Category Archives: Balance

Gaming difficulty is history

Decline of the OUCH-factor?

Posted by a fellow gamenerd of mine this morning. While his post was mostly directed at video games on console, there’s essentially no difference of platform here and none between offline and online games either. Never have these media been closer than today, if not even multi-platform.

Game difficulty is a tough nut to crack, especially from a historical point of view – what was really harder about old games vs. what was simply broken? Are today’s games challenging in other ways maybe or should we admit that they had to become easier in order to motivate and appeal to a wider mainstream audience? After all, what good is a game that only a handful of players have the nerve to beat?

As for MMORPGs, the question is roughly the same and so are the factors to be taken into account. Have they become too popular and too polished to be hard(-core)? If so, is there a limit to how far this should go?
There is still a strong belief among some players that more than for other games, MMOs allow the player to create his own adventure and find his own challenges; personally, I find this a rather weak point when I look at today’s MMO tops. It assumes that the player is given enough freedom to do so, the tools to shape and co-create content and impact. It also assumes that said concept is not being “disturbed” from the developer’s side.

But then, maybe we should be looking at entirely different games? Less well-known, less popular – more difficult? You decide.

Is WoW too polished to be hardcore?

I think everyone agrees that if there’s something Blizzard achieved to deliver with World of Warcraft, it’s polish. It’s what sets the game apart from all the other MMOs out there that are really lacking in one way or another, turning off bigger audiences in the process. And it’s not surprising that polish is so hard to find in this particular genre: MMOs are huge and much less defined and restricted than other, normal games of a specific genre. It’s not so hard to add polish to a shooter that’s supposed to offer its players approx. 50 hours of gameplay fun. Polishing entire worlds that gamers are supposed to enjoy and practically “live in” for years, well, that is another matter. And let’s not even talk about the server-side of things.

So I give Blizzard a lot of props here. You don’t tear your hairs out because game controls are frustrating the hell out of you in WoW. You don’t take hours to get used to some totally unintuitive and inflexible UI and dysfunctional menu features. From there it goes on to things like gear, level and dungeon progression, stat balancing, difficulty levels etc. etc….the required maths behind an MMO could fill a library of books. And even when it comes to class balance WoW does a better job than the competition; even if there’s no perfect class balance, you can still run most dungeons and raids with various group compositions and you can PVP with every class in a way that would be impossible in most other games. Class balance is a horribly tricky and controversial thing to manage in any MMO, especially if there’s both PVE and PVP content to balance.

Too polished to be hardcore?

There’s been voices in the WoW community for some years now asking for a more “hardcore gameplay” approach, whatever that means. Personally I’ve always avoided the term “hardcore”, I find it rather silly in connection with WoW. I also don’t know that I necessarily agree that WoW should be more hardcore in the way I understand the term. I would like to see certain features or things handled differently in WoW, but when I talk about the quality of challenge in the game for example, I don’t associate that with being hardcore. It’s a very ambiguous term that gets used as synonym to anything between ‘hard’, ‘challenging’, ‘elitist’ or ‘exclusive’, even if these things are far from synonymous.

The other day I came across a post by Tony Ventrice from Gamasutra, while reading an article over at Church of Pangoria (thanks btw!). I find it an excellent read that manages to define the term “hardcore” as the rather lacking and blurry attribute I perceive it to be. He also distinguishes the term from other qualities it is often mixed up with it in respective discussions (much to my own discontent):

Six things that make a game hardcore:
  1. Difficult controls
  2. Overwhelming options
  3. Prerequisite knowledge
  4. Abstract memorization
  5. Unclear goals
  6. Unclear solutions

Six things that do not make a game hardcore:

  1. Challenge
  2. Trial and Error
  3. Strategy
  4. Theme
  5. Repetition
  6. Depth / Graduated objectives

If you care to visit the article, you will find further explanation of each of these terms. I cannot but agree with Tony about his distinctions and I find them very revealing in regard to whether WoW should be more “hardcore”. Many qualities that some veterans associate with a hard game or challenge, are actually that: features of a broken game. Annoying controls, unclear goals or directions, an over-kill of meaningless choices, low user-friendliness or accessibility are signs of lacking game design. Signs of a lack of polish. They are not remnants of some romantic time when games were harder in a good, challenging way, they were only really annoying. It also stands to question how beating a broken game makes you an “elite/hardcore” player and why it should be a good thing for any MMO to only attract those few exceptionally stubborn exponents.

I’ve played a lot of the early games on Atari ST or NES and I didn’t find the parts that were broken and full of glitches particularly fun. No, I do not want WoW ever to lack that polish. I think a good game is a game that knows how to balance all things, staying between “hardcore/broken” and “casual/too easy” (yes, I know ‘casual’ can also have different meanings).

That’s also why I thank Tony for listing those features that I am personally so eager to see changed in future MMOs among his second “list of 6”: I do think there’s areas in WoW that should be more challenging or “harder” and Blizzard can learn from the past in a productive way. But re-defining or re-designing what constitutes “challenge”, “strategy”, “theme” or “depth” in a game should never have to do anything with being hardcore (or casual). It’s simply about different ways to approach an audience with the potential to make games more fun and rewarding – for everybody.

“Hardcore may be a badge of honor amongst dedicated gamers but, as more and more people play games, it’s worthwhile to reevaluate our assumptions. How many hard-core tropes build honest challenge and how many are simply lazy design that alienate market share? The casual space may have much to learn from its predecessors, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have a few important lessons to impart of its own.” [T.V.]

I couldn’t word it any better. And to answer my own question: Yes, WoW is too polished to be hardcore and it always was, fortunately! Now let’s focus on the real challenges.