Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Trivial Pursuits

has a post up today about difficulty settings - implied, imposed, avoided - in both board and video games. It's a well-argued and sensible piece for the most part but there was one part which didn't quite ring true to me.

Talking about difficulty levels, he claimed "You never want to modify those to be completely trivial." I can see what he means, I think, but it refers back to the old "What is a Game?" question, something I don't want to revisit right now. 

I'm not really very interested in whether something qualifies as a "game". For many years I railed against the use of the world in the acronym "mmorpg". My argument was that mmorpgs were platforms for playing games, not games in themselves. It's an argument that's become harder to sustain in recent years, when developers have consistently tried to constrain the genre within certain gamelike parameters. 

Modern mmorpgs are often more like "games" than anything else. They virtually come with win conditions. When they're not so much like games, it's mainly because they're they're more like movies or stories. Some might as well be movies, although then they'd have to compete at a much higher level, with much more nuanced storytellers, so it's no surprise they aren't.

Leaving aside the question of whether the "games" we play are actually "games" at all, the more interesting question to me is what's required to make them "fun". And, of course, here we go again with another of those words everyone uses but whose meaning no-one can define. 

Tobold says "The purpose of a game is to have fun", which is so incredibly contentious a statement I can only assume he's trolling. Once again, I'll side-step the "What is fun, anyway?" discussion. Let's just pretend we all have the same idea of fun, for once, or we'll never get anywhere.

Giving a pass to both "game" and "fun" takes us neatly past the philosophy and into the action, which is the nub of the whole thing. All games require some form of action, don't they? Without they'd be passive entertainment.

What, then, would constitute "completely trivial" in such a context? Doing nothing at all is the only definition I can come up with, which takes us into the territory of idle games. 

I don't play or follow idle games so I'm far from being the person to extrapolate on how or why they might be "fun". I did, for a while, have Progress Quest installed and occasionally I'd watch it play itself but while Progress Quest may have been one of the ancestors of the modern idle game, I don't think it represents a much better example than Ultima Online would in a conversation about modern mmorrpg gameplay.

My understanding is that most idle games require some level of input from the player these days. I don't think you just install them and never touch them again, other than to see how they're going. At some level they do require some activity and "activity" is the key to all of this.

When Tobold implies a game needs at least a minimal level of "difficulty" I believe what he means is a minimum level of "activity". On that, I think we can agree, although as usual the exact moment where activity slips into inactivity is unclear. I do think a player has to be doing something at least some of the time to qualify as a player.

How much do they have to do, though? It's quite common to see negative comments about mmorpgs, usually non-western free to play titles, that automate most of the routine operations more respectable games expect players to perform for themselves. Apparently there's a qualitative difference for some people in watching their character move from quest giver to quest location based on whether or not they have to press down on the WASD keys to make it happen. 

It gets even more controversial if the character doesn't even need to fight their own battles when they get there. Games that handle all of the combat as well as the pathfinding cease to qualify as games at all for many. Personally I think at this point it's still a matter of degree.

By the standards of many of us, the "difficulty level" in those games has come pretty close to "completely trivial" but does that mean no-one's having fun playing them? Are the games still fun as the level of interactivity declines? Well, people play them, so I think we'd have to accept that for those people, they are.

There's a reason I've been thinking about this other than reading Tobold's post. The latest EverQuest II expansion, Visions of Vetrovia, differs substantively from all its predecessors in one particular manner; never before can I recall being able to one-shot most overland mobs before even completing the Signature quest line.

Someone commented on it in general chat, when the expansion was less than a week old. At the time I was still having to move and pull carefully to avoid being overwhelmed and I was dying not infrequently when I got it wrong. At that point my reaction was basically "Chance'd be a fine thing."

Now, having sorted myself out a little, I can pull literally everything in as wide an area as I can run in a circle without breaking leashes, then one shot every single one of the mobs in range with the first AE I cast. The only thing that stops me clearing the entire field in a single key-press is the time it takes the backfield to catch up to the play.

I can't recall any previous expansion where I found myself doing new, at-level quests for the first time and having them behave exactly though they were quests in out-levelled content. There's usually at least an element of challenge. In the routine VoV overland quests not involving sub-bosses or similar there's none, not now my character's level 125 with gear that's sometimes been upgraded four times already since the epansion launched.

Was I having more fun when it was harder? Am I not having fun now, with the gameplay completely trivialised in this way. 

No, I'm loving it. It was fun before but it's much more fun now. Far from making the quests dull or tedious it makes them much more enjoyable. It's a different kind of enjoyment, sure, but at least as satisfying in its own way, only there's more of it and it's faster. It's a bit like those magic painting books I did as a child, the ones where you just have to dip a brush in wter and swish it over the pictures to see the colors bloom.

When it comes down to it, how many people actively enjoy the navigating and killing parts of routine quests, anyway? I used to love the equivalent process in EverQuest, when breaking a camp could take fifteen minutes and holding it successfully could occupy a tense session, but it's been a long time since I played an mmorpg that offered that experience. And back then all I was doing most of the time was grinding xp. Even then, I didn't find that same process anything like as much fun if it stood between me and a quest reward I wanted.

Games of that era also gave you the tools to play that way and enjoy it. Imagine a modern mmorpg that allowed you remove aggro from a mob for a couple of minutes, root it for five, snare it for fifteen. Virtually all combat abilities in every mmorpg I play now are measureed in seconds, not minutes. Everything happens on fast forward. It's exciting and fun in the moment but enervating across a session, when all you're trying to do is get whole load of quests done.

There's a wide gap between the point where you have to give combat your fullest concentration and when it becomes completely trivial. That vast stretch, which constitutes most comabt gameplay in most mmorpgs, is the gameplaying equivalent of driving a car on a long, straight road. You have to be vigilant because if you drift you could die. It's something you have to do to get from where you are to where you want to be but you couldn't in good conscience say you were having "fun" on the way. 

Well, I couldn't.  For me, the point at which things start to become enjoyable again, rather than irritating, is indeed when they become completely trivial, or as near to it as makes no difference.

Released from the need to keep from dying, I'm able to enjoy my surroundings and also to think. It's when the gameplay becomes completely trivial that my mind moves across the meaning of what I've been sent to do. It's when I begin to think not just about the practicalities of the quest I'm on but its moral, philosophical and ethical implications.

It's in the triviality of the execution that I become aware of the gravity of my actions. There are things I do that I shouldn't and I know it and yet I do them anyway because we all do. We have to or else we can't play. 

Tobold asks, "if there is a rule in it that makes the game not fun for you, would you rather change the rule, or give up on playing the game?" but the same could be said of what we're tasked to do within the games themselves. When my attention is taken up with the what and the how of what I'm doing, it's easy to miss the bigger question: why? 

Yes, all very impressively deep, I'm sure, but there's another, much more persuasive reason why the kind of specifically trivialised combat and questing I'm talking about doesn't damage the overall prospects of an mmorpg, when it comes to having fun. It goes back to what I was saying earlier about mmorpgs being as much platforms for playing games as games in their own right.

We frequently hear it said that the true endgame in mmorpgs is fashion. Guild Wars II's entire business model is built around it and it's often given as the main motivation for sticking around at top level in World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV.

Similarly, people talk about the true reason for playing being friendships or community or relationships. In some games it might be having a home, a place to hang out, a way to express creativity. It can be collecting mounts or pets or titles. 

These are all things to which "difficulty levels" could be assigned but seldom are. Such difficulty as exists there is tied up mostly with luck. It can be "difficult" to get the rng gods to give you the drop you need but it's the kind of difficulty no amount of skill or practise will help you with, one iota.

No, when we talk about "difficulty levels" in games we nearly always mean something the player can actively affect by their own performance and when all that player is interested in is the outcome, not the process, the optimum difficulty level is "completely trivial". Anything else is just a waste of valuable time.

I'm very happy to have had my routine gameplay completely trivialised in this way. I hope it's the beginning of a trend not just an aberration to be adjusted next time around. And it's not all traffic in one direction. The overland bosses, usually a total pushover by this stage, are all still incredibly tough. So far I've killed one and I had to use a bunch of potions and all my cooldowns, some of them twice. And even then it came down to almost the last hit.

That was fun, too, but only once. A repeated diet of fights like that would not be fun at all, not for me. I haven't tried again. I'll wait until those bosses are as close to completely trivial as they're likely to get, while anything they drop is still worth having. 

By the looks of things it could be a long wait.


  1. It's funny. My mindset on difficulty in MMORPGs is pretty much the same as yours, and yet...

    I remember playing through EQII's Rise of Kunark expansion solo very fondly, despite (or because of?) my Warlock having a rather hard time all the way through.
    The overland zones were full of no arrow or single-up arrow mobs, nothing the heavily AoE-focused Warlock excelled at. I had to pull very carefully while being quick about it at the same time, lest the mobs behind me respawned before I'd advanced far enough.

    It was really difficult, is what I'm saying, and still it's the time in EQII I cherish the most in hindsight.

    I guess for me that's what it boils down to: when it's easy I enjoy it more in the moment, but if it's hard it creates more memorable or fond memories.

    1. This whole post is just full of loose threads to be pulled on to make the whole thingfall apart. I was very uncompfortably aware, even as I was typing some paragraphs, that I both did and didn't believe in the argument I was making.

      If I was going to try to be completely objective about it, I think I'd be saying "It all depends..." because honestly it really does, and on so many variables, too. It doesn't make for much of a post if you just keep saying "On the one hand...then on the other..." and "Depending on circumstances or mood..." all the time.

      The fact is, if anyone's been reading this blog for any length of time they'll have heard me argue both for and against "difficulty" in mmorpgs. I love it and I hate it and it's the same with trivialized content. I just wanted to expand a bit on the brief comment I left on Tobold's blog, which in itself was mostly a rebuttal of an absolutism I perceived in one sentence he wrote but which wasn't really present in the full text.

      As I often say, some of the topics we jam into posts often really need a full 10,000 word dissertation or even a PhD thesis. This is definitely one of those.

  2. Fun is both only yardstick that ultimately matters when ranking various games against each other, and the least informative because it's entirely subjective. Neither the units nor even the dimensions that should should be measured are widely agreed upon.

    More on topic, I find that whether something is stimulating to me is more important than whether it is a challenge per se. Reading a book is not generally remotely challenging, but can be quite enaging. Games have a bunch of sliders that need to be set against eachother just so for the overall experience to be entertaining. Mario games have no story to speak of and so have to get by on pure challenge. Visual novels get by mostly on story, and actually frustrate me if too much challenge is embedded in them (a few puzzles or one or two simple touch games is fine, but don't go crazy).

    I have a half written post that petered out about how MMOs with really deep character development systems, freeform systems like DDO, EVE, UO, pre-NGE SWG or Project Gorgon, have more leeway with the actual content than games that have less complex character developments systems (like most of them). Part of the reason it stalled out is that I don't believe the central premise. EQ has a pretty simple character development system ("pick a class") and no story to speak of, and yet remains engaging. I would have to think more about what sliders are moved up compared to other games so that the overall experience remains one that can hold my interest. Maybe the size and variety of the world you can explore?

    1. I agree with all of that. It's really frustrating, trying to quantify "fun". I guess if it was easy, everyone would be doing it and we'd only have fun games. The same applies to all the other aspects of the hobby we try to quantize - difficulty, immersion, challenge. Every blasted one of them is so slippery it's a wonder we've even managed to agree on names for them. We're never going to agree on what they are!

      It can be fun trying, though. Assuming that's what you mean by "fun".

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