A while back GameMonkey made this post, basically stating that “easy is fun”, and that easy is one of the keys to reaching the mass market. He later goes on to state in the comments that the easy version of any game will outsell the harder version, I point I counter with Madden vs Blitz.
But as someone who really enjoys a challenge, I’d love to disagree with the basic premise of the piece, but taking one look around the MMO genre and it’s very clear that, today, easy does indeed equal mass market. But like I noted above, that same rule does not apply across the board to all of gaming. Madden is a VERY complex/hard game to get into, and yet each year it sells millions of copies despite the fact that EA does so little to update it. The new Super Mario game is anything but easy, as are Street Fighter 4, Tekken 6, or even Dragon Age, and yet each title sells millions. So why then is EVE the only mass-market MMO (if I define that as games with 300k+ subs in the US/EU) out that most would consider ‘hard’?
To start I think it’s important to understand just what ‘hard’ really means. When we are talking about MMOs, a lot of the ‘hard’ factor comes from the arcane MMO-only rules that many games follow. Understanding stuff like stats, BoE, rare spawns, agro, etc all present a frustrating challenge to a new player, and none of those things has much to do with the actual difficulty of an encounter. Mario is hard because the damn platform you have to jump on is tiny, moving, and covered in spikes, but everyone understands HOW jump works within the first minute. A lot of ‘hardcore’ raiders still don’t understand how agro works, or why they are using a certain skill rotation they saw on a forum (likely wrong because they don’t have the right gear to make that rotation work, but yea…)
Something similar happens today when players go from a traditional MMO to DarkFall. They find the first few days hard because of how different the basics are, even though the actual difficulty in the tasks is still rather low. Killing your first goblin in DF is tough by MMO standards, but only because the first goblin in most MMOs has zero chance to kill you and is all too happy to stand still directly in front of you while you bash him over the head with a rusty dagger. The simple fact that a goblin in DF has the audacity to move away or around you once you agro him gets a lot of players killed, but the actual combat is not much harder than the average jump in Mario, and certainly can’t hold a candle to scoring a TD in Madden.
I think the major reason easy=fun for the average gamer in today’s MMOs is because compared to the average game, even an ‘easy’ MMO like WoW is tough to get into and fully understand. By making it so you don’t have to actually understand it, the average player can still progress and collect his ‘epics’ in WoW today, while back in 2004-05 anything at-level required some basic understanding of stats/mechanics, and raiding required an Elitist Jerks degree in theorycraft. Yet while the challenge was higher based on game knowledge, the actual gameplay was still relatively easy. You still had to decurse, step out of the fire, and not unload until the tank had agro. The margin of error was much lower, but the actual player skillset required was still low, certainly much lower than what it takes to play Madden or to beat a Mario level.
If MMO games really want to break out into the mainstream and join WoW (the one break-out fluke), the frontloading of arcane mechanics and trivial details needs to be replaced with better core gameplay. Mobs standing in front of you waiting to die so you can move on and kill 14 more to finish a ‘quest’ is not good gameplay, no matter how ‘epic’ the reward at the end is or how well you write the quest text (that 90% skip anyway). Or if that is the height of MMO gameplay, at least make it easier for the average player to understand why that ‘epic’ he just got for killing those 15 bears is great, without having to understand 10 different stats and 20 different modifiers to stuff-like-stats-but-not-exactly-stats. That works in Diablo because that’s ALL THERE IS to Diablo, and at least you get to click a whole bunch while playing and the mobs die by the hundreds.
In other words, easy=fun in MMO land only because at their base, MMOs are NOT easy to understand. Make the basics (jumping/fighting) Mario easy, and you can make the actual gameplay (levels/encounters) Mario hard. Until then, “don’t stand in the fire” is about as complex as you are going to find the average encounter in any MMO looking to hit 300k+, and you might have to play *shudder* a niche MMO to find something a little less sleep-inducing.