Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Advancement and Challenge

The nouns in the title are two things that tend to contribute to a games enjoyment. 
  • Progress Quest takes advancement to the extreme and removes all challenge. Surprisingly it still retains some entertainment value, at least until the player feels they have seen all it has to offer.
  • An arcade style game such as Doublewires has no advancement to speak of, unless one counts advancement of the timer, and relies almost entirely on challenge to appeal to the player.  Such a game can remain fun as long as the player keeps getting better but will quickly become tiresome once the player either is unable to improve their skill or masters the game entirely.  In this particular example, mastering the game simply means that one is skillful enough to play indefinitely without dying.
Now one could argue that challenge in this context is merely a mechanism used to provide another form of advancement, namely the advancement of the players actual skill level (as opposed to some notion of virtual skill level).   But its more than that because challenge can remain fun even after one has mastered the game in question.  Whether a game falls into the latter category is purely subjective, but for many people Sudoku seems to be an example of this.  With challenge, at some point one moves from advancement of skill to maintenance of skill, and the latter can be fun even with no hope of further advancement.

Nonetheless, I personally tend to have little patience for a game unless it has a good measure of both challenge and advancement.  Disgaea was one such game and it took both of these elements to rather extreme levels.  Advancement was available for both characters and items, the level cap was 9999, and mobs continued to grow in power with the player.  At every point during this progression, players could effectively choose the difficulty by repeating earlier missions or by forging ahead to new missions when they felt they were ready.  On top of all this, the game was kept interesting through the use of randomized dungeons.  Unfortunately the level of variety provided by the randomization in Disgaea was not sufficient to keep things interesting for 10,000 levels.   Nor do I think it could have been, but that's something I plan to discuss at length in another post.

So what about mmos?  Well, WoW certainly has plenty of advancement.  But from my point of view, Blizzard has been systematically removing the challenge from the game.  Its no Progress Quest, at least not yet, but it does seem to be heading in that direction.  Now, lest I sound like some elitist, saying that something isn't providing me with enough challenge is not the same as saying it is too easy.  There are definitely things I'm not able to do in wow.  But for something to be a challenge, it has to be neither trivial nor impossible.  Its not challenging for me to travel to Australia for lunch today, its completely out of the question.  Regarding WoW, and Rift as well, what many companies seem to be doing is separating advancement from challenge so that for 99% of your advancement, there is no challenge, and for the remaining 1% of advancement, the challenge is no longer a challenge, but effectively impossible for a large percentage of the player base.

LOTRO has challenge in the way of skirmishes.  In concept, these are rather perfect from my point of view.
  • Joining one is painless.  No travel time or waiting in queues is required.
  • One may choose the type, mob level, tier (difficulty level), and number of players.
  • The only drops are various types of marks (currency) which can be used at NPC vendors.
  • One gains personal advancement in skirmishes which applies to the game outside of skirmishes.
  • One gains skirmish-related advancement in the way of experience for one's skirmish warrior.
  • Skirmishes have a random component in the way of enemy lieutenants and encounters.
  • Advancing one's character in the main game unlocks additional skirmishes.
  • Completing achievements within skirmishes unlocks additional achievements.
  • All skirmishes are soloable, but there are incentives to group.
 Advancement and Challenge for everyone -- most definitely possible.


  1. > for 99% of your advancement,
    > there is no challenge

    That's because they need more and more subscribers. Less challenge and more "linearity" help a lot, because the game becomes more accessible.

    Think about EvE Online. It's a deep and complicate masterpiece. A truly unique experience in the MMO world. But can you compare WoW and EvE in terms of paying customers? I am sure Wow is far superior, in that sense.

  2. Challenge is too variable, though. A fight that is challenging to a veteran gamer will be nigh impossible for a new player. Mass market games have to be more accessible or people don't play.

    That said, games with levels alleviate this a bit. It's trivially easy to get in over your head if you just go somewhere where the baddies are a few levels ahead of you.

    The WoW complaint tends to be "following the yellow brick road is too eeeeeeasy" rather than "there's no challenge in the game at all". There's challenge out there, you just might have to go find it. In a world where everyone has different challenge tolerance and skillsets, some personal initiative is necessary.