“Challenging”

            Perculia posed an issue on their blog, Flavor Text, about “If a game asks nothing of its players, what’s left of it as a game?” The question was raised on the subject of how World of Warcraft has become increasingly less challenging across all levels of difficulty, not just top-end raiding, as it has aged. The post is an excellent read and I recommend people check it out, but I can’t help feeling that it is asking the wrong question. I’m not going to get into a debate about difficulty in World of Warcraft as that has been covered by all angles and thousands of people over the last several years, but I’m interested at taking a brief (for me) look at the concept of “challenge” in general using World of Warcraft as a reference point.

            Now, I know people who play World of Warcraft “for the challenge.” What this simplistic statement usually means when these people say this is that their mission is raiding world-firsts, to face the toughest challenges as soon as possible and be the first (or among the first) to overcome them. There are also players in the game who sit in Orgrimmar or Stormwind their entire lives and amass gold by controlling markets on the auction house. There are people who collect vanity gear, pets, achievements, mounts, tame rare hunter pets, or just “play solitaire with a built-in chat function.” Now, on the broad, over-arching subject of game design, yes, challenge is intrinsic to what makes a game an interesting or “good” game, and you NEED challenge for a game to exist. But I feel that the “challenge” from a game does not necessarily have to be the INTENDED challenge the designers implemented when creating the game, nor do I believe there is a requite floor to the difficulty of a challenge. After all, stacking blocks can be a challenge. Building an intricate scale model of the Taj Mahal out of blocks is not the same degree of challenge as stacking 5 blocks on top of each other, but there IS a basic motor-skills challenge of stacking 5 blocks. Gravity can cause you to fail at the challenge of stacking 5 blocks if your motor skills and understanding of stable structure theory aren’t very good. If raid encounters or dungeon encounters become less punishing and challenging, that does not diminish or enhance the difficulty for Mr Bank-alt McMoneybags controlling a server’s economy. It may change the relative value of items, but that only affects his profit-margin “score” after he has completed his challenge, not the challenge itself.

            I, personally, DO NOT, play this game “for the challenge” in the way that top-tier raiders describe it. Whether a raid boss is “hard” or “easy” is not my primary interest in this game despite considering myself first-and-foremost a “raider.” I don’t really play ANY game for the challenge according to common parlance; I play it for the experience I am interested in having with it. This IS a valid challenge, but it’s not necessarily the one the designers had in mind. I play BioWare RPGs on the easiest, most lolcats settings and still use cheats and trainers because I’m interested in experiencing the game’s story, atmosphere, and intangible qualities, not its combat system or strategic combat puzzles. Deus Ex: Human Revolution had a very frank difficulty called “Tell Me A Story” where the game’s mechanical and combat challenges were greatly reduced in favor of experiencing the other aspects of the game in a less intense environment. I, like countless others, love DE:HR, I love the sneaking mechanic that is at the very core of the game, but am far less interested in the combat aspect of the game and was very disinterested in the boss fights and was not thinking of them as “challenges to overcome.” They were, mechanically, nuisances that got in the way of me playing the game. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way

            For me, the challenge of a game is for me to get out of it what I want. If I want to play a game “against the rules” I need to find a way of doing that. I remember in the very first Warcraft RTS game “Orcs vs Humans” I would use the money cheat “pot of gold” 10 times to get 100k gold an then just build all over the map. I would connect the road from my town to the enemy town and then after destroying his buildings would build my own on their burned-out foundations. Sure it broke the strategy game “challenge” over its kneecap, but I was having fun. Base-building was the main draw for me in that game. Sure I liked the strategy element of the game well enough and would “play fair” on occasions, but the important part is that I had choice, control over my gameplay experience. A game’s job is, ultimately, philosophically, to make the player enjoy playing it. If the built-in challenge fails at that, that is not necessarily the designer’s fault (though certainly it can be). I can’t hold the combat system designer for Dragon Age responsible for me not giving a crap about setting elaborate traps and cooldown/ability rotations to defeat its challenges. For people who were interested in doing those things, by all accounts, the combat system was a resounding success and that game was very well received, but I didn’t want to play it the way they designed it. I am all about the one-man armies wading through legions of baddies soloing everything without denting their armor or breaking a nail (most of the time anyway). I loved other aspects of the game like the world design, the character interactions, the storyline, and the design of the weapons and armor. That’s the stuff I wanted to do, not play chess with darkspawn. One could say that I was “cherry-picking my gameplay experience,” and it’s true, but is that a bad thing? Some people will read this and think I’m crazy, or a bad player, for circumventing the built-in challenges of a game, but as I said, I may not necessarily want to play the game the way they want me to play it. If I play a game and defeat its challenge and hate every minute of it, was it a good game? If I disregard the designers’ wishes, cheat my ass off, make donuts fall from the sky with mods and never beat the game but have a wonderful time, was it a bad game?

            It is true that “challenge,” as an abstract concept, needs to exist in some form in order for there to be a “game” at all, and an interest in overcoming that challenge to motivate someone to PLAY the game (in whatever form). But the presentation of that challenge does not need to conform to rigid definitions of “hard” or “easy.” It is harder for world-first guilds to defeat the latest hardmodes predominantly wearing gear from the last content patch and whatever they’ve been able to pick up in the week or two they’ve done the content before clearing all of it and farming gear for the next content patch, than it is for later conquerors who arrive at the challenge in full current-tier heroic gear. But neither “challenge” is a “better” or more “right” challenge objectively. There is prestige in being first and in doing something “more difficult” but if you killed a heroic boss in the first day, the first week, first month, or first three months, it is very likely that the challenge, AS IT WAS DESIGNED, was the same. Encounters in the World of Warcraft are basically math problems with a graphical interface. You need to do more damage than the boss has health within a time limit or the boss wins. You need to heal more damage than you take for a specific duration, and if you can’t, the boss wins. These encounters are designed and balanced, or “tuned,” to mathematical possibilities, probabilities, and certainties. You certainly cannot complete an iLvl378 math problem using an iLvl200 calculator for instance. Don’t bring a handful of eggs to a two-dozen egg fight or you’ll be out-gunned by mathematical certainty. If you try that same math problem with an iLvl400 calculator the probability of success (all other factors being equal) is much higher and the “challenge” will not be as significant whereas if you had done it with an iLvl365 calculator. It will still be a mathematical possibility to succeed, but it will be “more challenging.” If the challenge is designed for a 378-level math problem, completing it with a 365 is impressive, but it’s not what the designers intended. We cannot compare people the challenges of average players to super-humans and expect it to challenge both equally.

            For those who play the World of Warcraft for the challenge of defeating raid bosses, I believe that the designers have eased-up on their mathematical requirements for the possible/probable/certainty measurement system, but it is up to individuals to decide if this is a bad thing or not. If you are one of the world-first gods-amongst-men who do progression fights wearing unenchanted whites, the game is probably disappointing. If you are an average skill player or even a bad player at this type of game (yes, they exist, and there is no stigma to being bad at the game, but other players in this social game are not always patient and respectful) you may think that some of these encounters are suitable for your skill level, or perhaps even a little challenging. There is no shame in being bad at something, World of Warcraft included, but there is a prevailing attitude in the player community (and, yes, I have this attitude when I am playing as well, so I am no saint or innocent) which is, “don’t be new on my time.” People want to play with people of similar skill level against challenges that are commensurate to their skill level. If the player skills are mismatched or the challenges are mismatched, then “fun” is harder to achieve or not achieved at all. It is a very difficult job for designers to manage this kind of difficulty in a game as dynamic as World of Warcraft, and, on the whole, I believe they have done a fantastic job for a very, very long time which is an amazing accomplishment. Have they been perfect? Hell no, but they’ve done a solid job.

            Yes, I did just complain on this blog not even a week ago that some things are disproportionately easy compared to other things or disappointing or unchallenging, so saying all this may seem hypocritical or contradictory, but, as I said, it is about the challenge you seek out. If I seek out a “break-my-face” encounter, that is what I want to get, and I’m going to be mad and have no fun if that’s not what I get. If I seek a marshmallow lol-fest and something is harder than I want it to be, I’m going to be mad and have no fun. Do people play Solitaire looking to wipe? Do people play Tic-Tac-Toe hoping to be world-first? There are grandmasters of chess and people who don’t yet know the rules of the game. I believe challenge is as much a responsibility of the player as it is of the game designer. People need to know what they want, know what their limits are, and respect their limits. So much talk has been about how easy this game has become, but there are people who have no business clearing hard mode content. They wouldn’t put Call of Duty on the maximum difficulty setting their first time booting it up and expect to do well. And, if they do, onlookers do not think Call of Duty needs to be nerfed, they think the player needs to understand, accept, and respect their own limitations and either reconcile that they cannot succeed at their task, or that it requires time and practice to develop skill and to improve to be ready for increased challenges. I started out really, REALLY bad at this game, now I’m complaining that hard modes are not challenging me enough. People grow and seek new challenges. Challenge is not the problem, finding the right one for you to conquer is. For me, the “challenge” is having fun. If I have to dismantle a game’s systems by cheating or modding to do it, then so be it. The game designer did not fail in creating their mechanic or difficulty curve if I’m not interested in it, they didn’t make it for me, they made it for those who would be interested. That is the very essence of diversity. I am not a fan of first person shooters as a game system, but I will play them and enjoy them on occasions. I play on the marshmallow difficulty in those games because I know I can’t headshot someone from 100 miles away with a knife while upside down and moving at max speed like some people online seem to be able to. I don’t consider the easier challenges in WoW to be a failure of designers, because reg-mode dungeons aren’t meant for someone of my skill and goals, they are meant for others. What I CAN blame on designers is a lack of content aimed at someone of my skill and goals; which is actually what this whole complaint is really about at its heart…

            Since Perculia’s post dealt strongly with the necessity of failure, my discussion of the malleability and subjectivity of challenges may seem like I am circumventing my own ability to fail and am cheating myself of the opportunity to grow and improve by overcoming challenges by rewriting the rules to better suit me. There may be something to this, but at the same time, failure is also subjective. Thomas Edison failed many times before inventing the light bulb, but he is reputed to have spoken of it as; “I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb.” I have certainly found many ways to “not kill a raid boss,” but how many ways did I find “how to not have fun.” Well, every time there is something that I don’t find fun, is that not a failure and a success at the same time? Every time I realize I’d have more fun playing this game if I wasn’t punished for failing at a particular mechanic, it was both a success and a failure. I fail at moving out of the path of a bullet shot at me; rather than chose to practice moving, I chose to make the bullet irrelevant. I have failed at using an opportunity to improve myself and overcome a challenge set before my by an arbitrary game system. I can no longer be hurt, I can do many more things previously inaccessible to me, I am having fun. I have succeeded in having fun, but is that success also a failure? I guess it depends who you ask. I say no; I want to have fun. I don’t care if my tombstone says “He went 92-1 in Warsong Gulch and had a 3200 arena rating,” I want it to say “I had fun.” In real life there aren’t any ways to cheat, you have to work hard. If I’m playing a video game, do I want it to mimic my real life experience to “practice” for real life, or do I want escapism where I can do whatever I want because I am denied that choice in real life? Some people want the former, some people want the latter, and some people want both but it depends on their mood. Everyone has fun in their own way. Everyone has their own ideas about what challenges are acceptable and rewarding. It is a decision we each have to make. I’ve made mine, and I’m happy with it.

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