WoW – Unfulfilled Potential Part 4: Gameplay Difficulty


This series of articles is my personal critique of World of Warcraft based on my experiences and observations of ingame issues. I firmly believe that the game could’ve improved in numerous fields with just a bit more thought put into the game design, and that it had numerous opportunities to do so throughout the years. The first page will commonly address and analyze the issues in the game (some which are well known to the playerbase, some which are usually overlooked), while the second page will hold an attempt to present a viable solution for those issues.

Before anything else, I would like to say that World of Warcraft has been one of the best games I have ever played, as no other game had me want to play for over 6 years. There was so much to do, to see, or to experience. Playing with thousands of others ensured I would meet different kinds of people and see something new every day. But good stuff never lasts, there’s really no denying that the game has become something less over the years. Blizzard has continuously worked, updated and adapted the game throughout its life cycle, making some decisions for the better and some for the worse. The game has become more complex, more rich in terms of quantity of the content and game mechanics, yet still on the far end of their design decisions there are those that simply sucked the charm right out of the game.

 Part 1: Quest Design
Part 2: Character Progression
Part 3: A Living Breathing World
Part 4: Gameplay Difficulty
Part 5: Profession System
Part 6: Player Activities
Part 7: Dungeon Burnout

In this article I will cover the various different types of difficulties currently present in the game. While many players continuously argue that the whole game is either too easy or too hard, chances are pretty good that those players aren’t referring to the same type of difficulty in their claims.

Players complained that Cataclysm dungeons were too hard so their difficulty was soon reduced.

Intro – I will be upfront with this – WoW is an extremely easy game to ‘’finish’’. Most of the goals in the game can be completed very quickly, without much paying attention and even without talking to a single other player. This is, however, a very complex subject with many elements, it will be covered in 3 pages with the first two pages analyzing this massive issue which could possibly lead to the downfall of the game.

Over the last 6 months there have been many heated discussions every day about whether the whole game has become too easy or did it remain challenging. All the way through Cataclysm, Blizzard continuously increased and decreased the difficulty of various aspects of the game every now and then. The initial Dungeons were designed to be more challenging than the previous expansion, only to be made easier a few months later; the barriers to enter the next raiding tiers have been removed by the acquisition of raid level gear from daily quests and Dungeons; and Blizzard has continued their practice from the previous expansion of gradually reducing content difficulty as time progressed.

Because of those decisions, Cataclysm has been a real rollercoaster ride for most players. A peculiar situation appeared – out of fear that players will unsubscribe if the game is too hard or inaccessible to the players, Blizzard has made the whole game incredibly easy to complete in a very short time frame; which resulted in – players unsubscribing because they have completed the game 2 months after the last content has been released, 6 months before the next expansion. The concept of difficulty is actually no simple matter; in order to balance it right, all of the different types of difficulties must be taken into account and acknowledged as individual elements. If that isn’t done right at the start, it can lead to a very messy situation. It could arguably ruin the game permanently for a very large number of players in a single move.

C’Thun was clearly broken, one of his attacks could hit you for about 6 million damage so he had to be tweaked a bit.

Essence of Difficulty – As noted partially in Part 1: Quest Design, difficult content isn’t more numbers (more monsters, more damage or anything similar), but more things that the player needs to pay attention to. If the player doesn’t need to pay any attention to achieve a goal (completing a quest, defeating a boss, acquiring an item), content is considered too easy. However, it also represents the amount of effort required to overcome an obstacle or achieve a goal, depending on the type of difficulty.

There are three different types of difficulty:

  1. Encounter Difficulty – This type of difficulty determines how many factors the player needs to pay attention to in order to achieve victory over the encounter.

How much attention is needed for defeating a dungeon boss, an opposing PvP team or completing a quest. Dungeon and raid boss difficulty is the field in which WoW has constantly improved, while quest difficulty pretty much stagnated (or even decreased) from the release of Classic WoW up to Cataclysm.

  1. Barrier Difficulty – This type of difficulty determines how much effort is needed to access certain content. It is also referred to as ‘’Accessibility’’.

Acquiring higher numbers – character level, reputation level, average item level, arena rating, currency costs and even ‘the number of players’. Canceling 40-man raids because only 32 people showed up was common in Classic WoW; thus, today’s 10-man raids have a lower Barrier Difficulty right at the start. The completion of quests as a barrier of entry (also referred to as ‘’Attunements’’) has over time been completely abandoned. Acquiring a flying mount to access dungeons and raids in the air also falls into this barrier of entry, but it has been mitigated with the Dungeon Finder tool which teleports you directly into the instance.

  1. General Game Difficulty – This type determines how much effort is needed to achieve the overall goal of the game. Usually RPG games have two intertwined general goals:
  • Character Growth – Most RPGs have a simple general goal of ‘’become stronger’’, and since the only real way of becoming stronger in WoW is by obtaining items (gear), the general goal of the game is ‘’get better items’’.
  • Victory – In almost all cases, ‘’Character Growth’’ goal must be achieved in order to accomplish the ‘’Victory’’ goal. In singleplayer RPGs ‘’Victory’’ is often a simple ‘’Finish the story’’, but since there is no end to the story in MMORPGs, the ‘’Victory’’ goal is therefore ‘’Defeat the Ultimate Boss’’ which is always replenished by the release of new content and expansions.

No ultimate boss rules forever.

Communication – Following the current situation, and over the long run, leads me to think that everyone involved should really specify what the hell they are talking about, what DO they and what DON’T they want. This is a rough chronological summary of events that lead to this situation over the past 10 months:

  • Blizzard announces that they ‘’want to make the game more Accessible’’ (Barrier Difficulty) and for that goal they implement the Raid Finder tool (reduced Encounter difficulty), new more powerful items obtainable outside of raids (reduced General Game Difficulty) and over time implement a gradually increasing 5% to 30% buff on player stats in the final raid (reduced Encounter Difficulty)
  • Players complain that the game is too easy since they defeated Deathwing on Raid Finder (achieved ‘’Victory’’) and that there’s nothing for them to do in the game (General Game Difficulty is too easy),  they claim that it should be longer and that Blizzard should bring back attunements (Barrier Difficulty).

Most common response from other players as counter argument‘’keep quiet until you have completed Heroic versions and turn the buff off if it’s too easy for you’’ (Encounter Difficulty).

  • Players complain that dungeons are too short and that raid bosses are too easy since they don’t have to pay any attention in order to defeat them (Encounter Difficulty is too easy).

Most common response from other players as counter argument – longer dungeons and harder raids are horrible because ‘’they don’t have 2 hours a day to spend for a single dungeon’’ (General Game Difficulty, effort required in achieving ‘’Character Growth’’) while others claim that ‘’they pay for the game so they also have the right to see the content, and that the ‘special snowflake’ elitists should stop trying to take their fun away from them’’ (Accessibility – Barrier Difficulty).

  • Players claim that they can’t find anyone to go with to the previous raid tiers and that making all previous raids (other than the current content patch) redundant is just stupid. They claim that the game should return to the way TBC was designed, with steady progression through each raid tier (Barrier Difficulty is too easy).

Most common response from other players as counter argument‘’Back to TBC?? No way, f*** that ****! I don’t want to start banging my head against a wall for each boss in dungeons and raids, it took ages, it was too hard and not fun at all’’ (Encounter Difficulty) as well as ‘’I don’t want to farm for 2 hours before every raid for flasks and potions like it was needed in TBC!’’ (General Game Difficulty, ‘’Character Growth’’).

To reach Kil’jaeden, the final boss of the Burning Crusade, players had to complete 7 raids beforehand.

These situations could be seen almost every day within the community, and as one can notice – everyone is talking about their own thing. Even more unfortunately, it seems even Blizzard can’t pinpoint which difficulty the players actually want and which don’t they want, so when players simply state that ‘’the game is too hard’’, Blizzard reduces all possible difficulties in one move. Why? Because of lousy communication.

This is most evident when players are claiming that the ‘’whole game is too short’’ (from the moment of reaching maximum level to defeating the Ultimate Boss) and they are addressing General Game Difficulty, and Blizzard pulls out charts, graphs, quotes and witnesses that not everyone has defeated the Ultimate Boss on Heroic difficulty and states that ‘’you haven’t beaten the game until you have beaten this encounter’’, which usually results in a move made famous by Captain Picard.


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Greg is in fact a cute little fluffy kitten that likes cake, games... and undead. Thinks that Zombies are so 2008, and would like to see some skeletons and wraiths take the spotlight for a change, they need love too!

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