Thursday, November 26, 2009

Destroying challenge

Syncaine finished Dragon Age, and had a very insightful comment:
"You can actual ruin a good part of the game if you ‘game’ it too much. By that I mean it’s easy to destroy most of the challenge if you stack your party with Cone of Cold-tossing mages, kite mobs around, or save/reload to make sure you get the ‘perfect’ dialog responses every time. Once I shut the gamer part of my brain off, and just played the game as it was meant to be played, it was a far more enjoyable ride that still remained a good challenge."
Saving and reloading is a general problem of single-player RPGs: Unless you play the game armed with a complete walkthrough guide, warning you of everything, a good part of the challenge of fights, especially boss fights, is the unexpected. Like the boss appears to be alone, you attack, and adds spawn behind you, ruining your standard "mages in the back" strategy. You wipe, reload, and on the next attempt you *know* there will be adds from behind, so you adjust your strategy and win next time. The learning process is actually part of the fun, even wiping from something unexpected is more fun than every fight being predictable and won on the first attempt.

Dragon Age has some specific other problems, in that the character classes aren't balanced, and mages have a couple of spells which basically break the game in some situations. Thus choosing a mage as your main and choosing one or two of your three companions to be mages too makes the game a lot easier than playing with a mage-free group. Syncaine mentions the cone of cold, which is an excellent area crowd control spell, but there is worse: In some situations you can cast AoE damage spells on the enemy before the combat even officially begins, and in some situations the combat doesn't even start after you cast the AoE, and you can kill some mobs before they ever react.

And as I already mentioned, you can bypass a lot of the reputation system of Dragon Age by saving before critical dialogues, reloading when a dialogue option ruins your reputation with one of your companions, and then either choosing a different option, or changing out companions in your group. The dog is great here, he never complains about you being too good or too evil in your dialogues.

Now once you know all these methods to destroy the challenge of Dragon Age, you have two options: You can do like syncaine, declare that there is way to "play the game as it was meant to be played", and just stop to use all the possible tricks. Or you crank up the difficulty level to the highest possible, and try whether you can beat the game after using every dirty trick and previous knowledge in the book. The disadvantage of the latter method is that it ends up being more work, because you need to learn all the dirty tricks, and you need to replay everything from combats to dialogues several times until you hit the optimum.

So what is somewhat surprising is that in a MMORPG only the second method is every used. If you were to propose to tackle a new dungeon, especially raid dungeon, without having watched all the strategy videos on YouTube and studied all the boss abilities and their counter-strategies in detail, your guild mates would laugh at you, or even kick you out of the guild. The idea that being surprised by a boss ability could be fun, that working out a strategy for yourself instead of following a guide could be fun, is totally foreign to MMORPGs. And if I were to repeat syncaine's statement that not using all the tricks is the way to "play the game as it was meant to be played" and say this about MMORPGs on my blog, I'd get hundreds of angry responses telling me that I don't have a clue how to raid. The worst example of this attitude that everybody absolutely has to know every little detail about a dungeon before going there are the famous pickup groups which demand that you have the achievement of having finished a dungeon before inviting you to go there. You not only need to know everything, you even have to have done everything already, otherwise you are worthless and won't be invited into groups.

If, according to Raph Koster's Theory of Fun, the fun is in learning how to play, why do we do our utmost to banish learning from MMORPGs? Why is a good raiding guild considered to be one in which strategy is never discussed, because everybody already knows everything? Why do people rarely try alternative strategies? Why do we first need to destroy all the tactical challenge of the game, to then complain that the game is too easy, or to go looking for encounters in which the challenge is simply one of execution?

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