Saturday, April 21, 2018

Being Difficult

Telwyn's recent post continued a discussion that began on Massively OP concerning so-called "difficulty" in MMOs. It's rare indeed for me to find myself agreeing with anything Eliot Lefebvre says but I do concur with him that the entire concept of "difficulty" in this context is highly subjective.

I also strongly agree with whoever it was who said that gamers these days equate difficulty with time spent. Indeed, more often than not when someone complains that something is "too difficult" what they really mean is it takes longer than they want to spend doing it.

"Too long" can be anything from a few seconds to kill a mob to half an hour to finish a dungeon. The baseline acceptable duration to do just about anything in an MMOs has shriveled over the years from hours to minutes. At the same time developers have used that increased impatience to provide supposed difficulty by padding shortened encounters back up to somewhere closer to where they were before the self-same developers cut them down.

The other very popular form of difficulty - popular with developers and the small subset of players who like to come to forums and tell everyone else to "git gud", that is - is reaction time. When MMOs began you could manage perfectly well with the reflexes of an elderly Colonel in a bathchair. Now you need to be some kind of combination olympic gymnast and concert pianist.

Can't mez giants. Gotta kill 'em.
As has been mentioned here on many occasions, GW2's Living Story is often blighted by both of these sloppy excuses for "difficulty". ANet seem to feel that so long as they throw in a boss or two for each chapter with the hit points of a blue whale and enough AEs to cover at least 98% of the available floor space they've earned their paycheck for the quarter.

I would be lying if I claimed I don't find that kind of content difficult. I do. I find it difficult to respect, difficult to appreciate and above all difficult to enjoy. I don't find it difficult to complete because it invariably allows infinite attempts and can always be overcome by sheer bloody-minded attrition.

On the other hand, if that safety-net - or safety-blanket - isn't provided, as it hasn't been in some  MMOs I've played, it's quite possible for the content to become quite literally "too difficult" for me to complete, leading me to give up playing those MMOs entirely. I'm nearly 60 years old. I was 40 when I started playing EverQuest. I do not have the dexterity in my hands or the flexibility in my joints to match the expectations of designers half my age.

Then there's the kind of difficulty beloved of the developers and fans of The Secret World and its supposedly more accessible reincarnation, Secret World Legends. I enjoyed TSW up to a point, the point being when I could look up everything I needed to know on the internet.

I wish they'd revert the Dire Wolf to the old model. By which I mean the OLD old model.

I am not a fan of logic puzzles and my idea of a pleasant evening's entertainment has never included trying to decipher a cypher let alone taking a crash course in Morse Code. Plus TSW has some bosses that are even more irritating than those in The Living Story.

At this rate it seems I'm going to rule out any kind of difficulty whatsoever. Perhaps, as I have heard so many self-proclaimed hardcore players suggest, I should go play Hello Kitty Online.

Actually, I have played HKO. It was too difficult. And, ironically, it was too difficult in the way I like my MMOs to be difficult: it was mysterious, confusing and bizarre. It was also like listening to Barbie Girl on a loop while being forcefed Haribo, or at least that's how I remember it. That's why I stopped.

Minus the sugar rush, my ideal "difficult" MMORPG is one I can't easily understand. I like things that start in media res and ramp up from there. I like confusing lore, weird dialog and complex, arcane, systems that make no sense. 

The best part of playing a new MMORPG is often that feeling of utter confusion. If the game's good enough it creates a deep desire to make some sense of the whole thing. It feels like the begining of a journey that could last weeks or months.

Fabled Fippy - definitely too difficult for a near-naked Level 3 Paladin. Note dead merc on ground. Picture taken immediately prior to ignominious run to gate guards.
When, eventually, you begin to see how everything fits together, then to fit it, the very best MMOs give a huge sense of achievement, satisfaction and ownership. At that point, even though you now know enough not to feel lost any more, you also feel you belong. And that's why you stay.

I suspect that many - possibly most - MMOs can achieve this for a genuine first-timer. If you've never played any MMO before then even the simplest is going to feel almost impossibly deep and complex. The more you play, though, the easier they get to parse.

That's why, I think, I had a good little run a couple of years back with several Eastern imports. Black Desert and Blade and Soul particularly used a whole raft of odd systems I hadn't run into before and I thoroughly enjoyed shaking the dust out of them. With each succeeding Western conversion, however, the thrill was increasingly hard to find, to the point that I may not even be able to summon up the enthusiasm to give Bless a try when it finally arrives.

It's not that I want "difficulty" in my MMOs anyway, I guess. It's the word we use but I'm not convinced it's the right one. I want interest and involvement and entertainment and I'd prefer to get that served up to me in comfort rather than have to carve it out of some digital monolith by main force.

Mons Letalis, where I had to FD, then get up and run for the zone line. Who knew Rockhoppers would swarm to fefend Stonegrabbers.
Well, I did, ten years ago...
On the other hand, I frequently find myself doing easy things the difficult way. I'm still hugely enjoying leveling my Necromancer in EverQuest but apart from doing Franklin Teek's daily tasks I find myself actively avoiding the clearly signposted Golden Path.

Today I spent an hour and a half running around what must be the largest open zone not just in EQ but in any MMO I've played. Eastern Wastes is a vast tundra plain with a lot of nothing interspersed with camps of orcs, giants and dwarves.

I went there to hunt Ulthorks, who give mediocre experience and have no useful or valuable loot. To hunt Ulthorks you often have to clear Walruses, who make Ulthorks look like positive loot pinatas by comparison. It took me 90 minutes to get the xp I could have got in half an hour in one of the Serpent Spine zones but I like hunting Ulthorks.

I also hunted them right in the middle of their spawning grounds which meant at times I had three or four walruses mezzed with my 18 second Screaming Terror while I played Ulthork Men of War like yoyos with snares and fear.

It's easy to take screenshots when there's only one.
It occupied my mind and my hands and kept me entertained in a way that chunking through one mob at a time generally doesn't. Of course, these days, with a cleric mercenary to heal and playing a necro who can Feign Death if it all gets too much, the "difficulty" is pretty fake. It wasn't always.

Back when there were no uncomplaining NPCs to chain heal and when I was playing classes that couldn't just fall down and play dead when they bit off more than their pets could chew, that difficulty was much more real. Especially when a level took a whole day, not half an hour, and a bad pull could mean a whole session wasted.

That's the kind of difficulty that used to come baked in to MMORPGs. Now it's gone, for the most part. It might be feasible to retain the accessibility that replaced it while adding back the enjoyable kind of difficulty in acceptable doses but no-one's claiming it's easy and not many are managing to do it convincingly.

At this point the idea of adding a difficulty slider to instanced content always comes up . You could do that. I'm not sure you'd have an MMO at the end of it but you might well have an enjoyable video game.

Until that happens, I think I'll stick to setting my own difficulty levels. After all, it's not that difficult to do.

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