...the difficulty conundrum...

As an offshoot of my post about the challenge of progression in an MMO setting, I wanted to explore how it can also demonstrate how difficult and challenging it can be for us, as developers, to inject just the right amount of challenge into our game-play.

This will be one of those posts that might have you swearing and cursing at me about half way through, so read your way through the whole piece before you decide whether I deserve to be cast into one of the circles of gaming hell...

As I mentioned last time out, if you accept that progression is probably one of the most important, if not the most important, driver for players in an MMO then you also very quickly have to consider how and where you challenge the player.

...because just as story isn't always a primary driver (although, again, it is still an important one for me), difficulty isn't always something that players actually desire, at least not in excess...but...and this is one of those big, glowing red neon, 'but's...if you don't get it right your game-play will end up as a mindless button pressing procedure, that in turn reduces that progression purely to a representation of time spent. That might work for a casual focused Facebook time-killer, but it won't make for a compelling experience for your players in the long term.

However, push it too far in the other direction and you might end up with an off-putting difficulty curve, or introduce too many elements that only serve to frustrate the player, neither of which serves the purpose you actually want achieve with difficulty in a game.

The pacing of difficulty...

Let's start out with the 'going to be taken out of context, controversy provoking sound-bite'...

I honestly believe it is not a bad thing for your players to find parts of the game 'easy'

...now, let me explain that, because it all comes back to that all important pacing that I touched on when talking about progression last time out.

Firstly the key part of that statement is 'parts of your game'. I am not suggesting that your game shouldn't tax players, and shouldn't challenge them, what I am saying is that you have to think about where and when to challenge players but that having periods of game-play that are not challenging can greatly benefit your design. It is all about getting that balance right, and finding the correct pacing for your content.

At a fundamental level, the player wants to feel powerful, they want to feel smart, and you as a designer have to try and achieve that. You won't achieve that by making all your content too easy, but likewise if you constantly scale up the difficulty with every piece of progression you risk losing those periods that allow the player to feel that kind of satisfaction.

You also have the hero element of an MMO. You want the player to feel powerful and it is not a bad thing in and off itself to have sections which allow the player to feel powerful. Casting weaker opponents before you at will is on occasion, exactly what you want your MMO experience to provide.

So finding the correct pacing of challenge and achievement becomes all important. To me, many of the old-school 8 bit era games got this very wrong. The good ones did gently ease you into their mechanics and make the learning curve manageable...but then they constantly, and often relentlessly, ratcheted up the difficulty from level to level. That leads to frustration and the player quickly reaching a point where they would get stuck, as when beating one challenge, the next one was even more daunting! It is a good thing that game designers have come to challenge that and realize that the pacing of the experience is often far more important that having a constant upward curve of difficulty.

Now some proudly skillful players will be screaming 'HERESY' at me right now, or offering a suitably disdainful shake of the head, and they have a point. In some genres that constant increase of difficulty is exactly what makes the game. A game like Portal for example thrived on it. Many puzzle titles rely on it (although I could point to puzzlers like Lumines as good examples of where a varied pace helps improve the game-play experience), but those games are not MMOs.

...so sounds like I am advocating the 'dumbing down' of difficulty? In fact, the point I am making is far from it!

In fact if you go too far down that road you take away those very important progression drivers for players.

As we talked about last time out, progression is important to MMO players, but that also means they don't want all that progression to be 'cheap', because if it is cheap, and everyone can achieve it given sufficient time, then it cheapens the achievement for the player and doesn't act as a progression driver. There is a degree of ego involved here, players want targets and goals that have an element of exclusivity. If you make all your content too cheap then it doesn't function as progression really, at least in anything other than a linear sense.

Players also need to have the motivation of accomplishing something that shows off their skill, tactics or abilities.

Exclusivity vs Progression

Thus we come to the crux of the discussion here. I think most designers understand that they need to avoid frustrations for players, and that MMO games are generally full of lulls in game-play. This naturally leads to a fluctuating level of challenge.

We think about it in terms of pacing the experience. It is important to use easier sections of game-play to give players a breather. Likewise you also need to remember that the progression is worth a lot less if the player doesn't feel that they deserve it. You have to be sure that your content is making the player feel rewarded for a job well done often enough so that they don't feel that they are just 'killing time' on a progression treadmill.

This can be done in many ways, and different games approach it in different ways. It really depends on the style of your game, it may be that certain content requires certain reactions or skill, it may be that it requires the player to use tactics, it may be that you need the players to have a certain equipment or skill build to be optimized, or it may be a combination of all of those things.

You need to think of difficulty as a pacing dial that you can turn up, or turn down, based on the point in the experience the player finds themselves in. You don't want them to breeze through all of the time, never being challenged..and this is where the fact that we work on MMOs comes to present us with a challenge unique to the genre.

That is because, in an MMO, the 'hard' content is routinely placed in optional content - dungeons that can be skipped, optional quests or raids and PVP focused content, in order to preserve the progression of players through the game and to avoid introducing any bottlenecks.

The 'quest' or 'hunting' elements are often seen as the 'filler' that just has to exist to facilitate the player getting from point A to point B (depending on whatever style of progression your game has). Now this presents a problem that I am not sure many modern MMOs have satisfyingly tackled. Since the difficulty is feared in many ways, as a potential bottleneck, and management (myself included!) gets nervous about having anything in the game that could totally block players progress. This has naturally meant that over time, the kind of content that provides the challenge has been relegated to the sidelines as a diversion rather than something we force people into. In some ways that has it benefits, but when it also leads to all your 'standard' progression content to be made so simple it can't be failed you might just be doing your game a disservice.

Unfortunately this has happened quite a lot over the latest generation of MMOs. We focus almost all our 'cool' and 'challenging' game-play into the optional content and can sometimes neglect to inject some of that into the 'standard' progression experience.

That is not to say we have to make it a bottleneck, I firmly believe that if we bear this in mind we can find ways to inject those moments of interest and challenge into the standard experience as well. You don't have to do it all of the time, as I covered last time out, players also like uninterrupted periods of the types of progression they expect. However you should try and inject something interesting, and challenging, into the standard progression path often enough so that the player is actively looking forward to when it occurs next...it can in fact become another progression driver in and of itself.

So just as it as ok to have content that is easy for the player, it is also important to have content that is challenging enough so as to exclude some players from being able to achieve it.

Exclusivity vs Accessibility

The fallout of all that is that designers then invariably get drawn into a discussion about accessibility. Games need to make money, you want your investment to be worthwhile. For most of us in the industry it is also others people money, and they want a return on their expenditure. This means that many times you get questioned on how 'accessible' certain content is, and those on the outside will often question why any given piece of content shouldn't be more 'accessible'.

These are probably some of the most important discussion you can have as a developer, and that is why you have to have thought about your progression and be able to justify why any given feature deserves to have an element of exclusivity. You have to be able to validate why you believe it is important and be able to explain why it is important that not every piece of content is 'easy' and why some of it must provide an incentive to your more dedicated, or skilled players.

If you have thought about it in advance, and designed your experience to account for it, and already have sufficient elements that are 'easy' progression to be able to trade off for having certain parts of your experience harder. That is the all important balance and you need to have rationally and objectively assessed it yourself in order to know why you are doing it...if you just see it as 'that is the way it is expected' you probably haven't made the right choices in the first place, and it will probably be easier for others to question your structure.

Likewise if you are going to be able to inject occasional challenge or difficulty spikes into the standard progression as well, you need to have thought about it to make sure that it won't become a bottleneck, and that it will survive a review.

This for me, is one of the most common mistakes I see made in MMOs, I have even made it myself...in our rush to make things more accessible we often sacrifice a little too much in terms of providing those 'exclusive' goals and objectives that are important to many players. So for me, I think it is important to always keep this in our minds when designing progression systems, and when we are setting our game-play difficulty.

..so remember to both take it easy on players sometimes, but never forget that they need that challenge to be there...


Geoff said…
Another good read. Very interesting to hear a developer rally against the 'standard progression' as you call it, being a totally mindless routine. I haven't played a single recent MMO where that isn't the case. It almost seems like it is a design sin to dare to put some challenge into the single player experience. I thought Conan didn't do it badly with the destiny quests, but there wasn't nearly enough, once every twenty levels just doesn't cut it.
Craig Morrison said…
I don't think anyone has really perfected this yet Geoff. It is one of those areas that makes people nervous, as accessibility is so very important, in particular for the bigger budget games. We all have something to learn and strive for here I think...we can most definitely improve the experience in terms of balancing where and when we introduce both challenge and content that leads to more 'exclusive' rewards.
Provost said…
The destiny quests in Conan were still optional. I do wish that someone would look at the experience as a whole and not just dumb down everything. I love raiding, and good dungeons, but having something interesting to do solo would make me far more likely to keep playing a game. WoW and LOTRO really suffer from this where you can reach max level practically blindfolded, then have to learn a bunch of stuff to be an efficient raider.

There must be a middle ground somewhere that won't scare all your marketing types who are presumably the people insisting that above all you must be accessible.
Amici Nybråten said…
Craig, I have two things to say here about progression.

First, I find the tactic that progression is more rewarding at start, and less rewarding over time, to be effective in making a "middle-way" for new players to be able to get into the fun, but at the same time leaving lots of content for the end-gamers and hardcore guys.

Second, regarding Destiny Quests, I've mentioned this before, but I mention it again, that I think FC could financially profit if they made a pure singleplayer Expansion, that built on the Destiny Quest principle, but which would just be a game-extension "on the side" of things.

Like, when you reach 80 you will have the choice of undertaking an adventure for Conan "into the South", and there you will travel across lots of regions and areas. Almost a little like Oblivion, just with an Age of Conan-twist. When you complete the singleplayer-Experience, which can be played "completely offline" if desired, the player can register their adventure to the Live servers, and then they will receive a few, less meaningful, rewards which they accumulated during their "adventure". Like normal Destiny Quest passive character bonuses, maybe some "fun" items, a few roleplaying items, and maybe a couple of new spells/combos that aren't very powerful but which adds variety to the arsenal of gamers.

In the case of such an expansion it should be made as a completely "on-the-side" project, and it should be BIG with lots of story-content, where the primal driving-factor is story and combat (with optional harder combat experiences and slightly bigger rewards), and it should be relatively expensive to buy, and it should be marketed as for what it is, not as a normal expansion, but as a massive new complete singleplayer experience that makes players able to take their Live-experience into a great adventure of singleplayer-experience to the South. Like into the jungle of Kush and further east and south, and stuff like that. I think it could be a tremendous success. Where the profits of it given to the Live-experience is not so big, but the overall increasing of game-experience is.

But as I said, it should be a complete side-project aimed at paying its own bills once it is done, and not a part of the primal Age of Conan project.
Toch said…
What Emil said, sounds somewhat interesting!

however, i think they should rather make a single-player/pvp expansion in that case :D
Tom said…
Craig, I'm going to pick on something you said even if I'm over-simplifying a little, since a lot of devs do take it to this extreme.

You distinguish "progression" from "little bit of ego"/etc., but I believe they are the *same thing* in an MMORPG. The only reason to play an MMORPG versus a single-player RPG or a Facebook social game is that "little bit of ego": admiring each other's accomplishments.

The problem is, too many MMORPGs define "progression"/accomplishment purely as character POWER (levels and gear), probably because the devs come from single-player games (where gear doesn't upset balance) or from games where character power is outweighed by other factors (e.g., skill/experience, such as in first-person shooters). But in MMORPGs, character power actually HURTS players' motivation: In exchange for a short, facile sense of personal accomplishment (ironic, because gear comes from random raid drops, where you're one of dozens of participants), all your future accomplishments are diminished because people attribute them to your gear. (Meanwhile, from a development perspective, increases in character power are a disaster: they make content obsolete; unbalance classes and PVP; etc.)

Therefore, MMORPGs must do more to illustrate progress without depending on personal character power. For example: badge/trophy systems; public cities that grow in looks/functionality (entire games have been built around this...); public rankings; cosmetic improvements (auras, social armor); non-game perks (subscription/expansion discount, etc); customizability of content (quest design, etc.).

In terms of AoC, Age of Conan has some some of these -- guild city progress, vet rewards -- but they're dwarfed in significance by the massive, game-controlling power of raid drops and battlekeep buffs.
Amici Nybråten said…
I really agree with Tom, though he only touched the surface of that perspective, I think it's a very important perspective you must remember.

"Progression", that you speak of, I think is rather equivalent with "Achievement", and I've been working in many of my previous threads about just that trying to give a perspective where the Achievement is in "Competition", competing guilds, competing players, and even competing "servers", or that you compete with the computer (as in PvE). It's way too difficult to balance a game just on competition unless you provide a whole lot of gameplay to it that is strictly but effectively encouraging competition, but going towards that direction is far from hurting.
Craig Morrison said…
@Emil Not a bad idea, we don't though have the license for single player Conan titles, just multi-player ones, and then we run into the issue of putting a large amount of resources purely into some single player content. I am not against more single player content by any means, but possibly not on the scale I think you are imagining ;)
Craig Morrison said…

That is very true. You make good points. I think the focus on progression being based purely on character progression is more inherent with the current generation of MMOs as the majority are based on a level based progression, and as soon as you have levels it sets certain expectations.

It is definitely one of the challenges for motivating players that we face with the current generation of games, but it is one that I think may change in the future as games look for new ways to motivate players beyond the template established by EQ and refined by WoW...in the future we will hopefully see a more varied approach, it wont come overnight, but I think you will find changes happening there gradually.
Adamo said…
Age of Conan as a "wannabe" mmo, a very important content part is missing to be really successful in the end:

An ingame working "background" engine. Something that Eve, WoW, and the very very old Entropia have:

- working plausible and reasonable ecconomics
- plausible, reasonable item evolution
- reasonabe item customizings.

Without these hardfacts just rename it into "simple RPG with Multiplayer + fees".....and everything will be fine...

all the best.
Amici Nybråten said…
Okay. But when I said "on-the-side" project, I meant it shouldn't be focused as something "important" to the online-experience (although it should be re-unitable with it, as with the level 80 -> Visit Conan, example I had above), but as something that is done as an "extension" of the original game. In this case Age of Conan would probably become the first ever "MMO with Singleplayer" game. Not that there isn't singleplayer, it's just that singleplayer will become so much that the extra added definition is needed. Scrap the "completely offline"-part, by the way, I didn't think that through ^^
alaskandesign said…
I read an article once on Gamasutra that talked about building, building, building a player's tension to a peak (but keeping it under the point of frustrating), then releasing that tension with an easy section of the game that gradually builds the player back up, like a rollercoaster in a way.

This entry made me think of that article--not sure if you've read it.

@Tom You are definitely right about the ego thing. Overcoming difficult adversaries wouldn't mean nearly as much if you didn't have that 'badge' to show off to others.

Nor would the badge mean much if it were easy to get.

At the same time, there is a lot fun in itself in the rush of a tough, fast paced fight that's maybe always on the edge of a win or lose. On the other hand, sometimes it is nice to be able to relax in a rather mindless environment.