As a Gamer, Do You Really Want Difficulty?

Skyrim, Difficulty

This thought has come to mind a little too often for me, lately. Do we enjoy difficulty? If we claim a game we are playing to be difficult, is this a good thing, or a bad thing? On the surface, I would say my individual answer is yes. I know I personally enjoy a game that is more challenging, one that takes a bit of thought process or learned skill to get through. But are the games we are playing really difficult, do we just convince ourselves that they are, and do gamers today really want difficulty?

This topic is a lot more complex than the surface belies. As so happens, one of the myriad podcasts that I listen to, How To Murder Time (which I highly suggest you listen to as well), recently delved into the topic of difficulty, covered it pretty extensively, and led me to this post.

Super Meat Boy, Difficulty in Games

Huh? Wha?!

MMO Skill is an Illusion

What is difficulty, anyway? I think this is where the root of the issue lies. Difficulty can have a whole plethora of different meanings. The first one that jumps to mind, and the first one the podcast brings up, is “twitch” skill. It’s found in it’s purest form in games that don’t offer many character development options and has level design that keeps getting more and more challenging, like Super Meat Boy. The Super Mario games are a great example, too. Sure, Mario can get larger by ingesting fungus but overall it’s the levels that increase in difficulty. Completing the game becomes the accomplishment. It pits a specific level of skill that, if yours is too low, you’ll never beat the game.

But what game nowadays has that kind of challenge? Even FPS multiplayer shooter games like Titanfall, which just released, has leveling progression in which you gain experience to attain access to better weapons and a bigger toolset to use against your foes. If you’re then faced against a new, lower level player, sure, the lower level has a chance to use their skill to beat you, but the higher level players still have a decided edge. In this sense, are we leveling just to make content easier? Do we even want difficulty at all, if we work hard to nullify it?

You’ve seen the roosters strutting around in whatever MMO you’re playing these days. Those peacocks of the gaming world, strutting around in all the best and shiniest gear. And good for them, it shows their dedication to the game that they were able to get their hands on said loot. But was it really difficult to do so?

Guild Wars 2, Halloween, Difficulty in Games

I call this place… Pain in the Ass Tower.

In the grand scheme of things, here is the defacto MMO progression:

  • Do content, get loot, level up.
  • Use levels and loot to do higher level content, get better loot, level up.
  • Repeat until max level.
  • Continue to run content and get more loot (or just take the shortcut and buy it from other players on the auction house), which makes top level content easier.
  • Keep running content until maximum loot power is achieved and game becomes too easy.
  • Leave game out of boredom/complain about not having enough content on forums.

At that point, even the most difficult content becomes a cakewalk, but we’ve earned that through the time we put in to get that loot. Reward is good. But the entire time during this progression, the difficulty really hasn’t changed. We level up, our gear levels up, and the content matches difficulty stride for stride. It’s a linear progression. We do normal dungeons until they get too easy, then we do elite dungeons until they get too easy, then we do nightmare dungeons until we gear up to maximum and stop running them as they become too easy.

Our reward for running content is just to make content easier.

I’ve even heard content in The Elder Scrolls Online becomes trivial if you come back to it overleveled. A boss that gave you a hard time in the past suddenly is not so tough when you’re 10 levels higher, are they? The difficulty in TESO, then, just comes in rushing forward too fast. I am starting to hear more and more good things about the “exploration” aspect of TESO, but have yet to be convinced that it’s more than an illusion buried in the willing suspension (which relates to the next section).

The Walking Dead, Difficulty in Gaming

The Walking Dead isn’t a difficult game to play, it’s a difficult game to *watch*.

Puzzle Solving is Entirely Optional

But difficulty through skill is not the only level of difficulty. As Jon and Tim go on to discuss, it could also be about puzzle-solving. This is my favorite, by far, and one of the reasons I love The Secret World. As a content filler gap they recently just added four new investigation missions to the game, which I consider to be the real meat and potatoes of TSW. I’ve already completed one, and without giving away any details, I had to pull some real mind-bending out-of-game stuff to figure it out (keep a smartphone handy).

But this kind of difficulty is only challenging to the player that wants to do it in the first place. Puzzle difficulty is entirely by choice if the player wants to challenge themselves or not. I’m not one to cheat, but sites like Youtube,,, Star Trek Online wiki, and a plethora of others just hand out the answers to anyone willing to search. I even had a search term today that led someone to this site where they were looking for the answers to one of the new TSW missions! They just came out on Tuesday! They didn’t find it here, of course, but that they even were looking in the first place means something.

This isn’t a recent issue, though. I remember buying games at Gamestop and part of the salesperson’s spiel was to try to sell the guide to go along with it. Nothing has really changed, except it now costs a lot less effort and money to find the answers to these puzzles and quest guides.

Gabriel Knight, Difficulty in Games

Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations

/rant start

And find those answers gamers do in droves. So much that it’s even demanded by the community in some situations:

Oh, going into a dungeon you’ve never been in before and you haven’t researched it? What a scrub. What, do you just want to be carried by everyone else? You want to waste everyone else’s time? How lazy and selfish!

Seriously, this is why I don’t PUG or have any want to run group content at all. The communal expectation to be professionally knowledgeable about dungeons you’ve never set foot in are too high. There is no such thing as a noob the second those guides hit the internet, only “selfish” gamers.

Then it comes back to the skill to perform the guides steps, but “skill” in MMOs is really intrinsically linked to one’s Gearscore (read: random loot tables over time). That’s why the demands you see from the community for running PUGs keeps getting more and more ridiculous. These elitists don’t want a challenge! They don’t want to enjoy content with strangers! They’re lazy and want the most reward given for the least amount of effort, and so demand that from others, unceremoniously booting those who don’t live up to their demanding standards. Only those on the right side of the bell-curve may apply.

Can you tell I’m a little burnt out and jaded?

/rant end

The Secret World, Difficulty in Gaming

Still one of my favorite moments all-time from MMO gaming.

Wrangling Herds of Cats, Though

Finally, there is, arguably, the only real true form of challenge left posed by MMOs today: dealing with each other. Kind of the point of MMOs right? Playing with others? But the highest level raid content, or just content made too difficult to solo is in these games for a reason. And that is the challenge of working with and coordinating a group of people who are all only looking out for their own self interests. The content itself may not even really be that difficult (of course it’s not, “correctly” geared players mitigate the risk of failure), but organizing a group of 10-15 people to all do the same thing at the same time, with no real guarantee of reward, is impressive as hell!

The amount of time and energy driven to herding players to a single goal is outstanding. I know. Not from gaming, mind you, but I was a higher-up in a student run theatre company, and the experience is very similar. In the professional world, at least employees are being paid, but getting people to be dedicated to a common goal when it won’t put food on their table is not exactly easy. It’s why I put my time in theatre on my CV. It shows the skill of leadership when your charges are only present of their own whims. Having formal education in human psychology and group dynamics, though, doesn’t hurt.

However, I’d still caution against putting “Raid Leader” on a resume, if only because the social stigma against gamers is still heavily present in society. The skill, though, the pure skill of human wrangling, is universal and still quite impressive.

Guild Wars 2, Difficulty in Gaming

I’ve never wanted to punch a cloud in the face so much.

More Than A Struggle

Aside from having to deal with each other, we’ve gone from the days of a game’s content becoming easier with actual time, practice, and mental gymnastics, to becoming easier through in-game power ups and cheats. Do we get the same amount of accomplishment, though? I think what we gain is a lot more tangible.

We get great stories, we get great visuals, we get a sense of accomplishment not only at the end, but all the way through. We get lost in a great world. We get shared achievement. We get a thriving community that we can gladly raise our hand and claim to be a part of. We get a sense of belonging.

We get everything but difficulty.

// Ocho




11 thoughts on “As a Gamer, Do You Really Want Difficulty?

  1. Spoiler Warning: I mention the general nature of the Immersion quest in the new TSW release, and allude to a couple steps.

    The problem with Secret World’s puzzles is trust. Back during launch, people said that if they were stuck on a quest, there was no way to know without a walkthrough if they didn’t know what to do or the puzzle was bugged. My experience more recently has been that if I’m stuck on a quest, there’s no way to know without a walkthrough if I don’t know what to do or the puzzle is stupid.

    For instance, I consulted a walkthrough in about five spots in the Immersion quest. In three of them, I knew what I wanted to do in the game world, and it was the right thing, but I couldn’t figure out how to phrase the command in the one way the parser would accept. In one I was trying to do the wrong thing, but in order to know why it was wrong I needed information from text I couldn’t see again without restarting the level. And in one I didn’t know what to do, but could’ve maybe figured it out on my own eventually. But I couldn’t distinguish those last two moments from the first three.

    As Richard Bartle pointed out (Spoiler warning: The title of that post is a direct spoiler for a step in the quest), the text adventures in the ’80s usually had better parsers than that one. But I think that’s why selectively consulting the walkthrough in solo content is a feature rather than a bug- if you think finding the correct phrasing is part of the challenge, you can do it, and if you don’t, you don’t have to.

  2. I value difficulty in my MMO encounters. That’s largely why I enjoyed fights like Kael and Vashj so much in TBC. They weren’t encounters that were easily beaten by powering up elsewhere: instead, they always took solid coordination and teamwork. Progression has always been a red herring for me because few MMOs actually progress mechanics. Instead, the next tier of raids isn’t ‘harder’, it’s just a different set of mechanics scaled to a higher level of gear.

    I’d honestly prefer a MMO where gear caps out (through player tradeskills to make this MMO perfect) and the individual players themselves have to rise to defeating individual fights through things like skill and strategy rather than grinding out bigger numbers.

    Also, while I think your rant section is true, it isn’t exactly elitist assholes who call for gear scores and the like. There is a broad group of MMO players who don’t want their time wasted, and the amount of time they play or their quality of play doesn’t affect this. They mistakenly think gear score or similar mechanics are a great way to guarantee that their runs will be smooth, since they are just there for daily/gold/loots/badges and not actually for the fun of it.

    We have both played MMOs in the days where completing a dungeon was NOT guaranteed, even if you put in an extra few hours doing it. I still have a lot of patience. Newer players, however, expect things to be done quickly and without any problems!

  3. As a player of a old school LOTRO which is having a serious ‘difficulty’ issue since Helms Deep landed (U13 coming next week and hopes are high that maybe they will have moved in the right direction. But by difficulty in LOTRO we are basically talking about damage mitigation…DPS in vs DPS out…one area I really find lacking is any need to use skills strategically, to have the right skill for the right situation. I play mostly landscape and do not raid (indeed am only half way to level cap…one great part of the LOTRO playing community is that a large number opt out of the mad rush to level cap, although that is still my ultimate destination…just getting there slowly.)

    But mob AI is poor if not pathetic, most PVM is simply a case of out moralling the enemy! Group (Fellowship) play has become less important which is great as being forced to group is irritating but choosing to group is another. After grouping the game now almost becomes a simplistic SHMUP! (the last time I though about this melange was when FFX introduced gambits and towards the end AI routines for your party made progression a simply procedure of moving the party around, who would proceed to AUTOFIRE mobs to oblivian! I actually enjoyed micromanaging the gambits for different dungeons so there was still some gaming going on…)

    To die is to try, to fail is to try again,
    to give up for the day, dream and ponder…
    then try once more, is a wonder.

    There are many challenges in game…learning maps, where not to walk off hidden ledges (Moria looking at you!) and when to run away.

    All I can say is that I would love more of a challange and difficulty is a broad concept but BRING IT ON!

  4. In psychology there is the concept of “Flow”. Part of the idea is that you reach this optimal and happy state when there is a match between your skill level at a thing, and the difficulty or challenge of that thing. Too little difficulty (for your skill level) and it’s boring. Too much, and it’s stressful. On top of that I’d personally add that it’s not only your theoretical maximum skill level, but how much energy or skill you want to exert on this particular occasion. i.e. Do you want to chill with something that doesn’t need everything you’ve got, or do you want a full on challenge this time?

    When we’re talking about games the “thing” might be your twitch reactions, or it might be your sense of direction, or it might be figuring out tactics to beat a tricky game situation. It might, as you say, be dealing with the human beings that you play with. A given person might be in different places with these different things. Also as they get better their optimum level of challenge will change.

    Talarian wrote a post about Complexity vs Depth the other day. One thing about games that have a lot of depth is that you don’t outgrow them as you get better and better at them.

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  8. I don’t want a game that I can beat in a day or two and it becomes unmemorable, but I also don’t want to bang my head against a wall for days, weeks, or months just to say that I beat the hard mode. Maybe when I was younger, but these days, accessible content or adjustable difficulty is what I’m looking for.

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  10. On a game that i play for it’s difficulty, i like equallity. I like to play offline games on ‘normal’, i dont do it for the achievement, but for the game itself, and i believe that most people play it as ‘normal’. But my favourites are the ones that come hard from scratch and you just can’t change that, that way everyone has to go the same road. say Dark Souls (but being able to ask for help on bosses or looking for a guide just breaks the point of it), or nearly any online game (i don’t take MMORPGs as difficult games, they are just games to play while you want to spend some extra time on it, PVP on MMORPGs are mostly a joke about who has the better gear, who is outnumbered, who has the highest level or has unlocked the better skills earlier, if you want to be good at a MMORPG, you have to rush for the better gear before anyone else, but yet, you won’t find any good PVP experience, that belongs to MOBAS and FPS, MMORPGs are to play and socialize with other people. Yet, some offline RPGs are excellent on difficulty, say any Shin Megame Tensei game, where you ACTUALLY have to learn from them in order to have a chance (or just grind A LOT, and i mean A LOT).

    Online games might be apropiately difficult if you have to time your skills, aim them, and well, if you have a chance to avoid/block them,(see Dark Souls parry system, and the use of stamina in order to choose your actions) and it doesnt have to be online, Monster Hunter has a nice stamina system, but its not as punishing as i wish it was, i would love if the stamina could also decrease when you perform an attack, instead of just using it to block, run and dodge, at first i was conform with it, until Dark Souls make it harder, and in my head i was like “of course, i get more tired when i swing an object, it would be better if i could get even more tired depending the weapon and the equipment i choose to use”

    Realisticly difficult stuff is cool, so well, in a resume, i love difficulty, but mostly when everyone is condemned to it as i do, i dont like when i can chage the difficulty of a game, or when the gear makes it easier, gear should be wisely choosen in order to give you better chances without breaking the difficulty, like Monster Hunter armor system, where you could choose from a variety of sets in order to have higher success chances against determinated enemy, but i am dissapointed that armors in Monster Hunter give different kinds or defense, making high end gear become TOO helpful.

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