch) clearly didn’t weren’t enough without better combat. It’s not that it wasn’t challenging; it just wasn’t engaging.

So what’s the sweet spot? If a game could pull off, say, TERA style combat with lore-driven events like Asheron’s Call, with the same level of accessibility as The Shard Defense and WoW’s Ahn-Qiraj War effort (i.e., anyone can participate in the basic event, but challenge-chasers drive the final moments), we’d probably have a new king of the genre. At least in my opinion.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I’m simple: I want MMOs to have all the difficulties. I mean it. I want sliding difficulty sliders that allow everyone from the dullest child to actual genius brain professional gamers to play and adjust to whatever they actually enjoy. I am not personally impressed by absurd difficulty modes, and I definitely am not fooled by anyone conflating difficulty and challenge and tedium. I know gatekeeping when I see it.

City of Heroes addressed all of this almost two decades ago, so I’m pretty sure everyone else can at least do what it did. Ideally, we can do much better.

Besides, the hardest content in MMOs is successfully running a medium-to-large guild. It’s got absolutely nothing to do with whatever chores the game itself generates.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX, YouTube, Twitch): Can we please stop making difficult content the carrot? The idea that getting to the challenging part is the reward for having to trudge through the game’s main story is soooo outdated. There’s people out there who actually want that heart-pounding MMO combat without having to work for it. The idea that these folks who just want to get into those epic fights need to “deserve” the right to play them is absurd, especially since MMO players in general have gotten pretty good in general.

I love playing hard games, and I’m soooo lumping tired of having to pick up an MMO and be bored to tears because even that ferocious looking spider queen in that dungeon gets killed to death (yes killed to death) from every player character that clumsily mashes the next cooldown that lights up. It’s boring now, and when we’re are given a choice to either play 45 hours to get to the hard stuff or play a challenging single-player game, then the MMO will probably get skipped.

Look at it this way: Why do RPers who only do the story content and spends the rest of the time RPing need to have access to content they won’t engage in while the people who actually want to play and are good at that stuff needs to have to sit through content they’re not interested in just to get to the hard stuff?

I don’t think I’ll ever get an MMO like this, but give me an MMO that’s hard right off the bat. I want the first dungeon of the game to really try to murder me. I’m talking tank busters on trash mobs and the game using checkpoints instead of just letting players pick up where they wiped. Give me an MMO where dealing with open-world enemies isn’t just slowly doing single pulls. I want mechanics to consider. I’m confident MMO players can handle it.

Of course I highly doubt any MMO dev is willing to ever tackle an MMO that’s actually hard to play. I doubt it’d be profitable, and I honestly think the only folks willing to do this kind of MMO are those who aren’t in it for the money. To argue that difficulty in MMOs creates a gatekeeper community is inaccurate since that’s only from the perspective of players who probably enjoy story content more than an actual challenge. From my point of view, hours and hours of cutscenes, boring quests, and endless text is just as bad yo.

And yeah, not everyone will like it because of its entry. But do the players who actually stick it out actually want to play with folks who aren’t willing to put up with a little hardship? I know. My dream MMO is impossible.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): What constitutes appropriate difficulty varies by person, doesn’t it? Some people like more of a challenge, they have more mastery, or they boast better reflexes. Some people… don’t. So most MMOs create a low baseline for landscape, a higher one for dungeons, and a much higher one for raids, and a chaotic one for PvP.

I’ve been really warming up to the idea of being able to select your own difficulty. Dungeons and Dragons Online has been doing this for years in its many instances, and it’s absolutely great. Higher difficulty, higher rewards. Lower difficulty, quicker completion. I’d love MMOs to allow us the option to raise and lower difficulty as we do in single-player CRPGs.

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe): Historically, I disagree with most of Schubert’s design philosophies, but I kind of agree with this one with the caveat that it applies only to high-budget games that intend to appeal to everyone. The difficulty of a game should appeal to the lowest skill level of the intended playerbase. If your game (MMO or otherwise) is meant to appeal to a “hardcore” audience, then then it should be a given that it will limit your audience. MMOs by themselves limit the audience, and each factor added on top of that further limits the number of players you will have in a game. So Schubert is generally right that if you have a difficult game that the players will act as gatekeepers (but usually not in a positive way), but designers should know this going into it.

If you make a game centered around raiding, then the designers (and especially the publishers) should know that the game might only receive 1% of the potential audience. Budgets and design priorities should be slated accordingly. I believe that a studio can do it as long as there isn’t a lot of executive bloat. In fact, I’ve seen some single-player games thrive in it. But they are not going to be the next WoW that way.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I don’t really think MMOs should be that difficult. At least not the baseline of the game. Open world content, farming, and similar daily sort of gaming shouldn’t be a challenge in an MMO. To me, the game should exist as a alternate world I can join and enjoy.

In the real world there are times when I want a challenge. Playing a sport or some other competition makes for a good time. Playing against a child, in say basketball, and dunking on them is fun for a while. However, playing against someone at my level that challenges me is much more fun usually. Same with my MMOs. I want to have the option to do some challenging and difficult content at times, but I don’t want it to be the only way to play the game. While a challenge is fun when it’s on my terms, if it’s always challenging it will begin to feel stressful for me. And we have enough stress IRL, we don’t need stress while we’re gaming.

That’s why I’m a fan of traditional MMOs that have a PvP component possibly more than straight PvP only MMOs. Always having to be “on” just doesn’t work for me long term.

It’s also why I find myself staying with Guild Wars 2 long term. It has challenges if you go looking for them. I wish it didn’t section off raids as only for hardcore and instead gave us difficulty choices instea,d but that’s a tangent so I won’t go rambling on that. Even though it is seasonal, they also have the Queen’s Gauntlet for challenging solo fights too. So there are difficulty options.

As far as failed ones, well we can just search the site for their bodies are numerous.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I have a lot of Feelings on this topic, but I’ll try to keep my answer to the essentials and not turn this into a whole column. Simply put, MMOs should be exactly as hard as each individual player desires them to be. That is, difficulty should be customizable. This is standard practice for single-player RPGs, and I don’t know why it’s not more common in MMOs. All PvE content should, in my view, have a minimum of three difficulty settings, and I’m not opposed to more. StarCraft II’s four difficulty settings for campaign and co-op felt really good, with each difficulty having a clear purpose without too much overlap.

We do see this sometimes, but usually only in the context of group content, and not always with enough choices to cater to every audience. We need more choices, and we need choices for all content. Yes, that includes open world and solo content, which is often reduced to a trivial snore-fest. I do grant there are some design challenges to scaling difficulty in the open world, but there are ways around this. One is to allow players to nerf their own characters, likely in exchange for increased rewards. Another is to offer separate servers or instances with different difficulty levels. None of these is exactly a perfect solution, but I think they’re much better than the current “one size fits all” approach that the large majority of MMOs use.

Beyond that, I also want to see difficulty decoupled from group size. I genuinely don’t understand why the paradigm of a larger group equallying higher difficulty exists in the first place, and I see absolutely no value in it. Casual friend groups should have the option to faceroll through raids to see the story, and solo players need to stop being infantilized and be given the option for genuine challenges.

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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Fenrir Wolf

I’m sorry, but I feel like difficulty sliders are a pile of disingenuous old codswallop.

It has the NFT issue of: How woulld you implement them without corruption or exploitation?

The problem is—and I don’t think that anyone really needs to argue this point as it’s plagued MMOs since Everquest—is that the one per cent are inherently hierarchical in a really parasitic way. It isn’t that they want to be the best, no, that’s just a vehicle, more of a rationalisation that gets them to what they really want. What they really want is to be better than you, they want a situation of haves and have-nots.

If you would go for a difficulty system where the rewards were naught but upscaled numbers to match the difficulty? Then more power to you. I mean that, you’re not a parasite. I would arch an eyebrow and ask why you couldn’t achieve this by wearing vendor-bought white gear, or even no gear, but perhaps it’s convenience for you. The problem, however, is that you aren’t the majority who’d be looking at this difficulty slider system.

The majority of the one per cent would be looking at the high end of the slider and envisioning unique loot rewards, with glamorous aesthetics and new mechanics. That’s what they want. They don’t just want to look better, they want to mechanically be superior.

This leads to two problems.

The first of which is that as these parasites lord their jobless ways over the rest of the playerbase, it creates a depression. The MMO suffers for this as those who’d pay a subscription leave. Often, the one per cent only pay the most minimal amount as they see their work in a very NFT-like way, which is why I mentioned them. They see it as earning. They’re working and earning in this MMO job.

So if they’re working, they shouldn’t pay you—that’s just silly—no, you should pay them. You should create unique things for them as their salary, as they see themselves as your game’s wage slaves. It’s your duty to reward them. As this rift grows, paying customers leave and the MMO hurts for it. This leads to the MMO dev doubling down until they have a bare minimum of paying customers, which leaves their MMO either sunsetted or in maintenance mode.

This isn’t the only issue, though.

The next issue, as I mentioned, is that they don’t just want to look better, they want to be better. This means that they demand new content for their gear, they want content that takes advantage of the unique qualities of their gear. Unique qualities that they’re quite certain the have-nots don’t have. This means that there’s now content that can’t be played without playing on a higher difficulty slider setting first.

So, the have-nots are going to be depressed about neat-looking gear being lorded over them and they’ll try to play on a higher difficulty, bounce off of it, and leave; The have-nots are going to want to play the content they can’t play, so they’ll try to play on a higher difficulty, bounce off of it, and leave. You should never gate anything behind difficulty, because all that’s going to do is lose you paying customers. This is why so many MMOs were in dire-straits and the industry switched to single- and multi-player games with greater levels of monetisation.

Right now, the only MMOs which are doing really well are The Elder Scrolls Online and Final Fantasy XIV. I don’t see that lasting. I know Guild Wars 2 supposedly had its best quarter recently but from what I’ve read (and I did check the numbers), that’s been debunked. The people reporting on that forgot to adjust for changes in the potency of currency, and thus currency exchange. The Korean won has been doing amazingly well lately, so much so that it made GW2’s decline look like a rise.

If MMOs are to make a come back, this system of the haves and the have-nots must be undone.


Full-time workers probably have the highest purchasing power. By that logic, MMOs need to cater to people with limited commitment to reap revenue.

Axetwin .

I agree MMO’s need scalable difficulty. If you have an open world designed to be soloed, then IT NEEDS TO BE SOLOABLE BY EVERYONE. You don’t fill it with enemies that do 9k damage per hit and then have them hit you 20 times in the span of 2 seconds. HOWEVER, with that said, events and other such party based content should not be soloable. If they are soloable, then you have a power imbalance that needs to be addressed. Otherwise this leads to a toxicity issue within the community because it creates a divide between those that can’t solo party based content, and those that look down and ridicule those people.

Dungeons need difficulty options. Far far too many MMO’s rely on “here’s a new mechanic, figure out what to do in the next 2 seconds or die”. Some players like that, and that’s fine. Some players don’t, and this design essentially punishes these players. Too often are we told “just read a guide/watch a video”. I learn by doing, not by reading. There’s a massive stress level difference between dying because I’m playing poorly, and dying because I’m coming in blind and don’t know where to go or what to do. Especially when you’re in a group of people that want to blaze through it at light speed.

There is no excuse for an MMO these days to only cater to one group of players. You make the game too easy and you lose your hardcore crowd, and these are the people that go the extra length to figure out what works and what doesn’t. However, you make things too hard and you drive away your casual crowd, and the casual crowd is where the majority of your playerbase is going to be. You lose them, you lose your numbers and that’s how you end up with the reputation of having a dead game.

Developers need to listen to both sides, weigh the pros and cons of what the sides are saying, and then decide what to do with their game based on that. Most importantly, INSTRUCT THE PLAYERS HOW TO PLAY THE GAME based on your design. Again many players like myself learn by doing, so you slowly yet frequently introduce mechanics. You slowly ramp up the difficulty of it to where it finally reaches your baseline. And you do this by having a scalable/selectable difficulty.

And I know the biggest complaint against this “you just want everything given to you for the minimum amount of work”. To wit I say no, I don’t. The good gear SHOULD be beyond the harder difficulties, I just believe in an actual difficulty curves as opposed to difficulty acute right angles.

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Dean Greenhoe

As someone who still loves MMO’s but has greater difficulty playing due to physical handicaps, I feel the difficulty level of the games I play has to be moderate to low. The games UI has to be customizable. The combat needs to be something that a player can accomplish at their own pace.

I know this is all relative to me personally but, I feel I belong to a large portion of the mmo base and we are not getting any younger. Also, we do have alot of time to play and the patience to play the “long game”.

Let the whipper snappers play the hard games.

Oleg Chebeneev

I dont think MMOs should be hard as default since majority of players are casuals. But for people like me who enjoy insane challenges there should be such option with permadeath mode and cool rewards.

Axetwin .

As a self admitted filthy casual, I 100% agree with you.

Bruno Brito

If it’s difficulty of combat, it should be variable, according to the players. I am completely against mandatory grouping, but i understand that it has it’s places. That being said, if i wanna solo the entire game and i have the expertise and skill to do so, i should be able to do so.

MMOs should never cater to the most skilled completely. Make them go to their niche spots and keep them there. MMOs should be accessible.


the difficulty of a game needs to be focused on the goals of the game.

If you are trying to build a genuine virtual world with a thriving community, then you need to build your game around diversity. Diversity of playstyle, as well as diversity of difficulty.

A diverse community is stronger than a niche community, so if you leave out challenging content, your game will be less diverse.

There is also the issue of player progression.

The longer a player plays your game, the better they *should* get. So, what was once challenging becomes trivial, the game needs to offer a difficulty progression so that as your players get better, they still have something to enjoy. If you don’t offer that progression, your players will just get bored and quit.

Now, if you are planning on building a niche MMORPG, then you can more narrowly focus that difficulty on that niche.

Finally, I’d like to direct your attention to the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. “Difficulty” is hard to define objectively, but the theory of multiple intelligences helps us do just that. Something like an action combat game focuses the difficulty on bodily-kinesthetic intelligence: reaction times, accuracy, dexterity etc. The difficulty is focused on physical attributes. Something like vanilla LotRO is more focused on logical-mathematical intelligence – understanding statistics and numbers to predict what will happen next so you can choose the correct skill.

So, when designing the difficulty of your game, you also need to be aware what type of intelligence you are challenging with your difficulty. If you try and mix and match too much, you’ll end up appealing to no-one.

Sarah Cushaway

Challenging enough I need to pay attention during fights (rare these days with most MMOs–everything is so faceroll outside of endgame), but not so hard it stops being fun or I can’t mess around with sub-optimal builds.

Robert Mann

Variable. Not only should combat difficulty vary, but also other content. Other content should not be so phoned in.

The key to this is that harder content should have some reward, but not feel mandatory. So no making the classic mistake of all the best stuff in raid/PvP…

Ayman M' Kharbach

It’s simple, you make combat optional. It can still even be the major component of the mmo; but just optional.

Make the standard mmo crafting, weaving, gathering, bartering and whatever actually indulgently interactive and you’ve got yourself a winner.

I wanted new world to be a souls like, that would have made the game a gem. Now the fights just feel like it felt like a necessity they had to add to the game.