MMO Difficulty …

So, recently while playing The Old Republic I decided to dismiss my companion because I was going to do the Rakghoul infection quests and noted that in the past when playing with a companion they either tended to kill all the Rakghouls or at least draw all their attacks, making the infection a bit too difficult to achieve. However, I made a mistake and clicked on myself instead of on the companion, and noticed a setting called “Mission difficulty”, which I had set to “Story”.

Huh. No wonder the game was seeming really, really easy lately [grin].

To be fair, I had probably at some point noticed it and deliberately set it to “Story”, because that’s really how I wanted to play the game anyway. But this reminded me of how important and yet how counter-intuitive difficulty levels are for MMOs.

TOR isn’t the only MMO that did difficulty levels. The one that I’m most familiar with, City of Heroes (sniff), did it before it ended, and I’m sure other MMOs have tried it as well. But it seems kinda off to have difficulty levels in an MMO, since it would mean that you’d have different players in the world playing the game at different difficulty levels. Since one of the easiest ways to implement difficulty levels in an MMO — especially one that is heavily instanced — is to reduce the hitpoints and attack and defense strength of enemies, which can run into problems if you are in fact in a group and have to decide how to adjust them given the players in the group. Even adding attack and defense to the player’s character can cause problems, especially if, say, you give bonuses for damage done. It almost always seems like a safer and easier move to simply pick what you think is a reasonable difficulty level and let people who find it too difficult find a group to help them with those missions.

But the problem goes both ways. Some players will find some enemies to be too easy for them, and some missions thus too trivial, and would rather have a greater challenge, one that tests their skills. Thus, they might even want to play at a level where if you make even one mistake your character dies in order to have a tense challenge that forces them to practice their skills and pay close attention to the battles they are in. Obviously, setting the enemies to have this level of difficulty for everyone would eliminate most of your player base, so without difficulty levels they rarely, if ever, get that sort of challenge, and are bored.

Difficulty levels also provide a hedge against server population shrinkage. There might be a mission that is readily beatable with a group, but very tough to solo. This is fine and possibly even something to encourage when populations are high, but as they decline someone might really want or need to complete that mission and yet can’t find enough people interested in it to form a group to do it. Dropping the difficulty, if they are experienced or geared enough, might let them complete it anyway, even if they can’t find a group. Sure, they might be able to outlevel the mission enough to complete it, but that might require grinding and grinding is boring … and even then, changing the difficulty level means less overleveling they have to do before they can beat that mission.

Difficulty levels seem odd in an MMO, and yet they can indeed be useful to solve some issues that MMOs have and keep MMOs appealing to players longer.

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