Easy Going or Guns Blazing Hardcore?
My last few articles I gave gaming difficulty some flak and even commented on how developers would rather take the easy route than make something challenging now a days. But honestly I can't talk about that side of the fence without stepping over to the other side and help pull some weeds. Not all developers are evil. Not all of them just want your money and give you the limited amount of content for it. A lot of them actually think about their player base even though sometimes it doesn't seem like it. I can tell you though that if your favorite game company is actively talking to the player base and listening to feedback and responding, then you will definitely see the results when it comes out. Your concept may not show up there exactly the way you wanted it to but they will have done something with it.
I'm going to go along with Blizzard for my example on balance in gaming with their MMO World of Warcraft. I started playing this with Wrath of the Lich King but my views here are mostly from friends who have played from the start and from Blizzards own posts about game design philosophy and the direction they want to take the game.
In the early days when the game came out, it was a hard grind like most MMO's of the time (or the few there were). World of Warcraft ended up revolutionizing the way MMO's would be developed in the coming years and with each new expansion brought something new and exciting for players to do. Along with that they tried to improve on certain aspects of gameplay that were just annoying and hard to deal with such as the leveling grind, crafting system, reputation system, end game raiding content, and so on. They have been slowly taking the formula that they came up with and making vast improvements in the gameplay so that more people can see the content they are creating that normally only a small minority of the player base would see.
Are they making it to easy though? Right now if you play the end game it is almost agonizingly easy. That's just for me mind you and though it might be easy it's also pretty enjoyable. As much as people would like to say you can just plant your face on the keyboard and roll around on top of it to get through most of their dungeons it's really not that simple. The dungeons and raid are simple gameplay wise but if everyone were to just play alt tabbed then you would surely die. Everyone still has to work as a group to make it through the dungeon and collect the loot. The experience is enjoyable because at the end of the day I just want to kill a dragon and loot his stash for some gear and money and see why I was there in the first place. Again though, that's what I'm trying to get out of a game and not everyone is like that.
World of Warcraft's player base is very vocal about what they want and for most of them this is not it. They want more of a challenge, more depth to the fights and harder ways to collect their loot. Honestly though it's not in Blizzard's best interest to cater to a certain amount of the player base and leave the rest out so they are trying to create balance. Next expansion they are coming up with harder modes of gameplay and more ways to earn your loot either alone or in a group. They're either easy and fun or hard and challenging. I'm actually waiting to see how they pull this off and if it's effective or not but knowing them they are already setting it up with the way they added a new raiding difficulty to the game.
So what does Blizzard's game have anything to do with what I'm saying? Any MMO on the market now usually just copies WoW's style and adds a few different features. Either that or they are a grindfest straight out of the east where that type of game is the way they like to play. Blizzard is trying to change it up though by creating a game that all walks of life can enjoy and though it seems extremely easy now it's probably going to get better with the new release of content. With a player base as large as theirs, they really need too. Not everyone has the time to play the game like it was a job and just grind away at everything thrown at them. Some people just like to sit down, jump in a quick dungeon for half an hour, play some PvP for another half hour then call it a night. There's all sorts of scenarios of how much time a person would like to spend on the game and how they want to play the game.
Blizzard isn't the only one trying to keep the MMO industry from going stale with mild games. Some other recent games that are trying to break some molds and bring some challenging content are Rift, Star Wars: The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2. Rift and Star Wars are trying to stick with WoW's formula more but tweaking and designing the system in a way that people are actually enjoying more than WoW's current iteration. Guild Wars 2 is bringing some unique changes to questing, group dynamics and class design that I can't wait to see how they work out.
Developing That Balance
That last part was just an idea of one companies view of how they are developing their game and improving it for all walks of life and how I view it. But developing a game to appeal to a large audience is difficult to say the least and is a challenge in itself. So how can companies go about creating this balance in games? How can they appeal to more than one audience?
The way most companies get around it is by adding a difficulty system. This can range from very easy to impossibly hard but it allows people to jump into whatever setting they like or to challenge themselves with something harder. Often times a company will put in rewards for completing harder difficulties by allowing you to show off your achievement to others online. Achievements can either be a boon to the industry or a setback but really they help players feel accomplished about what they did and to explore new challenges within the game's world. You know you beat the game and did that amazing stunt but how many others know? How many others may have? What haven't you done that you could try?
As much as a difficulty system is great, some developers would rather just rehash an old design from one of their other games or even a competitors that is often too easy for most people. They then try to market it more towards kids even though their audience for it could be vastly larger depending on what they are basing the game around. I don't know about anyone else but when I was a kid (yeah I said that) almost all the games marketed towards kids weren't easy. They ranged from pretty challenging to frustratingly hard, controller throwing tantrum difficulty. This is probably why the older player base is looking for something more challenging because the games they grew up with were harder than anything publishers can come up with today. That's why games like Dark Souls and Ninja Gaiden are big with gamers. If you need a real challenge, pick one of those up.
How many of those older gamers would really enjoy having that difficult experience in more than just a few games though? In my eyes it's mostly a nostalgia thing for times past. The good old days of gaming. Did you really enjoy banging your head into the T.V. while you tried to beat that race stage in Battletoads? I didn't and now that audiences are larger and technology is different, companies can try to appeal to more people who would only think about purchasing their game before and not actually follow through with it. The game can look good on the cover, the summary on the back is intriguing but bring it home and it's sometimes totally different from what you were expecting. Companies are very careful with their wording on their products and how to make it appealing to gamers. Make it enjoyable, easy to pick up and throw in some challenging content towards the end and it can bring in the excitement for players beating the last boss and seeing the credits roll.
What else do companies do to make that balance? Sequels. They'll come out with a game with a new concept, world, characters, whatever. Then you buy it and play it and it's almost like you are playtesting their design and if people really enjoy it and want more of it with less of certain issues then they will come out with a second one. Or even a third. Maybe its Final Fantasy or maybe it's Bioshock. They can also take their design and use it towards new IP's in the future if the game's story has run it's course in the trilogy. This can also cause issues though with companies just wanting to dump sequel after sequel, trying to ride on the names success and then failing at implementing the good aspects of the game people enjoyed. I think of Assassin's Creed or Call of Duty with that scenario. But hey if a game is really good the first time why not come out with the same game with a new roster every year like Madden?
But really who knows how the company is working. Maybe they want to do things they can't. Technology won't allow it with current generation systems. It could be a new publisher forcing them to do things differently. There are all sorts of things that go on behind the scenes that players don't know about and that most people wouldn't think about. Just know though, as a gamer, you always have a choice of what games you play and what companies to support. If you don't think they listen to the player base enough or are taking a game in the wrong direction, just enjoy the game they did release and move to something new. There are so many universes to explore that most people think they are just stuck in the one with terrible controls. Next time you find yourself bored with games, go into a store and anything that looks interesting and affordable just buy it and play it. That's how hidden gems are found and those are usually the most enjoyable. Thanks again for reading everyone. Questions, comments and concerns are always welcome!