Hhean On: Difficulty
By Jason Harper (Hhean), OnRPG MOBA Reporter
Despite playing, writing and thinking about MMOs for a good deal of my adult life, I’ve found myself increasingly dissatisfied with what the industry has been putting out in recent years. I’ve played near enough every major release, and a slew of minor titles, and yet I rarely stick with anything longer than a week. Hell, I only lasted a few hours on SWTOR before having to turn it off in dismay. While I have issue with the vast majority of MMOs that simply lift their ideas straight out of the WoW cloning facility, that particular dead horse has already been beaten so thoroughly that you might as well call it a horse-like smear at this point.
So, I want to rant about something that rarely gets talked about in relation to MMOs – Why are they all so damn easy? Now, plenty of MMOs have hard parts, often found in the end game, or a particular “That Boss” that causes you to snap a keyboard over your knee in frustration, but I can’t think of a PvE focused MMO of this generation that is a genuine challenge throughout. It has now been decreed from up high that all challenge is to be reserved for end game content and PvP.
What is so offensive about an enemy you have to think about overcoming? An environment that is genuinely dangerous rather than mere window dressing to the butchery of rodents?
Well, because it allows the game to be accessible to a wider audience, of course. If a game poses a challenge, then new players will be turned away. Emasculated and defeated, they will draw back, as a child who has touched fire for the first time. They will shun your carefully crafted product, and cease to give you that glorious, prolonged revenue stream that all MMOs need to turn a profit.
Instead, what is needed is for docile herds of players to roam in their pens, fed a constant stream of rewards and a torrent of cooing admiration that spews forth from the developer’s programmed automatons. “It seems the mayor was right about you. Truly, no-one but the greatest of heroes, xXxNarutoDeath64xXx, could have defeated the vile Over Tyrant. Now that our troubles are done, I hear that the village down the road is also in need of aide” they say, dead eyes shining from the glow of your false lustre. No-one brings up the fact that the Over Tyrant wasn’t really threatening anyone, sitting in some corner of the woods and waiting, hoping, yearning for someone to end his miserable existence with a few fleeting attacks. His death was so swift, and your health bar barely moved. In the end, it truly was a mercy killing, not the epic confrontation that the lifeless puppets would have you believe.
It’s a known fact that no problem in MMORPGs is so great, that a dedicated army of Naruto clones can’t solve it
That’s where the money is – happy little creatures living on false platitudes. So the current thinking goes.
Thing is, there’s money in challenge. Potentially, quite a bit of it, in fact. There’s whole genres that live on the challenge that only a human mind can offer. The insane popularity of the FPS genre, the rising star of the MOBA genre, the Esports darling that is the RTS genre, and the freshly resurrected Fighting Game genre have made their money off of people’s desire to viciously dominate one another in a competitive arena. There’s MMOs that have realized there’s money here, dating back as far as Ultima Online. Unfortunately for MMOs of this type though, the numbers usually work out that these sorts of games start moderately large and then quickly die as the community cannibalizes itself. There’s money here, but it’s already a crowded market, and the path to success is littered with the corpses of those who came before.
So, can a game that avoids other humans as its source of challenge be a success? Again, I’ll look at the successes in other genres. Dark Souls is a prime example of a single player game that has done well in the current market by simply being known as ‘the game that is brutally difficult’. It’s a game that has been passed about with such good word of mouth that there’s now a massive petition to get it to the PC users who haven’t been about to touch this console exclusive release.
There’s more moderate examples too – Left 4 Dead is a co-op game (Which grouping in an MMO isn’t too far removed from, really), that was built with an AI director that deliberately punishes players at every turn, while still trying to keep them alive in the process. I doubt anyone could say that L4D and its sequel were failures by any means, and I certainly played them for longer than any MMO in recent memory. They had plenty of replayability simply due to the varied, constantly escalating challenge presented by the zombie horde and its robot mastermind. Is this sort of thing possible in an MMO? I doubt a complete copy of the director system is possible in an open world format, but a greater challenge would certainly encourage grouping once more. While I’m hardly one for yearning for the mandatory group sit-ins that older MMOs enforced, grouping up with a friend or two to make the grind a bit less tough is certainly an experience I wouldn’t be opposed to.
Easy content gets chewed up quickly, and is more easily forgotten. Hitting the max level in an MMO these days is not so much about scaling your own personal Everest and more a merry stroll to the hills. Getting to the max in under a month used to be considered the act of crazed, red eyed college students with no party invitations and nothing but time on their hands. Now it’s so normal that a large number of people consider the end game content grind of many MMOs to be where the ‘real game begins’. This practice not only runs contrary to the purpose of MMOs (Keeping people interested for long stretches of time), but also increases the costs on development. If players are going to chew through content at speed, then you need more content to get them to subscribe for that extra month, or pay for extras or whatever model the F2P MMO is using. That content is costing development money, which in turn means you need more paying players to recoup your losses, which in turn means you need more mass market appeal, which in turn means you need to make your game easier, which in turn means you need more cont- Oh look, we’re in this sinkhole again.
By comparison, most games of the 8 bit era got by on pretty much no content to speak of, and yet many are still being played to this day. This was for the exact same reasons too. They sought to save on development time and keep both costs and memory low, while forging intensely difficult challenges ensuring repeated failure to prolong the quarter based revenue stream at the arcades. While I hardly want some of the cheap deaths of older titles inflicted on players in the modern era (Moving invisible platforms. Really, Capcom?), I’d love to see a tougher game with all the more recent headway in design and development put on show.
Harder areas take longer to overcome, so you’ll spend more time in that space, rather than breezing by it at speed, so you have less need to make an overwhelming amount of content. What’s more, because players will spend more time there in a heightened state of alertness, they’ll actually be able to recall parts of your world with far greater clarity than before. When you know that your success or failure depends on intimate knowledge of your environment, you get very knowledgeable, very fast. This in turn means that a game is going to reside in the head of a player for longer, making plans about how to approach this and that while they aren’t anywhere near a computer. Engaged players play for longer, and are more likely to talk about the game to their friends and coworkers. Hell, the reason people all remembered Hogger from vanilla World of Warcraft is because a creature that’s actually capable of killing you is such a shock to the system that it causes you to remember his name and where he lives so you can reap horrible vengeance at a later date.
Of course, all of this does have the downside that more effort has to be expended on those areas, but polishing up a location to make it as good as possible often makes a better impression than having grand plains of dull, bland nothingness. I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy 14.
The other real issue with difficulty is knowing when to turn it off. Having everything be hard, all the time in a relentless barrage of pain is simply too much for the prolonged play periods that MMOs encourage. Having peaks and troughs is the way to go with these sorts of things, as is the case in other genres. The problem at the moment is all you get is trough right up until the moment you hit the massive wall that is end game content, where a game switches gears from ‘kid gloves’ to ‘murder simulator’.
What also gets me is this – World of Warcraft was released seven years ago, dammit. While the game was a hit because it invited new players into the MMO genre, we now have a massive number of people who know exactly how these sorts of games work. All of those people know how to hunt down rodents, how to cycle skills, and which NPCs to talk to. Why then do we all have to start with only one skill every time we boot up a new title? Is two, maybe three skills too much to ask? While there’s an argument to be had that this is a ‘tutorial’ section for the game, and you shouldn’t be burdening the player with lots of information from the get go, I am pressing four buttons to simply move, and making use of however many inputs and other fiddly bits my mouse can fire into my computer. When you start up an MMO for the first time, it is more complex to walk over to your first quest dispenser and click ‘accept’ than it is to kill your first enemy!
If you want to simply chill out in games, that’s fine. The market should cater to those who don’t want to be taxed. Older players are all supposed to just want to relax after a hard day of work, and I can certainly see that as being entirely logical. There’s times when I too just want to vegetate after a busy day. However, some days I don’t watch to switch off, I want to take on something ball crushingly hard so I can brag about it to my friends to break up the monotony of the rest of my existence. Why is that an experience shunted to the fringe of most, if not all MMOs? Why do I have to escape one kind of monotony into worlds that only offer me monotony of a different sort?