Monday, January 6, 2014

Buffs, Boons, Brevity : Everquest, GW2

Many years ago, when Everquest set the rules and others followed, buffs were measured in minutes, even in hours. With the exception of Bards, who had constantly to twiddle their fingers and twist their songs to keep up a seamless stream of morale-enhancing musical notes, buffing was a matter of clicking a handful of hot keys once an hour or so.

Starting out as a Cleric you'd receive Courage at level one, the first in what would become your core buff line, giving you the endlessly sought-after ability to increase hit points. It was a line of buffs known intimately to everyone, not just Clerics. Through various eras, depending on the current highest or most widely requested exemplar, the line was known by different names: Center, Valor, Temperance, Vigor, Aegolism. At the peak of my own career as a cleric the call was for Virtue. Later, when I was a user rather than a dealer, it was Tenacity and Temerity.

Whichever class you played, whether you were the giver or receiver of buffs, you learned two things from the beginning: as you grew more powerful buffs lasted longer and they affected more people at once. The duration of most buffs increased incrementally level by level as well as upgrade by upgrade and higher levels would bring a group version of a single-cast. Over a couple of years I progressed from a half-hourly buffing session outside Splitpaw in the thirties, where I had to hit everyone with Center separately, to a single cast of Hand of Virtue at 65 that buffed the entire group and lasted a couple of hours.

That wasn't all. As expansions rolled out both the game and the world broadened and deepened. We discovered new ways to extend and prolong the buffs we cast. Items appeared that offered a whole range of effects, able to focus spells to be more efficient, more powerful and, especially, longer-lasting. Whole fresh paths of alternate advancement opened up, bringing enhancements of every imaginable kind including the ability to cast buffs that affected not just your group or even your raid but everyone in the immediate area.

Entire playstyles arose out of these options. Clerics and enchanters grew rich, offering their spells for hard cash or desirable items. Certain locations buzzed and whirred with commerce: the lawns or boards outside the banks in Plane of Knowledge, the hill in front of the Guild Lobby, the pathway where the Priest of Discord stood, ever-patient. How he must have hated all that bonhomie. The shouts and calls of players looking to buy or sell buffs rang in the air as adventurers ported in to refresh their protections before heading out to begin the hunt once more.

Best of all, in an emergent forerunner of the kind of open, co-operative play made familiar in recent years, selfless or self-aggrandizing individuals would call all-comers to them for Mass Group Buffs, bringing dozens, scores of people at a dead run as the count-down neared zero.

"Mass HOV at POD 3 minutes". "Extended SD at Small Bank, casting in 30 secs". "3hr KEI at GD Stone. Donations always welcome". The cries of the buff-hawkers, as familiar and cheering as the chimes of the Ice Cream Man. The thrill of receiving a buff that could make the difference between a slow, difficult session or a brisk romp, only bettered by the satisfaction of being that caster, able to stand tall and share the fruits of your hard-earned success with friends, strangers and paying customers alike.

There were downsides. Some casters became greedy, some recipients picky. Woe betide the fresh sixty Enchantress, over-excited at coming into her prime, her signature spell in her book at last, who set up stall casting KEI at base duration, a mere two and a half hours, while others were offering three and a quarter, enhanced. Then there were the imbalances: the lack of level restriction on Temperance that could turn a newbie warrior into an unstoppable killing machine for a couple of hours (working as intended) or Koadic's Endless Intellect that could do the same for a young wizard or druid for even longer (a bug, corrected only after several years, even though time and usage had long-since rendered it normative).

Acquiring long-lasting buffs became routine to the point that many adventurers simply wouldn't leave the house, or at least Plane of Knowledge, without them. Once in situ, and sometimes even with group members on the spot, willing and able to provide comparable alternatives on demand, breaks for a return to PoK for a refresh of a key buff (or a KEI buff, often as not) made for a commonplace disruption to the rhythm of the kill.

Still, for all the drawbacks, now it looks like a golden age. The synergies and interplays between classes, individuals, groups and communities; the motivators of personal pride and character progression; the exuberant spirit of play; the turning of the economic wheel.

An addiction in the making
Whole weeks, months of satisfying gameplay derived from the search for improved focus effects, the desire to make spells cast faster, cost less mana,  last longer. It wasn't that you felt more powerful having them, though you did; it was that you felt complete. And always there was the ritual of it all; the casting of buffs as the party came together, from each according to his ability, to each according to his need; the donation of reagents by the willing, the unseen mark entered into the clerical notebook against the names of those who sat on their Peridots.

Even in Norrath the glory days are gone. Mercenaries provide buffs on tap. Spells no longer require reagents. In EQ2, half a millennium on, once cast buffs last forever.  It's understandable, excusable even. Aging games must offer convenience or wither away.

But what excuse do newer MMOs have and what do they have to offer instead? In GW2 a long-duration buff might last you half a minute. A trait might extend that by ten or twenty percent. The only way to keep buffs (or boons as they're known in Tyria) up is to run in a pack with everyone chain-casting like crazy.

It's a methodology that both suits and predicates GW2's zerg culture. It leads to faintly ludicrous, inelegant behavior like stacking, where everyone piles on top of one another like students trying to beat the record for packing a phone booth before charging off to throw themselves onto their opponents like a horde of rabid rats, hoping the seconds-long buffs will hold. It causes Guardians and Warriors to call constantly for company, asking people to huddle close so their auras of power or virtue won't go to waste.

The upshot is the frenetic action, the restless motion so emblematic of the modern MMO. It's entertaining but it's exhausting too, not to be dismissed lightly, with its own strengths and pleasures, to be sure, but perhaps lacking the defined, developmental purpose of the system it replaced. Traits constantly, cheaply swapped for effects that last seconds fail to emulate either the gravitas or the satisfaction of items and abilities long-desired, worked for, effortfully acquired.

Those permanent, significant and meaningful, not incremental, improvements, did more than just replace existing items or abilities with the numbers changed. They stood as markers not of linear progress but of the rounding out of a character learning to live more fully, more meaningfully in his world.

I miss it. I miss the progression and the character-building, but most of all I miss the buffing itself. How we all cursed it then, that relentless re-application, having to spend a couple of minutes at the start of every session cycling through the same half a dozen casts only to find yourself doing the same again just a fleeting two or three hours later. Talk about not knowing when you're well off.

As I run through the borderlands, blowing my warhorn for those few seconds of swiftness, trying to stay in the bubble around the commander and not fall back to the straggling tail, what wouldn't I give now for some good old Spirit of Wolf.

Extended, of course.


  1. Off-topic... sort of, anyway... but this reminds me of what I consider one of the great mistakes that SOE made during the early days of EQII, which was the massive restrictions on buffs they had at launch. This always seemed to me to clearly be a reaction... or over-reaction... to how things played out in EQ with buffs. At EQII at launch there were five minute (!) buffs and most buffs had a restriction that only allowed you to cast them on group/raid members.

    I have always attributed this to an out-of-proportions desire to stop people from helping low level friends/alts tear through the content, though I wonder how much of it was also a reaction from casters setting up shop as they did in the PoK. And, of course, there was the friction that sometimes came up. I recall players demanding SoW from my shaman... "please" was such a rare word even back then... and raging at me for not casting it fast enough, or not casting it at all if they were obnoxious right away.

    EQII is different now, that is for sure. I think all of those five minute group-only buffs... or auras really, as you just have to have it up for a group member to get the benefit... are now "until cancelled." And you can cast SoW on random strangers again, though mounts are so fast I am not sure who would miss it.

    1. I'm pretty sure that the main design brief for EQ2 was "whatever they do in EQ, do the exact opposite". That and "never, ever do anything that might end in a call to Customer Services".

      I played EQ2 through three months of beta to six months after launch and in terms of game mechanics I hated nearly everything about it. The heroic encounter closed-party tagging with its /yell humiliation get-out clause that caused more arguments than kill-stealing ever did; the convoluted death penalty with the shards and the xp debt that hit group members minding their own business on one side of the zone when new members failed to find a safe path through the hordes of heroic mobs to get to them; the inability to help anyone outside your group with buffs; the statless food and drink that no-one used but without which recovering from every fight seemed to take forever; the passive-aggressive co-dependency of the crafting system...

      Original EQ2 would stand as my personal prime example of how not to design an MMO. Thank Brell for Scott Hartsman and Domino. Without those two coming along to fix what was so very badly broken I'm not sure we'd have either an EQ2 today or the prospect of two more EQ games coming our way in the next couple of years.

      And if EQ2 had begun life looking like it did after those two got their hands on it, maybe WoW wouldn't have had the field all to itself all those years...

    2. Agreed on all points. While even original EQ2 had some fascinating innovations, the way it departed so much from its predecessor really killed any chance of me falling in love with it. I couldn't shake the comparison, and that eventually dragged the entire game down with it.

  2. I agree 100% with this post.

    Generally speaking, I miss how older RPGs left open some room for exploit. Early Everquest lacked significant level restrictions on most gear, didn't bat an eye at overloading a new player with high level buffs, and generally left you to your own devices. Similarly, a game like Morrowind let you make game-breaking spells that could level entire cities.

    Fast forward to current MMOs and RPGs beyond Morrowind, and there is so much emphasis on closing these loopholes and preventing players from harmlessly exploiting the game. For many, including myself, that 'open-ended, do as you please' design mentality, whether intended or not, was a huge draw.

    I think another element to consider, one that GW2 and now World of Warcraft both due, is the normalization of buffs across all classes. It certainly makes sense, as it makes the game easier to understand and manage, but I miss powerful buffs belonging uniquely to individual classes. Now it is this whole unique class ability x applies generic buff y nonsense. It is flavorless and devoid of character.

    1. The problem with unique buffs is the parties then become a form of checklist: "Do we have a priest? ...and none of the guild ones is online either. Check your friend lists... There's one online...? Oh, she's in a party already. How about alts? Low level? Never mind then... I called X, he said he'd be online in 2 hours, maybe 90 minutes... What is it? The bard needs to leave in 2 hours??" And you can only go to a dungeon when you have all the boxes ticked.

  3. It's interesting you speaking of EQ when everything you've written about the changes and lost glory of MMO buffing would also apply to WoW, so much. having raided for 6 years straight and having played one of the most important buffing classes in WoW for as long, I have experienced all the same changes and nuances in WoW, from the way synergies changed over time, social meaning right down to bagspace management concerns.

    I do miss this too. it created so many avenues of social interaction but was also technically interesting to us theorycrafters and guild leaders. to be fair, it went overboard in WoW as well sometimes (old pali buffs, class/food/alchemy buff combos) and it wasn't well-spread across classes but it's a definite loss not to have any of it in newer games. and it took me a while to see this; what you note on progression and aging games is really important. after years of managing the same buffs and related concerns in WoW, we were all glad for the simplifications. I was happy the constant grind for certain ingredients was over. but that's okay because things need to change over the years, you can't have the same challenges forever. why new MMOs should skip this progression entirely though...well there's really no reason.

  4. Interesting.

    But Guild Wars, the game released in 2005, 30-60s buffs were quite long lasting.

    So I'm not sure if this is due to zerg nature or not or simply making MMORPG play more active.

    Considering you've been playing WvW, I find it weird that somehow you forgot to talk about food and utility consumables, especially the food trays.

    Or even the guild wide buffs and banners/communal fire.
    Isn't it great to step in LA and just find a nice communal fire and a guild heroes banner?

  5. I can't remember the last time I played EQ, but your post still fills me with rage at the buff whining in that game.

  6. @C T Murphy - Really good point on buff normalization. That screenshot from GW2 showing the Engineer's Elixir B demonstrates the problem, and for me it is a problem. A lot of care has been taken in making that particular trait visually and sonically unique, amusing and appropriate but that's still not a patch on giving classes unique buffs. The whole trend in MMOs (more than a trend now, more like an orthodoxy) towards ensuring that all characters are effectively equal tends, probably inevitably, towards a kind of utilitarian blandness that I increasingly find unappealing.

    @Syl - I really don't know WoW well enough to compare, especially not in its original version, although I can see a lot of changes in this direction even in the time between when I first played it five years after launch and my recent visit last summer. Most MMOs seem to have moved in this direction. Whether Blizzard led or followed I'm not sure.

    @Swoo Sousa Very good point on food/utilities in GW2. I should have thought of that but I'm afraid I forgot about them in exactly the same way I largely forget to use them in game. It's very intriguing that ANet went with cast buffs lasting seconds but gave the crafted item buffs durations from 30-60 minutes. Even more so that here I am complaining that we need more long-lasting buffs and not remembering to use the ones that are available. Who'd be an MMO dev?

    @Chris Bickford I think that in line with what Syl says above, by the time a lot of this got changed and refined plenty of long-term players were more than happy to see the back of it for a lot of reasons. Buff whining in EQ was extreme and it drove us all into a fury at times. Still, babies and bathwater and all that.

  7. It might be nice to have buffs that only work in raid zones (say), but losing an hour of a two hour game session because the druid couldn't function even in trivial zones without KEI or having to avatar the cleric because they thought they were melee DPS (this is PoP era EQ) just wasn't even slightly fun.

    Farming herbs for flasks (Lich King era WoW)... whatever. Wasn't a big deal.

    It did really bother me that people wouldn't just use their common sense and insisted on getting every buff all the time.


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