After reading Isey’s post on How to Lose an MMO Gamer in 10 Ways, and after pondering a bit more my previous post on Wildstar, I decided to draw out what I think is one of the larger hurdles for games to succeed – at least on a “massive” scale. And that’s player skill.
Good game design is a series of meaningful choices. I don’t think there’s any debate on that. Where I think the kink in that comes from is in the ability for a person to have a an actual choice and appreciate the results (i.e. the ability to apply a skill and learn a new one). I’ll go back in time a bit to vanilla Naxx and Heigan the Unclean. This is the famous “avoid the fire spouts and you can solo me” boss – a dance really. This was a massive twist in the traditional RPG space, where you just stood there pressing buttons. Now you actually had to pay attention to the play space and move. You couldn’t just absorb the damage. I do know that many guilds at the time used it as a triage for recruits (combined with Thaddius) and it formed a massive skill wall for it’s day. You either performed it perfectly, or you died. That model, tried with a slight twist in BC, got the Ol’ Yeller treatment. For good reason too, it wasn’t a meaningful choice and other than memorization and “no keyboard turners” there was little skill exploited. WoW since then (with a blip in Cataclysm that they want to forget) has been more and more accessible at the lower end, with harder content for those who want the option.
To me, player progress is important. Not only improvement itself but the opportunity for improvement and the evidence of improvement. Huge spikes in difficulty is bad. Difficult just to be difficult is bad. No difficulty is bad. A gradual increase in difficulty, where your progress is both evident and rewarded is the optimal solution.
On to the visual aid I promised!
What I did here was map the player skill required to complete tasks, assuming a time investment. The skill portion is relative between games, where EvE is certainly the most challenging. The remaining themeparks are ranked in difficulty, based on my play. Over each in particular now.
Everyone has seen the EvE difficulty curve. The game is rather simple to start, assuming you stay in high-sec and follow the themepark crumbs. Try to move off that path, either through null-sec or mastering a trade and boom, welcome to excel online. If you make the transition, you’re gold. If you don’t, then you’re dead. EvE has been able to succeed with a supremely polished game after the transition.
No game starts off harder than Wildstar. Then you start dungeons and the difficulty starts to climb. Reach max level and the attunement begins, with a massive climb in difficulty. There’s no help to transition between the stages, the difficult is very binary (you die in 1 shot or you take no damage) and the climb at the end is like no other themepark.
A game with a very gradual increase in difficulty due to skill unlocks being limited and the presence of force grouping at an early stage to progress on the solo train. You learn to tank, heal, pull, DPS, stun, craft… everything. And the change at max level is more along the lines of perfecting skills you’ve already acquired. It’s a very good experience.
This one is a little odd, in that challenge as you level has no training and very little feedback but the skill level required is pretty low. Given that there are actual “bad choices” the game design allows you to have a couple and still succeed. If you make good decisions, then it’s like cutting Jell-O. That said, at launch the game had a veteran system at level 50 that was significantly harder than the first portion of the game and accounted for 60% of the content. Bad choices meant you were going to do. Good choices gave you a 25% chance to die. That system was drastically changed after 3 months to a more similar difficulty curve.
I could have drawn 1 line per expansion here but the power curve line is pretty close to this. Today’s experience from 1 to 89.9 is a joke. I leveled a Monk to 90 in a week and only died from falling damage. Dungeons & LFR can be AFKed by 20% of the group and you’re still going to win. Normal raids have some challenge but the real difficulty is in the heroic raids. And not heroic raids because of the mechanics but because of the stats the players have on the content. Remember that power curve line? The difference in power between expansion launch and 2 months is nearly 25%. People were clearing MoP raids in Cataclysm raid gear.
I could have added other games, like LoTRO, STO, DCUO, Rift, Neverwinter and DDO where I’ve done the high level stuff. They are all pretty similar to WoW, with the final spike happening earlier. I can’t think of one that plateaus before max level – though TSW might be a candidate as it doesn’t really have a max level, just limited action sets.
I think the comparison between all the games is important for discussion. Certainly each has their own variables but of you were to look at where players quit the game, I’d bet dollars to donuts it’s where you see a shift in the curve (assuming they get past a trial phase). Difficulty is good. Shifts in difficulty must be moderate. The benefit of that difficulty increase must be evident. All of the games listed have made changes since launch to their curves (yes, even EvE) except for Wildstar – but it’s also the youngest. Here’s hoping they get the hint.