Discussing difficulty in MMORPGs

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.

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5 Responses to Discussing difficulty in MMORPGs

  1. Sylow says:

    And yet the mentioned Secret World unfortunately is evidence that you are a minority here.

    I mean, just compare the old and the new game. Combat in the old game also wasn’t hard, if you just paid a little attention to your selected abilities. What was hard were the investigation missions. Some of them were on my mind for months before it clicked, some of them i in the end had to spoiler to solve.

    The same investigation mission now, in the new game, have spoilers basically built into them. The classic is Dr. Bannermans house.

    Old version: you find a CD case of four seasons and a second pointer to four seasons and the computer hint for the password is “my favourite composer”. So if you don’t know who he refers to, Google helps.

    New version: There’s a paper scrap with “Vivaldi” written on it next to the computer. And i somehow have the feeling that this still was a massive challenge for a part of the people they attracted with the new version of the game.

    • Shintar says:

      Were any other investigation missions changed like that though? I certainly haven’t heard people complain about it. I was under the impression that this particular early quest was just changed in an attempt to “ease people into” the concept of having to puzzle things out instead of fighting.

      • Sylow says:

        It’s the premium example. There are some others which were dumbed down. Just out of memory:
        – The Kingsmouth code in the new version you get pointers on where to go to, while int he original game you had to figure out yourself, that the manhole covers were pointing towards your destination. There were a number of other “now for the stupid people” changes in the game, but listing them all wouldn’t be any more helpful here.
        – Digging deeper now has some indication where the hidden entrance is on the road. Also there’s more info on the thing to play on the organ down there.

        On the other hand, the organ part also got difficulty added. In the original game the actual challenge was to find the notes of the song, then play the notes. In the new version, there are more pointers for the melody. I might remember wrongly, but i think there was even a scrap with the missing part down there by now.

        What actually got -much- harder was to play those notes. The switches were well useable in the old game, you clicked on them. In the new abomination you have a “use zone” around the crosshair. That’s needed else any other thing to use in the game would be ultra-tedious, but the zone is bigger than the distance between the switches on the wall there. So you press the use button, and one of several switches in the “use zone” is being toggled. Enjoy.

  2. Sorry to be off topic, but I was wondering if you might be interested in doing a guest post on Superior Realities? As I believe you saw, I’ve had to slow down my posting due to Real Life issues, but I don’t want the blog to die too much, so I’ve been reaching out to bloggers I follow to see if any of them would like to do guest posts. Might get some new eyes on your blog.

    If you’re interested, send me a message via the contact page on Superior Realities, and we can discuss details.

    On topic: I did a deep dive on MMO difficulty on MMO Bro a few months ago. It’s a very complex issue, to be sure, with a fair degree of subjectivity. I do think on the whole MMOs are easier than they should be, but it’s not a simple problem to solve.

    I just wish we could at least get the community — especially devs — to let go of the idea that grind equals challenge.

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