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

Date: July 5, 2013
Author(s): Rob Williams

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.


As someone who has long felt that MMO games have been following the path of ease for far too long now, an article posted over at by former World of Warcraft developer Mark Kern caught my eye immediately. His question is simple: have MMOs become too easy?

His answer is “yes”, and it’s a pretty definitive one. Despite being WoW‘s original team leader, he has no qualm about pointing out its faults. Sure, the game is Blizzard’s pride and joy – it did quickly become the most popular MMO on the planet, after all, and from a business perspective, the game hit the ball out of the park. From a gamer perspective, though, Kern feels that Blizzard effectively “killed a genre“.

That’s a strong statement, but it’s one I can agree with to some extent. Before we go further, I should note that I haven’t as much as signed-up for a trial of World of Warcraft; I just happen to know what it looks like, about the clones it’s inspired, and the fact that George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher of Cannibal Corpse is immortalized in the game as an NPC. Apart from that, I’m ignorant of the game, and my opinions are based on things I’ve read over the years.

World of Warcraft Burning Crusade
Blizzard’s ultra-successful World of Warcraft

Alright – I did stretch the truth there a little. I did partake in the World of Warcraft alpha, as I had been working in some capacity with MMO developers at the time. I had a bit of fun at the time, but I truly can’t remember much about the game at all; it’s hard to believe, but it would have been nine years ago. At the time, I had no idea of what the game would become, else I might have taken it a little more seriously at the time. Alas, I had other MMOs on my plate.

A week after WoW‘s launch in late 2004, news hit the wire that someone had already reached the maximum character level of 60. Max level… in just over a week. At the time, that sort of accomplishment was unheard of. Months earlier, I obtained my first max level character in Asheron’s Call, after having played the game for two years. I was also heavily playing Lineage II at the time, and max level to me was nowhere in sight. That game took eight months post-launch to see its first max-level character.

Thanks entirely to that eager player’s accomplishment in WoW, I quickly formed the opinion that the game had to be the easiest MMO ever created. Little did I realize, things would only become even easier down the road. A good friend of mine recently told me that he had at one point gone from level 1 – 80 (then the max level) in a mere four days. The kicker: it was on top of having to work during those same days. A couple of years ago, we even learned of a player who reached the new max level of 85 without killing a single thing.

Lineage II
Lineage II defines “over-the-top” difficult MMORPG

At this point, we should establish something: difficulty means different things to different people. While someone might call WoW easy because someone could get to level 85 without killing a single thing, it might actually have been extremely difficult to pull off. Others might consider difficulty to be raw, unadulterated challenge… you die if you are not alert. Then there are those who may consider difficulty to simply scale with the amount of time it takes to accomplish a certain goal. WoW max level in a week? Easy. Asheron’s Call max level in three months? Challenging. Lineage II max level in eight months? Damn, dawg!

When Trion Worlds’ Rift came out in early 2011, I felt compelled to give it a try. After having played my other two MMOs for many years, I needed a fresh experience – and for the most part, it gave me one. But I ended up bailing on the game after a mere 60 hours of gametime. Why? In some ways, I just couldn’t take it too seriously.

I’d like to think that I’m a bit of an old-school MMOer, a distinction I tend to give to those who’ve played an MMO before World of Warcraft‘s release and have experienced multiple MMOs of the time (believe me – post-2004, it seems everyone’s first MMO is WoW). My love for MMOs began in January of 2002, with Turbine’s Asheron’s Call – a game I remain subscribed to today. The game back then, and even today, isn’t one I’d consider “easy”. Things will of course become easier as you learn the game, and reach higher levels, but right off-the-bat, and when playing legitimately, it’s a challenge.

Behold, my first Asheron’s Call character at level 15 with 104 deaths under his belt:

Old-school Asheron's Call - Mass Deaths
The Old Days: 100 Deaths by Level 15

To help put that into perspective, the game’s maximum level at the time was 126. Suffice it to say, I died a lot. But despite that, I never became discouraged or turned-off. Not even close – I ended up becoming addicted to the game… I couldn’t get enough. And this, despite rather challenging – and possibly even unreasonable – gameplay mechanics.

I’d love to avoid talking about a specific game too much in this article, but for the sake of being able to better explain the reasons why I feel the way I do, it’s necessary. Thus, my focal point will be my one true love, Asheron’s Call. Somewhat impressively, the death penalties in AC haven’t changed a bit in the game’s 14 year existence. Those are:

Some of that might sound brutal to some people, but in reality, they’re only brutal if you’re a new player and don’t seek help. The second and third penalty can be negated in later levels, and the first one isn’t much of an issue for higher level players who likely have some XP items on them to use for a quick fix. But that’s all beside the point: the game has retained those challenging mechanics since its release in 1999.

Other interesting mechanics found in AC that I haven’t seen in most other MMOs include: A) Weight limits. You have a lot of backpack space, but you can weigh yourself down; B) No character revive. You die, you go straight back to your attuned location; C) Despite being able to run faster in the game than most MMOs, some locations can still take a while to reach; D) I’m sure there’s more I could mention but this editorial is becoming long enough.

Most gamers like to see a return-of-investment for their time, and in [Lineage II] that RoI comes far too slowly.

As difficult as I make Asheron’s Call out to be (it’s not that bad!), Lineage II is another great example, if not a better one. After a death in that game, you lose about a half-hour’s worth of XP and your buffs – but can be revived in place. What makes this game even harder than AC is its sheer level grind. You might as well call it the stark opposite of WoW. As mentioned above, the first max level character (75, at the time) required six months to get the job done. When the game went free-to-play in late 2011, it took months before the first person went from 80 to 99 – and everyone except the company and the player will acknowledge that it was accomplished with some “help”.

While I’ve put quite a bit of time into Lineage II over the years, I’ve taken about five hiatuses due to the sheer grind – compare that to me never canceling my subscription to AC. There’s certainly a point when a game can become “too” difficult, or too grindy – essentially a point when you begin to feel like you’re actually wasting your life away by playing it. Most gamers like to see a return-of-investment for their time, and in this particular game that RoI comes far too slowly. It’s made worse when you die and end up losing some of your already difficult-to-earn progression. Whew.

Trion Worlds’ Rift, which many badge a “WoW Clone”

Let’s look at the contrast here. Again, I know almost nothing about World of Warcraft, but I imagine its mechanics are somewhat similar to Rift. In this game, a death means:

I once told a friend of mine in Rift about the death penalties in AC, and his reaction was “eff that”. Based on all of my experience with AC, I can readily admit that the death penalties are less-than-ideal. In particular, the inability to revive sucks, but that all adds to the challenge. Because the death penalty is a little more severe, you tend to be way more careful – more skillful, even. You learn to keep a close eye on your party members, because you don’t want anyone to die. In many cases, you need them to not die.

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?

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