Before I get into this, let me preface it with a little background on where I'm coming from. I like a challenge. I've had a lot of fun with Magic Farm and Agrarian Skies. I've got a dedicated instance of Minecraft just for TerraFirmaCraft, and I used to keep another for Better With Wolves. Outside of Minecraft, I play "unfair" games like Don't Starve and The Binding of Isaac. I'm even working with some people on a mod called "Noobcraft", which aims to make the early game of Minecraft take longer, so it's harder to simply rush the tech tree.
Now, that said, I'm starting to wonder if modpack creators, seeing how packs like the aforementioned two by Jadedcat have become popular, aren't overdoing it. I feel like they don't quite "get" what it means to make a challenging modpack. You see, more and more, I find myself looking at things that are less about challenge, and more what some of us refer to as "player screw". Recently, I see more and more packs like Epicraft*, BloodNBones, and Crash Landing which, while I'm sure a lot of work goes into making them, seem to focus on throwing as many obstacles the players' way as possible. The thing is, there's a fine line between challenging the player, and setting them up to fail, at least in my mind. In a challenging situation, success is difficult, but obviously possible, if one just thinks about their actions and prepares well. When you fail, it's obviously because of something you did, and usually easy to see how you could have avoided it. With the "player screw" school of thought, on the other hand, this is often not the case. Dangers may not even be visible until it's too late, or else may be largely, perhaps even entirely, out of the player's control. For instance, one popular mod has creepers exploding outside of buildings to blast open paths for other mobs. On its own, this is pretty unfair. It takes a significant amount of time to get established enough to build a defence against this. When you combine this with much more dangerous mobs, as these packs often do, the chance that you are killed in the first night becomes largely based on luck. Do the mobs carve a moat that blocks them before they reach you? If so you win, if not you lose. Which happens is largely out of your control.
Plus, as I said, many packs now pile on as many hazards for you to balance as they can. While many challenging games/mods do have a lot of hazards to worry about, there is an important difference. In a well-done challenge, these concerns tend to be built up slowly. For instance, in Don't Starve, at first, you just have a few concerns; Food, and light. Neither one is an immediately pressing concern, either. You have an entire day to wander around gathering berries, picking grass, and finding flint, etc...before you have to worry about anything. You might come across killer bees or spiders, but both are tied to a location during the day, so you have the chance to run. Then, at night there are new hazards, but not many. Other hazards, like bad weather, hunting monsters, or insanity, don't appear until much later on. This is a good challenge. It builds up gradually. There is a definite learning curve, and room to make mistakes. Compare this to the first few minutes of Crash Landing, where you can be suffering Heat Stroke and running out of water before leaving your starting location to survey the terrain, have very little in the way of available resources, and before you can really even start addressing the heat issue, you're faced with large numbers of enhanced mobs, some of whom will use kamikaze attacks to destroy your one place of minimal shelter. You're expected to be able to deal with everything, pretty much right away. By further comparison, Agrarian Skies has great pacing. You start out on an island where your main issues are resource scarcity, and falling. The island is small enough that you don't have to worry about mobs until you expand, and starvation is at least a day off (as in the first example). You have some time to figure things out, take stock of your resources, and figure out what to do, before you are in any pressing danger.
Does anyone else share this sentiment? If so, what would you do better? If not, what factors do you think mitigate the problems with these packs?
I think that there are two types of players, that want different types of challenges.
First: the basic issue: Mobs don't get much harder in vanilla. You start out weaker than the mobs you fight; you become diamond armored and able to ignore anything except a separated pair of creepers.
So you reach the point where the mobs are just an annoyance. From there, there are two types of players: one that want that annoyance made even less (and you get crazy armor in various mods), and those that want the challenge leveled up to meet them (and you get infernal mobs and other mob boosting mods). And then there's the crazy mix -- lets put in OP mobs, and OP armor, and expect you to go to the new power mix ...
But that "op mobs and op armor" just moves the eventual balance point, while making it much much nastier while you get to that balance point. And once you're there, nothing is changed.
Making it harder just to get the player to die: Not my cup of tea. I'm the type that will progress very slowly through a vechs map, trying to secure an area well enough to be OK. I grew up with games like rouge/nethack/angband, where death was always a bad thing, and learned to be overly cautious. I still play that way in Minecraft.
At the same time, I don't want mobs turned into "harmless", and I don't want mobs turned into "serious killer bunny rabbit" either. So for me, I have to ask if there's a happy medium.
Making the opening game slower / longer / more difficult is not the answer; it just changes things. There's no real difference between "Make the end game harder by giving both nasty mobs and the ability to make OP armor", and "Make the early game longer and harder by making iron much harder" (or in the TFC case, making anything much harder), while leaving the mobs unchanged is the same -- you spend more time until you are at the balance point, but the power ratio just stays more in the favor of mobs for longer.
AgSkies gives you challenges that are NOT based on mobs. You have food as a challenge at first. If you did not have the quest book to guide you? It would be little more than a challenge in learning what to look up on the forums.
One thing I hate: Mod packs where you are expected to know the mods inside out. I don't know most of the popular mods out there; I've played mostly vanilla with very little in the way of mods. I basically went with Mystcraft, because I liked the idea of creating worlds; twilight forest, because it was a nice addition without actually changing the balance; and EBXL, because it was a simple addition to the biomes without actually mkaing major changes.
In other words: Three mods that give you new variety, without changing the game balance.
Compare that to "Automate this, automate that", or "Turn anything into anything else", or "Make the game play itself", that most popular mods seem to turn into.
What makes things harder?
My entry for JamPacked was based around a simple concept: Without actually changing the difficulty of the game, deny resources to the player as long as possible.
How can you deny resources? Well, why not make a number of different dimensions, with each having different challenges and resources?
So, an overworld with wood and coal, and nothing else; eventually, a twilight forest with small amounts of resources. How do you get to the TF? With a diamond. Where do you get diamonds? In the nether, in the laval. Just because. So where do you get the iron to harvest the lava? From the roof of the nether.
So, the basic idea: An overworld with stone, coal, wood; furnaces, fences, basic supplies, etc. And having to make a nether portal where you can only frame the existing lava lake and add water.
How many people would think along those lines? Probably not many -- so my early quests make it very clear how to get there.
Once in the nether? You're going to be around the lava lake level -- and you might even see the diamonds. So I tell you where the iron is. Near the roof, where you challenge is to avoid falling, or being shot at. And I've given you fences, and glass, and told you to bring at least two stacks of these.
Is this a case of "Extend the early game"? Is it just changing the balance like TFC did?
Not really. You get leather armor at the start. In the normal game, you might spend the time to get leather, or you might just go into the world. You wind up in the nether, where your opposition is ghasts, armed with a bow and some stuff to block ghasts with. Is that harder? Or is it just a different challenge?
That was my design goal. A different challenge. I think I succeeded -- what I lacked was the time to finish a number of additional "different challenges" (I'm sorry, flu + pneumonia does that).
Can you make things that are different challenges? Sure. But what happens afterwards? It becomes "just another".
Is AgSkies' startup phase a different challenge? Sure. But then it becomes "I know how, it's just some effort". Same with Forestry. Same with Thaumcraft. To the point that people want to skip the longer, boring startup section.
Compare that to the "killer difficulty" mods -- Where even on the 4th play-through, you have to be extra careful to avoid death because "difficult just to be difficult".
Some mods / modpacks are designed around "Give you a new and different challenge". These can be identified as "It's my 4th time through, let me skip this startup". These can be identified as "Eventually it's like vanilla, only maybe different".
Some mods / modpacks are designed around "No matter how many time you play this, it's still going to be deadly". And maybe that's "always", and maybe that's "Until the high-tech armor".
Different people like different playstyles.
But if the challenge is "Just another challenge", it becomes repetitive -- and some people think that vanilla fits that description.
The bottom line: Why do you play? For what you can build? Or for what you have to fight?
Retraction: It has come to my attention that, when I cited Epicraft in the original post, I may actually have been thinking of BloodNBones. At the time of this article's creation, I do not actually have enough experience with Epicraft to speak on its balance. My limited impression of it has been that it is not suited to single player, and you would need to divide the work of establishing your first base between several players. However, I had not thus far seen anything that warranted placing it into the same category as "player screw" packs...though it appears that I at least subconsciously considered it to be borderline. It was not my intent to misrepresent the Epicraft modpack, and for that I am truly sorry.
I think I'd make a pretty hefty distinction between the packs. In the case of something like crash landing, I believe the restrictions were set in place to limit completely circumventing the bonuses granted by some of the included packs. If I can use one pack to completely bypass the quest material, then I am completely missing the point of the game.
I like these modpacks. But not all the time. I also like roguelike games sometimes. And that's what these are. They're a game that's hard enough that you just have to expect not to make it most of the time. The developers know that players are resourcefull. We all have access to each other through the internet. If they leave one thing that's easy to do, it's going to end up online as an exploit, and then your entire pack falls apart. At least, that's what I'd be afraid of.
Thanks for the reply. Most of the problem in Crash Landing, it turns out, was an unintentional behaviour that the author has since taken steps to rectify. Though, I have still had some very erratic behaviour from EnviroMine in that pack, where conditions enter a "death spiral" in which no amount of effort to counteract negative effects can stop them (Submerging myself completely in water doesn't cool me off, or even stop my temperature from rising...really? Really?).
Most of the challenge I go after is building up tech mods, but I'll throw in a few things.
1. The challenge definitely has to build up over time. Building a shelter during your first night and then having several Mek-Armored zombies or skeletons waiting for you in the morning of Day 2 is incredibly frustrating. There's no way to have a weapon powerful enough to fight several armored mobs in that short of a time, especially if you greg combat weapons with another mod.
2. It should also not add more of a restriction than is logically reasonable. I deleted Enviromine after it made the roof blocks on a 9x9x5 structure I was building fall to the floor. 5 blocks is not too high of a roof.
3. Spice of life isn't necessarily much of a "challenge" mod, although it does add a small amount of difficulty early game. It's more for modpacks that have mods adding a lot of various food items so people actually have a reason to use them instead of just eating bread all the time.