Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Skyrim and challenge

I must say I enjoy discussing Skyrim, because by talking about that game is becomes really easy to point out the inconsistencies in people's beliefs about MMORPGs. There has been some discussion in the blogosphere about a comment Loque Nahak made on my blog: "I'm 11 hours into Skyrim, right now (level 9) and boy... coming from WoW it seems I've been playing a videogame for small children, really." But if you look at Skyrim from the point of view of a hardcore WoW raider, it is actually Skyrim which is a game for small children: There is no content in Skyrim which can not be achieved even by the worst "moron & slacker" from WoW. Skyrim has so many ways, from "clever tricks" to "god mode", to remove challenge from the game, that it is completely unthinkable that somebody could not have sufficient "leet skillz" to finish the game. The hardest part of Skyrim is learning to deal with the controls and interface in the first hour of the game.

To me that shows that a lot of the things that people have been saying about the necessity of challenging and inaccessible content in games like World of Warcraft is complete rubbish. In another comment Syl remarked that there is no "offline e-peen" which would prevent people from enjoying Skyrim with mods, or other challenge-reducing maneuvers. Challenge is simply not the point of Skyrim; the world and the stories in it (both pre-packed and emergent) are.

And of course the same thing can be achieved with a MMORPG. A Tale in the Desert (the 6th telling starts December 3rd), or Glitch are perfectly good examples of MMORPGs which are about the world and the stories in it (including those emerging from interaction with other players), and not about challenge. Everybody can play these games, without having to worry that an absence of leet skillz will lead to him being excluded from something, or worse, kicked out of his guild for under-performing. e-Peen is not a necessary component of a MMORPG.

Funnily enough a MMORPG designed not around a fixed challenge would actually be more likely to provide the right degree of challenge for everybody than the current design. If you design the MMORPG around the world and the stories, you can have players deliberately going to more dangerous areas, where the monsters are very hard to beat. Instead of having to nerf down all monsters in all leveling quests to the difficulty level which your least able players are still able to beat. It is only by balancing the fun out of MMORPGs that it becomes impossible to even try harder quests, because the game just hides them from you, because it doesn't want to offer you the bigger rewards linked to the harder quests already at lower levels. But if killing the mammoth becomes about killing the mammoth, and not about the reward on offer, that challenge can be on offer to anybody, regardless of level. And if it takes a lower level player half an hour of kiting that mammoth to kill it, it just makes for a better story than any "kill 10 mammoths" quest in other games. By balancing the rewards and risks, designers ended up having to create fixed challenge levels, which are either too hard or too easy for most players. The option to tune your own challenge to your abilities disappeared.

And the potential gains from removing the concept of MMORPG as a fixed challenge are enormous. Once you stop having to balance everything, stop making sure that all classes are exactly equal, stop worrying how this cool spell would unbalance this PvP battle or that raid encounter, you gain a huge freedom of designing the most incredible content. It is said that players optimize the fun out of games, but that phase is preceded by a design phase in which the developers already balanced most of the fun out of the game. If you make the game about challenge, you end up having to make sure that nobody can do anything really cool without having to go through a huge grind, because you need to make rewards proportional to the effort exerted. If you make a game about the world and the stories, you can have people just discover cool stuff, and provide them a grind-free memorable experience. Maybe one day we will actually get an "Elder Scrolls Online" game which provides such an experience.

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