More on Mechanics vs. Experience

17 Then to Adam He said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it; cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. 18 “Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; And you will eat the plants of the field; 19 By the sweat of your face you will eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Genesis 3

On WoWInsider this week, there have been many, many, many posts about the difficulty curve in WoW. Anyone can tell you that, over time, the game has become less difficult. This is due to a variety of reasons, but the primary one should be obvious: money. Blizzard wants money, and framing the game’s structure in particular ways means Blizzard makes much more money than they would otherwise. As much money as they make from the subscription model, they probably make just as much from the release of an expansion and the temporary boost it provides. Thus, it’s in their best interest to both release expansions for $40 and to keep the game as easy and accesible as possible. This isn’t about the game so much as it is being a business. I get that – they need to make money.

 

On the other hand, this trend hasn’t improved the game in any sense. That subscriber numbers went down substantially during Cataclysm, the most recent expansion, owes to two factors (from my own speculation, anyway). First, the game became substantially easier with the release of Wrath of the Lich King. That’s fine – it was a good change for the time, and we all needed a break after the hellish Burning Crusade raiding experience. Those were the pinnacle of raid difficulty and perseverance, to the point where less than 1% of the entire subscriber base managed to enter Sunwell Plateau, let alone finish it. Would I have liked to raid it when it was current? Absolutely. Even though I probably had the time and the resources, my college performance seemed more pressing than any WoW raid. That’s fine, though! That’s a decision I made not to see the content when it was current, and simply ran my tier 4, Zul’Aman, and heroics during BC. Now, I run it for transmogrification purposes, and though I don’t get that same sense of difficulty, I can still see all the tuning, art design, music (wow, is it beautiful) and thought that went into crafting the ultimate raid instance, both for story and for difficulty. Jeff Kaplan’s influence on the game has been sorely misses since moving over to Blizzard’s unannounced Titan Project.

Naxxramas is large. Very large.

Wrath of the Lich King, on the other hand, resurrected Naxxramas – that was a GREAT move on Blizzard’s part, as the raid had quite the reputation (even better than Sunwell nowadays) as the pinnacle of level 60 raiding. As a level 80 raid, I probably ran the thing more times than I can remember, and I had great fun doing it. 10 man raids are more accessible for sure. I was able to get the whole first tier of content, parts of the second, the whole third. Still, I never got into ICC in any way when it was current. There’s a pretty specific reason for it, though.

The game became boring.

For all my desire to raid in Wrath, it just didn’t have the same feel. Much of that could be attributed to the challenge. Certainly, it was fun running the content, but after a short while it became a tedious grind, rather than an enjoyable, breakneck paced, always difficult challenge. Running Zul’Aman in tier 4 gear, even tier 6 gear was never a cakewalk – so many mechanics in that raid would instantly wipe any team, and gear never lessened the challenge to the point where the ride became smooth. BC raids, though requiring a lot of preparation, grinding, and the like, gave a huge payoff for the player because of the work involved on all aspects, not just in terms of finishing the encounters. In other words, the holistic experience of raiding is what was missing, and that is still what is missing.

Even I killed the last boss of an expansion. That isn’t a good thing.

Thus, when Cataclysm came out and took the difficulty up a notch, many players who joined during the days of Wrath were suddenly met with an increase in challenge. They took their ball home and they never came back precisely because the game was, in a sense, reverting to the difficulty of old without the incentive structure (and, yes,  the grinding) that surrounded it. Think of it like this: raiding has always been the be all, end all of World of Warcraft. The endgame WAS and IS raiding; PvP was always an afterthought, even if it is highly enjoyable. Every other component of the endgame, then, supplements the raiding experience. You need money for repairs – do daily quests or grind. You need materials to make an essential cloak – go do instances and level your professions, play the auction house, whatever. Every aspect becomes an investment of time or effort to see this raiding content Blizzard made for everyone to see, but it wasn’t going to be handed to you; you had to work for it.

Then Blizzard backtracked. They gave you epic badge gear, they gave us Heroic modes, Normal modes, all that stuff. Heck, then they really catered to the “casuals” through Raid Finder. You could gear up so easily it wasn’t a question of time anymore, but “skill”. As much as this makes all of the content they develop much more accessible, the pinnacle of the expansion’s raids was reduced to a thing you run each week to get slightly less powerful gear then the real raid. Raiding guilds began to fall apart, as Blizzard ripped the motivation rug right out from under them. What’s the problem, then?

An MMORPG, primarily, is about the exploration of the world. The dungeons and raids are a part of that world, and they fit into the overall fabric of its lore, narrative, what have you. The mechanics of raiding, difficult though they seem, lends to the idea that the villain was powerful, and thus needed precision and persistence to overcome. Once you’ve made everything easy, instantaneous –  you’re not having fun. Some might be, but they’re not playing much of a “game” anymore, they’re having an interactive “experience”. As much as we all QQ’d for improvments to the game, removing grinding, removing the need to explore the world, and pretty much all the things that make a MMORPG a world and not just a playground for action setpieces were removed. The game itself was, to use an entirely over-used phrase , “dumbed-down” for the needs of the consumers. It became a service for virtual gear acquisition rather than a game.

As such, I am tired of the entitled nature of some of these discussions.

There’s an idea, pervasive in American culture, that by virtue of “buying” something, I am supposed to access all of its features from the get go. I paid for it, so give it to me. Even if I didn’t pay for it, I also deserve X from the provider of the service. That is exactly the wrong way to look at it. It’s giving up the difficulty and the mechanics for the overall experience, and it’s ruining video games in general, not just WoW. Games are not products in the sense of convenience, but products you buy for arbitrary challenge. If not that, then a good mix of mechanics and experience lends to a much more memorable experience.

World of WarCraft has a different problem than Batman: Arkham Asylum, but that problem, in effect, is the same – everything is tuned for the experience and not for the game. Everyone acts as if this is an “elitist” argument, but it’s not! Personally, I never got to Black Temple and the like, nor did I do the first two tiers of raid content in Cataclysm at all. The whole point is to show someone how to play WITH skill, and boatloads of free time to succeed and to conquer. YOU want to be that guy who raids Sunwell and defeats Kil’Jaeden. You want to be the guy that raids Black Temple and gets a world first on Illidan. Will you? Probably not! But the motivation is there, one that is solely lacking. BC raids were tuned with a razor sharp edge, and if you made a big mistake you’d be in for a perilous fall. So what if there are heroic modes now? There’s literally no incentive to do them unless you like challenge for the sake of challenge. I do, of course, but the game no longer trains you to have that killer instinct to be the best at what you do all the time.

That’s why Blizzard has been set adrift, and why Mists of Pandaria scares me a little. Do I love the setting? Yes. But they’re tuning it to somewhere around Wrath difficulty once again, and that may not be a great move. My point about games reflecting real life, then, has become more essential than ever, especially in an MMO where people interact with other real people. It’s a recipe for disaster unless they’re changing the whole direction of the game. If you can’t motivate the player to do difficult content naturally, then you give him/her a boatload of tchotchkes, like useless vanity glyphs, pet battles, private farms, transmogrification gear, etc., to fill their appetite for the moment. It’s like eating junk food versus filet minion; if it isn’t earned by the sweat of you brow, you can take it for granted, and you’ll always want more, and you’ll never be satisfied. Certainly, this works from a business standpoint, but not as a great game.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.