It's a realization that crept up on me only this year. As the conversation over The Trinity rumbled on it eventually dawned on me that the arguments I was making in defense of that gameplay didn't have all that much to do with the roles involved. Neither was it simple nostalgia, rose-tinted or otherwise.
No, what's gone missing from my gaming is all that thinking I used to do. The problem-solving. I liked it. I miss it.
Of course, "problem-solving" could be misleading. It suggests puzzle games and the honorable tradition of Adventure in all its flavors: text, graphic, point-and-click.
In MMORPGs, if someone mentions "problem-solving" you might perhaps think of something like EverQuest's original Epic quests. When they were first introduced some of those took a global community of almost half a million people weeks to brute force using the wisdom of crowds.
That's not what I mean. I never liked that side of MMOs much. I was always happy to let someone else solve those puzzles then put them in a guide for me to follow. These days I wouldn't be without my wikis.
No, what I'm referring to is the quotidian problem-solving that comes from knowing your environment, intimately. The kind you do every day, when someone pulls up beside you in the street, rolls down the window and asks "Excuse me, are you from round here?"
Local knowledge. That's what I'm missing. That sense that you've lived somewhere long enough to learn the byways and the cut-throughs, where the bad neighborhoods are, which house has the barking dog, who'll likely sell you a beer after hours.
I miss that feeling of satisfaction and security that comes when you can tell a harmless bee from a drunken wasp or a helpful fairy-drake from a deadly wyvern. What's been lost from almost every MMO I can think of is any need at all to spend a good, long time learning the nature of things.
A long time ago, when my characters were out gaining "xp" and leveling up, the one really becoming experienced was me. I was learning which creatures I could kill, which could kill me and how just about every one was different from every other in some important way that I needed to keep straight in my head if I wanted to survive and maybe even to prosper.
I was learning which way to run if things went bad. Which guards would help and which would stand by and watch me die. I was learning where it was safer on the paths and where to cut across country. Where nightfall meant the bad things were coming out to play and where it just meant use a torch.
A million things to learn and remember and keep straight. Which creatures ignored everyone except trolls, who they hated with an irrational passion. Where you could go in a glamour or an illusion that you couldn't go as yourself - and which glamour and which illusion. Who sold what for less than the other fellow and in which village on what island.
Just being in the world required you to think not much less than all the time. I liked that a lot.
And then there was the fighting.
Keen has a tale to tell about how things have changed when it comes to combat. He titles it "I haven't seen that in a decade" and come to think of it, neither have I.
I noticed the tank (the ranger with better gear) was rooted, so I ran over to him for him to be able to peel the mobs off me. He did, we lived, and all was well. I then received quite a shock: The tank was praising me for how well the fight went saying he hasn’t seen a healer run to the tank for over 10 years
This is just what I mean. This is what I miss. Having to look around, pay attention, evaluate the situation, review options, compare current circumstances with previous experience. I miss the need to know, in detail, what tools I have in the box and which ones I need to pull out when. Crucially, I miss having the time to do all that and enjoy it.
Instead of local knowledge, a detailed understanding of our capabilities and the time and opportunity to asses our options, what do we have now? Circles on the ground. Huge text messages splashed across the center of the screen. NPCs yelling orders. A set of triggers signifying "Go Here Now", "Do This Thing", "Don't Stand There", "Do As You're Told".
I always disliked scripting in MMOs. I’ve been complaining about it since Planes of Power. Over time, not only have scripts become completely embedded in all levels of MMO gameplay, not just in raids, where they began, but developers have ceased to trust players even to be able to learn their lines.
Players and developers alike have come to expect overt, clear signals in the form of ground markers, circles, cones, colors and written or spoken instructions. We've gone from improvisational theater to an on-book recital with cue-cards and a prompt.
At the same time that every effort has been made to remove most of the need to think for ourselves, playing well in a group context has come to require ever more demanding levels of motor skills. Group play in MMOs like GW2 and WildStar these days consists primarily of having very fast reaction times while being highly reactive to abstract on-screen visual signals.
For the very best players, I imagine, MMO combat still requires an agile, thoughtful mind. If you're able to time your reactions to the millisecond, to co-ordinate status effects that last for the blink of an eye, then, yes, the satisfaction of assessing a situation and responding appropriately can be yours. That's beyond me.
It is, you could say, a young player's game. Perhaps I am looking back with nostalgia to those golden days of my youth after all. On the other hand, since I bought EQ for myself as a 40th birthday present, maybe not.
With the average age of gamers now pushing well into the thirties it seems strange that the mechanics of the games themselves should be trending so much younger. It's hardly surprising, though, that because it is, we need all those handrails, floor markers and LARGE PRINT SIGNS. Without them, how many aging gamers would run out of breath, energy and patience? End up slumped on a bench, watching the game instead of playing it?
Oh, look. I've rambled on and gone off the point after all. Must be my age.
Let me end by quoting Keen again:
" ...people, for the most part, aren’t used to games where people need to think".
I hope that changes. And soon.