Friday, November 21, 2008

Designing difficulty levels

This week I have been playing a lot less World of Warcraft than I wanted, due to various work and private other commitments. That causes me some unhappiness, as I get a feeling of falling behind in my guild, a fear of not even being level 80 yet when the guild starts raiding. That fear is certainly to some extent irrational, as my guild in the past did a very good job of integrating the more casual players into raids. But if even I can feel it, I can understand under what amount of pressure somebody from a top raiding guild must feel to keep up.

The whole thing becomes absurd once you consider that Nihilum already clearly demonstrated that there is no reason to hurry. Unlike the previous expansion there is a considerable risk that if you play at the fastest possible speed, you will run out of raid content before Blizzard can patch in new one. Over the last week I had several comments from raiders (curiously mostly anonymous) expressing their fear that Wrath of the Lich King simply isn't made for them any more. Now imagine that would be true, Blizzard really changed their ways, and made an expansion which is less suited for the hardcore and more suited for the casual players, what would happen?

Imagine I could measure the skill/dedication/hardcoreness/whatever-you-wanna-callit of every single WoW player on a scale of 0 to 100, and make a graph of the number of players in every skill category. Such a curve would most likely be a Gauss bell curve, with lots of players of average skill, and decreasing numbers of players toward very high and very low skill levels. Now consider having to design an expansion, and having to choose a difficulty level. Unlike single-player games, which often have a selectable difficulty, the difficulty has to be the same for all players. You can try to cover an as wide range as possible, but it is impossible to design a difficulty which is both challenging and achievable by everyone. The Burning Crusade, pre-patch 3.0.2, was designed in a way that even the most skilled and dedicated player would find the raid endgame challenging. Lowering that difficulty level in Wrath of the Lich King would make the raid endgame more accessible to more of the average skilled players, but risks making the game too easy for the most hardcore players.

The question is whether that would be so bad. Ideally WotLK would just wided the skill range for which the game is fun. But even if it just kept the width of the range the same, and moved it lower, the nature of a bell curve dictates that you'd cover the maximum number of players if you move the range into the middle of the curve, away from the high end. For every player for whom the game now becomes too easy, there are several for who raiding becomes newly accessible. Which means that in terms of subscription numbers, a move of difficulty towards the average skilled can only help.

In terms of public relations the story looks a lot different. Average players are often a lot less visible than hardcore players. If Nihilum makes true their April's fool joke and quits WoW because it became too easy, that would cause a lot more news reports than if a number of average Joes quit because they never succeed in raiding. But even then it would remain to be seen how much of a role model these hardcore raiders really are. If the top guild on your server quits, that just means that the second-best guild now becomes the new top guild, changing nothing in the aspirations of the average player.

And it isn't as if a top raiding guild has many choices of other games to go to. WoW is the top raiding game in the MMORPG market place. A game like the original Everquest might be even more hardcore, but it is also somewhat outdated, and most of the remaining players are rather hardcore, which would make it difficult for a WoW guild to move there and make much of an impression. If there is a continueing trend towards MMORPGs that are more accessible for the average player, and thus too easy for the top players, maybe in the future we will see specialized niche games for hardcore raiders. If game companies produce hardcore PvP games, why not hardcore PvE games for a similar niche market as well?

So overall I think Blizzard isn't risking too much by making raiding more accessible in Wrath of the Lich King. We might see forum post for many years to come with people claiming how WotLK "ruined" WoW, just like others say Trammel "ruined" UO. But for subscription numbers a move to open up the endgame for more players can only be good. And in the end, subscription numbers and profits count for more than the bruised egos of some raiding divas.

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