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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.