On player difficulty

Tobold recently (as in 10 or so hours before I've made this post) put up a new post about game design and how player behavior is an effect of how well or poorly designed a game system is, and that failures and problems the game experiences due to that behavior is the fault of the design team and managers for the way they have brought the game about.

Though it is a valid point, there was something in that post that caught my eye and got me thinking.

From the post: "And even if the fundamentals are right, and the game is a success, that doesn't mean that there won't be undesirable outcomes caused by bad game design. For example many veteran players in World of Warcraft complain about newer players, aka n00bs, not having a clue on how to beat harder content. But if a warrior in WoW can reach the level cap without ever having used the taunt ability once, is it the player who is "a moron", or is this a direct consequence of game design?"

I'd been considering either having the game use either a variable difficulty setting or having the game set the difficulty automatically based on how the player plays. Up until now, I was thinking it would just be a basic fiddling with stats. Enemies which kill the player repeatedly get auto nerfed until the player can beat them. Either that or the difficulty setting would spawn the mobs with appropriate stats for the difficulty level chosen.

This particular example about flaws in the game gave me an idea that what if instead of fiddling with the monster stats (which it can still certainly do), instead they become more complex in their attacks and abilities? Instead of just getting stronger, they become more adaptable.

Perhaps not from the very beginning, but I think this could bring some meaning back to games which have levels and a level cap. If you rolled a Mage, you would have to know how to Blink through certain walls in order to defeat a ghost enemy. Or as an swordsman, your enemy becomes deft at dodging certain attacks and you must use your full repertoire of strikes and techniques in order to defeat him. If you become level capped, it shows that you have mastered your class and can handle tougher challenges. It shows that you didn't just have to spam the 1 key for Sinister Strike for dozens of fights, and that you know how to vanish properly, use terrain, know which minions to summon, and so forth.

The question would be if it's a good idea and if so, how to best implement it. Would it be easy enough to just have it start as soon as you reach a certain point in character development? Would you need difficulty settings which players can use to turn it off (and would this be a deal breaker for a large portion of the player population)?

I was thinking it would be best that when you reach a certain point, the regular enemies out in the world stay on the same difficulty path with steadily declining XP rewards, and enemies in quests would become more difficult with greatly increased XP rewards. In this way it would encourage players to improve their play skills with their own class. Of course there would always be some who would take the Grind Elementals option, but they would level more slowly than others.

I suppose the point of this post is this: Right now, players are able to attain the level cap by sleep walking through the game. This is bad by design, as it becomes very boring and players complain later when they make new characters (In WoW, they even have heirloom items that max level characters can buy and send to new characters which give extra XP specifically for the purpose of skipping all the boring leveling content). Is there a way to make the game more interesting and, if not difficult, at least varied which will keep players from getting bored? Which way of doing that is the best way that would send the least number of players running for the hills?

Posted by Glyph, the Architect | at 10/16/2009 03:39:00 PM


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