Where’s the Challenge: Have MMOs Become Too Easy?

by Rob Williams on July 5, 2013 in Editorials & Interviews, Gaming

When World of Warcraft launched in 2004, the world of MMO gaming immediately felt its impact. Competing titles didn’t stand much chance, and some were even canceled before release – all because they didn’t follow the standard that Blizzard inadvertently created. Is this a problem? For those who appreciate a rewarding experience, it can be.

Continued & Final Thoughts

Generally speaking, you could probably make the argument that games in general are made easier nowadays, although I wouldn’t agree with that entirely (given the fact that a lot of games have difficulty levels and MMOs don’t – unless you’re joining an Asian server, yuk yuk).

Do the masses simply not want a difficult experience? No, of course not. That’s the reason World of Warcraft became easier over time, and the reason it became so popular. People like to see results quick – that’s just the society we live in. I admit that I’m not the most patient person around, but with MMOs, I consider going from level 1 – (max) to be a journey. As a good friend of mine used to say, the journey should be about the experience – not the experience points.

Mark Kern seems to agree, as he states in his article:

When the bar is lowered so that everyone can reach max level quickly, it makes getting to max level the only sense of accomplishment in the game. We lose the whole journey in between, a journey that is supposed to feel fun and rewarding on its own. Nobody stops to admire a beautiful zone or listen to story or lore, because there is no time to do so. You are fed from a fire-hose of quests that you feel compelled to blaze through, whose content is so easy and quick to accomplish, that you are never in one place long enough to appreciate the incredible world around you. We feel bored by these quests, simply watching numbers on our quest trackers count down to completion before we are fed the next line of quests. And you don’t feel satisfied from playing the game because it never challenged you.

As a good friend of mine used to say, the journey should be about the experience – not the experience points.

I couldn’t have said this better.

With those words, I imagine Rift is a lot like World of Warcraft. As mentioned before, I’ve almost reached the max level, after about 150 hours of gametime. In all that time, I’ve explored most of the game’s landmass. In AC today, I still stumble on things I’ve never seen before. Part of the reason is because of the huge landmass, but the other reason is that the game isn’t focused on the “end game”. You feel more compelled to explore because you know that the fun isn’t being withheld from you until you taste that magical number.

Rift is the opposite. Sometimes my quest book is so loaded, I need to hide some of the entries for a time until I can get through the other ones. Go from point A to point B, collect 10 things or kill 10 things, and then go back to quest giver who leads you to another quest giver in a new location. Rinse and repeat until level 60. Better still, the game even tells you exactly where to go on the map for these tasks, more often than not. 

I make that sound pretty boring, but in truth, it’s not… that much. I’m not upset that I’m already almost at the max level, but I certainly don’t feel like I’ve “earned” it. I sit here thinking, “what the heck did I do to get here?”. I’ve passed through some areas so fast, I can’t even remember some of them.

I sit here thinking, “what the heck did I do to get here?”. I’ve passed through some areas so fast, I can’t even remember some of them.

Fast progression isn’t always the goal of the developer, and I’m sure a lot of them would like to avoid it. But sometimes, due to the game’s design, it might become almost necessary. Many consider the “vanilla” World of Warcraft to be the best, because it wasn’t quite as easy as the game is today – thus, it was more rewarding. But as the expansions and level cap increases came out, current players began to feel a sense of urgency to reach the top as quickly as possible, and new players wanted to rush in order to join their friends. This is another specific point that Mark raises:

…xp was increased so that it was easier to level through all the old content to get to the “new stuff” of the expansion. Gear from the a new expansions first quests made raid gear from previous expansions a joke. And the level curve became faster and faster until we reached a point where everyone is just in a race to get to max level, and damn everything else in between. Why care about level 20 gear when you would blow by levels so fast it was obsolete before you even logged off for the night?

World of Warcraft
World of Warcraft: The MMO on which all most others are based

He goes on to mention that as a result of this inherent fast progression, quest designers have been forced to keep things as simple as possible. It’s the reason we see so many “kill 10 of these” type quests, instead of epic journeys.

Mark is the founder and team lead at Red 5 Studios and claims his company’s Firefall MMO does in fact focus more on the journey than the end game. I can’t verify this as I’ve never played the game, but I’m tempted to at least check it out and see how that holds true.

While Trion Worlds’ latest game, Defiance (reviewed here), also has its share of mediocre quests, its “end-game” essentially begins as soon as you create your character. A 10 hour old character could likely get along just fine with a 100 or 1,000 hour character. That’s one of the reasons I ended up enjoying the game so much – I didn’t feel like I had to level. I just teamed up with people and did some quests that I thought were fun, while seeking out bigger and better equipment.

If Firefall does in fact bring us an MMO that rewards players with a genuine feeling of satisfaction, then I think it’s great, and I’d like to see more of it. It saddens me to think of some classic MMOs that never reached their full potential, namely because World of Warcraft set a trend that they didn’t follow. I even partook in testing out a couple of MMOs that were canceled before release – nothing could compete with WoW in 2004 and the years that followed.

I’ve written about twice the number of words that I set out to, so now it’s your turn. What are your thoughts? Are MMO difficulties a la WoW just fine, or do you appreciate an actual challenge – even if it’s painful at times?

Page List

1. Introduction
2. Continued & Final Thoughts

  • http://techgage.com/ Marfig

    One of the problems with MUDs (but one which players were accustomed to) was the focus on the endgame. Generally speaking MUDs (from which MMOs derive) were also not labor-intensive when it comes to leveling your character. Not to the ridiculous extension of WoW for sure, but you could still get your character to max level in a week or two.

    The reason for this was that the game world had its entire focus on the endgame. The so-called journey only really started at max level. That’s where you would get all the cool quests the hard to organize and long mob (monster) runs, sometimes requiring a team of as much as 10 players and 2 hours of playtime just to reach the mob. The journey was about creating guilds, exploring the vast world, fighting the insanely difficult endgame mobs, acquiring the best equipment, creating a political system, i.e. building and maintaining the persistent world.

    MUDs that did impose many barriers to levelling while still maintaining the focus on the endgame were not the most popular and often criticized, since the game was actually quite boring for non endgame players who couldn’t do much besides wasting time leveling their characters.

    All I know about WoW is that this is a game that takes its inspiration heavily from MUDs. It also has its focus on the endgame. The actual journey starts after max level. If that is the case, there’s nothing wrong with fast leveling. May be a bit too much since the death mechanics are definitely skewed in favor of clumsy playing. I’ll certainly criticize it for that But for all purposes the principle of “fast leveling is evil” does not hold for these type of games.

    • http://techgage.com/ Brett Thomas

      I, too, am of this view. I think it goes back to the point of describing “difficulty” as more than one thing. The reality is, a game’s difficulty can certainly be defined by things other than its leveling. WoW is very, very much like some of the old-school MUDs in its interpretation.

      Another example of “endgame” being THE game is Guild Wars. Getting your character to max level is a very small part of the game – you can do most of that in a few nights. Then, the game world begins to open up and you can do a lot more things. Most of the game is challenging even to max-level characters, but this is by design – the “leveling” aspect is almost like a tutorial to learn different facets of your character class. Once you have mastered the basics, you learn that it is all about your character’s load-out on each mission – skills, buffs, and team members to create a balanced party to survive getting from Point A to Point B. The joy and hunt later in the game is about items, not levels.

      Overall, I think it really depends what each dev is going for. Whether WoW killed the entire MMO genre is, I believe, a matter of interpretation. There is no doubt that it CHANGED and even redefined the genre, and made it more accessible to people with more limited time to invest in something. But did it kill it? That’s a very different question – Asheron’s Call and Lineage II still both have servers running, so obviously people who want another type of game are still playing that other game. But Blizzard redefined the idea of “commercial success” for an MMO – and any game that wants to hit that wide of an audience will be taking lessons (if not outright copying ideas) from WoW.

      For that, we can’t hate WoW or Blizzard, or envy its success. We just need to recognize that more of the world has time and interest to play games in bite-size chunks and therefore getting from level 10 to level 80 in three days is just fine for that game. If Mr. Kern wants his new game to be “harder” by making the LEVELS and their skills be the prize instead of items or gold or whatever, he won’t have that game’s audience – but he will definitely have AN audience.

  • Bilal Khan

    I only play The Old Republic and it took me at least 2 months to reach lvl 50 with my Sith Warrior.. I did every planetary quest and heroic and flashpoint on the way. I was also lvling a Jedi Knight side by side. It was an awesome experience with the voice acting and story and all! Followed by Sith Inquisitor, Bounty Hunter and Trooper! Though these took me a month each to lvl!

    Took a 2 months break cause I got bored!

    I am actually fine with easier lvling to max. But it should not be soo easy that i reach max lvl in a mere month. Even now that I am back in TOR, I am lvling a Smuggler/Gunslinger and I have only reached lvl 36 in 3 weeks. I like to take things slow. Smuggler class story is nice and funny.

  • Daniel Maia

    I think that, in part, the games are easier because of the trading aspects nowadays. You can buy all your progress.

  • ignition

    no talk about eve online? it doesn’t have a learning curve, its a learning cliff

    • http://techgage.com/ Rob Williams

      Alright, I’m being serious here: that made me roar with laughter.

      I’m familiar -enough- with Eve Online, but I haven’t actually played it, so I didn’t want to risk mentioning it and getting some details wrong (that would be instantly-recognizable by those who actually do play it). I have heard that same sentiment about the game though.

  • Omar ALkhalid

    Blame the Community not the company, this generation of players suck so much they buy a 59$ game with another 59$ expansion and pay Subscription to play 1 hour of an MMO game a day and still get all the Epics and their happy this way you know why? because they suck

    • Ty Smuch


  • blahblahblahtidalwave

    whats the point of social interaction in MMO if everything is way too easy and can be handled solo. Without social aspect why play MMO at all as single/multi player games offer superior experience in every other aspect.
    For me personal favorite MMO I still come back to sometime is Everquest (original). Current version of the game is however been made much easier and also suffers from mentality that every expansion offers such substantial character stat improvement that it trivializes most of previous content. That “feature” is exactly the reason why I quit the game. However lucky there are emulator serves that offer that limit the game to only first few expansions that offered new content without trivializing previous content.

    I still havent found a replacement game that offers teamwork vs challenging environment.

    • http://techgage.com/ Rob Williams

      Well said. Asheron’s Call suffered the same sort of fate, and I think what you say about newer features trivializing older content applies perfectly to it as well. Though that said, the newer content is still very difficult, and requires real teamwork. it’s the older content that higher-level characters can now breeze through. Even new players could speed through levels at record speeds.

      • blahblahblahtidalwave

        all non F2P MMOs more and more seem about feeding off addiction.
        step 1 make a decent game get people hooked and facilitate social interaction. people make new friends.
        step 2 release expansions that make the game completely unplayable without latest expansion. basically every expansion purposely breaks the game. people are driven to buy expansions just to keep already established social network
        step 3 repeat releasing game breaking expansions till the original concept turns into ruin and everyone leaves. how many expansions the game can suffer through all depends on how good the original was.

        the concept of just adding more content or improving the game got lost somewhere in translation between corporate and game developers. Doesnt seem like its going to go away any time soon.