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.
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?
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 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, Dulfy.net, TSWDB.com, 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.
Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations
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?
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.
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.
Alright, MMOs. I have a small bone to pick with you. Why is it deemed absolutely necessary by the playerbase at large to have to watch videos of a dungeon or other encounter before you can attempt it? Seriously, where is the fun of pure discovery? Of being able to figure a puzzle out on your own?
I’m not a fan of strategy guides, either. If I’m going to use one, it’s only going to be after I’ve got far enough in the game to where it doesn’t make a difference and to satisfy my completionist itch. But reading it beforehand or watching all of these videos BEFORE you do an encounter? Isn’t that just plain cheating?
“Hey, look! We beat the boss by doing exactly what this video told me to do! We also beat it by using this exact skill build somebody else figured out!” … Are we just playing games for other people, now? You let somebody else do 90% of the work, and then you perform your role like an automaton. Really, there is no self-accomplishment in that. Is there no pride in figuring out a tricky puzzle yourself?
When you go to the movies, do you have to first read every spoiler about it you can? When you read a book, do you just skip right to the ending? Why does it feel like nobody likes spoilers, but everybody still wants them. How essentially having the game played for you is fun doesn’t make any sense to me.
The only points I will concede is that it saves time. Also, since probably everyone else in your group has cheated and watched every video, too, you’re at a social disadvantage and will stumble over your feet while everyone else is acting like a pro, mimicking what others have done before them.
So, fine. I get it, and to not look like a fool, I’ll watch the stupid videos to appease the gaming elite. It just really irks me that this laziness is the social norm and these games are designed that not following these mores hurts not just you, but your team as well.
My solution: A solo version of a dungeon. Don’t give great loot for it’s completion, or really give a huge incentive, but allow people to use it to see the story and practice the mechanics of encounters without having to resort to these out-of-game videos. Since loot is pretty much the only real reason players run dungeons to begin with, why not give an option to those who just want to see the story? So, for example, a dungeon can have a “solo” mode, a “regular” mode, and then whatever “hard” or “epic” difficulties you want after that. I’d have no problems running a dungeon on solo a few times to learn the encounters, and if I get a few random drops and some experience along the way, all the better! I could still make some character progress and be even more ready for the group encounters. But more important, I’d feel like I’d accomplished it myself, instead of just having it handed to me by a video or guide.
Have faith that your players aren’t lazy and actually enjoy a challenge, and you will see returns on it.
P.S. – To it’s credit, the only MMO this really doesn’t apply to is Dungeons and Dragons Online. They already have this system in place. I don’t know if it’s in 100% of their dungeons, though, but it’s a great idea that I feel could do the rest of the genre a big service.
It is now Day 3 after I was hacked and had a permanent ban placed on my Guild Wars 2 account. Still no resolution…
Not even a response back after the last time I sent them information at 2 PM yesterday. It’s now 7 PM, so that makes it 30 hours since their last e-mail sent to me. Unacceptable.
As a frugal gamer, it takes a LOT of thinking for me to drop $60 on a new game or anything, for that matter. $60 on entertainment is a significant amount, and I spent the full $60 for Guild Wars 2 because I thought I would be getting a true quality product for it. I, like all my fellow gamers, have waited 5 years for this game. So what do I have to show for it? I played for… what… 2 days? Now, it’s the start of a nice 3 day weekend, a great time to put in some gaming time… and I’m still up in the air, having been blocked out of it for reasons that OBVIOUSLY WEREN’T MY OWN and also receiving NO REAL RESPONSES FROM MY REQUESTS.
Listen… I’m not callous. I see and understand that they are swamped. However, I’ve also worked in e-contact for a major international corporation before and have been swamped myself. We also replied to EVERY e-mail, personally, no automated responses, within 24 hours with only a team of 6 people. If it was an issue that involved some more research, we made sure to check in daily with our customers to let them know we didn’t forget about them. I know that seems more like the exception than the rule, but I lived it from a CS perspective, our customers loved us for it, and I have come to expect that high level of quality from businesses I contact.
Here is a quick rundown of the Laurel and Hardy type communications I’ve had with ArenaNet’s Support so far:
Initial hacking and permanent ban complaint lodged by myself at 08/29/2012 03:33 PM via the Support website. No e-mail had been received noting of hack or of the ban before this time.
Reply back from Customer Service individual #1 at 08/29/2012 07:22 PM, ~4 hours later, requesting information to prove I am the owner of the account.
I reply at 08/29/2012 07:51 PM, ~30 minutes later, giving them all the information I can requested through their customer service site.
Reply back from Customer Service individual #2 at 08/29/2012 08:10 PM, ~20 minutes later, requesting the same information that CS #1 requested.
I reply back at 08/29/2012 08:26 PM, ~15 minutes later, with more information, copying the information from the initial request. I notice that two tickets are open for the same request and I close one of them. The other one is still open and active.
Having not received another response, I add to the open ticket at 08/30/2012 07:51 AM the next morning with more information, hoping that there wasn’t a confusion from having multiple tickets.
I receive a reply from CS individual #3 at 08/30/2012 01:05 PM, ~3 hours later, asking for the same exact information I gave CS#1 and #2.
Third time’s a charm, I think, and I reply back at 08/30/2012 02:21 PM, ~80 minutes later, with the same information I gave CS#1 and CS#2. The worst part is that I can see the entire chain of information I’ve given already, and am copying/pasting the information. It’s obvious I’m repeating myself.
As I write this post, it is 8/31/2012 07:24 PM, ~30 hours after the last communication I have received from them and ~29 hours after my last reply, and I haven’t received a response to my last inquiry.
UNACCEPTABLE! I mean, I can see the responses I’ve given and received, why can’t they? I’ve repeated myself multiple times and am almost at my breaking point. Every response I’ve given to them has been polite and direct to the point.
The worst part is, what’s my course of action? I’m not even sure where I stand! Do I demand my money back? Do I just write it off as a loss and to never give them money again? In this situation, I feel helpless. I feel like I’m being screwed over by a company and a community that I liked and respected with no course of action I can take beside just voicing my opinions and warning others.
So that is what I am doing.
If this is solved tomorrow, will I still play? Yes, and I’ll probably still enjoy it. However, the shining admiration I have had for ArenaNet as a company is fading fast, and so in the future, I’ll be less likely to give them more of my hard earned money, and warn you all against it, too. If you need support from them, I wouldn’t expect it to be quick or efficient.
“Mistakes will happen, but it’s how you fix them that count.”
P.S. – If only they had a phone number to contact. I’d sit on hold for an hour to get this fixed no problem, and I’d do it with a smile. This lack of communication and being left up in the air is driving me nuts. Day 3… and still nothing.
P.P.S. – I do realize that this can definitely be chalked up as a #FirstWorldProblem, and there are lots of other things in the world that are much worse problems. However, this is a gaming blog, I KNOW I’m not the only person going through this problem, and I feel like I am the little guy fighting against a much bigger opponent. I will not be giving up this fight until it is won or lost. This is also very frustrating and this is a nice cathartic release. If this suddenly gets fixed in the next 5 minutes, I’ll feel very foolish, but as of right now, I’m a very angry customer who just wants to get his money’s worth, and doesn’t have many options left to do so.
[Update 9/1/12 – Everything has finally been cleared up and my account has been returned. As off 11:22 AM, my password was changed to something GM derived and I was told by e-mail that I could log into my account again. The e-mail indicated to “Please be aware that the Support Team is unable to restore any missing characters or items.” Since my character is level 13, I’m sure anything I lost could be easily gained again, so this wasn’t a problem for me. I signed in, and… nothing was different. I still had all my items, my measly 6 silver which the hackers apparently didn’t show any interest in, and I was in the same exact location I last signed out at. Nothing changed.
As a recourse, and because it seems Guild Wars 2 players are being heavily targeted, I changed my password to one of the strongest I’ve ever created and I changed my account name. Hopefully this doesn’t happen again.
So, to recap. My account was brute-force hacked from a location in China as my password wasn’t the strongest. I was given a permanent ban with the explanation that it was based on RMT transactions. I was contacted by 4 different members of the Support staff, after giving the same information to 3 of them. Finally, on the 4th day after the hack occurred and ArenaNet was notified, my account was fully restored.
4 days after the event is by far not the best, as this was a pretty open-and-shut case. To ArenaNet’s credit, though, and this is a definite nice point: I was not once, during this process, berated by ArenaNet for having my account attacked.]