The Level of Difficulty in MMORPGs

There has been some discussion about the right level of difficulty in (role-playing) games recently. Jeff Vogel says on his Blog "Make your game easy. Then make it easier", his point is that games are recreational times and "People will happily forgive a game for being too easy, because it makes them feel badass. If a game is too hard, they will get angry, ragequit, hold a grudge, and never buy your games again".

Brian "Psychochild" Green on the other hand argues that failure is part of the gaming experience and there needs to be a feedback loop for the player. A game of Chess isn't fun when the opponent loses on purpose.

I like to look at the topic purely from an MMO standpoint:

To understand the level of difficulty in games one has to take a step back and look at what is behind motivation in games.

Playing a game is about emotions.

Failure (usualy) results in bad emotions and a good game designer wants to prevent causing bad emotions.

But winning doesn't cause good emotions for the players by default. At least for most players it wouldn't be too much fun to beat their 6 years old nephew in a game of Chess, would it? Well, it may, it may also be that failure is fun too, but that's because socializing is involved with Chess, not because of the game design for the level of difficulty.

The joy comes from winning hard battles, not just any battle.

Players should be as close to the edge of losing as possible but win in the end. That's the sweet spot of the level of difficulty and where winning is a real (emotional) pleasure (involving dopamins in the brain but this would go too far for now). Take any football match as an example where the game turned around and the victory came in the last seconds. That's so much more fun than a safe win from the beginning – but both would still be much better than losing in the end. Hard games are only satisfying in the end if the player wins.

So this is the goal, the real challange comes with two "minor details": how to balance the difficulty so every player will face hard fights and still win in the end? And even if this would be possible for every player, it is boring again because they will notice that every battle is staged and there is no edge of failure and as a result no feel of victory and no emotions again.

Things start getting even more complicated if you try to balance a (Free2Play) MMORPG.

  • Letting the player chose a level of difficulty for the game is no option in an MMO
  • There is no "real win in the end" because there is no real ending
  • The extremely long duration of play is very important
  • Free2Play MMOs have an item shop, players will start to complain that you just want to make more money from the item shop if battles feel too hard.

In (F2P) MMOs the sweet spot is to make the game as easy as you can afford it to be.

It's not all about emotions. The content in MMOs is usualy limited. Being too easy without having enough content to support it will result in the game becoming a grind. Kill 5 Giant Rat Mutants may be difficult but kill 500 Rats instead is not an option for fun, neither is it an option to allow the players to fly through the content in a matter of minutes.

As the content is limited, the level of difficulty is a main option for balancing the progression. The good thing is, over time it becomes much easier to balance the level of difficulty in MMOs, because lots of data comes in from the database and from your community and the game gets more content from patches.

If you are wrong with your level of difficulty, better be sure that the game is too hard at first and not too easy. There are little issues with making the game easier in the next patch but your Community Managers will face a tough time if you require the nerfbat.

There is another point one can see with MMOs, players love to go back to lower level creatures and do some easy fights and farming. Even when grinding is bad by definition there needs to be the option to do some easy grinding. The reason is, it would be exhausting if every battle would be long and difficult even with a glorious victory in the end. MMOs are often played over long sessions and there has to be some recreation time even in recreational games.

To also give an example of a different approach to deal with failure, in many 2D Adventure games there are so lodicrous ways of dying, it is almost more fun to take every chance of getting killed and watch what happens than to "win" the games without failure – but then again, is this still a "failure" then?

Summing up everything, a game should be as easy as possible – but not easier!

There must be some risk of failure involved and for it to be a real risk, there must be real failure – but not more than neccessary! (not taking this for granted and thinking about alternatives often pays off very well)

And finaly, there should be options to vary the pace. Either by directly chosing the level of difficulty or by indirectly chosing what you like to do next in the game.

If one keeps the goals and restrictions in mind, it's easier to think about what should be hard and what shouldn't. Failure by itself is bad, it's just required to make success feel good – but think about other ways to achieve this and where required means really required.

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