Monday, July 8, 2013

Easy Mode

Keen, with whom I find myself agreeing on a disturbingly regular basis these days, had a post up a few days back commenting on one of Mark Kern's many pronouncements. Mark Kern's the man behind the soon-come MMOFPS Firefall, which I mentioned briefly last month and which J3w3l has covered extensively throughout its patchy beta progress, most recently here where she explains, as the game heads into Open Beta on July 9th, why she likes it.

Someone mention a Road-map?
Mark Kern's a busy man, what with heading Red5 Studios as they bring their big project to market but he still finds time to pen a series of columns for, telling us How MMOs Should Be. (That's not the name of it, by the way, although it might as well be). The diatribe Keen quotes was actually entitled "Have MMOs Become Too Easy?", to which semi-rhetorical question the author's answer appears to be "Yes, when they aren't called Firefall".

His latest observation is the rather less snappy "Up to 90% of MMO Real Estate is Wasted". Again, this is apparently an indisputable fact, at least for MMOs other than his own. The ever-frisky commenteriat takes issue with Mark over a number of details, such as where he gets his figures from, why he doesn't seem to have noticed some major development trends that could be said to invalidate most of his arguments and, most forcefully, why he gets to advertise his upcoming game for free in what's supposed to be an objective feature on game design.

I liked what little I saw of Firefall and I plan on giving it a run when it soft-launches this week. Like many commenters, however, I will be frikkin' amazed if it turns out to be the answer to all the myriad problems against which Mark Kern rails. Problems that, while they may have some basis in reality, arguably exist more in the imaginations of people who no longer play certain MMOs than in the day-to-day experience of those still enjoying them.

Is it me or does that merc look kinda jaded?
I played Everquest yesterday. Not some grey-market, time-warp Golden Age version but the current build. Now fourteen years old, EQ has released 19 Expansions giving Norrath something upward of 375 zones, a handful of which are "Hot". Recently, after more than a year of living with the same Hot Zones, someone decide to swap in a great new set. Since it was also a double XP extravaganza for the 4th of July weekend I thought I'd come home for the holidays.

Looking to ease back in gently after a few months away I picked a mid-30s Enchanter from my large pack of characters. I spoke to Franklin Teek in Plane of Knowledge and he recommended Dawnshroud Peaks, an old favorite where I must have spent many hundreds of hours over the years. I claimed my clockwork merc, summoned my idiot animation and set out for adventure.

It was a simple enough run, first by book to The Nexus then through Netherbian Lair to Dawnshroud. I'd been tasked with killing five Sambata Tribal Gatherers, harmless, inoffensive primitives that, in the way of MMOs in general and EQ in particular, needed to die for no reason other than someone was paying me. All our characters are sociopaths, that's the long and the short of it.

Hi. I'm Franklin Teek. I pick someone's name out of a hat and then you go kill them.
It's all quite official. You let me worry about the paperwork.

I'd forgotten where they were, so on emerging from the tunnels of Netherbian Lair I was standing aimlessly looking around, when I spotted a lightcrawler and thought I'd warm up on him. He clearly had the same idea because a second later my entire screen had gone black. I'd forgotten lightcrawlers blind, which is why, in the old days, we stayed well away from them.

When a mob blinds you in EQ it's not just some flickering color filter around the edge of your screen and a missed auto-attack. Oh no, your entire monitor screen goes black and stays that way until the blindness wears off, which might not be so bad if lightcrawlers couldn't reapply it indefinitely.

As anyone who hasn't played since 2004 will tell you, EQ really has been dumbed down to the point that any toddler can level to cap in a couple of days so I didn't actually die. My animation finished the crawler while my merc kept us both alive (if an animated sword and shield can be said to be alive in the first place).

So, some monkeys died. Just look at that upgrade!
Suitably chastened I set off looking for Sambatas. After a run-in with a Zelniak (alright, I started that one) and a detour into Sanctus Seru to shake the half-dozen or so wolves that fancied a late afternoon Gnome snack I eventually found the Sambata pottering around their rocks outside the entrance to Maiden's Eye. Moving to pull one to what looked like a safe spot I triggered an invisible blood starved wolf, who chased me across the nearby zone line and then hung around outside in case I came back.

Eventually I got set up and successfully killed my five hapless monkey-men. Start to finish it had taken the best part of an hour to travel three zones from Plane of Knowledge and kill seven creatures. Was it easier than Back In The Day? No it flipping well was not. It was exactly the same - time-consuming, awkward, risky and enormously enjoyable. What had changed was the reward for all that effort. Because it was a Hot Zone I netted 8 plat and an extremely nice cloak.

One. More. Level. That's all I ask!
Flushed with this success I then made a foolish and rash decision to do something similar with my highest-level character, an 84th Beastlord. The level 80 Hot Zone is Hills of Shade, another Luclin zone but one largely unknown to me, my only previous acquaintance with it being a handful of nervy runs to a camp in the middle for a FedEx mission I did for a while a year or two back, during my last serious attempt to hit the then-level cap of 85.

I'll spare the details but more than an hour later I logged off having killed precisely nothing, gained exactly no xp, coin or loot and yet counting myself lucky things had gone as well as that. Everquest may not  be "I lost my level and my corpse and everything on it" hard these days but don't let anyone tell you that means it's easy.

Was it fun? Hell yes. Exasperating, frustrating, infuriating, irritating but always fun. Otherwise, after nearly a decade and a half, why would it still have seventeen servers running and general chat channels that scroll so fast you struggle to follow the conversation and fight at the same time?

Oh, and all that wasted real estate? Where I come from we call that a world.


  1. He certainly has a few interesting things to say that reflects the on the general direction of the genre but I really wish he wouldn't add that "but Firefall is different" pitch. It might be good but in all probably won't hold up to the ideals.

    I think a big difference between the feeling of a world or just being wasted space is having items, craft able, or experiences that are still important to your character. Mark kern also had that point of need or want which I think is a good distinction as well.

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