Massively OP had a discussion piece two days ago on difficulty in MMORPGs that was an interesting read, and that generated some incisive comments from the community. I’ll cherry-pick a few points to add my own thoughts too in this post:
I think definitely have to separate and break down “complexity” too in this discussion because while combat systems … have stiffened up considerably, we have lost design depth when it comes to other areas of the genre, like crafting depth (hey, Star Wars Galaxies) and housing depth (hey, EverQuest II) [part of Bree’s answer]
Bree made several good points but I really liked this one in particular, any discussion of difficulty in MMORPGs generally focuses on combat and she makes the point earlier in her answer that combat has become more complex not less complex; yet that seems to have been balanced in newer games by a simplification or loss of non-combat complexity.
I’d like to see difficulty scaling and/or difficulty settings (set by the player) in MMOs (at least for any solo or instanced content), perhaps with correspondingly adjusted rewards. Such settings are pretty common in SP games.
This comment from Thomas on the article is very close to a pet theme of mine, making content solo-only and then suddenly very difficult (especially if only difficult for certain classes/builds) really annoys me. Thomas goes on to talk about wanting a difficulty slider/setting – common enough for instanced content (e.g. DDOs or WoW’s dungeon and raid mode selection options), but that’s only one way of empowering the player to vary difficulty. If you allow players to choose group size more flexibly then they can choose to underman or overman content to vary the difficulty in a social manner.
I think this concept [ed: referring to the question on defining difficulty] has been allowed to go on for to long without anyone really setting a precedence. The result of which has lead a much larger than should be group of gamers to believe that “Difficulty = Time Spent.”
Then from commenter Dug from the Earth we have the above quote, one which I think is very relevant – repeatedly in recent years games expansions have upped the ‘difficulty’ by greatly expanding the monsters “time to kill” or inflating their hit points: I’m thinking Mordor in LOTRO, or several different Rift expansions. I can understand the reasoning for doing this, to give veteran and bored long-term players a new challenge, but I think many of these studios do not take into account multi-MMO or casual players in making such changes. I would be happy with an increasing difficulty as you go deeper into such new content, but all too often it seems that the difficulty is stepped up massively from the first mob in the new zones – probably because it is expected that you will be very well geared already from months of repeating the same content while waiting for something new to come along.
For my own part I also want to see more MMORPGs introducing non-combat challenges through puzzles and quests that require thinking to complete (e.g. following lore clues). The Secret World excels at this with its puzzle missions, but I would welcome more challenges that aren’t just combat in other games. WoW’s last expansion of Legion did take some baby-steps in this direction with the puzzle-oriented Kirin Tor world quest series. I rather enjoyed these for the most part and would welcome more like them in the next expansion.
As Elliot mentioned in his own answer it’s hard to approach the subject of difficulty i MMORPGs without breaking it down into more specific sub-topics (like complexity above). The topic more than most is “bracingly subjective” as Elliot phrases it, and so very complex too, but I do find it an interesting one to contemplate.