Easy is Fun

It just is. Easy is fun.

Hardcore gamers will argue that games are too easy and to them, this level of difficulty is not fun. And they are all lying. You see, hardcore gamers aren’t playing for fun. They are not just playing the game for simple amusement or to pass some time. Hardcore gamers play games for an entirely different reason – a feeling of accomplishment. When you play a difficult game, the game play itself is not what you get enjoyment from. The game play usually sucks. It is punishing, difficult, and frustrating. However, beating these odds, overcoming the difficulty and the frustration gives the player a heightened sense of accomplishment and ego.

You will never hear a casual player bragging about how they beat the game on hard mode. Why? Because they don’t play on hard. They play on easy or normal. Because they’re playing to play the game and find enjoyment from the game itself.

It is because of this difference between the goals of the casual gamer and hardcore gamer that arguments over difficulty spawn all over MMO forums. The hardcore complain that the game is becoming too accessible, too easy, and the enjoyment they once received from being the only one with the tolerance to slog through hours of brutally punishing content has diminished. They are no longer having “fun” because of the casuals. Because their “fun” is based on a psychological factor, the feeling of being superior through accomplishment.

The casual players, on the other hand, complain about the game being too difficult. Their issue is with the game itself; the content being too inaccessible to their level of play. And therein lies one of the major balancing acts of developing an MMO. Balancing the hardcore player’s need for a sense of accomplishment (usually provided with raiding) and the casual’s need for a fun game without difficulty or frustration. You can’t have both. One side will always be favored over another.

And that brings me to World of Warcraft. WoW is an MMO that doesn’t bother at all with this balancing. They are firmly and squarely situated in the Casual camp and show no signs of budging. WoW is, without a doubt, the easiest of the major MMOs on the market. And by a very, very large margin at that. Don’t believe me? Play some WoW, then try any other major MMO on the market – EQ2, LOTRO, EVE. The drastic differences will be immediately evident. Even the “hard” parts of WoW, end-game raiding and PvP, pale in comparison to the difficulty, complexity, and level of challenge of everything else out there. The game is easy by design in every way it can be.

Which is why it is the most popular game by a large margin. I’m asked every day by other developers and gamers alike on why I think WoW is so successful. And for some reason they never believe my answer: “Because WoW is easy and people like easy.” They refuse to believe that. They want to believe there is some other underlying mystical formula that World of Warcraft uses to attract and maintain their millions of players. Nope. It is simple.

Easy is fun.

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  1. Easy is only fun until you get bored… but the spread of boredom tolerance out there is scarily massive. I’m sure that it is part of the WoW effect as you say.

    Hard games don’t have to be frustrating if the feedback mechanisms in the game can show the way forward – but there’s not a lot of game designers who can get that right.

  2. I suspect that you are correct, though I think of the difficulty as more binary. The great majority of encounters are either trivial or hard coded to be impossible at your level. It seems that many MMO players get frustrated when they don’t have very clear guidelines as to what should be doable for them, and when “doable” doesn’t mean “99.9% success rate.”

    What’s odd though, is that the majority of successful video games are not easy. Surely not as easy as WoW. Mario was not easy, very few players got past the second or third world the first time they picked it up. Team Fortress II is not easy, these days the first time you head online you will be nothing but free kills for most of your opponents.

    It can’t be purely a “we have character levels” thing. CoD II is not particularly easy, and sports simple MMOish leveling mechanics. Boderlands has proved to be a very successful multiplayer roguelike, and you are certain to die a lot more often than you will manage to playing WoW. Though to be fair, once your weapons reach a certain level it does become relatively easy.

    • Mario was over a decade ago. Gamers have changed since then. And, comparatively to other games at the time, Mario was actually fairly easy by comparison. Try playing Abaddox for the NES, that game is near impossible without cheat codes.

      Team Fortress 2 is easy to play. Your team can still be successful even if you are not. You are confusing “being good at the game” with “having fun in the game”, which is what a hardcore gamer would do. My wife loves the game and she’s absolutely terrible at it. She just runs around as a medic healing people. In order to do that you literally hold down the mouse button and run at people – it doesn’t really get any easier than that.

      And Borderlands, well, you sort of explained that one yourself. The game can be challenging if you are powering through the world doing the missions as fast as possible. Then you’ll get into areas too quickly, at too low of a level, and it can be tough. However, if you take your time, explore a little, or simply get lost a few times you will gain extra levels and find better weapons that make the majority of the game completely trivial. My soldier literally just runs through his current missions now, because I’ve got an explosive rifle that simply decimates everything in front of me.

      Playing against other players will always be more challenging than the single player experience. World of Warcraft’s success rides on the ease of the single player game.

      • In TF II, Borderlands, and CoD II you are highly likely to die many horrible deaths within the first few hours you play. I have to think to most players that would give the impression of the games being “hard.” In modern WoW, it’s damn near impossible to get killed doing single player content appropriate to your level.

        In any case, I wasn’t trying to debate your main point. Easy games do well, it’s a fact. See Spider Solitare, the Sims, Spore, or pretty much all the popular Wii games.

        The point of discussion that I was trying to raise is that is that, both historically and recently games, much harder than WoW have done well. For example, I saw a news story claiming that CoD II has made over a billion dollars as of mid January.

        Why are challenging MMOs unable to do that well finacially? When we look at really successful non WoW MMOs, they are mostly FtP and mostly also incredibly easy. It could be as simple “challenging MMOs aren’t on consoles.” It could also be that a sub fee or the need to be online diminishes the potential market so much that a game that isn’t incredibly easy (ala Sims, Spider Solitare, WoW, ect.) can’t hope to get more than 500K active users (based on the current user base of FFXI).

        Enjoying your blog in any case. Keep writing.

  3. This is the same phenomenon that the Wii brought forth. To me, a hardcore gamer, he Wii is poo. It is riddled with terrible titles with horrible graphics and very little content. Meanwhile, Nintendo is laughing all the way to the bank, because they got it: Most people are not hardcore gamers. Most people don’t wanna deal with difficulty or spend any amount of time building up the skills necessary to be outstanding at a game. Hence the overwhelming success of the platform. As long as there are MMOs out there that challenge me, WoW can keep their bajillion subscribers.

    Easy may be fun for a while, but it doesn’t keep me coming back. An easy game becomes boring very fast, which is perfect for casual players, since they weren’t going to put in any reasonable amount of time into it anyway, but not for me.

  4. I think you’re oversimplifying by saying easy is fun and I agree with a lot of the comments here. The Wii isn’t a totally poo idea, its just a poo implementation of a good idea. Most games on it are too easy and casual for hardcore gamers to appreciate. WoW had some hard stuff in its vanilla form. (when I played it) They did more than just make it easy though. They had street cred from making good games for a long long time.

    Most game companies don’t realize or think about the damage to their brands they are doing when they pop out bad game. I think I’m gonna write a blog article about this. Anyways keep writing I like your writing style.

  5. “Easy is fun” and other such catchphrases are what designers who work on games with concepts that originated in the marketing department tell themselves in order to not lose the will to live. 😉

    Easy can be fun, but more often easy passes the time. The rules of solitaire card games are often easy, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a lot of people who describe playing Klondike (or more mechanical solitaire games like Clock) as a truly fun experience. More often people play the game as something to do to pass the time or keep their mind active to prevent boredom.

    This isn’t to say that hard is automatically fun, either. Hard can be frustrating if the game doesn’t provide sufficient feedback. A lot of times the “hardcore” games have a lot of assumed knowledge that inexperienced (or “casual”) players don’t have. An experienced FPS player who suddenly dies might reason that a sniper killed the character; a newbie might think the game just randomly killed them and thus becomes frustrated.

    A lot of people who become hardcore players will tend to be those who stick with games despite the opportunities to be frustrated. An inquisitive player might try to figure out why they died, or reason things out based on logic. Eventually that player becomes the hardcore because they understand the game better and they carry that information to others. Learning new tricks tends to excite these types of players.

    I think it’s foolish to try to marginalize the hard-core who don’t like “easy” games, however. A comment above states that Mario was a decade ago, but I’ll point out that a recent hit game was New Super Mario Bros. Wii. I’ve not played that game myself, but if it’s anything like New Super Mario Bros. for the DS it’s not an “easy” game.

    A contrasting viewpoint to consider.

    • You are taking the stance of a hardcore gamer.

      The difference between hardcore and casual (and I’ll write up a post about this) is not the amount of play time or the types of games they enjoy. It is why you are playing the game. For the vast majority of gamers, video games are nothing more than cheap entertainment to pass the time. Hardcore gamers, on the other hand, see them as more than that, as a hobby, as a lifestyle, as a means to fulfill the human need for a sense of accomplishment (that they are usually not receiving from their non-game life).

      For the vast majority of gamers, easy is fun, simply because they are looking for quick, easy, enjoyable entertainment. Of course, if you are a hardcore gamer, you will obviously disagree with this because “Easy” doesn’t fulfill the reason(s) you play video games. That is, essentially, what you are explaining and I don’t disagree with it.

      And lastly, with New Super Mario Bros you are comparing apples to oranges. You are assuming the success is determined solely by the ease of play, when it is merely a factor. And that if a game is successful and isn’t incredibly easy, then my statement “Easy is Fun” is wrong. Ease of play increases accessibility. Increased accessibility equals more sales. You can’t argue that. It’s economical fact. If you want to compare, take two games in the same genre of equal quality and the game that is more accessible (easy) will always be more successful (in sales). It may not get the reviewers praise, it may seem like “shovelware” or “casual crap” to you and the hardcore market, but it will outsell Demon Souls every single time.

      • Madden vs Blitz (back when Blitz was around) is actually an example of the more complex game outselling the ‘dumbed down’ version, and Blitz itself was not shovelware. Post about this topic coming shortly.

      • Madden is a sports sim. And an established franchise with a marketing budget larger than the entire budget of Blitz.

        Blitz was an arcade game with vastly inferior graphics and a lack of real-life player names.

        There are far more factors at work than simply the complexity and difficulty of the game. And Madden is far from complex or difficult.

      • Wait wait wait, if Madden is not complex or difficult, what is?

      • I assume you are referring to the multi-player portion of the game.

        To simply play and enjoy the game, it is not difficult nor complicated. You can basically select the same 3-4 plays and beat any team. And until the latest iterations (last 5 years or so) that’s all the game was. Select a play, press the correct button, move the cursor into the open area of the field, celebrate instant victory. Now, I’ll give you that the latest iterations have added more complexity by adding more features to the game (dynasty modes, GM modes, customizable players, training camp modes, etc.) but each of these individual modes by themselves are very simplistic in nature.

        Of course, unless you are playing on the hardest difficulty, which as a hardcore gamer, I would expect you to. However, as most gamers would admit, a very, very small fraction of Madden players have ever even tried the harder difficulties, much less have major success with them. You can check the gamerscore/achievement tracker on 360 (there’s a website somewhere, I need to find the link) that shows the amount of gamers who own/have played Madden and the number that have gotten the achievements for such things as winning the Superbowl on the hardest difficulty or completing multiple seasons in Dynasty mode (etc). The numbers are staggering.

        However, when you begin to play online, or against non-computer opponents, that is the only time the game becomes challenging or complex. And I’ve admitted this. All games become exponentially more challenging when played against real opponents.

        That doesn’t make the game challenging or difficult.

        A challenging or difficult game is so by default. Demon Souls, for example, or EQ2. There is no easy mode that the majority of the player base flocks to. There is no easy way to play and succeed and have fun. And that’s why those games, while having enormous critical success amongst journalists (who are admittedly hardcore gamers), have such poor sales and sustained player base numbers.

        It’s a similar argument when I said WoW is easy, and I got half a dozen replies (in my email) from my hardcore WoW buddies, all of which are end-game raiders or Arena PvPers. They disagreed because at their level of play, WoW is supposedly not easy. However, they are making the game more challenging than it needs to be. It isn’t that the game is challenging, is it that the game has given them the tools and opportunity to make it challenging. While the vast majority (+80%) of the player base never uses these tools or opportunity and instead just hum along on easy mode because that is what is more fun to them. Because they’re casuals. And easy is fun.

      • I still say Madden has a big initial curve to get over with the control complexity and the overall complexity of Football. After that, you are assuming a casual player knows the 3-4 gimmick plays that always work, and furthermore that they can pull them off successfully enough to not deter off that plan. I think that is a lot of assumptions to make, especially if we are talking about the 30 minute ‘pick up and play’ crowd.

        There is a huge amount of space between that crowd and someone who can beat Madden at the highest difficulty level, and I think it’s that vast middle crowd that too many MMOs are failing to attract, not necessarily because MMOs are not easy enough, but because the gameplay is not great (which goes back to my post responding to this). It’s not easy that’s fun, it’s fun gameplay that’s fun. Most MMOs simply don’t provide really fun gameplay.

      • And I would say you are just arguing semantics.

        Fun gameplay is an unquantifiable benchmark because each individual player considers different gameplay fun.

        What a hardcore gamer considers fun, a casual gamer considers frustrating and difficult. What a casual gamer considers fun, a hardcore gamer considers boring and too easy.

        And the hardcore market is that magic ~250k sub number I threw out earlier (which is merely the average population of a successful hardcore MMO). The games are fun to hardcore gamers because they are specifically not easy. They offer challenge. And casual gamers tend to shy away from them because they find them, well, not fun, because they are too frustrating, time consuming and difficult.

        And WoW appeals to casual gamers more (and thus has the mass numbers) because it is fun to more people, specifically because it is easier (comparatively) to other MMOs.

        Now, Madden, for example, has a lot more factors contributing to its success. Its name, its established franchise record, its build up on customer base over more than a decade, and its monopoly on the market. The 2K games were largely more critically acclaimed than Madden in most years, because they offered more complex gameplay which was fun to the hardcore gamers (i.e. journalists/reviewers), but even though they were supposedly more fun, they didn’t sell well (in comparison to Madden). In which case, my theory is proven correct (or at least, somewhat accurate) again.

  6. nice info

  7. […] concept of ‘easy’ in MMO land A while back GameMonkey made this post, basically stating that “easy is fun”, and that easy is one of the keys to reaching the mass […]

  8. […] The two terms are applicable. The issue is facing the reality of their implications. Admitting you would rather be a grunt than a hero is not something anyone wants to do, yet playing the role of grunt is what most end up signing up for, even when the option of being a hero is available. The grunt is just ‘easier’, and like someone with a slow-to-update blog said, for most easy=fun. […]

  9. Well you are correct about casuals. If you want have biggest subscription numbers go ahead target a casual. And yeah – good luck competing with WoW for that segment!

    If you only think in terms of numbers – mass market can not be beaten. Majority of people are just… average.

    You want that segment? -go ahead. Some games (like eve) stick to their niche and doing allright

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