This is a late post and I’m tired, so apologies if this doesn’t come out as clearly as I’d like it to… it seems to me that there are three different sorts of “difficulty” used in MMOs.
A) Statistical difficulty, AKA the numbers game. Difficulty as measured by the character stats that are the bread and butter of these games. Difficulty that is beaten by doing THIS much DPS, or having THAT much armour and hit points on the tank to survive spike damage. This is the sort of difficulty that optimising gear and character builds is intended to beat.
B) Execution difficulty. This is the “dance of the raid bosses”. It relies on players observing and reacting in accordance with a script and has nothing to do with character stats. It doesn’t matter whether you’re wearing quest greens or tier 97 epics… if you stand in the fire You Will Die. It’s also a bit of a cheat in my opinion because it tends to be an encounter-specific skill, not a measure of how good you are at playing this game in general. Have you learned the boss encounter? Do you know where to run when special move X is announced? If yes, you get epics. If you screw it up through ignorance, poor situational awareness or straightforward clumsiness you get a repair bill. Personal view – I hate this type of difficulty simply because I KNOW I’m slow and clumsy. I had enough years of being the last to be picked for any sports team at school (with one exception, see below) – I don’t need my escape into a fantasy world to rub my nose in it too 🙂
C) Decision cycle difficulty. The art of doing the right thing under pressure. This is where a player has a number of different choices, all of which might be beneficial to the group. Doing well consists of choosing the MOST beneficial action without wasting time. Prime example of this is playing my LotRO loremaster – at any point in a fight I can throw a damage skill, heal an ally, transfer power to an ally so they can keep using their skills, top off my own power by draining an enemy, cast one of my debuffs, use one of several crowd control skills, cure wound or disease effects, give an instruction to my pet, or self-heal if my pet has triggered the correct status on the enemy. Good loremaster players are the ones who can take in the whole situation, pick the best option off that list, and execute it without wasted time. Poor loremasters either get paralysed by the number of choices and dither, wasting time – or they make poor choices (doing DPS when CC needs refreshing, for example). You know how I mentioned there was one sport I wasn’t completely useless at? Fencing is as much about anticipating your opponent and choosing tactics – fast – as it is about simple dexterity. The combination of being mentally agile, left-handed and actually being able to keep my glasses on raised my ability in this one sport to, oh, almost average :p
In WoW, there’s a lot of type A and B difficulty but not a lot of type C… DPS players simply don’t have to make many actual decisions in normal play. Healers and tanks do, on the other hand. This might be one reason why playing these roles is less popular – having to make a constant stream of decisions is hard work. LotRO has slower gameplay but a lot more decisions to be made from moment to moment on all (or at least most) of its classes. Even the hunter class in LotRO has combat skills above and beyond raw damage (crowd control, cure poison) and a Hunter who maximises DPS at the expense of those other skills isn’t lauded by the community as a godlike being for topping the damage charts.
So I guess what I’m getting at is – are game designers using the wrong kind of difficulty in their games? Would players prefer a different mix? Can you have a raid progression game based around players getting better at playing their class instead of getting better at having big number on their character sheets? And how would we know who the best players are if we can’t tell by inspecting the gens and enchants on their shoulderpads?