Difficulty Ramps and How Endgame-Focused MMOs Fail To Onboard Players

I find difficulty discussion in games quite tedious, because it sparks the most elitist, garbage takes one can imagine. Soulsborne games get this the worst, but all manner of games and spaces get it because the question it poses is one that gets people going – who should be able to do things and should things be accessible?

Yet at the same time, I think there are elements of it that are interesting, because at the end of the day, in most games, there will be content that is not for 100% of the playerbase. JRPGs have post-story dungeons and New Game Plus, a lot of games have difficulty settings, there are things like Master Levels, all sorts of content like that. In the MMO space, particularly in games with raid content, there is usually some sort of upper-echelon difficulty. In WoW, there’s Mythic Raiding(and to a far lesser extent Heroic Raiding and mid-key Mythic Plus dungeons), and in FFXIV, there’s Savage and Ultimate raids.

What I do find interesting to discuss is the way that these games, in particular, set players up on a path that can lead to these things.

To a lot of players, higher difficulty base content is both necessary and a net good, but game designers seem to disagree to some extent. In the MMO space, multiple developers have spoken up about this idea, from Ghostcrawler to former WoW encounter designer (and FFXIV fan) Nathaniel Chapman, to former SWTOR lead designer Damion Schubert. These people, intimately familiar with the inner-workings and player participation on some of the biggest MMOs in the world, suggest quite the opposite – that most mandatory or story content should be made easier and that difficult content should be off to the side and, as Schubert in particular puts it, aspirational. Schubert’s take is the one I find most interesting and fleshed out – that any designer can put an impossible challenge in front of a player, that a great designer can take a bad player on a journey of learning to get them over the hump on the hardest challenges, but that a “zen” designer (his word and branding for himself) realizes that players might just want to love the game without taking that journey.

And…I think that’s an interesting insight and fair. I think that most modern MMOs (certainly the ones I’ve played, at least) understand this to a point. WoW, FFXIV, Guild Wars 2, none of these games require that a player learn massive toolkits to just enjoy the story. There’s little need to understand a full class kit and its combat interactions, or to learn the ins and outs of how to maximize performance or uptime – you can, in most story content in these games, just show up, beat down the boss, and ultimately win. In WoW and FFXIV in particular, however, there is content that exists beyond that, and what I want to discuss today is how both of these games handle that journey and how, in one case, the game fails to have much of one.

FFXIV is where I want to start, because it has what I believe is a failure of difficulty ramping. Most content in FFXIV is easy and very straightforward to a fault. Dungeons are an identical formula that is a straight line with differing decorations. Raids and trials on Normal are symmetrical rooms with death walls and a single boss, at least since Stormblood – barring a couple of add phases an expansion, that’s really it. None of this content has any threat to it – there’s no risk of an actual wipe in most cases, and that is almost entirely regardless of how well the group plays. I’ve done fights successfully down a player, I’ve seen DPS players tank for quite some time, as a healer I routinely out-perform DPS players at doing damage in ways that stun and astonish me – because I’m not even that good at the game.

Normal parse on Sage to make me feel better, haha

But that is the thing – the average player in FFXIV does daily roulettes, queueable content they do with strangers, and required MSQ content, and all of this content is designed in accordance with what player data suggests to be true – that more people play and enjoy the game if they are not asked to take “the journey.” For as much as I genuinely wonder what in the hell is even happening for some players to play how they do, the answer is quite simple – nothing at that level of the game asks them to do more or tells them they are not doing the right things, because it doesn’t need to.

Where I think the real problem comes in is for someone trying to shift up to Savage or beyond.

In FFXIV, if you want to jump into difficult content, there’s no smooth onboarding experience to pull you from level-capped current dungeons to Extreme Trials, the first real point on that journey. You just leap from content you can do with a hand tied behind your back to something that demands much, much more. Extreme Trials are sometimes so different from the normal version that you cannot even really practice the mechanics, not in any real way. In many cases, Normal trials and raids pare down mechanics from Savage/EX in weird ways to get the idea of the mechanic into the Normal mode but with none of the execution. As an example, the current first raid boss of the tier, Ericthonios – on Normal, he does a targeted knockback to a random player that requires that player to either ride the knockback or immune it, and then stack with the raid to split damage from an AoE. On Savage, this mechanic also exists, sort of…except it is one of two major tankbusters, and it is targeted always on the current active tank. The spirit is there, sort of – but the actual execution is vastly different. In fact, some form of this switcheroo happens on 3 out of 4 bosses this tier, with P2N having a random two-target mechanic that is intended for tanks on Savage, and then P3N has targeted AoEs on tanks where P3S has the same basic mechanic except it is a random targeting tether that the tanks must move to intercept and pull out of the group.

This problem also exists with DPS checks. In normal day-to-day play in FFXIV, you will never see so much as a hint of a DPS check. Almost nothing, save for a couple of older bosses, has any sort of soft or hard enrage – you can fight them all day, provided that the group lives and whittles the boss down. When you get to EX trials, you are suddenly not only expected to have mechanical aptitude you can’t practice on Normal in any meaningful way, but you also need to meet a DPS check that requires a fair degree of correct play on your part. Now, EX trials and even early-tier Savage fights don’t have tough DPS checks, but the game still jumps quite a height from never asking you to optimize anything or even hit a combo correctly to asking you to execute a proper combo with at least some amount of oGCD weaving and proper resource management. Just this week, I met a Black Mage in the current Alliance Raid who was casting one High Fire II and then one High Blizzard II (both AoE skills) on single-target fights, and doing less damage than all but the worst healers in the full raid. Nothing in the raid told him this was wrong – we one shot everything and went our separate ways, but that player in even the launch EX trials of the expansion would have met enrage for that lack of performance.

The game only really provides one way to check your performance without violating the ToS – Stone, Sea, and Sky, a set of tuned target dummies that offer a 3 minute trial run with an amount of HP that you should be able to burn down within the duration of the trial if you are playing correctly. The problem with this is that the dummy doesn’t ask you to do mechanics and poses no challenges to positioning, movement, or the like – it’s just a stationary dummy. It is very possible for a player to barely scrape by the SSS dummy DPS check for a fight, only to utterly fail when asked to modify their play in any way. A player in my FC is like this – he can do actual good DPS when we do treasure map dungeons because nothing ever threatens him or forces him to move or adapt while playing, but the second we load into an EX trial, his DPS is 10% of what it was in the treasure dungeon because he has to move and respond to mechanics. That’s a fairly extreme case, of course, but measuring fight readiness by how much damage you can do under perfect circumstances is not an actual measure of preparedness.

That is the challenge that FFXIV players face – if you want to do Savage or EX trials, you are often stepping up substantially in difficulty with no real guidance or way in-game to practice up to that tier of play. The game offers Savage as an aspirational goal but offers no real way of progressing to that point of gameplay skill – you go from a point where you can do almost anything and still win a fight to where everything you do matters – buff timing for party buffs on the one and two minute windows, movement management, oGCD weaving.

My own Savage experience was mired by a lot of this. Playing with randoms in easy content as healer often means covering for mistakes and doing a lot more active healing, while Savage asks a healer to do as little healing as possible in order to pump damage into the boss. The boss fights on Savage are tuned around a mode of gameplay that is completely different from what a fair number of healers do in normal content – healbot or barely throw out DPS. I’ve been leaning into the damage meta of the game for a while, but Savage has taught me a hard lesson about just how much I tend to play safe and overheal or overmitigate just to keep a group of randoms on the straight and narrow. Even now, old habits die hard – just today before writing this, I got my second clear of P4S, with it being my first time doing the fight on Sage successfully through both phases, and at Curtain Call, the ending mechanic where healing and mitigation is needed constantly on a steady cadence, I drastically ate into my encounter-wide DPS to cast shields with each damage event. We cleared it, yeah – but had I done that on both Curtain Calls or more throughout the fight, we could have lost enough DPS to actually have hit enrage, which is not good. Ultimately, a win is a win, but had I been with a group that had worse DPS players or tanks not meeting their end of the bargain, it would have been a wipe. Conversely, I did wipe a lot earlier in the week on P4S part 2 because my co-healer was doing almost no healing – 1.5k HPS to my 15k, all in order for them to put up 800 more DPS (yes, really). It was awful, and we wiped multiple times to a lack of healing before the group disbanded.

In the long term, I think that FFXIV needs some middle-ground of content to teach players how to play better, simply by introducing stakes and danger to this content. I don’t want or need MSQ content or daily roulettes to be punishing and hard, but I would like an optional side-content mode of play that offers some modicum of challenge and risk – DPS checks, enrages, healing checks, tank swaps, etc. Someplace with AoE mechanics like Savage and EX, where waiting on a telegraph is too late, where you need to watch the boss, watch the cast bar, and learn how the boss runs through their abilities. My hope is that Criterion Dungeons in 6.2 will offer some of this, although I am not sure how much I believe that will be the case. As it stands right now, ascending from standard content to even EX trials at the easy end of the hard-content spectrum in FFXIV is a task made unnecessarily difficult because the game just has no in-between and no way to use a lower difficulty mode of the same encounter as proper training.

On the other side of that is WoW.

I think that WoW sometimes gets flak for its heavy endgame focus and the way it can often push casual players out through how meta-slaved the community can often be and how the scaling of content and multiple layers of difficulty creates a messy tapestry of ways one can engage. However, coming at it from the perspective of someone who has seen multiple MMO endgames, I think the rub is this – WoW has a great overall approach to this.

Sure, on the surface, you might question scaling content, dungeons with 3 difficulties and a modifier set for the 3rd difficulty that adds effectively 30 additional granular scaling difficulties to the dungeon, or raids with 4 distinct difficulties and rewards tiered between them, is better or even good. It’s quite simple, though – by offering this difficulty design, WoW gives players a way to progress on an optional journey by jumping on at a comfortable point and jumping off when it starts to get unfun to them.

WoW overall is a more challenging game than FFXIV because even world content poses some danger and risk. Mobs are more densely packed, item level scaling in endgame enemies creates a steady threat that you can eventually overpower, and survival requires knowing your class and spec’s specific toolkit of endurance and damage abilities and how to use them. To me, this is a positive, because it means that as you get more comfortable, you can do more crazy things like pulling multi-mob packs, soloing elites and rares, and generally challenging yourself to stretch beyond basic 1v1 battles against enemies. It also creates a satisfying reward loop, where earned power from dungeons, raids, and the current world content gives you more capability in the open world on top of the power creep granted in raids and dungeons by those same rewards.

In both dungeons and raids, the lowest difficulty modes of both available have mechanics that maintain consistent implementation between all higher difficulties as well, with the differences amounting to scaling of damage dealt or damage required and any modifiers to mechanics on higher difficulties simply adding an additional effect or target to what was already there on the lower difficulty. This creates smoother scaling but also a meaningful path to learn without having to push harder content before you are prepared. If you run a Normal dungeon or even an LFR raid, you have seen at least 50% of the mechanics and will have some measure of familiarity with them for higher difficulty modes, because they function much the same, if not identically with scaling. There are new mechanics as you climb, but your foundation is sound because the shared elements of the fight look and function the same.

So in WoW, you have a smooth-ish difficulty ramp, one that allows you to see the baseline mechanics on whatever difficulty best suits you, and then you can climb the ladder to your desire for better rewards and scaling challenge. On top of that, the game’s baseline world content expects a higher degree of aptitude from players – not enough to be a difficult challenge, but where you can find some risk if you don’t approach carefully (or you can choose to add risk and challenge by piling up enemies to your desire). WoW’s higher-end content remains aspirational to players, but it also feels attainable to a point – I never did current Mythic raiding while I played WoW, but it was mostly just a lack of organizational and social desire. I could have made the climb and likely done halfway-decently at it, had I chose to do so. Likewise, the game has a large casual playerbase that enjoys the world content and for whom a new zone every major patch means a large burst of new content and new tests of skill.

I think through the lens of new player experience, we often talk a lot about the initial experience – the first 10 levels, the first hour, the first new system or idea foisted upon a player in the early hours of the game. However, in a long-tail, endgame-focused MMO, the more important new player experience is arguably the one players have at endgame, and the ways in which the game shows players the aspirational path and offers them that journey to accept or reject. WoW offers players a relatively well-laid path with steady progression options and multiple entry points. FFXIV offers players an easy core loop and puts such a high wall between that content and the aspirational stuff while not offering a tall-enough ladder to help players get over said wall if they so desire. I like EX trials just fine, but they are not a good starting point (and honestly, if you are doing those successfully, Savage is within easy reach to start, at least). FFXIV desperately, desperately needs to offer players a ladder, some way to choose that journey without having to scrounge around desperately for a pogo stick and then spend weeks trying to learn how to use it to vault the wall. (That’s a metaphor successfully tortured to death, I really am in top form!)

3 thoughts on “Difficulty Ramps and How Endgame-Focused MMOs Fail To Onboard Players

  1. Hmmm…. Riffing on your posts back in 2021 about the passive/aggressive nature of the FFXIV community, is that leap up to more difficult raiding tiers where you tend to see that sort of behavior the most? It would seem to be a pretty obvious point, where the difficulty amps up and experienced raiders can get frustrated, where that sort of thing would make an appearance.

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    1. You might think that, but in fact it is the exact opposite – the casual players tend to be the most aggro in groups. My experience with Savage has been mostly and remarkably clear of much of that while in normal content and dungeons it amps up. There’s a little on both sides of the fence, but you see far more of it prior to EX or Savage content, at least in my personal experience.

      (anecdotally, my experiences in WoW were an inverted bell curve of sorts, where I saw the most toxicity at the low end of content and when I dipped a toe in the tippity-top)

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