Sunday, February 28, 2016

Thinking About It...

I'm going to try and keep this short because it's really quite simple: MMORPGs used to require a lot more thought than they do today.

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.


  1. I think a great deal of that thinking has gotten filtered straight into builds and numbers theorycrafting, as in knowing in-game important game information. Unfortunately, it only appeals to a limited subset of people, those that are okay playing with spreadsheets, and everybody else lifts off from their prior work and thinking.

    It is true that we're missing the local in-game "world" trivial knowledge these days. I think we find it in more oldschool titles like A Tale in the Desert or Runescape or even Everquest, where the environment is more sandboxy and spread out and open to player influence. Come to think of it, I bet you can find tons of this in Eve Online still, if only from a player political border standpoint.

    I used to pride myself greatly on knowing this sort of in-game world trivia in the MUD I used to play, but somehow the zeitgeist has shifted into outsourcing this sort of knowledge to third party websites, databases, Google searches and so on.

    And there's really not much defence against it - even if we make things character-specific, someone out there is going to eventually reverse engineer how that stuff is allocated to each character. It's the age of big data, crowd sourcing and social media now, rather than operating on limited information and expert knowledge...

    So far what seems to be the best defence is a very big procedurally generated world that takes time to travel through (so that it's harder for one person to map or keep track of every last nook and cranny.) Alas, those tend to come with the attendant problem of "where is everyone? I can't find enough people playing. /quit."

    1. I almost put in something about the migration of thinking to builds and strats. It's definitely the case that there's a lot of brainwork required there (at least until a meta is codified) but it's not something that appeals to me all that much.

      I think there's also a difference between the kind of "trivia" that makes up the lore and detail of the world, something I relish and find very important for full engagement, but which is not necessarily all that relevant to immediate success in progressing your character, and the level of detailed knowledge that used to be pretty much obligatory if you wanted to get from point a to point b without dying.

      There was a little hint of it in Heart of Thorns, which is part of why I liked the expansion more than I expected. Having the packs of tiny raptors, with their odd movement patterns, tendency to swarm, very high damage and very low hit points added a lot to travel in my opinion. All my characters had to learn how to approach and deal with them differently and I found that interesting and rewarding. Smokescales, on the other hand, reminded me of the kind of EQ mobs you'd learn to avoid entirely because fighting them was more trouble than it was worth.

      Then there were all the different vendors with faction that sold certain things you couldn't get elsewhere. And the specific mobs you had to find to get particular drops. HoT re-introduced rather a lot of old school mechanics now Ii come to think about it. Might be a full-length post in there...

      Older MMOs just came with a much deeper level of complexity baked-in. There was a very great deal to learn and remember just to be able to survive. Yes, much of it did get codified and recorded on websites and in guides but in the pre-wiki days it was still relatively hard to dig out. Also, there is always the option not to look things up. If they aren't there to begin with, though, that option is moot.

      These things tend to be both cyclical and generational. We are beginning to emerge from a prolonged period of simplification that began as a reaction to exactly the levels of complexity - and therefore perceived difficulty - that I'm remembering. The wheel is turning. We won't go back to the exact same complexities, nor should we, but I do feel there is more of an appetite for having to learn the ropes and earn your stripes than there has been for a while.

      I just worry that we're heading towards a zeitgeist that equates complexity with motor skills and reaction times. That never even worked well for me when I was in my 20s, which is why I played Adventure games a lot back then.

    2. I run to the tank every time I get aggro in FFXIV's dungeons. To me that is like a second skin, I don't even need to think about it. Now it might be that players today don't have these automatic responses and also, that they don't require to learn them. That is game design's "fault".
      At the same time, as a veteran MMO player, there's not much for me to learn anymore either, by virtue of experience. I think that one is much harder to solve for games. It is impossible to re-produce "early MMO learning" for the likes of us. I believe that until I see otherwise.

    3. I don't really buy that. It's like saying that because you know how to stroll through the Lake District in spring you know all you need for a day in the Australian outback. After all, it's just walking about outdoors, isn't it?

      Yes, some basic skills are transferable and I believe the genre needs to stick to some consistent mechanics and conventions in order to justify being called a genre, but every MMO has the capacity to be sufficiently different from every other that there is a very significant learning curve involved in moving from one to another.

      The reason there isn't very much to learn any more has less to do with our capacity as players to absorb and retain information than it has to do with developers aggressively culling every non-essential aspect of the games they make while neon-lighting and alarming the small range of options they leave in. Basically, if they told us less we'd be forced to learn more. And if they put more in there'd be more to learn.

      As for FFXIV, that's an example that very much supports my argument. It's far and away the most old-fashioned, old school mainstream MMO to have appeared from a major developer in a decade. Combat in FFXIV is like combat in 2004-era MMOs only even slower. That's not a complaint, far from it. There are a lot of things that I don't like about FFXIV but the basic combat system isn't one of them. It's a pale shadow of what we enjoyed ten to fifteen years ago, to be sure, but at least it's recognizable as a shadow of that version. The fact that FFXIV can succeed with those mechanics shows there is still a place for them commercially as well as aesthetically, too.

  2. I miss sizing up a room filled with mobs and hatching out a plan to clear it safely on the fly, with the tools at hand. Nowadays, the tools at hand are all the same and the room filled with mobs isn't enough of a challenge to use anything other than basic trinity tactics.

    1. I miss that, too. A lot. Surprisingly, I was getting a little of it in Blade and Soul the other night even though I was only soloing. I had to start doing some crowd control, timing heals, body pulling, where previously it had been face-roll easy.

      There was a simple explanation - I'd run ahead of the main quest and the mobs were all 3-4 levels higher than me. I'd forgotten that the way to bring back the edge to soloing is often no more complicated than trading up a few levels on what the developers expected you to be doing.

    2. This very much strikes a nerve for me as well. I love the groupplay aspect of MMORPGs, and i've always played the tank (or dedicated puller, when that was a role). I really realised that this was what i was missing when i tried playing on Kronos (wow vanilla server), and made a group for the redridge elite quests. WoW was never as demanding as EQ in this aspect, but vanilla was still full of it. And some of the openworld elite locations specifically. Respawns and mob density meant pulls and group movement had to be done correctly, and at a brisk pace, requiring exactly this sort of situational awareness/thinking. And failure was definately an option! Often leading to having to a race against the respawn rate, or failing that, to a full restart of clearing the way to the "boss". Those 3 quests could tale from 30min to several hours, and i loved it.

  3. This is exactly why I was so excited for EQN and the Storybricks macro-level AI. Having an ever-changing world which forces you to keep up with the local news, or at the very least being prepared to deal with changes to what you thought you knew about an area or group of mobs, sounded perfect for the kind of immersion you're talking about.


  4. My best experience of that kind is Guild Wars (the original).
    The fights were between groups - player team vs mob team - and there was a frontline, midline and backline with no way to control aggro other than physically use your character body and terrain (corner pimping and the mobs would get stuck).
    It was an interesting experience to see the frontline of players and mobs to skip each other and go straight to the backline to kill the healers, while the midline tried to assist both the frontline (by keeping them clear of debilitating conditions and shattering enemy healers defenses) and assist the backline (by debuffing the enemy frontline).

    A frontliner specialized in killing enemy frontliners that were pursuing the healers was called a "backliner".

    1. PS: I think the main constrain of the MMO fight design is the lack of team vs team approach, and istead focusing on many players vs a single boss that may or may not spawn adds.

  5. I find i still get a lot of that kind of in-combat decision making in GW2 PvP, where a timely ress or stomp, or even just heal or stun, can heavily swing a fight in my teams favor. This does happen at a much higher speed than what you're talking about, but the idea is certainly still there.


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