Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mario, the Rise of the Leet King and MMORPG Difficulty

Tobold has posted a bit of satire titled Rise of the Leet King, in which he points out that many of the things that were supposedly harder about pre-WoW MMORPG's were merely more time consuming. I made a similar argument with 100% less Fake Jeff Kaplan last year. What is so hard about difficulty in MMORPG's?

Character Progression and Relative Difficulty
In a somewhat related discussion, Evizaer blasts the "theme park MMO" for its treadmill mechanics "because the in-game rewards are only useful on the journey". Effectively, character progression is a lie, because the relative power of the player compared to the appropriate level enemy (which is generally what the "theme park" MMO will have you fighting) stays approximately the same no matter how much work the player invests. More generally, though, this game mechanic critique is true in just about every game with character progression, be it levels, skills, gear, or whatever.

If you look at Super Mario Brothers, Mario basically does not have any character progression. Mario gets all of his abilities at the beginning, but levels get progressively harder. In the absence of character advancement, the player must improve in skill (or brute force memorization of where the foe that killed them last time came from) to continue to succeed.

By contrast, the entire point of levels in RPG's is for players (and developers making the content) to remain at approximately the same power level relative to the advancing content. Though the relative difficulty of the content does sometimes increase (more commonly in single player RPG's than MMORPG's), it is understood that a level 20 foe can be beaten by a level 20 character (or group thereof), and a level 55 foe can be beaten by a level 55 player.

Why Doesn't Mario Scale To The MMORPG?
One reason why MMORPG's don't increase in difficulty the way that Mario does is scalability. There is a theoretical limit to how difficult a level in Super Mario Brothers can get - once the entire screen, save for a single Mario-sized hole, is filled with enemies, it actually can't get any harder without becoming impossible. Long before that point, however, all but the most dedicated of gamers will have given up on the game. Fortunately for Nintendo, Mario games have a finite number of levels, so the game ends before it gets there. If you're looking to keep an MMORPG running for years, which you'll need to if you are sinking millions into development, that's not an option for you.

Perhaps the far larger issue, though, is that pesky "multi-player" aspect of the game. Some people are simply better at Super Mario Brothers than others. Nintendo's approach to this in the most recent game has simply been to throw all the players on the screen at once and give them the option of literally carrying their buddies to the finish line if they're so inclined. Though this is much more fun than the old model of taking alternating turns attempting each level solo, it has the effect of drastically reducing difficulty. With multiple players, the action continues as long as at least one player survives, with the others having the opportunity to jump back in (and keep the level rolling forward for the first player, should they subsequently die).

If you want to have multiple players without trivializing the difficulty, you have to design the content in a way that causes the entire group to fail if one player cannot make the cut. That's a big problem if you're going to start pushing the envelope in terms of things that actually increase the difficulty, rather than merely the time required to play the game effectively. Ironically, as Tobold notes, the only thing developers seem to have found that makes the game harder is to lean more and more heavily on player reflexes, with raid fights that require split-second response times. Pushing that side of the gameplay is bound to leave some players - and eventually most players, and all of the other players stuck in groups with those players - behind.

The business difficulty with game difficulty
Some players value the opportunity to progress more than their in-game comrades, and would gladly allow the game to reassign them to a new guild/raid team based on their current DPS/HPS/TPS numbers. These players are just as likely to declare victory and go home, taking their subscription dollars with them, when they decide that they've done what there is to do in the game. By contrast, players who have social ties in the game have far more of a reason to stick around, even after they have finished the game's content. As Evizaer uncharitably puts it, the "friends you make and the good times you share" are the thing that justifies the time spent on repetitive and occasionally shallow gameplay.

In short, increasing difficulty in a way that removes players from the friends that are keeping them in (and paying for) the game is the very last thing that a developer wants to do.


evizaer said...

You should have read my post on why WoW is easy before you wrote this. I agree with you.

The content problem is only partially a problem of relative difficulty.

The relative difficulty of content should actually increase as the character advances because the character has more abilities at his disposal and should be able to combine those abilities to conquer tasks that are relatively more difficult. The growth of the character is compounded by the skill the player should accumulate by playing the game--this greater-than-linear holistic character power growth requires that enemy difficulty not be commensurate with character growth-sourced power, but with the combination of character growth-sourced power and player skill growth-sourced power.

The other part of the content problem is that themepark MMOs have very little strategic depth, which means that the game is only fun until you run out of static content to complete. The game must fall apart within a certain number of hours because it's just an overly elongated series of relatively boring trivially easy tasks that grow your character through solely the investment of time.

(I'm only talking about PvE here... and you could probably successfully debate that highest-end PvE in a themepark is not trivial. If given a surprisingly simple script appropriate for their class/spec, though, anyone with a modicum of manual dexterity can beat any raid.

evizaer said...


Growth in themeparks is pointless because the player cannot effect the world.

You're only becoming more powerful in a meaningful way when you can effect the world in more significant ways through fewer actions. If you can't actually effect the world in any way and mob power is relatively equal with the character's, there's no meaning to the character gaining power.

Wowaholic said...

Was a great post and could not agree more with you. Do think that the problem could be an" old wow-gamer" problem where all the newer players have nothing to compare with and dont see the problem as older players do.

Longasc said...

I read you and evizaer, and the observations and conclusions make a lot of sense.

The problem is to maintain SOME difficulty and excitement due to a moderate challenge, or at least the ILLUSION of it, as someone (@4robertanderson on Twitter) likes to say.

But how to do that?

Another problem are raids for me. I depend on up to 24 other dudes NOT making any mistakes. Whatever they do, the most important thing is not to screw up certain things. And this individual failure then wipes the whole raid.

They lowered the difficulty enough that it is easier to memorize and do things, but my love for raid encounters diminished the more I thought of them as dance choreographies.

The other thing is that world mobs have become mere loot droppers, player chars are very powerful and the mobs got nerfed even more. People could easily beat WOTLK world mobs with Outland gear, not even needing Tier-sets. Nowadays they are in the x-th Northrend tier of badge gear and some mobs got even nerfed in the mean time. Brrr....

Maybe the first step is to finally do it and to kill the Holy Trinity of oversimplification, away with healers and tanks and the whole "i do only dps" mentality.

Green Armadillo said...

@Evizaer: "The relative difficulty of content should actually increase as the character advances because the character has more abilities at his disposal and should be able to combine those abilities to conquer tasks that are relatively more difficult."

And yet, this doesn't really occur for the most part. Why not?

1. There's a limit to how many buttons it makes sense to put on players' screens, which is why many MMORPG expansions add one or fewer new buttons to player characters. To use the terms from your old post, this mechanic quickly becomes more of a test of motor skills (which of my 200 abilities do I need, and how do I activate it?) than strategy or knowledge. There is some room for growth in player skill over time spent playing the game, but players are going to hit diminishing returns there far more quickly than you might expect.

2. Because of the above, the consequence of continuously raising difficulty at each level will be that players will hit the limit that their skill will support and be unable to continue to advance. Unless all of your friends have identical hand-eye coordination, you will not be able to play with them, as each of you will top out at a different level of difficulty. This also means that vertical expansion is out, unless all of the content in your game is so easy that everyone has beaten all of it. If you've already topped out at your level of skill, there's zero reason to pay for an expansion that is only useful to more skilled players.

(Again, note that this part of the story is ONLY a problem in multi-player games. It's fine if players physically can't complete Dragon Age due to difficulty, as long as they feel they got their money's worth, since the devs have already been paid... except that now it isn't, because they're doing a vertical paid expansion pack.)

As Scott Jennings put it, the challenge is not to make an unbeatable encounter - that one is actually far too easy to do accidentally. The challenge is to make players believe that the encounter they have just beaten bordered on unbeatable. Ramping up the skill curve pushes the former far more heavily than the latter.

Thallian said...

Great article. I like how it makes me try to think of a better way. I think the most rewarding way to increase difficulty for me is to add the need for strategy because that allows for creative solutions. I like to come up with unique solutions to problems.