In a recent press Q&A around the announcement of Elder Scrolls Online‘s Gold Road chapter, Zenimax creative director Rich Lambert appeared to dismiss the idea of offering more challenging open world content, instead pointing to dungeons as a more difficult alternative.
I’m going off an indirect quotation, so I’m not going to read too much into what Lambert said, but regardless of his intention, there is a long-standing stereotype in the MMO world that solo and casual players are unable or unwilling to handle a challenge, and I want to push back against that.
Before I really get into it, I want to acknowledge that “casual” is a nebulous term with no strict definition, but I tend to think of it as someone who simply doesn’t want to shackle play to other people’s schedules, strict metagames, or any single ideal of how you’re “supposed” to play. I also acknowledge that casual players, solo players, and fans of open world content aren’t totally synonymous groups, but there is a lot of overlap between them, so for the sake of this piece I’ll treat the terms as interchangeable.
I also want to be clear that I’m talking about difficulty in the sense of skill-based gameplay, like dodging boss attacks or perfectly executing an ability rotation, not things like XP debt or long travel times, which tax only your patience.
I’ve always been a solo player first, with sporadic forays into group content, throughout my MMO career, and for all that time I’ve had to deal with other gamers assuming I’m a clueless player who would wilt under the slightest challenge. Meanwhile, developers reinforce this stereotype by consistently refusing to offer even in the slightest challenge in their open worlds. It’s insulting.
I’m not going to claim I’m the most elite gamer ever. Most high-level raiders are probably better than I, for example. But I’m no slouch. The one time I got brought in to fill an empty slot in a progression raid in World of Warcraft, the rest of the group was sufficiently impressed by my performance that they spent the whole night all but begging me to join their guild. I didn’t join, but mainly because I just don’t enjoy that style of content very much.
I like a challenge, and I can enjoy group content, but I don’t like combining the two. I find people overwhelming, and adding social stress to gameplay stress just sucks the fun out for me.
When I’m playing solo, I don’t have to worry about my team letting me down, or even worse, letting them down myself. It’s just me and my skills against the content, and that’s when I start to really relish a challenge.
It always baffled me that group size and difficulty got conflated in MMORPGs in the first place. Of course it makes sense to scale up enemy stats for groups, but beyond that, why should social content be tuned to be more difficult?
To me, group content should be about that social aspect. It should be about spending time with friends first, and it should default to a lower difficulty so you can always carry friends whose skills aren’t as high as the rest of the group’s. I don’t mind the option of hard group content for those who want it, but I don’t see why it should be the standard.
So when I get told that dungeons and raids are where I need to go if I want a challenge, I get frustrated. It’s like asking a waiter if his restaurant has peanut-free options and being cheerfully told, “Yes, we have gluten-free options!” Good for you, but that’s not what I asked.
I acknowledge this is a complex issue. I’m a big believer in accessibility in gaming, and I’m all for story modes in single-player games. Ideally, skill or lack thereof shouldn’t gate people from story content. When you’re designing an MMO with a shared world, it’s a struggle to find a good compromise for players of all skill levels. Adding selectable difficulty for a shared world isn’t as easy as it for a single-player game… at least in theory. That so old and janky a game as Lord of the Rings Online managed has me wondering if it’s actually that hard, but I digress.
No one’s asking for the open world to be some nail-biting, Soulslike experience. OK, knowing gamers, probably some people are, but I’m not, and I don’t think that’s what most people mean when we say that we want more challenge out of games like ESO.
Most MMO open worlds are so easy that you can kill most enemies just by right-clicking on them — or left clicking a few times if it’s action combat game. Any old school World of Warcraft player has had a dungeon run with a Hunter who contributed virtually nothing to DPS because none of his gear had the right stats for the class. That happened because WoW‘s open world is tuned to be so easy you can be performing at 10% of your character’s intended capacity and still coast through.
I’m not asking for brutal difficulty. I just want to have to try. You could increase the difficulty of most MMO open worlds by at least 50%, and they would still be roughly equal to playing an average single-player RPG on normal mode.
I don’t mean to pile on Elder Scrolls Online, as I don’t think it’s even the worst offender for failing to challenge solo players in the MMO space, but it does seem bizarre to me that ESO is reluctant to respond to the frequent criticisms of its difficulty because on paper it seems to be one of the MMOs best-suited to offering challenging solo content.
It’s one of the few MMOs that makes solo content a priority when allocating development resources. It’s got extensive global level-scaling, which is a feature that’s supposed to keep things challenging. It’s got a strong emphasis on the “play your way” philosophy and letting players chart their own course through the game.
Even technically, it seems well-situated to offer more challenging open world play. This isn’t a game where the entire world exists as a seamless whole. Each zone is its own instance. It doesn’t seem as if it would be hard at all to offer more difficult versions of each zone; when entering a new area, you could just get a pop-up that says something like, “Do you want to go to Reaper’s March (standard) or Reaper’s March (veteran)?”
That might spread out the population a bit, but that really matters only for world events and bosses, and I imagine everyone would use the easy-mode zones for those. I’d even be fine if public content like that was disabled for the veteran versions, and I suspect most people asking for more challenge in ESO would agree. That kind of content was never meant to be challenging anyway.
And that’s without even getting into other ways to add more challenge without harming less-skilled players, like optional “nightmare” areas a la The Secret World.
The argument that ESO is a story-centric game doesn’t hold a lot of water to me, either. The advantage of video games as a story-telling medium is to enhance immersion within the story through gameplay, and difficulty is part of that. If your story ends in a climactic boss battle against the dreaded Skullpunter, Mangler of Worlds, and she just folds over without any effort, you’ve failed as a story-teller. What constitutes an appropriate challenge for such a fight will vary by player, but that brings us back to the importance of offering options.
At the end of the day, all this really boils down to is money. Most people prefer easy games, and offering more options takes development resources, so from the perspective of cold capitalism, catering MMOs to the lowest common denominator makes sense.
But for those of us who want MMO worlds that aren’t completely toothless, it is endlessly frustrating. There are so many games offering easy open worlds, and so few options for players like me. Even New World, currently the best option for challenging solo content, has been scaling back on difficulty a lot lately.
MMO developers, I beg of you, throw skilled casuals a bone now and then. I’m tired of infantilizing open-world design and the insulting stereotype that casual equals bad. Not wanting to plan my gaming sessions around the schedules of four to nine other people doesn’t mean I don’t want a challenge. Being an introvert doesn’t make me bad at video games!