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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