Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Alts and Challenge

Most games follow a pretty simple loop. The game presents a challenge, the player masters the challenge, and the game presents a harder challenge. Or if the game doesn't present a harder challenge, the player generally moves on. This idea is elaborated on in Raph Koster's Theory of Fun.

And most of MMOs work like this. As you level, the game presents harder and harder challenges for you to work on. Generally future raids and dungeons are more difficult that previous raids and dungeons.

But not when it comes to alts. Lately, it seems like most MMOs have your second or third character be an easier experience than your first character. Even before special effects, your first character involves you learning the game, and figuring out exactly how things work. So even if the difficulty was the exact same, you'd already have demonstrated mastery.

But modern MMOs are going further than that. They often give out effects that make leveling a second character less of a challenge than the first. For example, WoW has heirloom gear. The Old Republic makes your second character's companions more powerful.

But is this really a good idea?  If you go back to the Theory of Fun presented above, this is the exact opposite of how a good game should act. The game should acknowledge the player's mastery, as evidenced by the first max-level character, and present a slightly harder challenge. Presenting an easier challenge will only lead to a player getting bored more easily.

Of course, this might be hard to implement in an MMO. Perhaps the best way would be a slider that increases the rate of XP gain, but also increases the amount of damage you take and decreases the amount of damage/healing you do. Of course this may have to be disabled in group content.

I think that the current approach to alts--giving the second character more advantages than the first--may be counter-productive in the long run, and may lead to players losing interest faster. The Theory of Fun implies that leveling the second character should be harder than leveling the first character, to keep the player interested and invested in demonstrating mastery over the new challenge.


  1. The Old Republic makes your second character's companions more powerful.

    And here I thought Elara was just a really good healer. Well, that blew that idea.

  2. The usual problem is that MMOs are a collection of different activities, with some being required for others. Leveling is usually required before you can do anything else, which means that if I want to try another class, the first thing is that I have to level it, even if I don't give a rat's ass about the leveling process. As you said: I ALREADY showed mastery, so why not just give me an alt which is all-activity-ready? I want to level? I press "alt at level 1, slower exp, harder mobs", I want to raid? I press "alt at level cap, ready for tier1 raids". I want to PvP? I press "alt at whatever level I want to PvP at, gear ready to jump in the fight".

    At times I get the idea that MMO designers are forgetting that I pay, either in money or time, to play their games. So they'd better give me an activity which I enjoy, or I'll just do something else.

  3. Put in mentoring (up and down) so I don't have to forfeit playing with friends and I'm in. Anything else and it's a massive pain, at least in today's exponential power scale. Maybe there could be a flag on creation, sort of like the increased difficulty in most SPRGs. For those who want that challenge.

  4. Alternate scenario: Theory of Fun is incorrect.

    Before bonuses, there were no bonuses, and yet people were perfectly content to level alts in WoW vanilla, etc. Hell, people level MORE alts these days, not less.

    Do not mistake challenge for engagement. Picking herbs or fishing is the easiest task in existence, and yet great pleasure can be derived from it.

    1. I disagree with your assumption that more people level alts in WoW, therefore the theory is incorrect

      People may have levelled more alts in vanilla but as it was so slow it was unusual to see people with multiple max levels...

    2. Sorry I meant your assumption that more people level alts now in WoW..... Also the fishing point was a bit silly as people fish for achievements and it does get harder. If you asked them to do it again on an alt for the 3rd time with no achievements I think they would politely refuse....

    3. I will also add that there were people who enjoyed fishing in vanilla with no achievements etc but that was the minority....

  5. @Azuriel, The Theory of Fun being incorrect is a bold claim. Pretty much every other game in the world follows that pattern.

    Can you give me another example of a game which becomes "mechanically" easier for a more experienced player?

  6. What you're missing is the time vs challenge aspect.

    If the second character was twice as hard in terms of surviving but leveled twice as fast overall people might like it. But the last thing people want on a second character is to take LONGER while leveling.

    Especially since many people don't view leveling as a game, but rather as a speed bump in the way of the actual game. They're not making the alt to show they're amazing at leveling, they're making the alt to play it at max level.

    Which is very different from beating Half Life on Normal and then trying it on Hard.

  7. Many thoughts, some of which are echoed by others. But here's a pertinent one: let's be real. Leveling in an MMO isn't a challenge and never has been -- it's at best a long "tutorial level," and at worst a tedious gate to get to the real content. The more you play a particular game, the more the process moves from the former to the latter. Blizzard is aware of this -- the more alts you level, the more tedious the process becomes, so to keep people playing (and not moving on to fresher territory) they make the process easier and easier. Heck, now there's so much content that they just let us skip the whole thing.

    I don't buy the "Theory of Fun" as gospel because being challenged isn't my motivation for playing games, and I'm sure I'm not alone. I play for escapist reasons -- to feel powerful, to feel important, to submerge myself into a good, engaging story. The faster I can get to the "doing awesome stuff" part, the better. I don't need or want getting to the "being awesome" part to be challenging, I want it to be over with as quickly as possible because all it is to me is a roadblock keeping me from the stuff I want to do.

  8. Interesting aside, the mechanic you mention--with a slider that makes things more challenging but gives you more XP--is something that's been successfully implemented in other games.

    Our discussion on Diablo III brings to mind it. Also, The World Ends With You allowed you to lower your level in return for better drop rates on items and money.

    It's a mechanic that I rather like, because it allows the player to choose what difficulty they want, so if they like to breeze through the game, they can, but if they want to do a harder difficulty, they're actively rewarded for it.

  9. Alternate explanation: The focus of difficulty is not at the start, and is not intended to be.

    The defined points of challenge are at end-game. The ability to make alt leveling easier is an acknowledgement of the player's already shown skill, and is letting them get through the testing phases faster so they can get to the point that actually challenges them.

    When dealing with a world that can have a wide range of players at the same time, you must make assumptions somewhere. As such, to keep challenge fresh for people who have shown skill, games like WoW have chosen to focus this challenge at max level, and as such make it easier to get there to avoid precisely the problem you point out.

    After playing through D3 with a friend, every time I go back to Marvel Heroes I'm sad that it doesn't have the dynamic difficulty mechanic that D3 has, because needing to keep going through the story over and over again is just boring. Because Marvel Heroes was designed to have MMO-like maps, where players of various levels and progression can all participate, it necessitated fixed encounter levels and fast respawn rates.

    D3 gets around this by having small party instances and tying the dynamic scaling to the party leader. I think it's too late for Marvel Heroes to make this kind of change, much like how it isn't possible for the typical theme park MMO to retrofit the same system after launch.

    Also, I don't think that TOR makes your alts' companions more powerful directly. I'm pretty sure that it's simply because they benefit from the various bonuses your alts inherit from the Legacy system. Your own companions get the same bonuses, but these bonuses tend to be more pronounced at low level/gear.