Tobold made an interesting post on Tuesday. He talked about a recurring source of conflict in MMOs - the skill threshold required to access all of the content in the game. Obviously there are endless fights where people either accuse their opponents of being elitist, social challenged no lifers or clueless, skillless noobs. Tobold is of the opinion that establishing any skill threshold at all is a design error. He compares it to having a movie player that checks to see if you understand the plot sufficiently and rewinds to the beginning if you do not. I don't know about you but if I was watching a movie but didn't understand the plot in a place where I really needed to understand the plot I would *want* the movie to rewind so I could follow along properly!
I would like to suggest that by that standard of measure Super Mario Bros is a bad game. So is Portal. So is Diablo 2.... and indeed virtually any game ever designed. If you can't click fast enough and well enough you don't get to see the next level of SMB and you will never rescue the princess from Bowser. Despite only rescuing the princess once over hundreds of hours of play I still have fond memories of SMB and although sometimes Portal made me slam my head into a wall trying to figure out a particular puzzle I loved it enough to write a song about it. I don't think we need to talk about how much time I sunk into Diablo 2, including playing hardcore and dying knowing that my character was gone forever.
My experiences are not unique. Playing games where no skill threshold is required is an exercise in movie watching, not game playing. If I don't want to be challenged I will go find a great TV show or movie to watch, games are there to force me to think and react. The levelling experience in WOW becoming so easy that failure was impossible was a major factor in me quitting the game too... even a game I enjoyed so much and had invested so much in could not hold my attention when it became trivial. The 'movie' version of WOW was a much crappier experience than other mediums so it wasn't worth playing.
This not to say that every game should be nightmarishly hard. I think the ideal goal is a constant increase in challenge throughout the game. SMB certainly had that as the later levels were consistently harder than earlier ones and the final dungeon was quite nasty indeed. WOW's difficulty curve has been all over the place throughout it's life. The levelling game went from moderately challenging to utterly trivial and dungeons and raids went from substantially challenging to utterly trivial to hard again. Unfortunately WOW does suffer from being the hybridized monster of a levelling game and a raiding game smashed together which causes a lot of issues in difficulty scaling; without that restriction it would be much easier to scale difficulty up as the player progresses.
The feeling of flow, of optimal experience, only comes from pushing yourself to your limits. Great games push us harder and make us go further than ever before and this experience is what brings us our greatest joys. That doesn't mean every bit of the game needs to be impossible, but rather that to work for a broad audience there needs to be a broad range of challenge levels right up to 'obviously impossible'.