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Challenge in MMOs Today

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The Pantheon Twitter account has become a fountain of content for me to blog about. On days where I'm wondering if there's anything worth talking about in the MMOsphere, I can always open up Twitter now and have something to say.

Here's the newest topic for discussion.

"Have today's MMORPGs watered down the genre too far, has the challenge been removed beyond repair, and how do you think this will effect MMORPGs in the future?"

I'll break this into three questions:

  1. Have today's MMORPGs watered down the genre too far?
  2. Has the challenge been removed beyond repair?
  3. How do you think this will effect MMORPGs in the future?


Have today's MMORPGs watered down the genre too far?

Yes and no. The challenge has changed or simply been shifted. I don't think any old school MMO player can honestly say that Mythic raids in WoW are easy. They take just as much time and effort as an old-school EQ raid ever did. I think even Heroic raids take more work than EQ raids did. 

Time and practice-to-perfect haven't gone anywhere from the equation as far as end-game content is concerned. They feel the same.

The challenge has been watered down where the individual is concerned. Leveling and the process of growing one's character from day 1 to end-game has become quite mindless. There's plenty of fun there, but 'challenge' I'd say not.

Considering the challenge of getting a group, finding a spot to level, breaking a camp, keeping that camp, not dying, not losing experience, navigating dangerous zones, and all of those other things we might consider challenging from the past are gone, it's hard to think of anything that actually is a challenge anymore.

Zones scale to our level, everything can be skipped or run away from, death has almost become non-existent and when it happens shrugged off entirely, grouping is automated for everything but end-game, and even loot drops personalized just for our spec.

There are times I feel like randomness has replaced challenge. I can't get the gear I want because the items I don't want keep dropping. The mount I want never drops. My legendaries aren't good.

I can't imagine anyone can present an argument to refute the watering down of challenge as far as every-day life in modern MMOs goes.

Has the challenge been removed beyond repair?

Of course not. I guess I don't understand what the question is really implying. Most people would say this is not a state of affairs to repair. Things changed because more people wanted the convenience over challenge.

How do you think this will effect MMORPGs in the future?

We're already seeing the effects. Look around. Have you seen any MMORPGs released in the past 4 or 5 years? We're in a MMORPG drought. You can count the number of new MMOs on less than one hand, and maybe 1 or 2 brought even a single truly new and unique major gameplay mechanic to the table.

Homogenization killed the genre. Challenge was only one of its victims. The MMORPG genre got stuck in a design loop from 2007 until 2013, resulting in the destruction of the genre's vibrant and lively development. Now we have a few fringe niche developers with only one gorilla and a couple stalwarts hanging on.

Bringing back 'challenge' will only appease fans of challenge. It won't fix the industry. Creativity and new ideas, mixed with a really solid understanding of community and what makes MMOs (and people) tick, will be what it takes.

So really to answer the question, bringing challenge back won't have any impact on the genre (as a whole) at all. It'll just make a niche of people happy.

P.S. I included the picture of the Rubik's Cube because I think they're the most challenging thing ever. I've never been able to solve one.

  • I solved Rubik’s Cube using a guidebook. Is that the equivalent of beating a raid boss using guide videos and UI mods like Deadly Boss Mods? 🙂

    • My brother knows some pattern of twisting and turning that’ll auto-solve the puzzle. I think that’s the same thing as being over-geared in raids.

  • Has it been watered down? Yes.
    But I think it’s important to not confuse chore with challenge.
    A good MMO leveling challenge to me means encountering mobs that can and will pose a challenge to me, that will kill me if I’m not playing smart and/or if I accidentally pull several of them.
    Having to form groups to camp a site and grind mobs for XP is NOT what I consider a challenge, it’s a chore and a boring one too.

    • I agree with that.

      I’ve said many times that time ≠ difficulty. Though wrangling 40 people acting like a herd of cats into a raid back in vanilla WoW was often a challenge.

      I think semantics mess with the discussion a bit, and I don’t know if the original question was implying “challenging mechanics” or simply “challenging gameplay” or even “challenging as it pertain to getting something done”. They’re all valid ways of interpreting challenge.

      For my interpretation of the question, I’ll stick with mechanically challenging as it pertains to “chance of failure”.

      In old EQ there was a great chance for failure simply traveling in the world — you could literally be squashed by a giant and sent back to another continent where you were bound.

      There was even a chance of failure when you put together a group that wasn’t strong enough to simply take on a room in a dungeon. There was a chance for failure when fighting an even-con mob.

      Modern MMOs have little “chance of failure” except in the end-game activities. That’s definitely watered down, but to many that’s also more entertaining.

      • I would prefer chance of failure to be present throughout the entirety of the game instead of only at the very upper echelons.

        I tried to get a friend into WoW recently who had never played the game. Everything was so faceroll easy he didn’t stick with it. I tried telling him it will get challenging when we get to mythic+ and heroic/mythic raiding but there was just too much to slog through to find anything challenging for him to stick with it.

        Some of this was the result of starting at the end of the expansion where gear is thrown at you left and right and the gear inflation inherently makes a lot of the game much easier. I remember people complaining at the beginning of Legion that mobs were too hard, especially in Suramar City. He’s planning to give it another go for BFA and I’m hoping it’ll hook him this time around.

        I dabbled on Elysium, a private WoW Vanilla server, a while back. The thing that struck me most is that just questing and doing things was more challenging and sometimes required a modicum of thought about how to approach a situation. I think that’s what a lot of people miss about Vanilla. Also, the sense of community before battlegroups and cross-realm fractured the community for the sake of convenience. I remember knowing the names of many players and guilds on the opposing faction and having rivalries. Those things are largely missing from the modern game.

  • Good summary. When you’re talking about something people do in their free time as a form of entertainment, “Challenge” is only appealing to a very small minority. Most people are looking for fun, relaxation, amusement and all the other things that make them feel good.

    “Challenge” feels good when you overcome it but by definition, if it’s genuinely challenging, there’s the chance you’ll fail to overcome it and that doesn’t feel good. There are those who will keep going regardless until they somehow succeed but when it comes to something that’s supposed to be enjoyable, when it becomes too “challenging” most people will stop and find something else to do.

    Lack of challenge in MMOs isn’t the genre’s problem. Lack of entertainment is.

    • Lack of challenge leads to lack of entertainment for some though, having said that I kind of agree with the statement.

      I’m not sure that I agree that only a minority are looking for a challenge however, considering how many people are playing quite challenging games like Ark, PUBG and even extremely challenging games like the Dark Souls series.

      Challenging content isnt a on/off switch, and what is challenging to me might be a walk in the park for someone else, and therein I think lies a bit of the problem, how do you scale the challenge of the content so everyone can feel challenged, even the highly skilled and the casual relaxed player?

      Games like Ark solve it by letting you join or set up servers with tweaked settings that fit your skill and how you want to play.
      Games that are heavy into PvP (like Overwatch) solves it by skill ranking and matching.
      But how do you solve that in a open world game like WoW? I can think of a solution or two, but they would require rewriting the core game 😀

  • I idly spun and clicked a Rubik’s Cube for a while, just enjoying the attempt to line up the colors and the different patterns it randomly created.

    Then I got bored and put it down without ever feeling compelled to “finish” it.

    A long time later, I chanced upon an article which demonstrated how to disassemble one. Intrigued, I pulled it out of storage, took it apart with a screwdriver, cackled a bit, put it back together with all the colors “properly” on separate faces, cackled some more, then spun it around randomly just to hear and feel the clicks again.

    A sizeable subset of players do seem to play games for the challenge, by the rules and are competitvely driven.

    There’s also other subsets of players who aren’t motivated by the above.

  • I think challenge is very subjective. My wife has commented often of how I can pick up a game like ‘Dark Souls’ and immediately understand its systems, how things work, and where to go. It’s not because I’m some great god-like Dark Souls player, but because I’ve been playing for some long that some challenges are mostly intuitively picked up. I can guarantee you that many people find challenges in things we, people that play games a lot, find easy.

    I think the thing that is worrisome is the emergence of “auto-play” games. Titles are pretty much exclusive to Mobile as far as I am aware, but they take out any type of challenge in order to allow the player to ‘farm’ by leaving the game on to do the task for them. Monster Super League is a game I put a lot of time into on mobile, but after a few weeks of playing realized I’m not really putting any thought into playing, because the challenge was removed to allow “easier game-play.” Same goes from something like “Lineage II: Revolution” for mobile, or “Dragon Nest: M” as well.

    When the developer is intentionally taking out any form of strategy in order to allow the player-base to circumvent the need for said challenge, that is something we need to worry about. I think a half-step in this direction is the LFR in WoW. While I appreciate it’s entry, I understand how it can sort of dilute the content itself. Allowing players to complete content that was previously behind a collectively difficult scenario (requiring minds to come together and solve a specific boss-fight) can be seen as watering down difficulty. Whereas, on the other hand, because it does require some form of group-effort, it still out weighs the negativity something like “auto-afk” has done to the mobile market.

    Just my two cents 🙂

    • {{ It’s not because I’m some great god-like Dark Souls player, but because I’ve been playing for some long that some challenges are mostly intuitively picked up. }}

      I mean’t to say “but because I’ve been playing games for so long that some challenges are mostly intuitively picked up.”

      Commenting mostly on how, because I’ve played games for such a long time in my life, that what may seem challenging to others is something I am use to.

  • All games are pretty much ‘no fail’ these days to appeal to a larger market. Perhaps MMOs just are more on your radar. I noticed it last year when I played some card games online. Initially I sucked. I enjoyed building new decks and learning some strategies and learning how to win. It was amazingly refreshing to have to learn to not suck.