Challenge is Overrated

Rohan posted the other day that the modern MMO tendency towards making leveling alts easier runs afoul of Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun¹. “Leveling alts should be harder, not easier!” Allow me to offer an alternative Theory of Fun: it’s about Novelty, not Challenge.

While I have forwarded this thesis almost three years ago, I am more convinced than ever that the Novelty theory better explains fun than Challenge. For one thing, when was the last time you were truly challenged in a videogame? When were your abilities pushed to their maximum? Okay, now think about the last time you had fun playing a videogame. Did you ever have fun without being challenged? QED.

Part of this debate is semantic – Challenge is Novel by definition, else it would not be challenging. But Challenge does not model the demonstrated ability of players to derive fun and entertainment from picking herbs, mining copper nodes, exploring the map, fishing, and so on. Neither Skyrim nor MineCraft are particularly challenging, and yet people can sink MMO-esque amounts of time into them.

What challenge is taking place in the imagination of a child at play?

The other problem with Challenge as Fun is how clearly there is a hard limit on it. Even if you avoid crossing the line into too challenging to complete, sustained challenge can be exhausting. Which makes sense, as challenge is an exertion of effort above the median. Sustained challenge also presupposes a sort of boundless limit for self-improvement. Even if I believed that everyone could do anything if they simply put their mind to it (I don’t), it’s undeniable that one’s effort hits diminishing returns rather quickly. Is it worth 15 hours of additional practice to realize 1% gains? Maybe someone thinks so. I raided with a Hunter back in ICC whose DPS improvement was literally squeezing in one, single additional Kill Shot into an eight-minute fight. But even he would be unlikely to spend 30, 60, 90 more hours to squeeze in a second one.

Plus, you know, he did end up quitting WoW despite there being plenty of challenge left.

The way I am describing Novelty is not necessarily as “a completely unique experience.” All it has to do is simply feel new to you. The subjectivity is an important facet, just as with Challenge, and it explains how someone can still have fun picking herbs when the action itself is fairly rote and well-defined. For myself, I consider Progression to be Novel; increasing in power and effectiveness is fresh and exciting to me. I start making plans for my ever-increasing hoard of Peacebloom (etc), or imagine what I could purchase after selling it. Others could see the act-in-time to be Novel – they have never picked Felweed at this particular time and place before, and who knows if a member of the opposite faction could be lurking around the corner. Of course, there is also the people-element that can make the most mundane of tasks into cherished memories.

In the end, I might almost say that the most universal quality in fun games is Engagement. Challenge can be engaging, Novelty can be engaging. However, it is not particularly useful to suggest a game be more Engaging any more than it is useful suggesting a game be more Fun. One can certainly suggest a game be more Challenging or Novel though. I would just suggest going with the latter.

¹ I have not actually read Koster’s book, so it’s entirely possible he isn’t arguing Challenge > everything. In fact, I seem to recall it being more about learning things, which puts it more in line with my Novelty argument. Nevertheless, I don’t feel like a game has to be Challenging to be fun, and I have no idea why challenge is so fetishized in game design.

Posted on May 23, 2014, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. A very interesting angle. I’d agree that novelty for me is much more important than challenge, I like playing through new stories or old stories with new characters. Challenge is sort of there in that I do not like faceroll-thoughtless gameplay but in a sense that’s just speaking to engagement as you say. It’s not that I want particularly challenging content to play through per se, rather that I want to feel like spending time on my character’s development has some meaning beyond some far-off mythical end-game. That’s engagement as far as I’m concerned.


  2. Since you honestly stated you didn’t read Koster’s book you may not be aware that your Novelty is Fun theory is practically the same as Raph Kosterr’s Theory of Fun, which is Fun is learning (new things).
    Rohan misrepresented it a bit in his post. Don’t worry he’s in good company. If 90% of MMO bloggers read his book I’d be suprised.
    He’s probably the second game designer most misrepresented / misunderstood by bloggers academic, after Richard Bartle.

    My problem with as well Novelty is fun to a lesser extent is that this implies that for example rereading a book would not be fun because the Novelty has gone and there’s nothing new to learn. My experiences with rereading over 300 books however tell me otherwise. Novelty as (the only way of) fun is definately out. I could argue that new things can be learned from rereading books though, because your perspective changes over time.

    There’s many different ways to have fun or enjoy something. Challenge is one of them, learning another, discovering the new too. But reliving something as well. But that got a bad rep through grinding.
    It’s kinda like Nature vs Nurture, where the answer really is that it’s Nature & Nurture.

    P.s. Theory of Fun is still on my todo to read as well. Been waiting for the rerelease to become available here. :-)


  3. @Lani: Rereading a book isn’t a good example because, while the book itself remains the same, your perspective has changed a bit between reads. On the first read, it’s brand new. On the second read, you have an idea of what to expect in the story, so the reading experience itself is new again. Plus, changes in your own mentality, personality, etc. cause you to interpret passages in a new light, allowing you to “get new things” out of the book.

    Now that I think about it, in many ways, that parallels the process of creating alts…


    • Excellent point. Sometimes I have more fun making alts precisely because it’s easier – it allows me the opportunity to leverage all the tricks and strategies I’ve learned from the first time around. And as you said, rereading a book (or replaying a videogame) gives you the opportunity to experience it from a different angle.

      To use a somewhat cliche example, it’s the difference between watching a movie like Fight Club or Sixth Sense the first time vs subsequent viewings. It is precisely because the experience is “easier” (you know what’s going to happen) that allows you to take in the other details that would have escaped your notice the first time around.


  4. I have not actually read Koster’s book,

    You should, it’s actually fairly interesting and it goes way beyond the “challenge” thing (which, to be honest, I didn’t really remember as standing out from the rest).

    BTW sometime when playing the aim is nor challenge nor novelty, but just relax. Farming can be very relaxing. At the same time it could be questioned if it’s actually a “game”.


    • Indeed. There was many a time that I would be farming mats in WoW simply because I wanted to be doing something in-game. It wasn’t even like I was just killing time or needed an excuse to be online talking with friends either. I just wanted the experience of doing something, of progression, and mining/fishing/etc was therapeutic in that regard.


  5. I’m very comfortable with the idea of novelty as fun. much more so than with Challenge, that’s for sure. it leaves out the very important factor of reassurance as fun, though. I suspect that much of what we call “fun” in MMOs , particularly the predictable and repetitive activities that make up so much of the gameplay, are actually about feeling safe, comfortable and reassured. It may be why MMO players, while they frequently demand challenge and novelty, often react so negatively when they get it.


  6. I dunno. To me, Koster’s basic point was that games operate on a cycle of learning -> mastery -> learning. He gives the example of Tic-Tac-Toe, which is fun up until the point that you master it, and then most people drop the game.

    I don’t see how making the alt process *easier* adds to the learning process, and thus to the game. At the very least, the difficulty should stay the same as the first character. Then you have novelty, but you still need the same degree of mastery.

    The concept of making the alt slightly more difficult was more to just balance the fact that you’ve already mastered the concepts that are common to all classes (things like the base UI, movement, how loot works, etc.). To keep the challenge on the same level as the original character.

    Providing additional challenge after that is like icing on the cake. Novelty plus new mastery.


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