Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The brilliant solution to the game difficulty dilemma

What level of difficulty should WoW ideally be tuned at? How do you balance the game?

On one hand we don’t want the not-(yet, or ever)-so-skilled players to run their head into a wall, hitting it so hard that they decide to leave the game, putting their real life gold somewhere else and leaving Blizzard with less money available to pay employees to develop new content. You can say or think whatever you want about them, but we all need the casual players, we even need the “noobs” and the annoying PUG-villains and general chat spammers, since we want their subscription fees to our common pool of resources.

On the other hand we don’t want the top-notch players, that little tiny percent which already has run out of content, to get too bored with the easy mode (according to them) not giving them the challenge of whole-grain, but only easy-to-chew bread that lacks taste. They may be elitist, they may be annoying, egoistic and arrogant from time to time but, but no one can deny that they actually provide a lot of useful information and inspiration for the mortal players players. They’re needed, not for their subscription fees, but for the services they make. Gevlon wrote a post about this a couple of weeks ago, which I suggest you read if you haven’t already.

The Disney metaphor
This question of balancing has been the subject for a number of interesting, thought provoking posts the last few weeks. One that will remain in my memory is Tobold’s lovely metaphor, where he compared WoW to a Disney theme park, with some visitors thinking they’re entitled to exclusive content on their own. He got a very eloquent response to this by Rohan at Blessing of Kings, who pointed out how boring the same park would be if you only provided attractions that every single visitor to the park would be able to attend.

I could definitely see the points of both perspectives. It’s like we’re all struggling to find a solution for an equation which is doomed to remain unsolved. What benefits one group of players goes against the wishes of another, so no matter of what Blizzard does, someone will get pissed. Or is it really so?

The achievement solution
Recently I’ve started to believe more and more that Blizzard actually has found the model to deal with the built in conflict. Maybe it isn’t perfect in the eyes of everyone – there are some people whose mission in life seems to be to find faults and they’ll be perfectly able to criticize it from casual as well as from hardcore perspectives. But it definitely is a huge improvement.

The solution from Blizzard is spelled achievements.

I don’t expect you to go “wow” as I point this out to you; the system has been around for months and everyone knows about it. But for me it has taken a while to see the geniality of the concept. I think I was a bit blinded to begin with by the fact that they didn’t manage to catch up with things you had done on the character before, and that some of the achievements are pretty silly or extremely boring, pointless grinds, which doesn’t say anything about your skill, only about your life situation, how much time you can spend in game.

But forget about that for a while and look only at the achievements for heroics and raid instances. The more I think about it, the more brilliant does it seem to me. The difficulty level for the easiest mode has been lowered, making more content available to more people, which hopefully gives a lot of happy customers who feel that they’ve got a lot of things to see and experience in the game. Thus the gold for development is secured. But at the same time the developing guys are throwing gloves at the most skilled players, making up all sorts of challenges for them. “OK, you’ve killed the boss and that was easy, but what if we throw in another three drakes, do you think you’ll still able to make it?”

If you’re a dedicated raider you won’t frown on such a challenge. You’ll go for it, like any hungry fish will go for the bite. There has been some discussion about the rewards, where some argue that they aren’t big enough. And I do agree that players doing difficult things should get rewarded by better gear, titles or mounts which bear witness of what you’ve done.
But even so, I don’t think that the drops are the biggest reason to spend nights wiping to figure out how to beat the achievements.

The biggest reward
The biggest reward doesn’t come from loot. The biggest reward is to see the dragon dead, to feel the thrill that you actually beat him – maybe not the whole game, but a part of it. Just think about it. What causes the biggest cheers on vent, what makes your heart beat, what makes you smile and feel extremely pleased and satisfied? Is it the guild first kill of a boss? Or is it the 10th kill when the boss drops something interesting that you may get? Maybe not all, but probably many raiders get their biggest kicks and highest motivation from the killing experience itself. At least as long as it’s new content, an en encounter you haven’t managed before and you’ve still got the glove that Blizzard threw at you in your hand. (As the instance switch to farm status, loot probably becomes a bigger motivator.)

Of course guilds have always been able to make things harder for themselves without the achievement system. There’s nothing that stops you from trying to beat instances with fewer players, making up strategies more difficult to execute, giving up things that could have helped you in the game and so on. But that would take a lot of imagination and it would be hard to communicate to people outside of the guild, it since there was no accepted standard of what was a true challenge. That’s why home made challenges mostly have stayed theoretical (except for a few dedicated movie makers). The achievement system gives us the ideas about different ways to do the instances and helps us to keep records of it, open, honest and accepted. In practice it becomes like a third or even fourth and fifth level of difficulty (referring to OS). How much closer can you get to please the players that come in so many different varieties of skill, experience, gear and dedication? Blizzard offer us several alternatives, just the same way as they do at good miniature golf parks or if you go bowling and can choose whether to use fences at tha sides or not. This is market adaptation at its best!

Is there any drawback in the new system? Well, maybe a little bit of the feeling of exclusivity will be gone. Even though I’ve never been at that level of raiding myself, I can imagine that you get a special feeling entering an instance which most players can’t get into no matter how much they want to, which was the case in the old attunement system. You feel exclusive staring a boss in the face that most players will only see at You Tube. There was a time when you thought “oh, shit” if you looked at your friends list and saw that someone was in Black Temple. You won’t say the same thing now, when everyone you know apparently is in Naxx. The friends list won’t show you if they’re doing a normal 10 man or if they’re going for the achievement that requires you not to have a single death on the boss fights, which is at quite a different skill level. But still the achievements provide enough of ego boosting effects to satisfy your vanity. Like minded players will notice and know what you’ve done and what effort it took you.

Another drawback is that going for harder achievements more or less requires you to be guilded or at least have a solid friends list. Pugging a group for achievements, be it in five man dungeons or in raid, seems demanding, so say the least. On the other hand, that’s nothing new really, people wouldn’t really pug BT either, until they nerfed it to the ground.

Now I’m just waiting for more achievements to be launched. I wouldn’t be surprised if Blizzard would do that if it turns out that the raid instance will be delayed and hardcore raiders will become increasingly bored, in fact leaving the game. Giving out more achievements certainly must be cheaper than to construct brand new boss encounters.

Time will show if its fun enough in the long run. Right now though I think it’s an excellent solution.


Anonymous said...

I have been looking at the achievments more and more as my time at 80 passes.

I think when i get the gear im after trinket from badges, chest from kirin tor and get my reps exalted i will start on the achievments.

Carra said...

One downside is that once you've got the achievement, you're done. Why bother trying to do a second naxx where noone dies? You already have your title.

That's why better loot attached to them is a good idea. Yes, you've got the achievement of kill the boss with three drakes. And you've got a reason to do it again next week for the extra loot.

Gevlon said...

@Carra: your problem can be solved with extra loot. Every time you do a "no one dies Naxx", there is a loot chest behind Kel'Tuzad

Still, I do have a big problem with this kind of endgame, but it's way too long for a comment. It will be the material for my Thursday post (tomorrow is already taken).

Anonymous said...

@Esdras: good luck. Do like I do: don't look for completion. Pick the cherries, the achievements that seem fun and skip the rest without feeling any loss.

@Carra: yeah, I hope they'll attach loot to it. And of course they need a steady pace of new achievements coming out to keep people occupied while waiting for the next raid instance to be launched.

@Gevlon: I'm looking forward to read that post. It's very much possible that I've overlooked some important aspect, caught by enthusiasm as I was when it sort of dawned upon me what the achievements can offer.

Anonymous said...

I never really got to experience BT, Hyjal, and SSC much. Only a few bosses down in any of them and a few more after the nerf. I still to this day haven't set foot in Sunwell.

But that doesn't mean I don't think Blizzard should continue to make extremely hard content. They should make it and leave it alone for a few months. When the hardcore have all completed it, go ahead and nerf it like they did with all BC raids before the expansion. Just give us more time to experience it than say one month like they did with BC and the expansion.