Old School Challenge

When I was a kid, games were tough.  There was little grey area.  Digital meant black or white – you missed the pixel or you didn’t.  The concept of “ledge grabbing” was unknown and you could die for a ton of reasons, many of which made you want to destroy your controller.  Battletoads, I’m looking at you!

SNES back on topic.  There were quite a few “twitch” games, where precise movement was required to complete a task.  Super Mario World and the star road is a prime example.  Few people saw this section of the game but having to fly for 2 minutes with a cape and avoid all sorts of stuff flying at you was a massive drain on your fingers.  Recently, I was playing Donkey Kong Country and after the first zone I was standing at 25 lives.  I was thinking “I’m set for the rest of the game!”  Then I entered the second world and in particular, the mine carts.

Now, if you’ve never played DKC, then I get why this doesn’t mean much to you.  For those of you who did, this is likely a part of your memories you pushed in a dark corner.  These mine cart zones are an exercise in “press jump”, which you would think is a simple affair.  Back to the digital comment from above, where either you have it or you don’t.  There are a ton of obstacles you need to avoid and the hitboxes for these things are larger than the actual objects.  Jumps are measured in pixels, not inches.  In one particular level, I blew through 20 lives.

I compare this to today’s games, like Assassin’s Creed 4 of recent memory.  It’s platform based (mostly) but there’s so much room for error.  I think I died 5 times total (outside of naval warfare) for the entire game.  You mess up?  That’s ok, go hide.  There’s just so much padding on skill today that you need a real outlier, a Rogue-like or Demon Souls to remind you of challenge.  Plug back 15 years though and the cream of the crop is likely considered too difficult for today’s players.

I’m certain that has a large impact on MMOs as well, given that players who have been at it a while are used to a certain level of challenge and have a certain skill set.  New players don’t have that, there really aren’t any games that teach them about challenge, other than pulling that slot machine arm another time.  It certainly makes for a culture gap between the “older” and “newer” players.

Learning Through Trial

I’ve been thinking more about the skill gap issues that most MMOs have today.  Skill gap in that the game from 1-max rarely requires any effort and then people are put into group situations that they simply are not prepared for.  Cataclysm is a prime example of this problem.  It would be interesting to see statistics of how often stuns and interrupts are actually used during the leveling curve…

A couple games recently have taken a somewhat different approach to this problem.

FF14 has trials and forced grouping all the way through the levels.  From the very start you learn about situational awareness, prime targeting, interrupts, line of sight and avoiding the red.  If you don’t learn, if just one person doesn’t catch on, then you simply cannot progress.  This is great.  Your leveling experience is complemented with the system intricacies.  Outside of tank defensive cooldown usage, it really primes you for all group combat.

The Secret World takes a more direct approach with the Guardian.  Given the structure of the game, you can fill any role, so it gives you the choice of defeating him as a DPS, Healer or Tank.  All of them are tough battles in that you need to have a very solid understanding of the role, skill synergies and how to manage interrupts.  I know some solid gamers who were stuck on this guy for a while, he’s no cakewalk.  TSW already has a pretty punishing skill level and this just brings it up to 11.  Still, it makes sure people are prepared.

WoW has trials.  There’s rumor that they are going to expand on that system for WoD, likely using the Silver medal rank as the baseline.  Having done those, I can say that Silver isn’t all that hard to achieve if you’ve ever done group content and were awake.  For those that have not, those that have just leveled and done pet battles, then this could be a tad challenging.  It’s also quite a shock, since nothing up until this point actually requires skill.

I’m getting of the opinion that all games should have this type of system.  While I prefer FF14’s, since it’s from the start, both TSW and WoW have decent interpretations.  It certainly will help with bridging the skill gap at the start of end game activities.  That naturally will help with the animosity of “noobs” and “l33t” players.  Raising players knowledge of the game systems is always a good thing.

Challenge is Fun

I’ve been back in SWTOR for a bit, trying out the new content.  Well, new since I left 2 months after launch.  The context for the extra 5 levels (cap of 55 now) is interesting.

See, most themepark expansions add quests in zones to get you to the max level.  WoW gives you so many quests and linear content that you only ever need to complete half of it to reach the cap.  The rest is just wasted.  RIFT had an interesting tactic where there was just enough content, if you took on the grinding quests at the same time.  The amount of time SPENT leveling is also very inconsistent.  Either they rush you to the end or it takes forever.  I personally prefer a more or less linear path in the levels past the tutorial.  GW2 tried this and it worked.  Well for others, not so much myself.

The thing about GW2 is that there is little to no character progress.  From level 4 to level 50, you have essentially the same skills and press the same buttons.  If the process wasn’t linear, I think I would have gone crazy.  The content you go through is always challenging, since it’s nearly always scaled to your level.  I personally have a massive dislike for the challenge in GW2 due to game mechanics (hard to actually see who’s attacking and threat range is massive).  I do like that death is common enough to be a threat.  I just don’t like the reasons that I’m dying.  Like it’s out of my control.  So that game is on the backburner for a while.

SWTOR is different.  Death happens a lot, not so much as GW2 but if you’re pushing the game, you’re going to die.  The new content – Makeb and Oricon – both have exceptionally challenging battles.  The Imprisoned One has a regenerative heal and a fair chunk of skills you need to interrupt.  At level (53) I could not take him down, using every skill I had.  I wasn’t super geared, but more than adequate for the normal content.   The last guy on Makeb, no spoilers, killed me a dozen times before I figured the “dance” of the fight.  It was thrilling to finish it.  Now 55, on Oricon there is a guy called Commander Zoaron.  He is easily the most difficult fight I have seen in the game.  There are 2 skills that must be interrupted, 1 that you need to move out of range, another you need to break out of.  Each hit is like a bus.  10 tried in, multiple strategies, no luck.  Back at the fleet now, filling in some gear spots for another attempt.  Finally down, but just so.

Finally dead.

Finally dead.

WoW, as contrast, I think my Monk died twice from 1-90 in combat, and that was poor planning on my part.  Zero challenge anywhere, rarely a need to use anything more than 2-3 skills.  A druid I started is just stomping through everything.  It’s like I’m a god from the start til the end.  How does anyone understand how the game plays at max level going through this?

In SWTOR’s case, I feel like the challenge is specific to an encounter.  Figure out the puzzle, feel great, move on.  In GW2, I feel like the entire game is this weird structure of puzzle/punishment.  There’s no real way to solve it since it’s so generic.  I really love challenge, especially one that you feel you can overcome and look back upon.  It makes the game a heck of a lot more rewarding.

Consequences and Challenge

Death in Marvel Heroes is an odd thing.  It happens through mostly lag up until you’re done the main missions, so a lot of people will never really see it – and if they do, people around them have 3 minutes to revive them.  That part makes sense to me.  Neverwinter puts a debuff on you once you get revived that way, the timer is shorter too.

If you play alone however, say in the mission terminals at the end, death is a different beast.  Scaling here reminds me a bit of Rift, where the mechanics of the game prevent you from doing content too far above your level.  3+ and you get an experience, damage intake and damage output penalty, starting at 20%.  You will get 1-shot.  Dying does two things.

First, it brings you back to the last checkpoint.  Sometimes this is the door to the zone, sometimes (like in Castle Doom), it’s invisible markings on the map since the map is so darn big.  Second, if leaves every enemy at the state they were when you died.  Boss at 60% hp when you died?  He will be when you get back.

Doctor Doom last night was 4 levels above me, took 5 minutes to kill and he killed me 8 times.  While I was happy to beat him, there was missing that “perfect run” feel that you get in other ARPGs.  Could I have done him in a clean run?  Maybe not last night due to skill lag but it certainly felt possible.  I remember trying to kill Belial in Diablo 3 for a few days in Inferno.  It was extremely frustrating.  Dying here had a repair cost plus a full reset of the boss himself.  Finally I got lucky and he died and I never wanted to see his face again.  The consequences here were such that I never wanted to play that part again.

I will be trying Doctor Doom again, hoping to improve.  It becomes an analog test with varying degrees of success.  I can improve on that.  Belial on the other hand, I was ready to punch through the screen.  When I beat him, it felt more like a digital switch – either I won or I didn’t.  When I did, I never felt an ounce of challenge in him again nor a desire to even attempt it.

I find it a difficult balance to show people “hey, this is tough but when you get through it’ll be worth it” and “hey this is tough, let’s pull out your hair”.


The Challenge is in Stopping

Thank goodness we gained an hour over the weekend.  I don’t think I would have woken up today without it.  There’s an old saying that goes something like “you only get good at something once you stop”.  The guys got together to make tourtieres (a french variant on meat pies) for the day and what originally seemed like disaster turned out really well in the last hour.

Games sort of follow this path don’t they?  The last boss is typically such a crazy challenge that you would not have been able to win had you had to face them in the first 5 minutes.  When a game hits that plateau of skill challenge and then drags on the rest of the game at that level can cause burnout.  I’m not talking about the NES days of Contra or Ninja Gaiden either.  They were difficult for other reasons.  Dark Souls is great because the challenge is continuous.  As soon as you clear one obstacle, another presents itself.

MMOs have this built in too – which is one reason PvP tends to make a game last longer.  The challenge is continuous when you are against another person. PvE content is different though.  I like playing a Monk in WoW because there’s a new challenge in learning the class and the new game mechanics.  I hate playing my Rogue in WoW because he’s been the exact same thing since Lich King.  Raids certainly present some challenges but they are often statistical rather than operational.  You either have the DPS/Healing or you do not.  Once they release a raid where your hit points mean nothing and you simply have to wait out the clock on a death ride, then I’ll give it a shot.  Until then, there’s not a whole lot of difference between hitting a post with a pattern than hitting a boss with a pattern.

It’s certainly a conundrum for any MMO today.  How do you add challenge to a genre that has been based on challenges for years?  What’s left in the bag that can make players say “one more time and I got this?”