Friday, January 20, 2012

Should Raid Nerfs Be Disappointing?

For those of us who enjoy raiding as a significant part of our World of Warcraft experience, "nerfs" (the weakening of encounters) to raids that are still current content tend to be a hot topic. Most of the (visible) response tends to be negative, with an even more vocal minority of that group moving toward the wailing and rending of garments.

Even the more moderate, though, generally are a bit disappointed when the raid encounters they're working on are made easier. Should we be disappointed, though?

"It's Too Easy Now"

What makes an encounter too easy? I can guarantee that if you weren't finding yourself a few percent short of getting the last tendon down on heroic Spine of Deathwing once January 31st rolls around, you're not suddenly going to find yourself blasting through the remaining content on February 1st. Challenge still abounds.

The fact of the matter is that the "correct" difficulty level of an encounter is entirely arbitrary. Had the raid encounters been released back in December with 5% less health and 5% less damage done, would that have been the "right" difficulty level? While a few more people may have been agitating from the start that the raids were too easy, the vast majority of those who are upset now would never have been upset at all, because they'd never have had the higher figures set in their minds as real and proper.

Increasing the difficulty of a game with a computer opponent where the rules are set by the game itself is trivially easy. You can always increase the power or mechanics of the computer opponent  until it is impossible to complete. So clearly the answer to what should be the correct level of difficulty is not "As high as possible." As high as possible is always unwinnable.

So where do difficulty levels come from, in gaming in general? The simplest answer goes to accessibility. Games manufacturers are doing what they do in order to make money. That means selling a game to the widest possible audience. There are two competing dynamics there.

At the most basic level, the largest possible audience is simply anyone that can fire the game includes basically every computer or console user.

However, a game that only involves starting up obviously wouldn't be compelling to anyone. Therefore, it needs to have enough challenge that those who play it find it fun. If it is too challenging, such that it is impossible for any human to complete, then, again, almost no one will find it compelling.

So game designers have to create difficulty levels that are hard enough to be compelling, to make players feel like they're acquiring a skill and being forced to improve it, while being easy enough that a sufficient number of players can be successful.

The operative term and variable, there is "sufficient." For every designer, that's going to be different. No designer can aim for 0% of the game-playing population and 100% is probably untenable as well. Where you draw the line, in terms of percentage of population being able to complete the game, is arbitrary from a game design standpoint. Ultimately, it's probably going to be based on some complicated linear algebraic model determining what difficulty level sells the most games.

Raids in World of Warcraft are no different. Blizzard has a figure in mind for how many raid teams should be able to complete the raid, on normal and on heroic (different figures for each, obviously). The release difficulty is their best guess as to what will hit those figures.

But their best guess may be wrong.

When that happens, when their internally-tracked figures are showing that not enough raid teams are meeting the challenge, it tells them that the raid is actually too hard. Not that it was the correct difficulty and now they need to provide some charity to all of these fail raiding guilds.

"Too hard?" "Correct difficulty?" Based on what, again? Based on the same calculus of game difficulty that every game company works from: that enough people can eventually meet the challenge without it being so easy that it's not even challenging to do.

What does that mean? It means that the nerfed raid difficulty levels arriving on January 31st are the "correct" definition. That definition being the only way game difficulties are ever chosen from the arbitrary spectrum that ranges from "success just by loading the game" to "unwinnable by any human."

By choosing to play World of Warcraft, by choosing to raid in World of Warcraft, by choosing to play any game, you are entering into an implicit agreement that the correct difficulty level is chosen by the game company producing it. It can't be any other way. There is no "platonic game difficulty level" that a game company could use.

So if you've defined the correct level as whatever Blizzard defines it to be, and Blizzard (like all other game designers) has defined it to be "whatever allows X% of players to win the game" then Blizzard nerfing (or buffing) raid encounters is not reducing it from its "correct level." It's Blizzard tuning it to its correct level, because they got it wrong at release.

This Isn't New, It's The History Of Video Games

Video games largely find their genesis in the cabinet-style arcade games of the 1970s and 1980s. Pong is probably the best-known arcade pioneer, an incredibly simple video game that was meant to simulate table tennis. Through the 1970s and 1980s, and into the 1990s, arcade games exploded in popularity (while consoles and video game computers that were birthed from that success had a more up-and-down development curve), with such iconic hits as Missile Command, Pac-Man and Space Invaders. Double Dragon. Street Fighter II. (I forgot how much I missed arcade games. Or maybe I miss youth. Wow, this got depressing fast.)

What is probably less well-known about arcade games is that many of them had a feedback loop to dynamically regulate difficulty levels.

The game would spend a certain amount of time evaluating how well the player was doing, how quickly the player was progressing and then amp up or amp down the difficulty level to better match the player. After all, if a game was under-tuned or over-tuned, players wouldn't play it and you couldn't "hotfix" ten thousand or a hundred thousand cabinet games scattered around the country by releasing a patch over the ARPANET.

So what was the correct difficulty level? The correct difficulty level was just slightly above the player's skill level, which forced him or her to continually improve or face dying over and over at a certain point. That's perfect from both sides...the player has something to continually strive for without facing a brick wall that he or she can't get past, and the game producer has a steady stream of quarters it's earning as the player keeps dying in the process of improving. Everyone's got what they wanted.

Blizzard is doing essentially the same thing with these nerfs, just writ large. The period of polling or evaluating player skill is two or three months (instead of, say, 30 seconds). Instead of evaluating a single player, it's evaluating a playerbase. The game is then adjusted (sometimes with hotfixes, sometimes with a patch) and another stable evaluation period occurs.

In retrospect, are you disappointed that perhaps some of your Pac-Man scores were illegitimized by nerfs? (Of course, I'm dating myself a bit by implying that I have scores on Pac-Man cabinet games...many of you may not be old enough for that. That said, I'm sure you understand my point here. Also, this parenthetical comment has gotten really long.)

Dynamic retuning of a game that is in progress (and current content raids can be considered "in progress" for as long as you're doing them this tier) is not at all new. In fact, it's quite standard practice. Going hand-in-hand with the fact that are no platonic difficulty levels for games is the belief that everyone is best off by making sure that the designer's vision of where accessibility and challenge intersect is continually being enforced.

So instead of being concerned or annoyed that Blizzard has decided you need a booster seat to get to the creamy desserts in the middle of the table, it's probably more appropriate to view it as Blizzard deciding they made the table far too large and that only the people with freakishly long arms are getting enough dessert and that they didn't intend the desserts to only be for freaks.

And remember that the "desserts are meant for more than just the long-armed freaks" principle is solidly entrenched in video game history...gamers are happier and, therefore, game companies are wealthier when games are continually redesigned to better match the original vision.


  1. The fact of the matter is that the "correct" difficulty level of an encounter is entirely arbitrary.

    This, this, a thousand time this. I's just a simple orc, but even I knows what Blizz cain't just look up the "correct" difficulty in a book, the way ya can, say, the kinematic viscosity of carbon tetrachloride at 320 Kelvins. All ya can do is keep an eye on a million or so Goldilockses, each with they's own idea of "just right", and look fer some sorta balance.

  2. Kinematic viscosity of carbon tetrachloride at 320 Kelvins? Now that's the kind of thing that needs to be incorporated as a class mechanic.

    And I completely agree (obviously), that you have a ton of Goldilockses to satisfy, each with their own holistic metric for difficulty.

    I've heard more than a few people invoke the "customer is always right" principle, but the main flaw is that there isn't one customer to ask. You have millions of players with hundreds of thousands (arguably millions) of perspectives.

    Ultimately, I think a game designer has to keep track of what players are saying, what they're doing and incorporate it into their vision. Then hope that they did it right.

    Thanks for commenting!

  3. My issue goes a bit deeper than just difficulty. Some of the encounters go directly from obnoxious to boring with a nerf. There's never a point where things are right and enjoyable. Hopefully incremental 5% ners will help with this, it's getting very tiresome never having raids that are just fun.


  4. I can understand that, Cel. It's the main problem I had with the Firelands didn't feel at all like a careful retuning to get it in line with what they hoped for. Suddenly every boss felt far too easy...the heroic modes felt almost easier than their original normal counterparts.

    Such a drastic, sudden change is jarring and the chances of most people finding their "happy medium" with such massive and immediate changes are tiny.