Last post I wrote about two design pitfalls that can trivialize themepark MMOs and render play meaningless. Today, I’ll finish that article with the third point: relative power’s stagnation.
The Relative Power Quagmire
The relative difficulty of content should actually increase as the character advances. More abilities to use means more combinations of abilities that can be more effective. The relationship between usable abilities and character power is better than additive. Players will use more complex combinations of complementary abilities to achieve significant power increases level-over-level. The character’s power not only gains the added bonus of having one more spell, but also the upside of all the combinations that amplify or are amplified by that new spell.
To keep players interested in the game, the game should push the player towards learning more about game systems. This push doesn’t need to be forceful—a small increase in relative difficulty would incentivize learning without frustration. If there is no relative difficulty increase, the player will probably enjoy the game at first, feeling that the relative weakness of enemies is a reward for their advancement, but in the near future difficulty stagnation trivializes the content and, by extension, the game as a whole.
When I played Lord of the Rings Online a year or so ago, the Minstrel class became surprisingly powerful at mid-levels because the class accumulates a group of synergistic abilities that feed into one another to create supremely powerful soloing combinations. The time it takes to kill a mob solo are reduced by half—the games become significantly easier in the span of 5 levels, even when fighting even-level opponents! The non-linear leap in character power trivializes all content that is linearly more difficult than last level’s. I rapidly become bored with the game because trivial content gave me a clear view of the grind and led to disinterest.
Strategic Blandness –> Artificial Difficulty –> Player Frustration
Themepark MMOs have very little strategic depth, which means that the game is only fun until you run out of static content to complete. The game must fall apart within a certain number of hours because it's just an elongated series of relatively boring trivially easy tasks that grow your character through solely the investment of time. (See also: my posts on the content problem, and why themepark MMOs are easy.)
The developer has two options to keep monthly subscribers playing:
- Make more content. Don’t let players go without new content for too long or they’ll leave.
- Because sufficiency skill tests are not feasible, implement means of artificial difficulty. Increase the length of the leveling curve, the gear grinds at level cap, make quests repeatable and put rewards at the end of a larger number of repetitions, etc.
We generally do not see (2) directly; we see a combination of (1) and (2). More content is added and that content is artificially made more difficult through requiring steep time investments in order to get certain desirable rewards. Daily quests and instances are examples of this design methodology. The content, in either case, is strategically bland, so once the change of scenery loses its appeal, players will feel that the content is trivial and grindy.
Strategic Blandness –> Content Exhaustion –> Player Boredom
This progression is common among achievers and powergamers. Players are good enough to complete the strategically bland content quickly and climb the reward ladders easily. They reach the end of the reward ladders that they find worth climbing and find themselves confronted with nothing interesting left to do. The pattern of content exhaustion continues until the player understand the pattern and tires of gear- and reward-reset cycles.