Saturday, November 2, 2013

Running For Home

At some point in the recent past Mad Otter, the company behind A Mystical Land, must have decided having the blandest name in MMOdom did them no favors in the 'getting attention' stakes so they changed it to Villagers and Heroes, which frankly isn't that much of a zinger either. I played A Mystical Land a few times when it first appeared. I quite liked it, with its jaunty oompah music, cheerily crazed NPCs and lightly ironic humor but there are just far too many MMOs around and cute, quirky offerings don't get much of a look in. It didn't stick.

It must be incredibly hard for MMOs to build traction nowadays. There are just so many of them, mostly there and thereabouts of reasonable quality. You can try out new ones as you find them but whatever curiosity you might have had is easily satisfied in a few sessions, after which you realize you're never going to devote the time to the game that it deserves because, well, it's an MMORPG and even the lightest will eat up most of your life if you let it. So I forgot about A Mystical Land and being a browser-based game it didn't even leave an icon on my desktop to remind me it existed.

Mad Otter hadn't forgotten me, though. Last week they sent one of those "Hey! We're still here! Where are you?" emails so beloved of marketing departments the world over. And it worked, to a degree. I logged in, anyway, just to see what, if anything, had changed along with the name.

See? Germans do have a sense of humor.
A lot, it seems. There's now a client you can download if you prefer not to play in a browser window. That took just a few minutes to install and patch. My old sign-in details worked and my level seven Hunter was there waiting, glaring out at me with his grizzled, leathery old-man face.

He might have wished he'd stayed forgotten because a couple of minutes later he was dead in the dirt, the first boar he'd pinged with an arrow having killed him with two swipes of its tusks. It's hard to forget how to play a guy who only has a bow, auto-attack and one skill so it wasn't that. It was more that a Level Seven Hunter probably shouldn't be pinging arrows into a Level Twenty-Nine pig in the first place.

I have no memory of where I logged that hunter out all those months (or is it years?) ago. Maybe I was exploring, got out of my depth, camped for the night and never came back. Maybe Mad Otter changed the zones around while I was gone but left the character data alone. Whatever it was, I was at the wrong end of a map crawling with nasties, any one of which could eat me in a couple of bites.

All of which lengthy pre-amble brings me somewhere close to the subject I sat down this morning to discuss, namely how very, very much easier travel in MMOs has become and how that's not just because of instant map-clicking and flying mounts and nor is it necessarily a Good Thing.

You're not kidding!

Let's examine the predicament of that poor old hunter, whose situation turns out to be much worse than than it first appeared, not like that wasn't already bad enough. On respawning after death in Villagers and Heroes you reappear at the point at which you entered the zone. Sounds fantastic! All our Hero (I'm guessing he's not a Villager) needs to do is turn around and go out the way he came in, presumably back to an area that he was able to manage before, otherwise how did he get here in the first place?

Problem is, while he was napping someone put a huge pile of logs in front of the gate he came in by, logs that clearly aren't intended to be jumped or climbed and even when he somehow managed to scramble past them the gate turned out to be firmly locked. If that was ever a zone-out it isn't one any more.

Never mind! A Hero never loses hope. A quick bag search reveals some kind of Hearthstone. Phew! One click and all his troubles will be over. Or they would be if he'd ever bound it anywhere. Which he hadn't.

At this point, when playing MMOs long-past, beads of sweat would begin to form on the brow as you realized the magnitude of the task ahead. Having died and respawned far from where you wanted to be, having neglected to rebind in an appropriate place, the prospects for your next few hours play looked bleak. A session of sneaking, hiding, planning and running; a journey filled with nail-biting tension that could end at any time in a surge of panic and despair followed by the grim realization that now you had to do it all again, possibly in your underwear.

A look at the map suggested that the one and only working exit to the zone was a good way down to the south-east. The only good news (apart from the fact that I had a map) was that there was a path leading all the way there. A winding path across which psychotic wildlife wandered at will sure, but still a path.

So the little Hunter ran down the path, jumped through the portal, arrived in a nice, safe village and that was that.

Anticlimax much? It's a modern MMO, what did you expect? He'd die? Of course he didn't die! He got hit a couple of times, poisoned, his health dropped to about twenty per cent and that was more than I'd bargained for but he just kept going and in the end he was fine. And if he had died on the first run, so what? It took maybe forty-five seconds, tops. He'd just get up, dust himself off and do it again.

What's wrong with that picture? Wilhelm sums it up perfectly in a recent post on his trip back to Deklein in internet spaceship MMO EVE.

"Then in null sec I was back on the jump bridge network and home in Deklein in a few more jumps.  Home again, home again. It is sort of like EverQuest back in the day, running from Qeynos to Freeport or Butcherblock.  It took all evening, I didn’t really gain anything besides a change of location, but it still felt like an accomplishment."

When old-timers talk about fast travel and what was lost this is what they mean. It isn't that anyone hankers for the inconvenience, frustration or mind-numbing boredom that would come from slogging across miles of safe, unthreatening landscape were you to remove Waypoints from GW2 or flying mounts from EQ2.

Thanks for visiting.
Maybe leave it a while next time, hey?
It isn't that most even want every means of fast, safe travel to be eliminated. It isn't that at all. I would not myself want to go back to the days when travel was always slow, difficult or expensive, often all three at once. I love my flying mounts and fast, safe transportation between major population centers and key destinations is always a good option to have. If you choose not to take that option, however, or if carelessness or lack of forethought leaves you with no choice, then isn't it preferable to have an adventure trying to get home than face a dull cross-country jog on which you run as fast as or faster than everything that tries to catch you? No wonder all those wolves give up so quickly.

No, the baby got thrown out with the bathwater last time and throwing out another isn't getting to get us anywhere. We need to get both babies back in the bath where they belong, happily gurgling and splashing soapy water over the sides. Hang on, I've lost control of this metaphor, let's get some help...

SynCaine has an insightful, allusion-free post on bringing the old forward into the new in which he observes

 "That’s not to suggest you can simply copy/paste 1997 UO, release it with updated graphics, and profit. Changes to the formula are needed, but outright abandoning the core is clearly not working. So when MMO fans talk about bringing back the ‘good old days’, it’s not because they want everyone to sit around a mob spawn for 12 hours daily, or because they would love to play a game where they lose everything at the bank all the time."

Talking about what made the older MMOs so memorable and distinctive, Keen points out

"MMOs are the sum of their parts; The good parts add and the bad part detract, but the entire game wouldn’t be the same if any piece went missing."

There. That's telling it straight. I just hope Brad McQuaid isn't the only one listening.


  1. @Bhagpuss, Are you going to write a your take on Brad's new project or is it too soon yet?

    I have a feeling that he will aim for a niche PvE game in the same way Camelot Unchained is niche PvP game. If this is the case I might even fund it!

    I enjoyed Vanguard and I loved all the open world and non instanced stuff. Unlike most people I never had much technical issues with the game, it ran reasonably well on my machine.

    1. When there's something to write about, definitely! He was instrumental in making two of my favorite MMOs of all time (and like you I was lucky enough to have a PC than ran Vanguard tolerably well right from launch) so I'm bound to be interested in what he does next. I just hope he's learned from the mistakes he made at Sigil.

      I'd bet you're right, too. A PvE-focused MMO along the lines and on the scale of what Mark Jacobs is planning would be my guess. There's a good chance I'd fund that, even given Brad's less than stellar recent history of management.


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