Just picking developers’ brains :) Hope this is interesting enough to get a discussion going.
I was on a forum the other day where people were lamenting the lack of “challenge” in a game, and it got me to thinking.
It seems to me that the more abstracted a game, the more challenge (and the more continuous challenge) is possible against the fairly dumb levels of AI we can have in home computers nowadays. Consider older games with simpler graphics (say an old platformer) - many of them were quite challenging, because, partly due to technical restrictions, it wasn’t possible to give a player a “realistic” (simmy) level of freedom, and the “game” aspect of the game could be quite board-gamey, with a high level of abstraction and simple rules leading to complex gameplay (a good modern example would be XCOM). Player degrees of freedom were restricted, and a click input or whatever, would mean only some simple, highly abstract action, usually with some kind of budgeting. AI responses could then be quite varied, and more varied behaviours introduced, which kept the game challenging even to high levels.
Contrast that with a game that has a more “realistic” representation, where you have lots of freedom to move anywhere, or fire off abilities at any time. AI responses then have to “cope” with a much, much wider variety of possible player input. The only thing that would present a challenge to a player with that kind of freedom would be human-level AI, AI as tricksy as a person. But (presumably) that’s just extremely hard to do still (maybe it will be easier as time goes on).
Now theoretically, you can introduce new mob behaviours. But that runs into another kind of problem. Essentially, a PvE game is only really challenging while you’re learning it - getting the game knowledge down, getting muscle memory ingrained. Any new mob behaviour introduced later on is going to be learnt and beaten in the same way, and then we’re back to square one, all dressed up and nowhere to go. But nevertheless, you can probably get quite far this way (e.g. Raids).
The other thing you can do is artificially and temporarily restrict player freedom - e.g. by scripted events, or moments when abilities are restricted or have less power than they would normally do.
But the former runs up against the desideratum that many players have that all that effort you put into a game should make you more powerful than the mobs, while the latter runs up against the possibility of losing out on the feeling of freedom and power, and really just being frustrating rather than fun.
Effectively, the former makes a player a perpetual beginner, while the latter neuters the sense of power and freedom. I think some players like to be perpetual beginners, and maybe even to have more challenge as the game goes on, but many other players seem to dislike that.
The real way out would be to introduce behaviours that aren’t simply novel and just have to be learnt (like say a complicated raid), but rather new behaviours that match up to and challenge the high level of control and knowledge an experienced player develops. But that seems to bump up against the sheer difficulty of making human-level, tricksy AI.
No particular conclusion to this, just some thoughts, and as always I’d be interested to hear what people who make games for a living have to think about these matters. I’m sure this is well-trodden ground, but I found it an interesting set of conundrums when it occurred to me.