Monday, September 4, 2017

Silent Joys And Broken Toys : GW2, EverQuest et al

Keen has a short post up today focusing on EverQuest's Enchanter class. It neatly sums up the difference between modern MMOs and those of a decade and more ago. It's tempting to say "before World of Warcraft" but, although I didn't experience it for myself, what I have heard suggests even Vanilla WoW didn't completely jettison everything that came before.

The real change came later, when WoW became a true mass market phenomenon. At the time disdainful genre veterans liked to call it "dumbing down" but perhaps it would be fairer to describe it as one form of complexity replacing another.

Modern MMOs aren't simple; not by any means. The older ones are mired with baffling legacy mechanics and suffocated by layers of mis-matched content that make them some of the least-accessible entertainment imaginable for a newcomer. Even brand new MMOs are famously confusing and off-putting for anyone who hasn't played something similar.

No, it's not that the genre has been simplified per se. It's more that the focus has changed. Back when I began, developers seemed to expect players to entertain themselves a lot more than they do now. These days devs apparently feel they need to do most of the heavy lifting themselves.

In the early years there was very significantly less narrative, almost no voice acting and quests were considerably less overwritten. Dynamic events were much rarer, although it's true GMs were more likely to appear unexpectedly and create content on the fly.

There were few automated processes for bringing players together. If you wanted to meet up you had to talk to people, often at length, sometimes in several simultaneous conversations, almost always in text. You had to arrange a meeting point and then travel overland to get there. A good portion of a session could consist of finding people to group with and getting them all to the same place alive before you could even think about starting to kill stuff.

Yet, for all the talk of Holy Trinities, the process of forming a group was far more flexible than it is today. Yes, you almost always needed someone to hold aggro and someone to heal (although kite groups could dispense with both) but the candidates for those roles were thick on the ground. There was a huge range of options and yet sometimes it seemed almost impossible to find exactly what you wanted.

Crowd control, the role which Keen assigns in his post to the Enchanter, was really everyone's responsibility, as was DPS. Enchanters liked to think of themselves as Crowd Control royalty (actually Enchanters all thought of themselves as Royalty, period, at least in my experience) but Bards could do as well if not better. I knew a Necro or two who could give an Enchanter a run for her money when it came to keeping a killing zone tidy, come to that.

And Crowd Control was just one of the many components of a functioning group. I've gone on about the multiplicity of roles required in EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot and other MMOs of the period too often already. Suffice it to say that there were a lot of jobs that needed doing and a wide choice of classes available to do most of them.

That's the kind of complexity that developers have, by and large, chosen to remove. At some point they seemed to discover a previously dormant desire for both clarity and convenience. After that, anything that required players to stop killing and start talking to each other was seen as a problem.

Automated Group Finders began to handle recruitment, slotting everyone neatly and interchangeably into one of three archetypes. No more arguments over whether a group really needed to wait for a Warrior or whether the Shadowknight currently LFG mightn't do just as well. No more maverick Enchanters insisting they could tank. No more main-healing Necromancers. No more conversation.

The games began to choose the teams and deliver them seamlessly to the content as if by magic - and yet very much not. The whole enterprise began to feel less like setting out on a magical, potentially life-threatening adventure and more like going to Ikea for a wardrobe.

Crowd control as we once knew it was just one of the casualties. With only three set roles to fill, tanking, healing and damage, everything else - and there had been a lot that fitted none of those slots - became at best an added bonus, at worst an increasingly distant memory.

Curiously, when Guild Wars 2 arrived, threatening to "break the mold", determined to have nothing to do with any Trinity, holy or otherwise, the perceived impression was one of utter chaos. GW2 gameplay gained a reputation for skilless zerging above ground and anarchic nihilism in dungeons.

Players who stuck with it developed strategies to make things manageable and in time those strategies themselves became a problem to be solved. The developers re-tooled the game to bring what they called "Crowd Control" back to the fore but sadly it was a form of CC no EverQuest Enchanter would recognize.

CCs in the modern parlance are nothing of the kind. They are what we would, back in the day, have called "debuffs". Debuffing was itself an honorable and necessary role but no-one ever mistook it for Crowd Control. Worse, the main function of the debuffs in GW2 is to degrade a "break bar". The actual effect each condition has on a mob is secondary; pushing down that bar so that everyone can pile on the DPS is all that matters.

It's still not simple though. Nor simplistic. Watch groups and zergs fail to apply those new CCs. Hear exasperated players try to explain what's needed and be amazed at how many fail to grasp the principles let alone manage to execute them. You'd be surprised where people can find complexity.

Meanwhile, in raids in MMOs everywhere, the innovation and improvisation of the past is replaced by the arguably more tasking requirement to execute dance steps of ever-increasing difficulty. Flawlessly. Seamlessly. Synchronously.  While not dying in a fire.

The new model pleases many but it doesn't please me. Well, that's not entirely true. I do like the convenience. Who wouldn't? But it's a lot to give up just for a comfortable bus ride with your headphones on, not having to talk to anybody.

It must be why I play so much more PvP these days. PvP, particularly large-scale realm versus realm, is perhaps the last bastion of the kind of off-the-cuff, let's do the show right here, come as you are gameplay that used to get me killed when it didn't make me high.

Yes, there's a meta. Yes, there's voice chat. Yes there are know-it-alls and bullies and bad language. But there's creativity and freedom and a place for anyone who wants to make a place for themselves. And there's even crowd control, despite no spells or abilities lasting more than a few seconds, because, when you're fighting an intelligence that's not artificial, two seconds of immobility can be a death sentence.

It's not ideal. But it's something.


  1. You know BP, it's great to see you finally becoming a PvP player. That's where all roads end really (and perhaps began?). Did you PvP in EQ, which I understand had a pretty intense scene?

    The interesting thing too about roles and creativity in WvW is that they really arose inspite of Anet. In the first year when I was playing the meta was GWEN: Guardians for stability, Warriors for stun chains, Ele's for healing, and Necros for AoE wells. There was also the complex interplay of fields and finishers, again not intended by Anet who wanted combos to be something that just happened in the midst of combat. But of course, combos became "on demand" once people figured out what the role of combos was.

    And you know, people in the MMO blogosphere seem baffled by Planetside 2. (To the point where Massively actually called it a failure). But man, it actually has the perfect mix of class roles and ability to switch between them that GW2 didn't quite master.

    In PS2 you have Combat Medics who heal, Engineers who repair Armour and dispense Ammo, Light Assaults with jet packs who flank from the heights and drop explosives, and Infiltrators who snipe and can hack your enemy's assets. All roles are completely necessary in the massive battles which can almost play out like a live-scale RTS when everything clicks.

    At the same time, however, you can switch classes when you respawn or at a terminal. The Vets of PS1 like to complain about this as it did diminish the RPG class choice of the first game which had a more traditional system, but it is just great if you like exploring different ways to play and strategize your role. Plus there are so many different types of guns and other weapons that you can put together a completely viable, niche build that you might only use 5% of the time, but it is devastating in the right set of circumstances. An Explorer type's dream.

    Camelot Unchained may take up the torch next. We'll see!

    - Simon

    1. My PvP history goes back a very long way. I made a character on Rallos Zek in the first few months I played EQ, so that would be in 2000. I called it my Drunk Monk because a) he was a monk and b) I was so nervous about PvP I had to be drunk to play him.

      I was always absolutely hopeless at 1v1 PvP and still am. I also have very little interest in fighting players just for the sake of fighting them. I played on Sullon Zek for about two weeks when it launched and found the idea of a server where teams (good, neutral and evil, selected by race) battled to hold territory very intriguing. From there I went to DAOC at launch and found RvR an even better implementation of the same idea.

      Unfortunately, my PC couldn't handle the big fights in DAOC. I did a lot better in the battlegrounds when they added them and after that most of my PvP for many years was in instances - WoW, Rift, Warhammer, even EQ2.

      I still like instanced PvP - I just don't like GW2's version of it. Luckily, WvW is the best RvR I've played, at least in terms of mechanics. Not, of course, in balance, where it's very shaky. I'm watching CU form a distance and it's almost certain I'll try it when it finally launches. I think it might be a bit too focused on pure PvP for my tastes, though.

      I am still definitely a PvE player from preference but when there's nothing much new going on in PvE it's good to have the constant novelty of PvP to fall back on. In GW2 that's actually most of the time, since they probably produce new PvE content slower than pretty much any MMO I've ever played regularly.


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