Massively Overthinking: Open world difficulty and puzzles in MMOs

    
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During last week’s press event ahead of the Gold Road announcement, Elder Scrolls Online’s Rich Lambert said something I thought would turn out to be pretty provocative. Apparently, there’s a small contingent of ESO players who are persistent in agitating for the open world to be made much harder than it is, and his pushback on that was firm indeed. Lambert argued that the open world is balanced for casual play very specifically so that people don’t get frustrated and quit; people who want challenge are told to play group content specifically designed with challenge in mind. He said something similar about harder puzzles and progression-gating puzzles: His goal is to design better puzzles that are nevertheless balanced for the “lowest-common denominator” of people who are just gonna look up the answer. I thought it was refreshing to hear!

Let’s Overthink it! I’ve asked our writers to talk about either puzzle difficulty or open-world difficulty, whichever strikes their fancy. Is Lambert’s philosophy wise? Should the base game be easy enough that a kid can play and scale up at will? Or should MMOs take the Sea of Thieves approach, where the basegame is unfriendly and the easymode is tacked on as an afterthought? How do you design puzzle content for MMOs that’s engaging enough for people to try without just tabbing out for help?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): To be frank, I feel like Lambert was saying what really goes on with most mainstream games: make it easy enough at first. No, not every studio does this, especially the ones who are poor at game design, but in general, you want to make a game that’s easy enough for the casual player and has areas that can be ramped up for people who like a challenge (or will just tab out and google the answer). The devs who don’t do it are probably the ones who don’t understand the need for various cues to lead a player to the answer, whether it’s a big glowing spot to signal a weak point or a chime when a player gets closer to a hidden item.

Weirdly, I think combat is easier to design at this point than puzzles. Once World of Warcraft boiled MMOs down to combat dances, it took most of the puzzle-y content out, with few exceptions (like Secret World). My favorite ways for modern MMOs to handle non-combat puzzles are jumping puzzles and lore-based “escape room” puzzles. Jumping puzzles (not jumping tests) are often pretty visual, so even though you can look up the answer, they’re accessible enough that I think the average gamer can do them. Unlike a jumping test where you get the timing right, a jumping puzzle involves figuring out the right way up, down, or across terrain. Sometimes they weren’t even intentional, like how some of us learned to traverse off-road mountains in old-school MMOs.

Similarly, one thing I liked about some of the older MMOs (like Asheron’s Call) was their use of visual clues to lead players to the right area: hidden doors, hidden levers, hidden dungeons. Especially when new content came out, players would often get a hint about where something was happening then proceed to follow clues. Again, these are things that can just be googled, but in-game there are clues. Admittedly, these days, even I read the game text less, so cutscenes and voiceover dialogue may be needed a bit more, but even simple things like having a map that shows there’s another room but no clear way to it gives players the idea that there could be a fake wall or hidden trigger. And for lore lovers, text-based codes that reveal more lore are great since it’s clearly aimed at those players. Powergamer Timmy won’t care about learning Elvish if it only lets him understand why the War of the Woods was fought, but Loremaster Larry would, so everyone wins.

Andy McAdams: I have to agree with Lambert here. I don’t like Souls-like games for a reason, and that’s because I don’t like frustrating punishing mechanics like “if you are one centimeter off you die because f*ck you.” If I’m playing in the open world, I don’t want it to be mind-numbingly easy, but I also don’t want it to be butt-clenching, teeth-grinding, jaw-tense for every fight. I want a nice balance of everything, but if you can tell me I can have only one, I’m going to go with “let me kinda zone out and be a murderhobo in the over world.” I see the “open world must be punishing” crowd as just another form of gatekeeping, of saying who should and shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy MMOs, which I am strongly against. I don’t subscribe to the “only group content should be difficult” mentality, and I like open world, more solo-driven challenges as well.

Challenging puzzles at this point I think are an intrinsic motivation thing. You know before you ever start the puzzle that the answer is right there – just a brief interweb search away. There’s no way for the game to validate that you didn’t look up the answer, so you are left with leaving it up to the players to stop themselves from looking up answers. The “min-maxer rush through all the things” is never going to spend time on puzzles; he is going to look up the answer every time because he doesn’t care about the challenge of solving puzzle, just getting to the next thing. I’ll be upfront in that sometimes I look up the answers to puzzles, and sometimes I figure them out on my own. I think trying to design puzzles that are difficult but not so hard people don’t tab out for help is an unwinnable proposition because the people who want the challenge will work it out, and the people who just want to sprint to the next thing will look up and move on.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX, YouTube, Twitch): We had a long conversation about this in the MassivelyOP offices. I remember getting ready to duck behind a desk because I was getting the strong feeling that chair throwing was about to happen. (It didn’t!) But I’m giving Lambert a pass here: The guy knows ESO’s playerbase very well, and I also agree with his take on the open world. His response was far better than J. Allen Brack’s “You think you do, but you don’t.” The man is so based on his response too; he is 100% aware that people will just look up a way to get through the challenge anyway. No, I do not think this is some slight against the casual players because it’s not a simple matter of just making bigger numbers! The game is a freaking MMO. For fudge sakes, just put the dang hard content behind group content!

I get it, there should be some consideration for a solo player, and forced grouping isn’t everyone’s cup of tea BLA BLA BLA. Think about this: Hard content should test the player’s mastery of the game. You know what’s part of an MMO? Other players. Other players need to be part of the equation no matter what in an MMO. Besides, he even gave solo players looking for challenge a space: Endless Archive is a solo or duo randomized roguelike dungeon that takes enemies from the open world and ramps up their difficulty into difficult encounters. It’s also available for new accounts from the start. So he’s perfectly justified in what he said because he literally has a mode for the casual solo player too.

I haven’t answered the question yet. Hard open world content cannot be just bigger numbers. Every encounter needs mechanics. As someone who solos Palace of the Dead in Final Fantasy XIV regularly, I know it gets boring sometimes. It gets grindy. The content is long and hard. If any MMO wants hard open-world content, every enemy encounter needs to be tough in a way that it forces a change of tactics. Hard mode Guild Wars gave monsters elite skills. That made it so tactics had to change. It wasn’t just about making it longer to drop an enemy. The idea of “it’s easy to code” is ridiculous because adding more HP and damage to enemies will be boring. New mechanics for each mob needs to happen. It’s not just extra code. Everyone needs to get involved, the artists, the designers, the balance team, everyone. So yeah, Lambert is 100% correct on this regarding his game. Keep the hard content in the group content.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I’m reminded of the recent interview between MarleMMO and Project Gorgon lead Eric Heimberg when they were discussing how to best toe the line between a starter area as a filter and as an onramp; the general gist of the discussion basically boiled down to the difficulty in making sure the starting experience isolates the kind of player a game best caters to without pushing everyone out of the way. In that regard, I really feel like that’s the same balance that Lambert and his team are trying to strike.

With that in mind, the open world really shouldn’t be the place where people get their fat lip. Ideally speaking, it should provide some easing into the harder content, but it shouldn’t rap your knuckles if your game is predicated on exploration, finding quests, completing objectives, or following a story. That isn’t to suggest that everything should be faceroll either, of course, but there is a time and place for people to get challenged, and open-world or “normal” gameplay content isn’t it.

Now, does that mean there shouldn’t be options? Of course not: LOTRO’s open-world difficulty slider makes an otherwise very routine leveling experience leagues better, and I think puzzle content would be a great way to introduce challenge without forcing people to complete them (a la The Secret World’s investigation missions). But by and large I agree with Lambert’s philosophy that every possible thing shouldn’t be hard-bitten, hard-fought, and hard-won just to satisfy what is ultimately the very meager amount of players’ forced metrics of “getting good.”

Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant): I don’t know why, but the vocal part of the ESO community specifically seems to really like beating the dead horse of open-world content difficulty. Balancing for the “lowest-common denominator” is absolutely the right way to design content for a game like Elder Scrolls Online. Skilled, experienced, geared players can always do easy content, even if they blow right through it. Just because they do is not a good reason to gatekeep people who aren’t all of those things.

Want harder overworld content? Take some gear pieces off until you have lowered your stats enough that the difficulty is to your tastes. There are some great ways to scale difficulty in instances — City of Heroes did it in 2004, and any number of games have done it to varying degrees since — but in big, open world zones like you have in ESO, it just isn’t feasible.

Technically, zones are just big instances, so I suppose you could go through and design two different versions of each zone, one for easy mode and one for hard mode, as ESO does with its dungeons and trials. The problem with this approach is that it increases development and testing time (I wouldn’t quite say it would double testing time, but probably close to it), and it fractures the playerbase. One of the instances is going to be less popular (let’s be honest, it’s the hard mode instance), so anyone in that instance is going to feel like the game is dead.

The other option is to give a permanent debuff to anyone who wants to play in hard mode (this is what LOTRO does with its difficulty scaling), but at the end of the day, that’s effectively the same as unequipping your gear, which you can do right now. The good news is that ESO has a really nice cosmetic system, so nobody has to know you’re running around with no pants on!

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): While it wasn’t part of the Q&A question, Lambert surely knows that some members of the ESO community have been agitating for an optional landscape difficulty increase with increased rewards, akin to what LOTRO has done. Because of One Tamriel’s level-scaling design, ESO’s landscape is laughably easy and distressingly similar across the board. There is no real difference between mobs, no challenge whatsoever, and no real change if you’re fighting in one zone vs. another. ZeniMax’s target player is apparently a two-fingered tree sloth fresh out of hibernation.

In actuality, Lambert is implying that the only challenge ESO should have is in veteran dungeons, raids, or PvP. But that’s a problem because there are a ton of experienced players who don’t care for any of those and prefer to dine on the meat-and-potatoes of landscape questing. Sectioning your game off so that the vast majority of what people are doing is never, ever challenging is unwise and short-sighted. We don’t need games to beat up and frustrate players, but we also don’t need games with nerf padding glued to every sharp corner and a helicopter dev standing right behind us ready to whisk us to safety at the first hint of danger.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I think the base thinking here makes sense. I’m not necessarily looking to press 11111 and make my way through the open world, but I certainly don’t want to be a tryhard playing it either. Usually open world content for me is time to relax, kick my legs up, and listen to chill beats while I forget my troubles.

With that said, I also like my puzzle content to be rather thoughtful. Of course, any obstacle that begins to halt me in my tracks will result in an automatic alt tab to the wiki. Not that it’s the game’s fault, but I’m just not going to try hard with puzzles in MMOs either. I’ll enjoy them for their complexity, but beyond that I’ll appreciate the effort while I follow the path those before me have trodden.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I’m planning a Soapbox column in the near future to address the issue of open-world difficulty. Suffice it to say that I understand the capitalistic reasons most developers cater to the lowest common denominator, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy with it, and I really wish solo players had more options for challenging MMO content, whether it’s through difficulty sliders, harder games, or some other solution.

Puzzles are a bit trickier. Most MMORPGs are combat games first, so I think it makes more sense to require a minimal level of competency with combat than with a totally unrelated form of gameplay, like puzzles. So I think there’s a better argument for making everything easy mode there.

Even then, though, there could be room for compromise. Puzzle fans could still be given genuinely challenging stuff, as long as it was optional and didn’t gate essential story or rewards. More options are always better.

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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