Saturday, 19 April 2014

Always, Always, Eat Your Greens : Everquest, EQ2, GW2

Zubon at Kill Ten Rats has something to say about Plants Vs Zombies 2, which is not a game I have played or am ever likely to play. The point he's making has considerable relevance to MMOs, however, as he makes clear in the opening couple of sentences:

"Most games have learned that players respond better to incentives than penalties, even when they are mathematically equivalent. Instead of having a hunger debuff, food provides a buff, and all the content is balanced with the assumption that you are using food buffs."


When I began playing MMOs it was commonplace for the game to provide warnings along the lines of "you feel hungry", "you feel thirsty". I would respond immediately to those prompts for two reasons: firstly because I felt uncomfortable on behalf of my characters and secondly because I'd had my memory jogged to do something I knew I should be doing but had forgotten.

 What's a ravasect? You don't want to know.
As time and game development moved on developers began to learn that players preferred to be given a bonus rather than avoid a penalty; something that seems so obvious in retrospect that you might wonder why they hadn't thought of it in the first place. Food and drink, which at first had no magical properties but simply kept your characters from getting weaker and less effective, began to acquire all kinds of special effects.

Mostly these felt convincing, especially against the background of a world in which magic was real. Finding yourself more substantial (extra hit points) or robust (faster endurance regen) or stronger (bonus to strength) after a good meal felt right. A lot of sympathetic and ritual magic went into in the design, too. Eating the flesh of your enemy would transfer to you some of his power or cunning. Natural magic added the properties of medicinal plants and so on.

At first these were indeed just bonuses. Nice to have but nothing to fret over if you skipped a
meal or several. Over time, however, and as is sadly the way of MMOs, power creep occurred. By the time we got to Luclin in December 2001 we had already reached the absurdity of The Misty Thicket Picnic, a halfling extravaganza so vast it must have taken two halflings to carry, but without which no raider could consider himself fully prepped.

As Zubon observes, this approach led game developers, quite logically, to assume that, since everyone would be using the best available food, drink and other buffs, content should be tuned to match the increased power levels that implied. I was aware of this while playing Everquest but I didn't feel the full impact until EQ2.

I found several hundred of these on a vendor long ago.
Still eating my way through them.
From day one EQ2 expected characters to keep themselves fed and watered at all times. If you didn't eat and drink constantly your health and mana regeneration would be miserably slow. This wasn't a penalty as such; it was the default state. You were expected to stuff yourself with Jum Jum Pie and drink White Tea until you gurgled just to achieve basic adequacy.

EQ2 was a horribly-designed game at the beginning. I could put up a blog post a day for a month about its faults and still have plenty left to say. No surprise, then, that the implementation of food and drink was terrible. At low levels, which we all were, money was tight. The food sold by NPC vendors was cheap but had no stats and minimal regenerative qualities. Crafted food had a few stats and much better regen but it was time-consuming and fiddly to make and crafters expected a substantial return for the effort.

Consequently an awful lot of people (or a lot of awful people) didn't bother with food and drink at all and many of those who did made do with the cheapest vendor junk they could find. Because the primary effect of eating and drinking was to allow you to recover hit points and mana, not having supplies didn't just mean a reduction in a group's overall efficiency due to some members not being as buffed as they could have been. It meant that after every fight the members of a group who had provided well for themselves had to stand around at full health and mana, drumming their fingers as they watched the progress bars of their less-organized or more tight-fisted colleagues refill at snail pace.

Every pick-up group would at some point degenerate into an argument between the willing and the unwilling eaters. At some point someone would become so frustrated they'd start handing out freebies but as we all know there's no such thing as a free lunch and the bill would end up being paid in resentment and acrimony.

This was my big money-maker back in the day.
No-one got one of these beauties for free!
I was playing a cleric. I could speed things up somewhat by healing people after the fight ended but I couldn't do much for their mana. In the end I got so irritated I took up Provisioning myself so I could come equipped with drinks at cost to hand out to everyone just so we could get on with it. I did not do it with good grace.

Later, either in the Scott Hartsman revamp that saved the game or with the coming of Domino that saved crafting, food and drink got tuned up to be so obviously attractive that everyone wanted to use them. I was able to stop giving mine away and start selling them. For a while I actually had some money.

Fast forward almost a decade to Guild Wars 2 and what has been learned? Not much, it would seem. The profession of Chef in Tyria is a sprawling, chaotic confusing one that works differently to all the other tradeskills, flagged up even by the NPCs who offer training as harder than the others, and which, if pursued seriously, risks filling every available storage slot with half-finished dishes that could be made into something better later. Perhaps as a consequence, for a long time no-one seemed to pay all that much attention to food.

Mousse, Mouse, easy mistake if you're a Charr
At some point, inevitably, someone with a critical eye and a mathematical bent (never a
shortage of those in an MMO) must have run some numbers and worked out that our characters are, after all, what they eat. Prices on certain foods skyrocketed and it became de rigeur to carry a stack of Spicy Marinated Mushrooms or similar at all times. Moreover, GW2 being the communitarian enterprise it is, public-spirited folk can plonk down a Feast for everyone to share, while in the more militaristic setting of WvW a gruff commander can bark "Food Check" before slamming down rations for his ill-prepared militia.

Zubon goes on to to discuss how all this relates to the traditional dichotomy between the casual and the hardcore but it occurred to me that perhaps the real dividing line isn't how many hours you play or how seriously you take your gaming (two of the more common definitions of "casual" and "hardcore" behavior) but between how organized or disorganized you are.

Ascended Cookery? We don't even have Exotic yet.
Back when everything was flat-tuned and the game ticked out reminders to eat and drink like an irritatingly over-cautious scout master on a hike, being highly disorganized by inclination I found it much easier to maintain the expected minimal standards. Now that we're all supposed to recognize the inarguable benefits and behave like rational adults, I'm far more likely to forget about it entirely. The mobs have all had their extra Weetabix from the developers but my characters are muddling along on the memory of a snack they had last Tuesday.

Perhaps the disorganized deserve to be penalized, but as one of them I am no doubt that the original methodology worked more strongly in my favor than the current one. Perhaps one day game developers will begin to learn some of the lessons that economists are just now beginning to assimilate, namely that there is no such thing as a rational consumer. If and when that ever happens we might once again see fewer carrot soufflés and more big sticks.

6 comments:

  1. Heh, the evolution of food through the years! TorilMUD, from whence most original EQ ideas sprang, had food. However, it never gave any stats or buffs or what not. However, you had to have food and drink because not only would your regen go extra slow, but if you were a caster you literally could not mem spells (and you had to re-mem them after each use) if you were hungry or thirsty. Running out of food when running a zone... raiding before it was called that... meant begging from your fellow group members.

    And day one EverQuest II... so many problems, so many bad ideas. There is some charm to all of it at this point, memories of being part of a struggle against a system seemingly designed to frustrate, but a game that started like that today wouldn't survive long enough to be fixed.

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  2. Of all the bitter vet choruses that get trotted out time after time the only one that really annoys me is the "EQ2 was a great game until they ruined it with all that dumbing down". It was actually so very much not a good game that it led directly to me losing touch with most of the people I'd known from EQ1 and all of the new people I met in EQ2.

    Within three months virtually everyone I knew had given up on the game. A handful went back to EQ but most disappeared and I never heard from them again. One or two lasted almost as long as we did but when we finally threw in the towel after six months and went back to EQ there wasn't a single person left playing EQ2 from the dozens we'd known in the first few weeks. It makes for a very interesting comparison with GW2 where, for all its many flaws, I still see countless names every day that I was seeing a year, year and a half ago. I think that says something about the payment model but probably more about the accessibility of the content.

    I do occasionally wonder what would have happened if we'd gone to WoW instead of back to EQ but the only friend we knew who had done that only lasted a couple of months there before coming back and saying it was alright but not as good as EQ, which was pretty much what we'd imagined, so we decided not to bother.

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  3. As a player i just hate the food mechanism.

    I am strongly biased against paying for time-limited goods - it is worse for recurrent goods. That s why i cannot play a monthly paid MMO, i hate munitions, potions for healing, and food - i also hate decay for weappn or armor.. Is this logical ? Hell no !

    I think i am not alone in this - see the successof unlimited gathering tools in GW2.

    I can support if :
    - this give me access to great new experience ( bridge jumping IRL, invincibility + great power in game for exemple)
    - it gives me access to something that cannotbe found without it ( phone bill IRL, transformation tonic in gw2)
    => access to more stat is the worst possible incentive for me : this is the most used motivator with a lot of way to access it...

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    Replies
    1. I am absolutely hopeless about any consumables. I don't dislike them but I just can't (or can't be bothered) to keep track of them. If I was a min-maxer it would drive me to distraction but fortunately I have the personality to just forget all about them. Does mean my characters are rarely as powerful or efficient as they could be, though.

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  4. +1 for Food. Love it. Always a chef and a fisher(wo)man in every MMO. In GW2 I have tons of highest-performance food in the bank that I cooked up myself. I never use it though. GW2 sadly forgot to demand it's necessity, either explicitly or implicitly (or is that 'explicit or implicitly', grammar fail). Maybe top end fractals demand food but I don't do them.

    Nevertheless the process of making all that food was fun, which is kinda the whole point.

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  5. I suppose, regarding food and drink, "hardcore" would be... WurmOnline. gah!

    -- 7rlsy
    (AB & Beastgate)

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