Saturday, May 14, 2011

Challenge As Intended

My last post stated that leveling content in WoW was too easy to be fun.  A commenter called nonsense on this idea, arguing that part of being a soloist includes seeking out challenges.  I agree, but I argue that this point actually proves mine. 

(I would attribute this comment, but it is missing from the post, and I don't know whether the author removed it intentionally for some reason, or whether it was eaten by the Blogger outage this week.) 

The new leveling game
The revised leveling content in WoW is highly linear.  The intent is for players to do the quests of each zone (50-100 typically) one after another, using the gear awarded from previously completed quests.  The problem is that, even without twinking or heirlooms or anything else, the exp curve makes it nigh impossible to complete a zone without over-leveling it, trivializing its content.  You can try abandoning quests as you outlevel them, but this means missing out on the new storylines that, for me at least, are the reason why I was interested in leveling new alts in the first place. 

I am not saying that there is no challenge to be found soloing in WoW.  I am saying that playing the solo leveling content in the way it was designed and intended no longer produces a satisfactory level of challenge, which is a problem in an expansion that created so much of this content. 

When intentionally sub-optimal becomes uninteresting
Late in the Wrath era, I spent about a thousand gold on BOE's and gems to assemble a melee set for my mage, because daily quests were so trivial at a 5000 Gearscore that I figured an autoattacking mage who did not use any damage spells could beat them.  I was correct, and my choices did succeed in increasing the challenge of the quests, which took about 10 times longer as a result.  I would argue, though, that the content no longer functions as intended when the only way to make it interesting is to have a caster who doesn't cast spells.  

It is indeed always possible to make life more challenging for your character by making sub-optimal choices in game.  You could argue that the entire existence of soloing in MMO's was originally based in part on skilled players choosing to see whether they could push their limits and defeat content intended for full parties.  (Soloing old instances in WoW remains some of the most fun that I've had in MMO's.) 

However, while we've always had naked warriors and melee hunters and characters who did not complete a single quest or kill a single mob, once upon a time you did not need to do these sorts of things to enjoy the leveling experience.  At some point, you're no longer making interesting choices to challenge yourself.  Instead, you're making bad choices to try and remedy a design issue in the game's difficulty.  If you are the kind of player who enjoys making intelligent choices and being rewarded with greater success, this removes a huge part of the fun from the game experience.


  1. I agree. Also, trying to beat a game with all your ingenuity is part of the reason I play games in the first place.
    And if I may add, this is one of those things Rift does a lot better.

  2. I couldn't agree more. The lack of difficulty in Cataclysm actually led me to quit. I was so excited about leveling a Worgen but by the time I hit Darkshore, the second zone, I was already picking up green quests. I made it all the way to Tanaris, skipping a few zones when necessary, but when I first walked in to Gadgetzan and all the quests were green again, I was done.

    It felt like the xp curve was balanced around only doing quests and only killing exactly as many mobs as you needed for that quest. If you killed a couple extra or, heaven forbid, had a profession, you were going to outlevel and trivialize the content you were there to enjoy. To say nothing of dropping in the occasional instance or doing a quick round of pvp.

    For someone who was actually interested in the content and interested in the stories, it was really tough to enjoy. Not every quest needs to be Stave of the Ancients but constantly doing green and grey quests just isn't fun. I know they're trying to make it quick to level but take it easy, guys. Some of us are there for the journey.

  3. I totally agree--I mostly played in Vanilla WoW, but I've been doing a 10 day Cataclysm trial. I am very disappointed that everything is so easy now. The fun part was figuring out how to do something difficult. I haven't yet found a quest I can't solo just charging in with no strategy.

    The sad thing is that I think MMO companies will draw the wrong conclusion from it all. I don't think this means people are uninterested in alts or leveling, just that games need challenge to be fun.

  4. @Nils: The current status is definitely better in Rift, though it's a bit early to tell if that's because they've solved the problem or just because it's a younger game. Blizzard has said that they want the time from level 1 to the cap to remain constant as new expansions come out, to avoid creating too much of a barrier for new group players. Rift won't have this issue until their cap increases a few times.

    @Sandfox: The part that irks me is that you can't even log off without outleveling content, because the rested exp will put you over the top.

  5. The thing is there is difficulty in Cataclysm but it's all at the group game. Which is odd as computer games started in the mass market as solo experiences and were traditionally very challenging. (No one completed Asteroids iirc, your high score just meant you'd lasted a bit longer than everyone else. But ultimately everyone died).

    What puzzles me is why the solo game is banal but topped with punishing group content.

    Well, let me qualify that. I can see how "accessible" solo content has become more and more important, partly as younger and younger children start playing WoW. I can see why the raid team wanted to reset PVE end game difficulty as some of the mechanics had broken due to mudflation.

    What I don't see is why someone is not hired to oversee the project holistically so these conflicting trends don't smash head on into each other like runaway juggernauts. Blizzard have forgot their own mantra. They have a level up game that's easy to learn, easy to master followed by a totally different group game that's hard to learn, hard to master. Why is no one's hand on the wheel?

  6. The problem is likely to get worse over time, as Blizzard has came out of said they are unlikely to just allow new toons to be created above level 1 (e.g. they won't be doing the DK experiment again). It thus is not so much that the quests have been designed to be easy, but rather XP gains have had to be pumped up so far that new players aren't staring at a 200+ hour brick wall between a new toon and the endgame (where all the cool stuff is advertised as being).

    That said, your last paragraph rubs me the wrong way. What exactly is the difference, in your mind, between making "intelligent choices" and optimization? It does not seem to me that you can actually draw a legitimate line between them, especially when the optimization path is already known. Could one not equate "exploration" with making bad choices to remedy design issues with how the game is setup and/or what happens to be fun? It does not seem like you could have it both ways.

  7. Stabs: the Elder Game blog observed that some of the changes in Cataclysm smacked of developer self indulgence -- changes that developers would like to make, but that didn't make much business sense. Redoing the low level zones, for example.

    This makes me think the management oversight of Cata development was particularly weak. Someone just let the developers run the show. The disconnect between leveling and endgame is another symptom of this.

    I think they had a new guy in the producer role for Cataclysm -- Brack, I think? I wouldn't want to be him right now.

  8. J Allen Brack? Possibly, Neowulf2.

    I'm not in general a fan though of people outside the company guessing which dev made which popular decision.

    I don't actually think that these organisations quite work like that
    - just give a new guy responsibility for your $billion a year money tree and pay no attention as he paints the trunk with varnish?

    Azuriel's comment makes me realise just how right Eric at Elder Game was - they re-did the newbie zones in a game that allows you to pick a class that skips them. Makes it seem even more pointless.

  9. I won't say that Cataclysm leveling content is easy.. but I will say that taking a worgen warlock to level 60, the only time I died was from falling, when jumping off a cliff to avoid a long slow walk. And I will say that I never used a healthstone, never used a heal pot, never used any spells other than nukes (no fear, seduce, etc.) I'm positive that no enemy ever dropped me even to half health, I went through whole zones without ever falling below 90%.


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