Sunday, February 6, 2011

A fundamental shift towards variable difficulty

Whatever game or sport you consider, there is always a distribution of how good people are at it. The average player is unlikely to beat Kasparov in chess, and the kids kicking a ball around in the neighborhood won't beat Manchester United. But that usually doesn't matter much, because these games are played against other players, and you just need to play against people of similar skill to keep up a good challenge for everybody. Computer games are a different matter, because very often players play *against* the computer, which means overcoming a completely arbitrary difficulty level given by numerical parameter. To make single-player fun for everybody, these games usually have a difficulty setting in the options, so beginning or unskilled players can still play the game on easy, while highly skilled veterans find fun at the "impossible" difficulty level. It is one of the flaws of MMORPGs that they haven't found a way yet to offer variable difficulty levels. As a result more skilled players are forced to play through too easy content, and less skilled players are excluded from some content which is too hard for them.

That is especially annoying in the context of group content. How easy or hard group content is often depends more on planning and organization than on actual playing skill. A guild group of average players has a higher chance of success than a pickup group of stranger of exactly the same average skill, because the guild group has more trust in each other and won't quit on the first thing going wrong. Anyone who ever participated in a battleground match of an organized group against a random group will know how huge a difference that can make. In an environment where group content is hard, even good players will hesitate to join a random pickup group, because there is a high chance that it will fail because of faults other players make, or a lack of organization.

So in patch 4.0.6. (which goes live this week) Blizzard is introducing a fundamental shift towards variable difficulty into World of Warcraft, specifically boosting random groups. Now for *every* random player in the group, the pickup group gets a 5% bonus to damage, healing, and health, up to a new maximum of 15%. Previously that "Luck of the draw" buff was limited to 5%, and apparently there was a bug in Cataclysm which made that this buff wasn't actually working in most dungeons. So in future World of Warcraft will basically turn itself easier exactly for those groups previously least likely to succeed. And I think that is a very good idea. Because a MMORPG is a game, and the purpose of a game is to be fun. That is best achieved by offering everybody a challenge they have a good chance to beat. Variable difficulty is much better than one fixed difficulty level in providing fun for players at different skill level and level of organization.

Of course some players are extremely angry about these changes. Which leads to a different question: Why does it make player A angry if player B is allowed to play a computer game at a lower difficulty level? The only explanation that I have is that player A is overly concerned about his status, which he measures by his in-game achievements. If player B gets the same rewards and thus status by an easier way, player A's self-esteem is threatened, and he reacts with anger.

Gordon recently asked whether we admire or pity hardcore players, but I think he got the question wrong. I sincerely doubt that a real hardcore player, like somebody from Paragon, is overly concerned about a buff for pickup groups. I wouldn't pity anybody just for being hardcore, but I would pity the fool who considers his greatest achievement in life to be some virtual item in a video game, and who feels the need to complain about less skilled or organized players needing a buff to get there.

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