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.