The Secret World and the correlation of difficulties and memories

A couple of weeks ago, Bhagpuss had a thought-provoking post on the subject of MMO difficulty and how there’s a movement among some developers to return us to an era of more challenge and difficulty. He wasn’t having any of it, although he had to admit that there was something about frustrating and difficult games that forged strong memories:

“It’s the argument that says it has to hurt a little if you’re going to care…. The reason those experiences live with me still is because they were painful and in being so the memories associated with them were laid down in accordance with the mechanisms associated with strong emotional reactions.”

This quote and the post in general has been kicking around in my head since then, because I quite agree with all of its points. I’m not really clamoring for a return to brutal MMOs with unnecessary timesinks and annoying mechanics and an anti-casual tone. And yet I can’t deny that difficulty and challenge can indeed generate lasting memories and moments of exhilarating highs when overcome.

I don’t remember getting most of my mounts in World of Warcraft after 2006, but my quest to get my Warlock’s steed in vanilla remains one of my most treasured memories. Fallen Earth’s appeal came from its sometimes slower pace and decision to eschew nonsensical gamey elements for more realism (such as non-disappearing mounts).

But the biggest example of all — the example that I thought of when I read Bhagpuss’ post — was The Secret World.

Hands-down, there never has been an MMO that I’ve hated as deeply and loved as strongly at the same time as this one. There have been so many times while playing that game that I wanted to drop-kick it across the room and scream in its face because it was being way, way too difficult or obtuse. I have crashed hard into walls in this game, raged against design decisions that were needlessly cruel and petty, and consistently been annoyed at how not-fun the combat’s been.

And yet it’s one of the top MMOs that I’ll consistently praise in public and hold up as an example of a title that is endlessly creative and memorable. Usually for completely different reasons than what drives me batty in the game.

But I’m now wondering if TSW’s higher difficulty/frustration level also, weirdly, lends strength to those good memories and testimonies. That maybe I’ve liked the game because I felt that I earned my progress and wasn’t handed it on a platter. That the bruises I’ve earned have made the victories and accomplishments that much sweeter. For every “this isn’t FAIR” and “the devs are idiots!” I’ll come away with an experience that genuinely meant something.

I don’t know. I don’t have a conclusion on this. But it’s food for thought.

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11 thoughts on “The Secret World and the correlation of difficulties and memories

  1. David Bass December 14, 2015 / 9:51 am

    I think (okay, okay….I know) that this was also something WildStar strongly considered and believed in. I really did like the idea of forcing people to come together and work on a challenging piece of content, but I’m not sure it paid off in the end.

    Still, I think a guild killing Avatus is probably ultimately very satisfying given all the work it took to make it that far. If only I was that good…. 😛

  2. ironweakness December 14, 2015 / 9:56 am

    There’s probably a middle ground somewhere between the current state of SWTOR (where a couple of people recently leveled 1-65 sans gear) and WildStar vet dungeons (which after several nights of 1-2 hour wipe-fests and zero completions I had to walk away from the game for a while) but it must be difficult for developers to find that range and of course I’m sure it varies for everyone. For an everyday MMO that’s the “sweet spot” that I’d like to be.

    However I agree that memory is often associated with challenge, the question is whether gaming is something you want to provide that in your life or not. Marriage and parenting can be challenging, but I want the relationships and memories that develop there as a result. Do I want them in MMOs? I’m not sure if I do anymore.

    I have a lot of memories from early on due to the newness of everything, and yes, due to overcoming challenges and fears (like tanking a raid for the first time). I’m glad I have those memories but I also think they exist due to an importance I placed on MMOs and in game accomplishments that now I would view as disproportionate because of where I’m at in life.

    Which brings me to one final thought, and that is regardless of meaningful memories being formed or not, sometimes I want to play a game with intense focus and other times I want to fish while watching a tv show. Whether or not a memory will form has nothing to do with my decision making process on a nightly basis (nor do I think it should). If I don’t have the energy or desire for a challenging game, then I’m going to play something else.

    I’m not sure we can artificially create an environment for memory formation anyway, there are so many factors involved. So I guess while this is interesting to think about and consider with regard to my own in game memories, practically speaking it’s not going to change how or why I play MMOs.

  3. Ocho December 14, 2015 / 10:34 am

    Difficulty I believe is not something players actually want, especially most MMO players. The whole point of MMOs, afterall, is the forward motion in making content trivial. The hardest time you will ever have in an MMO is when you run content for the first time. After running it, you receive a reward in the form of better gear/more power, which then makes that same content easier. You use the new gear to run new content and get more gear/power as a reward, which then makes that content easier. Repeat ad nauseum.

    But most players look at MMOs specifically as perpetual reward distributers. Imagine playing an MMO, spending a good amount of time, and receiving absolutely zero reward. You wouldn’t be playing it long. Some MMO players even make an artform out of maximizing the most reward for their time spent playing, even going so far as to use and defend exploits in doing so. If they’re not making progress, they may as well not play. Playing then becomes more about keeping up that sustained progression, a sort of sunk cost, more than it is about having fun. A complete loss of progress in a game, say if you had your WoW account banned, feels just like being fired from a job. Difficulty, then, just gets in the way of progression. Noob group member? Kick them. Experienced players only need apply.

    MMO gamers don’t want difficulty. They want the most reward with the smallest effort.

    … this is why I’ve almost given up on MMOs entirely. I get the most personal reward from completing difficult content and I find a good story to be a better reward than loot. Both aren’t really found in MMOs. The Secret World is indeed one of the best MMOs out there for those of us who actually do prefer difficulty/story… but I haven’t logged into TSW in ages… it just hasn’t had any new story to draw me back.

  4. Tyler F.M. Edwards December 14, 2015 / 11:29 am

    This stumbles across one of my own pet peeves, because the MMO community — from developers to players to commenters — has an awful habit of conflating inconvenience and difficulty, but they’re completely separate concepts. Lengthy corpse runs, pointless time sinks, long travel times, and excessive grinding aren’t difficult. They’re just inconvenient. One tests your skill. The other tests your patience.

    I should probably do a blog post about this at some point.

    I’m of the opinion that MMOs need to be more difficult, but also more convenient. One of the reasons I like TSW so much is that it is quite challenging, but also pretty convenient. Travel times are light, death penalties are very lenient, and the need for grinding is relatively minimal.

    To be a little more on topic, I definitely think difficulty can be an important part of forming lasting memories, though I’ll also grant it’s far from the only way. To me, it makes the content feel more meaningful. It’s not even necessarily so much about testing one’s skill or feeling a sense of accomplishment after beating something tough (though those are nice, too) as it is about immersion and fantasy. How can I feel like a hero if the monsters aren’t scary?

  5. wolfyseyes December 14, 2015 / 11:36 am

    There is definitely a place where inconvenience ends and challenge begins. If a game is made hard because you’re grinding at a thing, I don’t really feel like I’ve surmounted an obstacle so much as had the stamina to get through the noise.

    When I defeated HM Titan in XIV, back when the maximum item level was something like 75, and I got my Curtana weapon from it…that felt good. That felt REALLY good. It was weeks of trying and failing and trying again finally converging in to that perfect takedown.

    Conversely, when I got my chocobo riding license in XI, where I had to sit in a stall for actual human hours until it was the right time to feed the bird, I didn’t feel accomplished. I felt like I had finished a required bit of sandpapering.

  6. bhagpuss December 14, 2015 / 12:48 pm

    Glad I got you thinking 😛

    A great set of comments above, some of which I agree with, some of which I don’t. I should say, empathize rather than agree, I guess, because I can see the logic behind them all, I just don’t necessarily feel it applies to me.

    Take The Secret World, for example. I love it in many ways but it is simply too hard for me. I stopped playing because I literally could not complete certain required tasks. Some of those I could have used the social aspect of MMOs to overcome (got a group) but others were in mandatory solo instances. Pete at Dragonchasers posted recently about how aging makes some video game content inaccessible. So too do innate skill levels. I have a relatively low skill level for video games and I am a decade away from retirement age. There are things I could never do and things I can no longer do. One person’s “challenging content” is another person’s “Game Over”.

    In the end it’s all about finding that sweet spot, where content feels challenging enough to be satisfying and compelling but always feels (and is) achievable. Since that sweet spot varies so enormously from person to person it must be a nightmare to try and design content intended to be universally appealing. Single player games fudge the issue with difficulty settings but MMOs have to find ways around it using levels, gear, NPCs and, of course, other players. In the end nothing is going to satisfy everyone, though. Personally I feel less dissatisfied with content that is too easy than too hard but others feel the opposite.

    As for memories, though, for me it is exactly the “inconveniences” that Tyler dismisses that make them for me. I will never forget some of those inconveniences as long as I live whereas even the most thrillingly close, nailbiting set-piece fight is forgotten in days. I’d welcome a modicum more inconvenience in my MMOs but I can happily do without any more difficulty.

  7. Shintar December 14, 2015 / 2:48 pm

    I agree that there’s definitely something to that. But I disagree with Tyler’s distinction above, between inconvenience and “real” skills. Patience and being able to manage your time are skills too. I find twitchy gameplay more of an inconvenience to be honest. 😛

  8. kiantremayne December 14, 2015 / 3:49 pm

    Things you do once are memorable, things you repeat ad nauseam aren’t (at least the ad nauseam instances aren’t… you may well remember your first time, but the 500th and 501st tend to blur together). The problem with this is that MMOs make pretty much everything repeatable ad nauseam, because they can’t offer a fire hose of new content, and even worse make the repeating ad nauseam required through instituting grind as a way of doling out rewards. You remember getting the warlock epic mount in vanilla WoW because it was a long and complex quest that you did once. There’s a dearth of stuff like that in most current MMOs – completing a class story in SWTOR is one of the closest, but that’s become, ah, less than challenging more recently.

  9. Sylow December 15, 2015 / 11:18 am

    I still wonder about the complaints about TSW. I mean yes, i also remember that the first tour in Kingsmouth all my fighting seemed to drag a bit. But then i sat down and worked out my setup. So yes, on the third day of playing, i gave up blood as my second weapon and switched to fist, just to buy a few active abilities and then invest into shotgun for a passive i considered essential at that time. (And it really helped me a lot. )

    So yes, to get ahead faster, i had to invest a little time and brainpower, but after i did that, i had very smooth sailing. The changes to my setup were so good that it allowed me to solo my way through the Quarry in Blue Mountains, an area designed for groups of high gear players. I went in with QL5 gear and came out with a full set of QL10 equipment.

    After that, every solo content before scenarios and Kaidan was trivial. I would not conclude that “get high QL gear” is the answer, though. Rather get a good setup and you can go through everything of the base game.

    And to clarify another point: it’s not a matter of player skill. Any game i play which has a player ranking shows me to be about average, with the variation of tactical games generally listing me slightly above and reaction oriented games rating me noticeably below average. So if somebody struggles, i really can go the “get good” path, as i’d first have to heed my own advise. What i can advise is to be a little persistent and get a good setup, as it makes a huge difference.

    On what actually at several times felt “not fair” was the difficulty of investigation missions.
    There are some, which were unfinished for weeks. I started them, ran into a problem, had it on the back of my mind when commuting to and from work, till it suddenly clicked.
    There are some, which i discussed with a friend (who’s really into detective games) while having BBQ, and he gave me the deciding pointers what to look for.
    There are some, which i played together with friends and working together we inspired each other till we found the solution.
    There are some, where the solution was spoilered on global chat, so they were cut short for me.
    Finally there are some which i could never, even if my life depended on them, solve by myself.
    One variety of them are missions, where you have to listen to music and figure out stuff
    that way. (By now many of them have color help along, just for people like me, so we at least
    have some chance of success. ) Another variety is where you have to make a leap in your mind which
    i just never made it, and i spoilered them after having them open for over two months. Some of the
    solutions i really went like “what the hell, how unfair” and stuff. But everything you needed
    to get ahead in terms of the story actually was not that bad, all the “way too hard” things
    were just missions which you could just skip.

    And to return to the point of the posting: it is hell of rewarding, when you after several days or even weeks of having an investigation mission open something clicks and you actually solve it without using and guide. This even is true, and in some way even more true, if you do this in cooperation.

    So yes, those investigation missions are tough and hard, some of them really are far in the “outside of any reasonable difficulty” area, but even years later i can remember how glad and how proud i was when i finally solved them.

    I really wish we would get new ones, but unfortunately it seems like most players still prefer the quick-and-easy style of action missions. (Also, their repeatability is low. Once you cracked it, repeating it is boring, while repeating an action mission always has action at least. ) Thus their density in recent updates is low and it’s unlikely that the next issues will even contain just one of them. 😦

    @Ocho:
    Your theory is but a theory. Closer to the truth might be my theory, that MMO players are a diverse bunch. There are some who shy away from challenge and others who enjoy it.

    My example would be my girl and me. She also loves TSW, but plays a lot for atmosphere and the social part. (But hey, she’s a DJ on one of the games radio stations by now. ) She is very reluctant to go for harder content and only ever goes there in a cabal group, where she feels save enough. On the other hand, i went into the dungeon “The Manufactory” the very evening it was released. No guides were available yet and the only pointers one of us got from other players actually were terribly wrong. Still we wanted to do it, and we beat it during the first evening (more honestly, long night) it was in game. (It was a long night and i still had to go to work the next day. It’s not something somebody of my age should still do. )

    It’s again a memory i like. We went there the first night. It was hard, we had no guide or anything, we did it. So again, the theory of challenge works. Curiously enough, i never even entered the next dungeon “The Manufactury: Breached” yet. The simple reason? Funcom pointed out some gear requirements for this dungeon, and i am still far from reaching that. I don’t like to farm like crazy to get my Aegis gear on par (while my girl -loves- farming, i hate doing it) and thus am still not ready to enter that dungeon.

    Yes, TSW unfortunatly recently turned towards the “more farming” concept, to keep the players busy. No MMO can create content as fast as players consume it, and their dire financial situation and the high quality standards they still maintain makes things even slower. So they found “more farming” to be the solution of this problem, which is the one part which in the longer run might actually break the game for me.

    But all this text, just to tell you that not all MMO players are the same. There are some who want the game to be a comfy chair and others who like the wild ride. Which also is one of the biggest problems, that they have to cater for them all, but i wouldn’t know how to fix that without driving an essential part of the playerbase away.

  10. Sylow December 15, 2015 / 11:21 am

    And yes, i think Tyler F.M. Edwards really has a point here:

    “This stumbles across one of my own pet peeves, because the MMO community — from developers to players to commenters — has an awful habit of conflating inconvenience and difficulty, but they’re completely separate concepts. Lengthy corpse runs, pointless time sinks, long travel times, and excessive grinding aren’t difficult. They’re just inconvenient. One tests your skill. The other tests your patience.”

    I can only agree, difficulty is welcome tedium is not. I rather have hard fights than a grind.

  11. Rowan December 16, 2015 / 10:28 am

    I wanted chime in to say that I, too, find a necessary distinction between difficulty and inconvenience, with the caveat—as we have seen here—that the individual player’s enjoyment, or even tolerance, of either is highly subjective. In the case of TSW, I found that rarely did the combat require physical skill or dexterity, but rather a willingness to delve into the Ability Wheel to find the synergies that made combat easier, along a with a flexibility of mind to switch things up a bit if they weren’t really working. Group encounters similarly required knowledge of the fight rather than dexterity. The investigation missions also required thought as opposed to skill, not that I ended up being very good at them. I still love TSW, but in the end it was the inconvenience of the AEGIS system that broke the game for me. I ended up not having the flexibility of mind to continue.

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