Artificial difficulty: there’s no such thing

There are hard bosses and there are easy bosses when it comes to raiding in a themepark MMORPG. However, there are varying types of difficulty. This, I am afraid, is often not recognized when arguing whether this or that boss is more difficult than the other. Difficulty is still difficulty, even when it comes from a different source than the one one would expect, and that is what I want to address in this post.

Lets take a look at World of Warcraft, a game most of us have played. Time and time again on various discussion platforms one runs into difficulty comparisons drawn between the boss encounters of past expansions and those of the more recent ones.

Take the common claim that modern (Cataclysm expansion onwards) hardmode boss encounters are much more difficult than, say, the hardest of content offered by The Burning Crusade, the game’s first expansion pack. The arguments usually given are something along the following lines:

  • In The Burning Crusade, boss mechanics are rather simple – fire on the ground, debuffs that do damage to nearby friendly allies, debuffs that must be dispelled at the correct time, hard DPS checks with a slight twist.  Modern boss encounters often use the same mechanics, but there are also new ones and there are more of them per boss, making the newer encounters generally more complex.
  • Modern character classes have more buttons they have to press regularly in their second-to-second play (rotation) during an encounter.

If we simply compare the amount of mechanics of a modern hardmode boss to that of a boss from TBC, we can easily see that sure, the newer bosses have more mechanics. On the other hand, classes now have way more tools on short cooldown to deal with these mechanics – there are sprints, damage taken reducing abilities, multi mob tanking abilities, instant crowd control abilities, etc. And in The Burning Crusade, threat management (not overaggroing, and in some encounters, tank swapping by pure threat control) is still a mechanic where as it doesn’t exist in later expansions, mostly because tanks’ threat generation is through-the-roof and bosses are no longer immune to the Taunt ability which instantly moves the tank on top of the threat list.

As one can see above, there’s disagreement even on whether modern boss encounters really demand more mechanical expertise from the player or not. But lets, for the sake of argument, assume for a second that mechanically modern boss fights really are more difficult, demanding more individual player skill (of the twitch variety that is.) Does that mean The Burning Crusade would be a walk-over to the modern raider?

Despite classes’ PVE rotations in most cases being simpler back in the day and despite bosses having less mechanics, many bosses still took a very long time to kill in The Burning Crusade. In addition, now that the old content is no longer available on the official servers, private servers offer the experience of the old expansions  (although not in a perfect manner), and even on these servers guilds struggle on certain fights despite all of the strategies now being thoroughly known and players having reportedly come better at the game.

Now, time and time again some people who feel boss encounters in modern expansions are higher up on the scale of difficulty than those of past times make the argument that the above is simply due to something known as artificial difficulty. What exactly do they refer to with this term?

As far as I’ve gathered, artificial difficulty, to those who use it as an argument in said debate, is any difficulty that comes not directly from boss mechanics the player must react to in real time, but from external factors such as raid composition, logistics, consumable farming and the like instead.

An example of artificial difficulty often used is M’uru, the second last boss of Sunwell Plateau, the last and most demanding raid dungeon of the Burning Crusade expansion. The boss was infamous for “breaking guilds”, for it’s pure number requirements in terms of required healing and damage output were so high an extremely optimized raid composition was required. A very small percentage of the raiding population ended up killing the boss before the preparation patch of the next expansion.

M’uru forced many guilds to recruit certain classes such as shamans and warlocks en masse to meet the number requirements. Players also had to change their professions – about four fifths of the raid needed the Leatherworking profession so that they were able to use a certain consumable item. Lastly, the amount of gear and consumable farming (potions, foods, magical scrolls…) required was, to say the least, immense.

As said, only a very small percentage of players ever managed to beat M’uru when it was relevant content. However, mechanically speaking the fight isn’t that complex. There are monsters that need to be tanked and killed quickly and there is constant raid-wide damage going on, the amount of which grows as the fight drags on. Its nothing fancy, really – players just need to do what they normally do but in an extremely efficient manner. A single mistake can wipe the raid – be it a tank not picking up a monster fast enough of a damage dealer missing a global cooldown which ends up in the raid not meeting the number requirements.

So M’uru certainly isn’t a complex fight by the number of mechanics, but does that mean it isn’t difficult? Not at all. In fact I would argue it is one of the most difficult boss encounters in the game to date.

The thing is, not all that counts as part of difficulty is what happens inside the raid dungeon itself. You know the hassle of recruitment guilds went through to get the correct class composition to beat M’uru (or the leveling of alts)? That was part of the difficulty and somebody had to do it. The gearing up of the raid, the consumable farming, the whole logistics affair of it was indeed very challenging. Getting 20 players to roll a new profession certainly isn’t easy, let alone getting them online at the same time regularly to practice the encounter.

Boss mechanics the player needs to react to certainly aren’t the only thing that make a boss difficult. Sometimes different skills are required than simple reaction times and the ability to press the right buttons in the correct order – efficient recruitment or organizational skills, or maybe even calculating the optimal ways of dealing damage or healing on an encounter are all challenging deeds, too. All of them are part of encounter difficulty, and they certainly are a very tangible thing.

There is no such thing as artificial difficulty.

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