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.

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PvP Takes More Skill Than PvE

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Let’s push gear to the side for a moment.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say something controversial, there’s more skill involved with PvP than PvE. The same goes for RvR.

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a little while now, debating with myself on what’s involved in each realm of play. PvE definitely involves skill. As so many raiders have said, you can’t just go into a tough encounter and “faceroll” your way through it and hope to succeed. There’s a particular amount of depth to that type of thing.

I settled on this opinion based on a couple of things.

First and foremost, PvP is reactionary whereas PvE is not. Well, mostly. Sure, you must respond to the skills and scripting of boss encounters but unless you’re doing a world first run, you’ve probably read up on the fight beforehand and have a good idea about what to expect. PvPers can’t say the same thing. Encounters between two players are dynamic and ever changing. You can’t read a guide on how to beat another player and expect the battle to play out exactly as the guide said. Each opponent must anticipate and react to the actions of the other. PvP is ever changing.

Second, PvP requires more from each player; the only exception being zerg battles. When you’re in a PvP tournament, and really want to win, you have to know what your opponent is capable of and how to push the classes on your team to their maximum potential with their combined synergy. Knowing your opponent is the only way you’re going to be ready for what they may throw at you. If you’re prepared with solid knowledge, you can plan counter attacks and strategies for whatever combination of players you may face.

In PvE, you have the classic triad of Tank, Healer, and DPS. Larger encounters simply bump up the amount of each required. Since there are generally more people involved in an MMO’s higher end encounters than those typical to PvP, the necessity of each player to master a bosses skills decreases. If a couple of people know what to expect and have a way to communicate with ease, they can essentially walk everyone else through the battle. Though the same could potentially be said of PvP, I’d levy that due to the lessened amount of people involved the chances of success are much lower.

Now, to step into the PvE circle a little bit, it *does* require a lot of knowledge and effort unto itself. Players have to determine and acquire sets of gear to make sure they can survive. Most players need to look into the skills bosses will be throwing out, otherwise their own chances of success are cut far down too. They have to be able to follow directions.

And raid leaders? These guys have as challenging a task as the hardest of PvPers. These folks have to know the capabilities of the classes they’re bringing and be able to coordinate everyone to respond and react at the appropriate times and ways. RL’s are in-game managers and deserve kudos and respect.

If you enjoy PvE, more power to you, so do I. If you’re into PvP, same thing. Each domain of play requires unique skill sets. The difference lies in the ability to anticipate and react independently instead of based upon direction or an internet guide. Reaction requires more than memorization and when we’re talking by community percentage, putting aside loot disparity, PvP definitely requires more of players.