Questing Difficulty, Diversity and the Need for Achievement

I was trading off playing between Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) this week with a bit of The Secret World (TSW) and recalling many of the frequent comments from players lamenting that MMORPGs had become “too easy” and “too casual.”  It’s an interesting assertion since these two games in particular have a very different feel as far as difficulty is concerned.  LOTRO questing is in many ways similar to the World of Warcraft in that expeditions are on the “easy” side – it’s pretty straightforward taking down the bad guys or collecting relics on the beach or whatever the game asks of you; but the feel of the game is more calm and relaxing.  There’s certainly a nice aspect that; causally exploring the countryside, taking in the view of distant ruins or mountains while hunting boar hides is a mode of questing that can be a nice reprieve, especially after a stressful day, or as a nice way to get rolling in the morning with a cup of java.

Contrast that with a newer game like TSW or Guild Wars 2, where players have many more options for casting spells while moving, active dodging and positioning.  Combat in these games becomes much more console-like and “twitchy” and it becomes important to keep moving and on your toes.  Monsters in TSW are not pushovers; it takes frequently an effort to take down one, and encountering multiple foes unexpectedly can mean finding yourself in hot water fairly quickly.  Taking down a lead monster or boss at the end of a story arc can mean multiple deaths as you find the right combination of abilities, and the right time to dance or dodge out of the way. This type of combat certainly feels more stressful and “difficult,” and I find myself playing shorter sessions of TSW than I do of LOTRO.

That said, I appreciate both these games for what they offer.  Finally taking down that boss in TSW after dying 10 or 15 times feels really good.  The dangerous atmosphere keeps me watching what my opponent does with each death;  I’ll be checking out the combat log, note what’s eating my health so quickly, look up the reasons why my abilities don’t seem to have any effect at certain points, see what happens when I keep moving and dodging (or running away) at a critical juncture.  Yeah, it’s a bit of work, a puzzle to be solved, but that final moment when he drops with my health bar at 5%, the sense of victory and achievement is that much sweeter.

LOTRO has a longer, simpler kind of questing satisfaction.  There, it’s more a sense of accomplishment for having finished a group or quests in an area, or having slowly gathered up materials and crafting something interesting.  It’s seeing how a storyline unfolds over the course of several short quests, enjoying the view along the way. I suppose it could be compared to reading or knitting or painting.

Sure, both games have their more difficult content – all games do.  Run a dungeon or a skirmish or lair with a group, and both games amp up the challenge, as would be expected for groups.  But many games today, World of Warcraft included, have been accused of “dumbing down” the questing to the point where it’s not even necessary to pay attention to the storylines.  Many players rush through the solo content without ever reading the quest text or understanding why they are doing the quest in the first place.  I do remember when I first started playing WoW that it was possible to try to take on higher difficulty (orange or red) quests for greater experience and gear rewards.  More recently, these challenges have quietly vanished from the game in favor of more standardized quest difficulty.

But is that the fault of the developers, or is that what players really want?  On the forums, the more vocal players certainly complain about “facerolling” content (so easy you can roll your face on the keyboard and still emerge victorious), and a rush to “endgame” without any consideration for the journey there.  But is there a silent majority who prefer to quietly plug along with that easy content, happy that the challenges are minimal, a pleasant diversion from life’s material hardships?  Do we need a bit of easy challenge to offset the real challenges of life?

Ultimately, the answer may be “both.”  We need those difficult quests, too, the ones we remember and are proud to have survived.  Bragging rights are nice from time to time, and we like to be able to tell our stories.  Because they are MMORPGs, we ask developers to create all kinds of content for all kinds of moods; an entire world demands variety.  Different games have tried different approaches to diversity  – introducing different types of quests and levels of difficulty – For group activities, WoW uses scenarios, dungeons and raids at varying levels of difficulty, along with player-vs-player battlegrounds.  TSW is trying a new scenario format in its upcoming Issues that has basic objectives for the group, but introduces “random” variable events in the middle of the scenario that make the experience different with each play-through.

These are all great ways of tackling homogenization, but these are limited to group play.  How can single-player questing be made more interesting? My guess is that it’s the struggle between building a solo experience (granted you’re one of the people who can accept solo play within a multiplayer game) that can be played multiple times by many, many players and an experience that is excellent that first time through, but then becomes less interesting over time.  In an effort to build in replayability, however, we may have inadvertently moved into creating quests that are too generic and “boring.”  That is, singularly easy or monotonously difficult quests.

The real problem with people passing over the quests may not be actually be ease, but rather how the quest is presented, how unique the story is, how engaging the storyline.  In my early tabletop roleplaying days, we always remembered those quests that started up very simply (the farmer had his pig stolen, or something similarly mundane), but then as we rolled along, discovered something bigger was going on (all the livestock in the area was missing.)  It’s that little bit of hook that aims above “killing 10 rats” (or anything that requires all combat all the time) that draws the player in and keeps them with the game.  TSW introduced investigation and sabotage quests that require thinking on the player’s part and some amount of skill in infiltration and stealth.  Could more quest types be the answer?  Guild Wars 2 added jumping puzzles, TSW added Lore hunting, which also requires some dexterity on the keyboard, WoW has its achievement system which asks players to do seemingly unrelated activities outside the standard leveling and questing paths.  Ultimately, I believe what players are asking for are more ways to engage the game and use our brains. How about political systems, or spying missions.  Intrigue?  Romance?

What about you?  Are the more things than merely house building or crafting that can add another layer of depth?  What else would offer that sense of achievement and unique story to your play?

One thought on “Questing Difficulty, Diversity and the Need for Achievement

  1. dan says:

    Warhammer online had a pretty good quest system.

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