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.

10-Man Should Never Have Meant “Easy”

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Let me start off by saying, I’m not much of a raider. That being said, I see the value in having difficult raid encounters that take people a good chunk of time to master. Yet, there seems to be a line drawn in the sand between the veteren raiders and those that have just begun recently.

The new trend in WoW seems to be “10-Man = Easy Mode, 25-Man = Hard Mode” and to me, that just seems poor. Don’t get me wrong here, I think that there should be easy raids. On that same token though, there should also be hard raids and firm barriers, scratch that, hurdles to progression. I’ll be honest, the fact that even new guilds are putting raids on farm after less than a week is a little disconcerting.

What happens when there are no more raids? Blizzard can only churn out content so fast. Fights are only interesting until they get rote. At that point, people tire of doing them. That won’t stop guilds from making the runs of course, the homogenization of caster gear ensures that they’ll be run more than ever (that and the low cloth drop rate). Eventually though, the fun to work ratio decreases to the point of grind. The fun-seekers will diminish and the gear-seekers supercede. That’s nothing against either player and my intention is not to overly stereotype, it just strikes me as a natural inevitability.

All fights get mastered given enough time. However, increasing the difficulty also increases the learning curve and the longevity of an encounter. To make that short, it’ll keep players busier for longer. Therefore, I sincerely hope that we see some truly challenging 10-Man content going forward.

If for nothing else, not everyone can get 25 people together and organized. That in itself can make an instance “hard mode” as sometimes the human element can present the most challenge. Smaller guilds shouldn’t be relegated to the ez-chair because of their size. Perhaps more importantly than that, maintaining a 10-Man raid team doesn’t indicate any less readiness to tackle difficult content.

I know, I’m forgetting the option of making fights harder yourself as is possible with “three drakes” encounter. To that, I simply say meh. Unless it’s more across the board and not just a couple of scenarios, the real impact is negligible.

The solution is to offer more entry points into raiding and follow it up with more options to progress. Scaling goals with difficulty is appropriate but the perceived difficulty between 10-Man and 25-Man shouldn’t be so disparate. Give people challenge, finding that middle ground between the elite raids of TBC and the open raids of Wrath, and I’ll give you a bucket of fish long-term players.

I’m happy that there’s easy content. I’m happy that it scales. I just hope we’re not leaning towards difficulty stereotypes for better or worse.

*Update: It looks like Ulduar is set to have more “hard mode” encounters with better loot for completing them that way. As Daelo puts it, Ulduar will be the “second year” class to follow up Naxx 101. We’ll have to see how it turns out.

Casual Does Not Mean Bad

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It’s a common sentiment, isn’t it? I mean, the disparity between raiders and casuals is pretty epic in comparison to other “lines in the sand”. The question is though, are we really so different?

 

This isn’t a WoW topic. Or a WAR or LotRO topic, either. It’s a conversation born of all MMOs with a PvE endgame, even if it’s small.

 

You see, the two parties tend to not understand each other. Or, in some cases, are even envious of each other, though most would be loathe to admit it.

 

Raiders? Well, they’re just basement dwellers with no life.

 

Casuals? They’re lazy and want welfare epics.

 

Neither is true of everyone that falls into either category. The simple fact is that different people have different obligations in life.

 

I was struck by the recent olive branch extended by an author of the Ensidia guild website. For those who don’t know, this guild is the brainchild of Nihilum and SK Gaming, two of the most well known raiding guilds in the game.

 

The author, while lamenting the difficulty level of the new raid content, draws a distinction between the casual player and the bad player. He’s in support of helping casuals to experience the content and the lore but against allowing players of low skill levels to conquer it.

 

In the grand scheme of things, I agree. As a casual player, I never expected to see any of the upper echelon of raiding, but if I was able to I’d take advantage of the shot. The thing is, I wouldn’t expect to be coddled through it because of my time limitations. Raids are supposed to be hard, so the players earn the level of gear they’re trying to attain.  If you can’t cut the mustard, then stay away from the jar.

 

Now, a lot of people find this sentiment to be somewhat elitist. I don’t understand that. For once, a well known group of raiders are making a clear delineation between the time limited and the greedy.

 

Separating time from skill isn’t a good way to go about designing raid encounters. As I see it, the truth is that if everyone could get the best gear it would wind up worthless. There has to be some limitation in order for gear rewards to maintain their value. There are only three domains in which limitation in place with the current setup: time, difficulty, and organization. All three have been substantially reduced. Time and organization open doors, reducing difficulty is liable to tear down the fence.

 

To make a long story short, I think this guy’s on the right track. He’s identified the subgroup in the casual player base and acknowledged the majority in a positive way. One day, maybe the divisions in the player base will fade.

WAR redefines raiding

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For years, raiding in MMOs has involved getting large groups of people together to overcome complex challenges and boss fights. Each member had a set job that they had to fulfill to the best of their classes ability or else they could lose their spot and their chance at loot and progression. As one would imagine, this often times led to intense competition for raid spots. It wasn’t uncommon for players to take part in small portions of raids, only to be replaced when a better option came along.

Due to the amount of people required (anywhere from 10 to over 40) raids would commonly take place in the evening when most players would be home from work and have their family obligations taken care of for the night.It wasn’t unusual for raid encounters to last upwards of four hours each, too, so these dungeon runs would frequently last until the wee hours of the morning.

Needless to say, a lot of players have become tired of the competition, drama, and lack of sleep that usual guild-based raiding would generally bring. The structure of raiding as a whole lended itself to these things and forced many players to weigh out the pros and cons to participating.

Some players enjoyed it, however, and they certainly deserve mention. I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not I think traditional raiding should be included in WAR. In a previous post, I even mentioned that I thought it would hurt WAR in comparison to WoW to go without it. Since then though, I’ve realized something: WAR doesn’t do away with raiding, it largely redefines it.

In my mind, there are three defining characteristics to raiding as we currently know it: it requires a lot of people generally in a guild or alliance, the encounters are more challenging, and they take more time than standard dungeon runs. In WAR, things aren’t quite the same.

Dungeons, as they are now, only require six players to complete; however, open world dungeons allow additional players in the trash mob areas. Now, one would think that having only six players in a group would mean that all of the dungeons are the equivalent to WoW’s five mans but this isn’t so for all dungeons. It’s been said that the Lost Vale, an end game dungeon and (I believe) culmination to players PvE endeavors, will require significant coordination and strategy to be able to complete. What I’ve read into this is that the dungeon will be *hard*. It won’t just be any PuG that’s able to complete it.

Yes, I’m speculating – but doesn’t it make sense? What WAR has done more so than most other MMOs on the market is make every aspect of the game more accessible to the average gamer. It’s difficult to get to get 10 people together, let alone 40, to complete a raid and in many circumstances, large scale raiding pushes guilds into a more rigid organizational structure; time demands are placed on players moreso than in casual guilds. By scaling down the amount of people required to complete an end game dungeon, they’re giving everyone a better shot at seeing all the content the game has to offer.

That doesn’t mean everyone will be able to complete it.

Now, some players would argue that a six person group doesn’t equate to the same level of epicness a 10-40 person raid would and that six person raiding would be more like “raid-lite”. I suppose in a way, this could be true but I believe that that’s a somewhat pessimistic assessment. Epicness in a dungeon encounter can be created in other ways too. Epic story arcs, grandiose environments, skillfully scripted and challenging encounters can also create that epic feel. I would argue that these ideas about having a certain amount of required players to create “epic” is just a preconceived MMO notion that could well be broken. After all, WoW was able to create that feeling in pre-BC simply by having huge sprawling dungeons. BRD comes to mind. Hell, even single players games have been able to do it.

This increased accessibility will also make it possible to get into the end-game before mid to late evening. In WoW, it could be a challenge to get a group for Kara, or any other raid, during the daytime. You were pretty much stuck doing heroics or five mans unless you could get a spot with a daytime raiding guild (and those filled up quick, believe me). In WAR, this won’t be too much of an issue. With less people required, it will be all the easier to set up a group, guild or PuG, any time of the day. PuGs may have a harder time completing the content, unless they’re well read with the encounters, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

That brings me to another important point though, six man raids also means that you don’t have to be in a guild to succeed. You could PuG yourself all the way to the end if you wanted. Now, guilds will always have the advantage, of course, but you, as the player, have the freedom to choose without being limited in what you can achieve. In my opinion, that’s smart game design.

In the world of six man raiding, we’ll still see some of the unfortunate side effects we’ve seen in other games. With less people, choosing appropriate classes will be all the more important. In a ten man raid, if one person was off the ball, you could still function at 90% capacity. With six people, if one person messes up you’re down to 83.3% and that’s enough to determine whether you live or die. Depending on how the encounters turn out, it may also be necessary to switch out players mid-run too. All of this is counteracted, however, by the simple fact that requiring less people in each group means that it will be easier to set up additional runs. If you get replaced, that’s okay because you very well may be able to get another group in short order anyways. Would it be frustrating? Sure, of course it would, but by making dungeons more accessible Mythic has made it so that you’re not necessarily done for the night if your first run doesn’t work out. So don’t be afraid to grab those boot straps and pull yourself over to that next group, even if it’s a PuG.

WAR has done a wonderful job of opening up the game to every player that wants to enjoy it. They want us to interact with each other, not just solo through it all, and they don’t want us to be tied down by precedents other games have set. Whether or not WAR turns out to be like I’ve theorized at launch, it’s almost inevitable that it will become like that in time. Raiders want challenge and Mythic would be silly not to give them their PvE fill. It will take time for MMO gamers to get used to big changes like this and not everyone will accept it. Slowly but surely, though, we’ll all come to see that just because we know something as it has always been doesn’t mean that it can’t be changed for the better.