Let's start with the basics -- games need challenge. Need it. It's an absolute requirement of something being a game. Rules are basically put into place so that some jerk doesn't wander out into the middle of a basketball court with a stepladder outside of a Harlem Globetrotters match. The rules are what makes it interesting, forcing players to come up with ways of overcoming the challenges imposed by the rules and still come out on top.
At the same time, not all challenges are created equal. Look at the card game War, which has both rules and a challenge. The problem is that the challenge itself is completely random, because all you're doing is putting down the card from the top of the pile and hoping that the other player has a lower card. There's no strategy involved, no input from players. Making a challenge that's both completely random and involves no player input whatsoever tends to create games not enjoyed by anyone over the age of five or so.
MMOs are several steps beyond War, of course. But there are an awful lot of challenges that players aren't happy with, and there are several problems unique to MMOs that make tweaking challenge a lot harder than it is elsewhere.
Looking for challenges in all the wrong places
Starting with the most obvious question, what is a "good challenge?" Some players will argue that a good challenge is one that you can learn to overcome through steady practice and careful study. Others will argue that the best challenges come from having to think on your feet, from being thrown into the unknown and having to manage the game without knowing what's around the corner.
The problem is that these two views are expressly incompatible with one another. You can't have content you can learn to understand that at the same time forces you to think on your feet and act in a dynamic fashion.
By way of example, let's look at Guitar Hero III's challenging final song, "Through The Fire And The Flames." You couldn't argue that the song forces you to think on your feet, really, because the sequence of notes is the same every time you play it. All that you have to do is develop the reflexes and the knowledge to make each note an instinctive one. By contrast, high-level Tetris play features a great deal of randomization, but the goal is still developing fast reflexes. The game will be different each time you play, there's no set pattern to memorize, just a general sequence required to win.
Both of those games create challenge via reflexes, but they do so in two very different ways. Someone might like Tetris while disliking memorization, even if she's got the reflexes to handle something else.
Note that despite the fact that both of these things can be very challenging, neither of the games I'm describing is terribly complicated. Complication is easy to mistake for challenge -- it's hard to understand a complicated system, after all. But complexity alone is usually an impediment to enjoying a game, the sort of thing that needs to be worked around rather than encouraged.
Early video games were all about twitch reflexes, but modern games offer players a much wider variety of obstacles. There's the challenge of getting equipment and bonuses high enough to overcome certain numerical barriers, the challenge of developing a character capable of handling frequently diverse situations, the challenge of figuring out riddles based on only a few clues (or the purchase of a strategy guide), the challenge of working your way through a large map and finding the right upgrades to access the next section of the game. There are a lot of things that can be thrown at players to make the overall experience more challenging. Adding in the social aspect of MMOs introduces even more challenges, most notably coordinating and training people to work together in preparation for the game's self-described challenging content.
Unfortunately, the problem in MMOs specifically comes down to the fact that there are no isolated challenges in the game. Every challenge builds upon every other challenge, and the sense of a persistent world makes things much more difficult to segment difficulties.
The fight of your life
Here's the thing -- we fundamentally prefer the types of challenge that we feel most suited to overcoming. If you like planning a character and building an interesting set of abilities and sort, the odds are good that you might not really care about reflex tests. You care about being smart enough to overcome unexpected challenges, but you don't care about having the twitchy trigger finger needed for active combat, and you probably also don't care about just memorizing a pattern until you know it cold. If you like working together with a group of your friends, though, the odds are good that logistical challenges like making raid night work are right about your speed.
Every other kind of challenge we see as easy. Even if it's not easy, even if we can't do it ourselves, that stuff is all simple. The challenge you find most satisfying to overcome is the one that's relevant.
There's no way that an MMO can have challenges that satisfy everyone, and so for a very long time, the genre has gone with the type of challenges it has the easiest time with -- logistical ones. Getting together a group, getting the entire group to run through a boss fight that's essentially a dance routine, finding a polite way to say "get out of the fire" after the fifth time that a given player has stood in the fire. These challenges are usually married to some fairly simple reflex tests, endgame fights that are mostly a matter of remembering patterns and being able to execute plans on a consistent basis.
The problem is that logistical challenges aren't actually hard -- or at least, they're not hards for reasons that have anything to do with actual game design. It's hard to get twenty people in place and working as a unit, but that's less due to the fact that the game is hard and more due to the fact that people have other obligations in the real world. It's the same sort of challenges that most players encounter in the workplace, ad if you're playing a game designed to take you away from real-world issues, having to deal with them in the game world doesn't encourage you to log in.
PvP doesn't have the same level of logistical problems, but it's still a thorny mess. We deal with opposition every day -- we don't normally want to be put into another oppositional environment to unwind. And PvP isn't always about skills, because gear and boosts come into play. You can, quite legitimately, get stomped down by another player that you can't realistically fight back against. PvP provides less developer oversight of challenge, which allows players to encounter more interesting challenges -- but it also mean that developers have less control over the enjoyment.
And challenge is an important part of enjoyment, too. We don't enjoy games that are too easy or ones that are too hard. The problem is that because every challenge in an MMO has to exist concurrently with every other challenge, tuning that to just the right level is a march of degrees. Something that's just right for a certain segment of the gaming population is too hard for another and too easy for a third. That's another area where logistical challenges are just easier to make, easier to tune, and easier to present as being the "real" challenge of the game.
To muddy the water a little further, there's the simple problem that for a large segment of the population, complexity is an inherently good thing, and simplifying the game involves removing the challenge. Never mind that there are a lot of very simple games that have stood the test of time with incredibly challenging play -- the idea of reducing the number of stats or making a game's system easier to understand reeks of making the game too simple for some players. The result is that you have players actively decrying any simplifying process, even if making things simpler would allow developers to make more challenging content in an environment that wasn't needlessly complicated.
Is there a solution? Not really, no. Game development is always going to struggle with the issue of making a game too easy or too difficult, MMOs doubly so. The best we can do is be aware of the difficulty in making the game actually challenging, and the problems in reconciling all of the different ways challenge can come across.
So yes, making an MMO challenging is a pretty big challenge. Funny how that works out.
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