Challenging the Concept of Challenge

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Or, the truth about MMO gaming….

Since I started blogging, I’ve read a lot about how players want to be challenged. A good amount of this conversation has circulated around World of Warcraft and the WotLK difficulty drop. I always accepted these statements as understandable truths but lately I’ve been questioning just how true they really may be.

Do we play MMORPGs for the challenge? A lot of you will probably say yes and I’d have to disagree with most of you.

To better explain, let’s look at the definition of Challenge:

“A test of one’s abilities or resources in a demanding but stimulating undertaking: a career that offers a challenge.” – Dictionary.com: American Heritage

Compare that definition to the current “challenges” of most popular mmos: pressing the right keys at the right times, staying out of the glowing shapes on the ground, try not to let the monster hit you, and put in enough time.

There’s more than that for some players but I think that about sums up the average players “challenge” in an MMO. The usual justification is that “it takes skill to play your class well.” Yeah, maybe, bust most MMOs don’t really require you to play your class “well” to succeed. They require you to fulfill your requirement which, we all know, doesn’t necesarily mean doing anything even near well.

By and large, MMOs follow a more time = more reward formula. Skill and challenge really have nothing to do with that. In the pursuit of equal opportunity, challenge has been lost in translation.

What does challenge mean to me? It means having to pay attention to a fight the whole time or risking death. It means more than auto-attack, 1, 3, 2, 2, 2. It means taking risks and making decisions that could make or break an encounter. In short, it means a much less forgiving game. For some players, dedicated raid/guild leaders and PvPers to name a few, that formula holds up. For the rest, time and repetition are the “challenges” they’re meeting.

But do we really play MMOs for the challenge of them? I sure hope not, otherwise we all went into this thing organizationally deficit, which, taken as a whole, is probably true (getting a group of people together is part of what makes a group leader’s job more of a challenge than most other aspects of play).

MMOs fill a different gap in our gaming lives. They provide a feeling of moving from one place to another, progression, that gives our gaming purpose. They give us a social outlet that gives it meaning and value. They give us a meta-game, a distraction from the day to day, and something to devote or intellectual resources to.

If I want “challenging” gameplay, I’ll turn to a game with difficulty settings. When I’m playing an MMO, I don’t expect any more challenge that knowing what buttons to push when and where not to stand — until that special little player comes along and pushes me outside of my bounds. The truth of why PvE will always top PvP in popularity is that most people in this genre want an MMO for what it is, a slightly dumbed down RPG they can experience with other people. And that’s not so bad.

Edit: I just read a recent article at Ferrel’s site, Epic Slant, that made me want to clarify something. He made the point that, yes, learning new encounters can be difficult. There’s no doubt about that. The reason I still feel that, on the whole, modern MMOs present little is that most people do not go through the effort of learning encounters themselves.  I wish more people would, I wish that I would, because it presents a far more exciting encounter until it’s mastered. There’s a social expectation, however, that counteracts that desire. The expectation is that you’ll either a) know what’s going to happen ahead of time; or b) keep up. That expectation pressures people to follow instead of learn.

WoW bought forth a massive influx of database sites so it’s no longer necessary for people to learn encounters on their own. The learning curve is drastically reduced for the vast majority of gamers because as soon as a guild or two clears through the latest dungeon, a strategy is put online that details everything subsequent groups are likely to encounter. Plus, for a guild with VoIP, only one person really needs to know the encounter well, and they can just tell the rest of the group what to do. Unfortunately, I also think a good chunk of gamers just want the gear upgrade at the end, too. Why bother with the frustration of learning the encounter on your own when the fight is just a means to an end anyways?

Perhaps a better statement is that modern MMO end-game is as challenging as players want it to be… most people just want it easy.

The Plan

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Since my last post, I’ve been absent. The largest part of this is that I haven’t played any MMO in a little while now. My wife and I had some extra wedding money left over, so we used it to buy an Xbox 360 (not that she really cares about it, unfortunately). I know, I’m behind the times. The upside to this is that I now have a wide variety of great and affordable games at my disposal.

So, for the last little bit, I’ve been enjoying the likes of Oblivion, Fallout 3, and even the likes of Sonic: Unleashed (nostaliga, what can I say?). I’ve even dove into the Xbox Live Marketplace and picked up a couple of Xbox originals (Fable and GTA: San Andreas) and Uno from the arcade selection, which is surprisingly addictive.

Oblivion is, by far, my favorite. Yet, for all of its RPG-goodness, it’s not quite the same as a good MMO. The problem is, I don’t know if I’m ready to put the Xbox in the #2 place this soon after buying it. My plan, then, is to mix up my playtime for the rest of the summer.

I hate to say it but I really don’t want to go back to LotRO right now. It’s a good game but it doesn’t have that “hook” to keep me interested. After spending the first 23 levels doing much the same (how many monster types did I fight again? Five?) it’s just taken on a feeling of bleh for me.

I even considered returning to WoW. Thankfully, I resisted that urge. I honestly believe that it would be an exercise in exasperation. It’s my old flare. My first MMO love. Yet, we’ve parted ways and I know that if I come back now, I’ll only find everything is still the same. And as slow to progress as ever.

Now I find myself left with a couple of options that I plan to move forward on. First, I’m going to spend more time playing the Chinese version of Aion. They have some really exciting things coming up the fence that have my interested (ie, patch 1.5 but, being honest and all, I’ve experience very little of patch 1.0+ having missed the preview weekends, so I have a lot to check out) and I honestly think that it’ll be the next game to give me that wow-like hook. A second home, so to speak.

The issue at the moment, however, is that with so few English speakers playing and no guild, it can make you feel a little lonesome. I’ve heard there’s lots of English-speaking guilds, however, so I’d imagine that this is only temporary. And it doesn’t detract from the questing at all.

Secondly, I’m going to tinker around in other games. I’m downloading Guild Wars: Nightfall right now to play around with. I tried the first one and liked it but that happened to coincide with when I found WoW and you can imagine what happened then. I’m also considering Final Fantasy 11 for my console but I’ve heard a lot of things that make me hesitant, so I’m not sure if I’ll follow through on that one yet.

Anyways, no. Contrary to popular belief I’m not dead. The wife hasn’t butchered me or made me into little Raegn sausages. She did, however, think it was funny when I told her people think my handle is pronounced Raegan since I’m devoutly anti-political publically. Go figure. It’s all good. I don’t have to be a silent G.

Faction Pride?

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Blood Elf: I'm better! Draeni: No, I'M better! ... noobcake! Blood Elf: Oh no you di'nt! Mooooooooom! Teddy called me dumb!!!Draeni: *melancholy* My name's not Teddy.

I was reading WoW Insider today and came across an article talking about faction pride. Do WoW players have faction pride? On PvP servers, maybe, but I doubt that most players really care beyond looks. I mean, in a PvE game, what does faction even count for outside of the aesthetic?

In these times of lull for World of Warcraft, sites like that are really digging. Re-hashing age old arguments, making points already made, starting argument-like “discussions.” I don’t blame them per se but honestly, I don’t see why that question is even being posed. The author states,

“What interests me more is how rarely we see this question come up nowadays”

Why should it? What does faction count for on a “normal” realm (which presumably most people play on – non-pvp at least) other than giving players a new story. You see a lot of “For the Horde”’ing going on but I always took that as more of a nod to the common closing statement of many quest givers.

The only time faction “pride” comes into play is for PvP and the occasional competition. Apart from that, what is there to be proud of, everyone completing the same quests? Seriously pwn’ing Hogger?  I’m sure some people get it—but for me, if there’s no competition, there’s nothing to be proud of.

Richard Bartle and the Stranglethorn Vale

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Richard Bartle, one of the first developers of MUDS, predecessors to modern day MMOs

Richard Bartle, one of the first developers of MUDS, predecessors to modern day MMOs

If you’ve been keeping up with the MMO blogs the past couple of days, you’ve probably read about the latest prattling from our dear friend Richard Bartle. Should you have missed out, check in on his blog. He has a post up right now that bloggers everywhere are picking at. Funnily enough, they’ve picked at him in the past because of his criticisms of World of Warcraft. This time, they’re picking because of his praise for it, specifically, Stranglethorn Vale.

I respect the guy, really. If it wasn’t for him, our genre wouldn’t be where it is now. Our precious WoW and WAR and EQ? Would never have happened. For that, everyone that enjoys these games owes him a debt of praise.

Unfortunately, I think Richard has let that go to his head a bit too much. The aforementioned post comes with several stunning features, including condescension, arrogance, and an effusive adoration for intricacies “maybe 20 people in the world” will pick up on.

Well, first of all, la-dee-f’ing-da Mr. Bartle. You’ve already alienated all of your readers because, like you say but seem to not care about, those 20 people have probably never heard of “Qblog.” Secondly, it’s almost as if you’re attention seeking, Richard. You’d never do that, would you?

The whole thing continues in that manner, gushing over the wonderful funnel-like effect the zone has, pushing people towards Booty Bay and to harder mobs as they too gain in levels and strength (and lootz, don’t forget the lootz). He pours over the brilliant design of the Hemet Nesingwary quests. Let’s share just a little piece before we move on.

In regards to the stepped Nesingwary kill quests:

“The stepped nature of these hunting quests mean that whatever level you first encounter the Nesingwary camp in STV, there’s going to be a quest of an appropriate level for you. It’s like a net, spread wide to catch players.

You saw that? A net, spread wide to catch players?”

That line right there is flat out false. It would be true if you could jump right into to step 2 of 4 in any one of those quest lines… but you can’t. They’re all prerequisites for the next in series. If you happen to get there at a level appropriate for say the third quest in that series… you’re still stuck starting from the bottom up. This kind of thing makes me wonder how much he really thinks of his readers. Most of us have played through that quest line, you know. Now, we’re made to wonder whether or not Richard has actually played through the zone more than once, far enough back that his memory is now skewed. Thanks buddy, the whole of your article is now subject to question.

Based on this article, I’m left with the notion that he must look at his readers like peons, ready to believe anything he says because “well, he’s a developer, so he must know something I don’t.” If I can’t trust the most basic fact in the article, why should I buy into your gushing? Then again, one Blizzard developer or two now has something to hang on their fridge.

All that being said, the article does portray a very different angle for viewing a zone and, really, it may give a little insight into the divide between player and developer. After reading it, I was left with the feeling that because he spends so much time working with games, he must inherently overanalyze everything he comes across in them.

I won’t restate the whole article here. If you’d like to read it, I encourage you to (don’t worry, I’ll wait). But, to take so much that in all likelihood was completely unintentional and certainly embellished by his “developer’s mind” really just relegates it to a profession piece. It’s an analysis in the same vein as a carpenter who really appreciates the workmanship of a coffee table. That carpenter could talk all day about the intricacies of its creation and the artisanship of its design, all the while unappreciating of the fact that it was made by a machine in some dusty Chinese factory. That my friends, is 90% of what Bartle’s tickled over.

Now, one of the results of this article was to bring out a lot of players bitter memories of leveling through the zone. They seemed to hate the kill quests and potential for being ganked.

Personally, I loved it. I leveled through it on both an RPPvP and PvE server. The PvP side was irritating at times, sure, but if someone decided to gank/camp, I’d just check my email for a few minutes and wait for the guy (it invariably was a guy) to get bored. Mostly though, it was fine on both sides.

I loved the atmosphere of the zone. If Bartle is right about one thing (and don’t misunderstand, he actually points out a lot of legitimate strong points in the zone) it’s that the music really helps support that “dangerous jungle” feeling. It was colorful and exotic and filled with ruins and really made me want to explore. I was never under the misimpression that I was going to stumble across a treasure chest filled with gold and purples, yet, something about the zone made me want to know more. It’s the only zone I’ve played through where it feels “deep,” almost Indiana Joneish, like that.

The kill and collection quests didn’t really bother me either. Heck, they’re one of the most efficient ways to level your character. Players working on getting alts maxed out should absolutely love STV. Likewise, mobs were bunched up and spawned quick enough to make finding the right ones fairly easy. I was surprised to hear about players actually quitting the game over the frustration of completing these quests. I mean… really? I can only figure that these people must have never played an MMO before. It’s probably best they figured out the game wasn’t for them before they discovered the dreaded faction grind.

The only thing that really bothered me was the long running distance. You’ll probably be there at level 40 though, at which point buying a mount solves that issue.

So, I think Bartle looks at things with the rose colored glasses of the lovelorn developer having spent too much time analyzing and too little time enjoying what it is he’s trying to create. Thank you, Mr. Bartle for allowing me to have nearly 12 years of wonderful MUD and MMO gaming. I’ll happily forgive your eccentricities for all of that time. Still, as a developer, don’t forget that if most of the people don’t enjoy a zone (I truly believe that I’m in the minority with my feelings on STV) it shouldn’t be made a model for others. If the players don’t like it, for all of the intricate and overlooked design flourishes, it’s still short of a success. Players want the show for the lights and scenery; the behind-the-scenes footage only matters if people enjoy the production.

Weather, Change Over Time, and GM Events

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While we’re on the subject of adding complexity to games, let’s talk about a couple of potential systems that could be really neat to see implemented. Maybe we’re talking pipedreams with these articles but, hey, why not? These ideas may not be reasonable in every case but forgive a little self-indulgence from me today.

One of the neatest events I’ve ever played through was the plague shipment in World of Warcraft. For those of you who missed out, before Wrath of the Lich King launched, all of the capital cities received mysterious wooden boxes. Over the course of the next few days, these boxes started releasing a plague that would turn people into zombies that could then infect other people. As time went on, the intensity of the infection increased. While it did turn out to be anti-climactic at the end, it was still very fun to play through “Night of the Living Dead meets Azeroth.” The whole thing was exciting because everyone wanted to know how the event would finish out.

While the plague event was scripted, having similar, more random, sicknesses in the game could really be a lot of fun. Contagion. Should you visit town to do your trade or go to a less populated area to avoid catching the sickness?

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a big detrimental thing to your character either. It could be aesthetic somehow. The fun would lie in your ability to keep free of it yourself or, if you’re the malicious type, spread it. Maybe you’d like to be the medic healing the sick or the apothecary creating and selling antidotes.

Featuring a plague wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea but I do think that it’d make for a very interesting study in propagation, especially if the scope of contagion were extended to NPCs. GMs could turn outbreaks into events by altering the intensity of effects of the disease. Players would have to have an easy way to overcome the illness, lest frustration would overtake some, but I think it could be done, even if it was a non-constant in the game world.

In the same vein of “flowing” content, I’d like to see a game with a working weather system. I don’t mean the random bits of rain or snow we see in some games, I mean a true weather system that moves across the world. Darkfall first piqued this interest in me when they claimed one exactly like that. Hell, they even intended to let players track weather patterns. There would be wind that would effect the world and (correct me if I’m wrong) even generate waves on the ocean. You could chase a storm if you wanted to.

How neat would it be to give weather some meaning in games? You could link spells and rituals to certain kinds of weather. Lightning in Moonglade? You’d better get out there to summon your lightning elemental.  How about getting five of your friends together and calling down lightning at your whim, giving your group a nice buff for your efforts.

Along with working weather, I’ve longed to see a game with actual seasons instead of static zones. Why is it that it’s wintery in one zone and summer in the next? It’s done to create that emotional impact and set the context for your adventures but let’s push the envelope here.

Artwise, I think it’d be hard, if not impossible to do in most existing games but it sure would break up the monotony of traveling and leveling alts quite a bit.

Warm weather animals could migrate and spawn in other parts of the world, similar to how they do in Darkfall. Lakes could freeze and snow could pile up. Or maybe the leaves of the Golden Wood could be seen fluttering to the ground before such a winter hits.

Progressive change doesn’t have to be limited to the world either. Though small, one of the features that really intrigued me about WAR (pre-release) was that characters would change over time. Orc’s would get bigger, dwarf’s beards would get longer, and all forms of elf would get more effeminate with each passing level. I’m not sure if this system has been put in yet, I don’t think it has, but maybe if Paul stops by he can let us know. To me, a system like that just seems neat.

Finally, I’d like to see GM run events return to the big MMOs. Maybe it’s that gaming companies no longer trust their GMs to take things into their own hands like that (or maybe it’s their investors…) but this is something that is sorely missed in today’s most popular pay-to-play games. Thankfully, Mortal Online is taking a step in this direction by allowing their GMs to control certain boss mobs against players.

GM events could be a lot of fun and really connect the community with the developing company. I don’t think that everything needs to come be a big numbered patch. These games are about content but I don’t always need 50 class tweaks along with every new batch of quests. All that does is slow down the content flow. To be quite honest, I’d be far happier with WoW there was more emphasis on producing content (and not just raids) and less on balancing X Class with Y Class. Something tells me that Blizzard would get far too much crying to ever do that though. Isn’t it funny how the vocal minority influences the majority experience?

Maybe these ideas aren’t the most realistic but they do stem from a common theme: change and more unpredictability. Let’s face it, these games get routine after a while. You learn the game, do your thing, and wait for that next patch to hit keep the air fresh. That works but unpredictability breeds excitement, even though it also breeds discontent in some.

I’m a fan of ideas that break the norm. Features that, even if small, show that the developers are trying to push their game and make the play experience their own. I don’t want a carbon copy of WoW, LotRO, or EQ2. I want the familiar yet the new. I want the comfortable yet the challenging. I want to feel like my game is a self-enclosed world and that, truly, the only limits are my own. That is the key reason behind why I, and I suspect many others, have looked into games like Darkfall and Vanguard.

My pipedreams may not be realistic or ever likely of getting done in the games that I play. They’d be hard to implement in a surmountable way for players that just don’t care. Still, would you prefer the same old, same old, or elements of change to keep you on your toes?

I’d always take the path of the new and leave the quarterly patches to come as they may.

Syp Hits It On the Head

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On his blog, Biobreak, Syp has hit the nail on its head with his synopsis of the TBS to WotLK raiding transition and why it’s a bad thing. He’s echoed my feelings more poignantly than I’m able, so I thought I’d share them with you.

“I wasn’t always pleased I never saw some of the highest raiding content in WoW, just to see it, but I was okay with the fact that it was there above me — at least there was the feeling that I hadn’t “done it all”, that the game had a few challenges left in store.

It is disturbing to consider if devs just give up on making games difficult at all, figure all we instant-coffee society consumers want and demand is for our characters to get virtually strong by doing the least amount of effort available, and make titles that reward us for overcoming nothing.”

While I wouldn’t exactly say that WoW’s current raiding game is “overcoming nothing” (not that he exactly said that) I do share the same sentiments. I didn’t really care for the “1% of players see the end-game” philosophy, I equally don’t like the “95% of people who try will see and beat the end-game” notion either. Are we truly at an all-or-nothing state of affairs?

At least having content that’s a little more barred sets a tangible, yet perhaps elusive, goal. You probably won’t get there but maybe you will. Now, it’s simply a matter of finding the time and a PuG that knows how to listen on vent.

Thanks Syp!

The Problem With Side-Jobs

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Vanguards Crafting Pane

Vanguard's Crafting Pane

I’ve played MMOs for a little while now and I’m not quite satisfied with crafting and other hobbies. Take fishing for example, nearly every game that features it has dumbed down this potentially fun hobby to nothing more than click, wait, and click again. I don’t know about you but I don’t find that exciting.

The same thing goes for crafting. Nearly every AAA MMO out there has a very basic and very rote creation system. You found a cool new recipe? Great, clickity, clickity, clack and it’s all your yours – no brain power required! Why is it so bland? Is ease of design so much more important that actually engaging your players?

The only redeeming factor is that you might be able to get a decent reward for your monotony– but only in some games. I’ve never felt compelled to craft or fish in WoW because you’re forced to go through hours upon hours of grind to get a reward of any value (ie, the WoW formula). Unless you count that vendor’s smiling face when he gives me 5 silver for that level 40 grey I just sold him. No, it was always just gathering for me. Gathering seems much closer to the mark in WoW, progressive reward for progressive skill that actually nets you a tangible benefit. Crafting won’t get you gear that you can use for the first 79 levels, yet gathering will get you money to gear up. Sound like something’s missing to you too?

LotRO was far different. When I made my first character there, I rolled loremaster who could wear light armor. I signed up for the Explorer job (gatherer/tailor) and was surprised to find that I could make a whole set after just a little collecting, even while still in the starting zone. And from most reports I’d heard, crafting gear was comparable to instance gear during the leveling process. Unfortunately, I hear that the value of crafting gear dropped notably with the Mines of Moria expansion. Even though their system was similar to WoW’s, you were able to derive a tangible benefit almost immediately.

I think that companies like Blizard and Turbine could take a lesson from SOE here. FreeRealms got it right by making their jobs minigame based. For many of the tasks required to advance your job, you have to complete another small game first.

The introductory cooking quest comes to mind. You have to prepare items for a stew and then tend it once they’re all added. Fantastic! That is how I’d envisioned side-jobs in MMOs when I first started, a fun process to create something, beyond the basic collecting of materials.

Another game of SOE’s that came closer to that ideal is Vanguard. Their crafting system, while closer to our current “traditional” style, followed a process flow as well. Interestingly enough, complications could also occur, which you could alter the quality of your final product. It was a much more intensive system to be sure, yet, being a crafter there was worthy of it’s own level and notoriety. In short, the system’s complexity made it that much more special to take up.

I’m not suggesting game companies adopt either system exclusively. I do think that introducing a system that blends the two would be a wonderful thing. As it stands right now, most side-jobs are in place to turn off your brain and refresh from the quest grind. But, why should that be so? Aren’t there other options that developers could consider to allay people’s combat boredom? Adding in more complexity to crafting, especially in WoW and LotRO, would make it more important to be a crafter, harder to advance, yet, more fun at the same time.

I don’t think players really want to turn their brains off when they play. That’s what the TV is for. Ironically enough, many players report crafting and fishing while watching TV. How very engaging a system must be to require only a minutia of thought from its players. That, in and of itself, makes it impossible to be a skilled crafter.

I’m of the belief that every person should not be able to achieve every goal in a game. People should have to dedicate to be able to become a top crafter, fisherman, raider, or what have you. I think most of us tend to look at MMOs as virtual worlds, that’s certainly how the genre started, and under this viewpoint, there should be a bell curve of crafter’s and hobbyists. There should be payoff and goal. Most of all, the process of specialty creation should not be brain dead.

I’ve felt this way for a while but reading Arbitrary’s post on new hobbies for LotRO really got these feelings stirred up again. Funnily enough, the embers began churning based on my old love of Super Nintendo fishing games. I’ve always wondered why fishing in MMOs was so darn bland. Is it really that hard to throw in a vestige of challenge? No fight from the fish, no snags, and click-to-use invisible baits? The developers really went over the top to make that one fun.

Even though fishing in particular pales below the importance of trade skills in a game, I was sorely disappointed when I saw just how lazily modern games addressed what could have been a very fun mini-game in itself. Vanguard’s system is better but the melding of Dance Dance Revolution with Bassmasters Deluxe never really clicked with me.

Any new hobby LotRO brings in (and Turbine has said they’re considering a few) needs to have a little more complexity to it. If you’re going to let me be a woodcarver, let me have more than a loading bar. Hell, go crazy and let me actually carve that decoration for my hobbit hole. If I’m going to hunt, let me aim my weapon. Brewmaster? How neat would it be to go through a minigame to make your own beer, maybe even allowing random ingredient combinations to produce unique new flavors? Right there are three hobbies I’d take up in a minute.

There’s a lot of potential in MMO gaming that’s just unrealized. If it’s true that players have the most fun when they’re learning then adding more depth could only be a good thing.  You’ll get less high level crafters and hobbyists but, honestly, those were probably the people that should never have gotten to such a high level anyways. And, bingo, now they have a new goal for their playtime. Achievements shouldn’t be reached by “turning off” your brain and having to watch TV because you’re bored with can only indicate flawed design.

You know, there was a time when the gaming community railed against loading screens. Who would have thought that simply reducing those screens to progress bars would have solved all of the frustration?

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