Thursday, January 21, 2010

Hard, seriously

If you have to give a talk in real life, it is often a good idea to start it with some humor before going on to the serious stuff. On the internet, starting a serious discussion with humor works less well. Some people never get past the "Huh? Is this for real?" stage, others want to contribute to the fun and answer the question humorously. So, while I want to express my thanks to those few who took up my Rise of the Leet King challenge, I'm afraid I have to pose the question again, seriously:

When you say World of Warcraft is too easy, how exactly should a good, hard game differ from that?

The problem here is that there isn't one single agreed upon definition of what "hard" is in the context of a MMORPG. Imagine a typical situation, a player in the mid-levels, on a quest to kill ten foozles. Making the game harder for him could mean one of many things:

Hard could simply mean long, that is we change the quest from kill ten foozles to kill a hundred foozles for the same xp and reward. That is extremely easy to implement, but will be the first thing players complain about. Every review would mention "the grind", and players would generally not be happy about this. Funnily enough it turns out that it is the more hardcore players who most detest slower leveling, due to their belief that "the game starts at the level cap", while the more casual players actually like leveling, and often make alts when reaching that cap.

Hard could also mean requiring knowledge that the player doesn't initially have. He'll be asked to kill ten foozles, but not where he can find those foozles, so he would have to search for them. The problem with this approach is that players tend to circumvent the problem by using third-party websites or addons to tell them where the foozles are, or how to solve the puzzles, or anything else requiring learning and knowledge. Note that learning is one of the principal reasons why the people who complain about a game being too easy are nearly always veterans of that game. Every MMORPG has some parts that need to be learned, like how to play some specific character class, and once you learned that, the game appears to be easier than before.

Hard furthermore could mean having a significant risk of failure. The player arrives at the foozle camp, and finds that due to their stats or their improved AI the foozles kill him if he isn't playing perfectly or isn't lucky. Unfortunately it turns out that players of MMORPGs are extremely risk averse. If doing a level-appropriate quest solo has a significant risk of failure and death, players will react by doing the quest in groups (which is good), but then complain about how this game has "forced grouping" (which is bad).

Hard could also mean that while the risk of failure isn't all that high, the consequences of failure could be harsh. Death could carry a penalty ranging from perma-death, to level loss, or item loss. The problem with that is the extreme attachment players have to their virtual avatars and goods. Any actual occurrence of perma-death makes a player consider quitting the game instead of starting over. And losses of xp, levels, or items are also viewed quite negatively, because of loss aversion. Instead of being a fantasy world full of adventure, a virtual world with harsh consequences of failure ends up with players being not adventurous at all, and avoiding the places with high risk, like dungeons.

Thus ultimately it turns out that my personal vision of a good, hard game would not be radically different from easy World of Warcraft, but rather tune each of these settings to somewhat harder. Leveling could be somewhat slower than World of Warcraft. Gameplay could require more tactical thinking and learning, preferably using random factors, so the learning experience can't be trivialized by using third-party sources. Risk of failure at the low levels could be similar to World of Warcraft's, but then slowly and gradually increase with level, so killing a level 80 mob at level 80 isn't as easy as killing a level 10 mob at level 10. And the death penalty could increase slightly from World of Warcraft, having some minor xp loss, and include item degradation (which has the added benefit of improving the player economy and crafting part of the game).

How about you? How would you design a MMORPG to be both good, and hard? How would you make your game attractive in spite of being hard, so as to not only attract a tiny number of potential customers?

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