Over the past few years there's been a significant change in tone from both developers and players in regard to what we might call the innate difficulty setting of the MMORPG genre. For a long time the wind was squarely in the sails of players, like me, who prefer the game itself to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to tedious things like targeting and positioning. These days there's almost an obsession with bringing the modes and means of regular video games into the previously staid and stately world of MMORPG combat to make it more "challenging".
That's something I abhor pretty much without reservation. If I wanted to play those kind of video games I'd be playing them. I don't. That's why I started playing these ones instead.
I take a much more nuanced view on the current trend towards recovering what was supposedly lost in the long march towards mass market acceptance. Call it the heart or the soul of the thing, whatever it was there are plenty who believe it's not there any more. It's a situation whose underlying causes and present complaints are neatly articulated by Marc Jacobs in the third of his Foundational Principles.
While I have some sympathy with the movement, my general feeling is that I was there, I did pay my dues and I've earned my easy ride. I don't hanker after the days when it felt like it took you half a play-session to get to the place you were going to hunt or when getting six people to the same spot on the map meant four of them dying and two of them rage-quitting before anyone even saw each other.
Neither do I look back with nostalgia to Sunday afternoons spent sending tells to crafters in the hope of finding one who wasn't too busy doing a corpse run or sitting in a guild meeting or attending an in-game wedding to travel five zones to a city with a bank where the guards would tolerate both of us, all so he or she could make me a set of level 15 armor for which I'd hand over all the money I'd managed to scrape together since I last bankrupted myself for the level 10 set two weeks ago.
I could literally tell dozens of stories like that, mostly drawn from memories of things that happened while I was playing EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, Vanguard and EverQuest 2. Marc and countless others would point to the mere fact that not only do I have all those stories but that I can still remember them in detail a decade and change later as offering the strongest evidence in support of their case. It's the argument that says it has to hurt a little if you're going to care.
It's true. The reason those experiences live with me still is because they were painful and in being so the memories associated with them were laid down in accordance with the mechanisms associated with strong emotional reactions. What's questionable, in my opinion, is whether that's a desirable outcome for an activity that is, essentially, artificial and meaningless.
It would be a lot harder for me to come up with an after-dinner speech's worth of anecdotes based on the last five years of playing MMOs. Not because I've played fewer hours or paid less attention but because many of the sharp edges and rough corners have been sanded down and smoothed out. I have fewer scars.
The memories of the elation at last-second wins in boss fights or the sense of satisfaction at the completion of lengthy questlines don't seem to be laid down to last in the same way as the recollection of the anxious hours spent waiting to see if the guy who promised to build my sloop in Vanguard would ever log in again let alone the traumatic loss of my level six corpse down the hollow tree in Blackburrow (and no, I am not ever going to get over that, thanks for asking). It seems that, when it comes to what we might call regular MMO gameplay, no matter how intense the fight feels at the time, the underlying understanding that it can be repeated ad nauseam until the right result pops out undercuts the brain's sense that anything worth recording for posterity is going on. It probably gets the same priority as your daily commute.
Or perhaps it's the lack of agency that matters. The key part of almost every one of my "MMO war stories" is that I was doing something I'd decided to do, something that required me to make choices and decisions. Bonus memory points if some of those choices were dependent on the choices of others.
It's here that I believe we might find a way in to what was actually lost rather than what we imagine has been lost. In attempting to pave all the roads and open all the gates to allow the smoothest of journeys MMO developers also closed down every side-road and took over the steering wheel. Instead of being the drivers of our own destinies we have increasingly taken on the role of passengers.
When I finally got around to playing WoW some five years after it began my first character was a Hunter. One of the things that most interested me about the class was the relatively complex and demanding process of finding, catching and taming pets, which I'd read about in some detail on one of the many websites devoted to all things Azeroth. Of course, by the time I got there, all that had been re-assessed and re-evaluated as arduous busywork. I forget what you did have to do to tame a pet but I know there was nothing about it worth remembering.
Three years ago in GW2 my first character was a ranger. I was, once again, looking forward to the process of acquiring pets. It turned out that to charm a pet in GW2 you have to stand next to a juvenile of the species and press a button on a window that pops up on screen automatically. That's it.
Well, the wheel turns. That process hasn't changed a jot in Heart of Thorns and yet gaining the new pets for the first of my rangers has been one of the highlights of the expansion. The pets, which are both powerful and visually appealing and hence very covetable, have been placed in comparatively awkward to reach locations, where you would be unlikely to run into them other than by sheer good luck. Moreover, a couple are soft-gated behind the completion of the Dragon Stand meta-event, which offers only a tight fifteen minute window on success before the whole map resets.
Running across the blighted landscape after Mordremoth's defeat, trying to avoid mordrem snipers and not fall down gaping holes filled with poison gas, while attempting to follow map directions from Reddit and instructions in party chat from Mrs Bhagpuss, who'd done it before, all in the hope of finding my Tiger before being unceremoniously booted back to the Pact base camp on a map reset that loomed ever-nearer, stands a good chance of becoming a story I'll still be telling years from now. If I'd failed to find the little striper that memory would come with a lifetime guarantee.
There's a passing fair chance I'll buy WoW's Legion expansion next year. I was already minded to give it a try but the odds improved markedly when I saw this. "Most Mechanical pets will be challenging to tame, requiring you to first
locate them and then use your Hunter abilities in unusual ways" they say. Well, that's the kind of challenge I can appreciate. In fact you might say it's what I came here looking for in the first place.
The idea that MMOs need to return to the levels of social interdependence that were the norm before Blizzard overturned the tables makes my blood run cold. The numerous pragmatic changes that a succession of developers has brought to the genre seem to me to have made both for better games and better entertainment. Somehow, though, complexity, nuance and, most especially, agency got tangled up with awkwardness, frustration and inaccessibility. Somewhere along the way a few babies got thrown out with a lot of dirty bathwater.
It seems ridiculous but there's just an outside chance that Gnome Hunters could help, just a little, in bringing back a taste of what was lost. Some variety, some choice, some agency. And, yes, even some challenge. It's asking a lot from something so small but who could be better placed to herald the return of over-engineered design than a gnome?