The Soapbox: Dispelling the 'easy' myth

The Easy Myth
A few weeks ago, I took a nice long look at World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria. Then I wrote about it. My impressions, like most things on the internet, were met with both ardent agreement and defiant protest. Everyone has an opinion, especially when it comes to World of Warcraft -- some people love the game, some people hate it, and some give it a resounding "eh."

I don't mind people disagreeing with me. People react to games differently, and what works for me may not work for you. But there was one specific critique that rose, repeatedly, in the great debate raging in that article's comments section. A critique that, frankly, I cannot abide:

"World of Warcraft is too easy."

Evolution of an MMO

There is no doubt that World of Warcraft, in its eight-year history, has become more accessible. Casual players of the game have never had more tools for quickly jumping into a dungeon or raid, making a little progress, and logging out to cook some dinner or catch a movie. The MMO industry in general has mirrored WoW's evolution over time; LFG tools, instant queuing, and raid finding are near-essential game elements for a modern release.

In the olden days of massively multiplayer games, putting a raid or dungeon group together could take hours. You mostly spent that time spamming chat, looking desperately for a healer to tank willing to take on your cause, and hoping they were competent. In many ways, these were better times -- you had a reputation on your server and you knew the people with whom you gamed. But they were also frustrating times for gamers with only a couple of hours to play.

Because the world of the MMO is no longer inhabited exclusively by the "hardcore," it's only natural for MMO developers to provide gamers with mechanisms for playing more and waiting less. There are dozens of MMOs on the market, and those of us with limited time stick to the ones that provide the most bang per minute spent. It's just good business sense to keep us happy.

But let's make a big distinction here: Accessibility is not the same as difficulty.

The dungeon curve

Yes, World of Warcraft's basic dungeons are easier to manage than they used to be. Crowd-control is a thing of the past, and there's way more room for error in boss fights. Compare the nightmare that was 10-man Stratholme (yes, it was once a 10-man) to any dungeon introduced since Wrath of the Lich King and you'll no doubt come to the conclusion that running basic dungeons doesn't provide the same challenge that it used to.

If we expand the topic beyond WoW, most of you longtime MMO lovers probably feel as though dungeons in the majority of games are easier now than ever. World of Warcraft is my MMO of choice, but I've never seen anything in RIFT, TERA, DC Universe Online or any other title I've played that indicates the difficulty curve is going up rather than down. Different mechanics are on display, and different things happen when you press the buttons on your keyboard, but there's no big gap in difficulty between the most popular MMORPGs on the market. Heck, even EVE Online is easier to pick up and play than it's ever been.

This, once again, lends itself to the idea of accessibility. People want to play, not spend three hours trying to figure out how to handle the last pull of a five-man dungeon. It's hard to imagine the modern, broader MMO playerbase having much patience for a "regular" instance like old-school 15-man Upper Blackrock Spire (am I nostalgiaing you guys enough?), which required careful, deliberate pulls and exceptional crowd-control. Casual players with limited time don't usually enjoy spending that time slamming their faces into a gear-check wall.

Put simply, it is in an MMO's best interest to ensure that casual players can jump in, experience success, and jump out.

LFG: Hard stuff

So yes, basic dungeons in almost every modern MMO are more accessible. Games are more casual than they've ever been. But "casual" and "easy" are not the same thing. The softening of the difficulty curve and the accelerated rate at which players are able to conquer raids and dungeons simply means that the content has been democratized; no longer do only the most hardcore of players get to experience all of a title's content. Everyone gets to play, and that's a good thing. It doesn't mean that the game is "easy" -- not by a long shot.

And here, dear readers, is where we get to the point: An MMO like World of Warcraft is as hard as you want to make it. There are, literally, dozens of "hard mode" achievements that most of you folks complaining in the comments definitely do not have. If World of Warcraft is so easy, for example, where is your The Immortal achievement? Why aren't you running around with a gladiator title preceding your name? Throne of Thunder launched three weeks ago -- you mean to tell me your ultra-elite guild hasn't already downed Ra-den and earned the I Thought He Was Supposed to Be Hard achievement?

What, are you just not in the mood?

This isn't a WoW-specific issue or even one limited to MMOs. Gamers from all disciplines seem to be fond of complaining about games being easy without actually attempting anything to accomplish difficult. Big Huge Games noted in a GDC 2012 talk that "too easy" was a common complaint about Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, even though two-thirds of its players completed it on the easiest difficulty setting. BioWare's awesome infographic for Mass Effect 3, shown at last week's PAX East, showed that only four percent of players completed the game on "Insanity" difficulty. The "hardcore" in text don't seem to be all that "hardcore" in practice.

Guild Wars 2
So let's start us a new rule here, one with which I think most of you will agree: Put up or shut up. You can dislike a game's mechanics, hate its art style, or have an irrational desire to punch all of its characters. You can say, "Hey, this game just isn't for me." Opinions are opinions.

However, if your complaint is that a game is "too easy," I'm going to need your credentials. Link me your achievements, your trophies, or your feats. Show me that you have the necessary experience to determine a game's true difficulty, that you've bested some of the toughest content that it has to offer. And if you've never earned a server-first, landed a "hard mode" raid achievement, or found yourself near the top of the PvP ranks, maybe you should just be quiet and let the grown-ups talk.

MMOs, like life, offer you exactly as many challenges as you are willing to seek out. WoW is casual. Guild Wars 2 is casual. RIFT is casual. But none of these games, when played at the highest possible level, is "easy." So the next time you find yourself typing "too easy" in a comment box, maybe you should consider whether you've actually tried the hard stuff before you click the post button.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared by Massively as a whole. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
This article was originally published on Massively.