Challenging combat in an MMO can be fun when it is done correctly. However when challenge is introduced poorly the game becomes frustrating. Recently I have experienced two types of difficulty, one in Star Wars: The Old Republic and the other in World of Warcraft which illustrate the ways in which challenging combat may be introduced and how they affect player experience. When players are given a puzzle to solve and the tools to do so, even if the encounter takes several attempts success will be satisfying, but when content relies on stiff-necked perseverance banking on luck, even winning feels empty.
During my last play session of SW:TOR I did something I rarely if ever do; I logged out immediately after dying. For the past few nights I’ve accomplished very little on my Jedi Sentinel partly due to the pace crushing cut scenes and planet hopping but also due in part to an embarrassing number of corpse runs. After each death I would read my tool tips again, wondering if I was missing a way to increase my damage output or reduce my damage intake but the only difference I ever saw was between dying and almost dying. What made the experience so frustrating was not that the encounters were difficult, but rather that I did not seem to have the tools necessary to overcome the challenge. Winning was one part perfection and two parts dumb luck. I don’t find that style of gameplay engaging or fun.
When I did a little digging to see if others were having similar experiences I found two types of posts on forums and reddit. The first type of response (mostly found on the official forums) was written by people who have never failed at any game ever, successfully raided Ahn’Qiraj solo as current content in 2006 at the age of four, and are flabbergasted at how anyone could fail so badly in any MMO, questioning the education level and lineage of the player seeking help. As you would expect, reading this boosted my self-confidence and as a result I have yet to fail at anything in game or in life. Seriously though, if this is how you respond to people asking for help, I am calling your mom and she is totally going to take away your internet privileges.
The second type of response in some ways was even more disturbing though. While it came from players far more willing to help, it revealed a flaw in the type of difficulty I was encountering in SW:TOR. The advice I read was to a.) out-level the content by running warzones, b.) hunt for better gear on the GTN, and c.) pick a different class specialization. The last two options could arguably be considered legitimate; they certainly are for high level end game content. But for theme park MMOs I think that players should be allowed to level in whichever spec they prefer and should receive enough gear through quest rewards to require few if any visits to the in game auction house. Leveling content should not require the same level of optimization as end game raiding.
The first response though— to out-level the content—is inexcusable. That’s not an engaging solution to challenging content, that’s a workaround to poorly balanced gameplay. The problem I and apparently many others were facing during certain stages of leveling a Jedi Sentinel was that there simply were not enough tools to deal with the incoming damage of certain mobs or mob groups. Even when using all available defensive cool downs, dps cool downs, and crowd control abilities there was just too much chance involved in succeeding and the end result was frustration and ultimately a rage quit for the night.
Compare that to a similar encounter that I had in WoW with very different results. With the release of the WoW Token I was able to hop back in game for the next month using the gold I’ve accumulated. While running through the Spires of Arak I came across a mob slightly lower level than my Rogue but intended for groups. I thought it would be fun to see if I could take him down solo and gave it a shot. The first time I died when he had about 20% heath left. After a brief corpse run I went over my rotation again. I was a little rusty having only had a Rogue main during the first month of Warlords and having been out of the game since the end of December. I also went over my defensive cool downs as well as the talents and glyphs that might improve my survivability making changes as I saw fit. On my second attempt I died even sooner but I noticed an ability that needed interrupting and another that needed to be avoided all together. By the third attempt I was successful.
The difference between this encounter in WoW and the many challenging circumstances I’ve found myself in as a level 25 Jedi Sentinel in SW:TOR was not the difficulty level of the games themselves per se. If anything, the mob I encountered in WoW required the use of far more abilities and a greater awareness of what the mob was doing. What made the one experience frustrating and the other satisfying were the options I had available in overcoming the challenge. The first was like a LEGO set missing half its pieces. No matter how many times I look over the directions or stare at the image on the box, it’s never going to be built. The second was like a set missing instructions but with all the tools and pieces made available for figuring out how to build the final model.
It’s true that sometimes I want to easily crush mob after mob, grinding away for experience, materials, or reputation. But I do not shy away from challenging solo content either, so long as the pieces I need to finish the task are in place. Success may require out of the box thinking or even referencing outside sources, but the basic toolset has to be there. When games equate challenge with repeatedly slamming my shoulder into a locked door until chance or fatigue finally give way, it ceases being fun and long term I’ll likely seek out greener virtual pastures. But give me a challenge where critical thinking and fine motor skills are tested and I’m a happy little gamer.
EDIT: After writing this post I did end up purchasing a full upgraded set of gear for my character from the GTN and a partial upgraded set of gear for my companion, T7. This cost about 25,000 credits which is not terrible for level 25. The gear made all the difference. I made so much more progress afterwards and while some encounters were still challenging, requiring thoughtful use of all my cool downs, they were enjoyable.
I also created a new Smuggler, just in case. 😉