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Downtime

Downtime has always been considered a negative. It’s meant to be something players have to mitigate. Developers create abilities meant to reduce downtime or make it more bearable. That said, downtime is not only necessary but adds remarkable depth to a virtual world.

Players need reasons to play smart. Modern MMOs seem to be operating on this idea of unlimited combat resources and spamming abilities. The goal in combat is to simply avoid death which is usually brought by standing in a red circle or not DPSing fast enough. Once upon a time mana pools had to be managed and a healer would actually have to sit between heals. The entire group had to think about maximizing their potential in order to avoid the amount of downtime a group experienced.

Downtime hasn’t always been a group only mechanic. Downtime used to be a bigger issue for solo players. ¬†Now’days it’s simply a matter of following quest markers–you can do that all day long and never stop. In the past, sometimes you’d find one mob you want to kill and wait for it to respawn. Respawns added to downtime, but sometimes you had to wait for your mana to regen.

I remember very clearly the internal debate I would have about whether or not to group up. Bad groups have downtime, but good groups could avoid the issue altogether. Sometimes a good group could pull non-stop because of the classes or the player skills. Sometimes a bad group meant waiting for a healer who can’t manage her mana, or DPS who can’t avoid being hit.

Just the fact that this was a thought process at all is kind of cool because it meant there were complex decisions. Avoiding slow or downtime heavy groups meant figuring out who was a good player. The downtime mechanic built reputations (good and bad) and created diversity in the grouping experience. ¬†Every group is the same these days–you don’t even have to talk to people anymore. That diversity is fading as these mechanics like downtime begin to go away.

Focusing on the negative is easy. People don’t like to wait or have limitations. I get that, but it’s the fact that you don’t want those negative things to happen that makes having them so great. If nothing can go wrong, and nothing can slow you down, where is the depth? I’m in favor of adding complex decisions and thought back into MMOs. I’ve sorta had my fill of mindless button mashing and every experience, group or solo, being dumbed down to the least common denominator.

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Comments

  1. It’s only recently occurred to me that some modern MMOs do have a built-in downtime mechanic that comes as the flip side of the endless conveyor belt of questing and killing. It’s called Inventory Management.

    Frantic killing means frantic looting. Even with good-sized crafted bags and conveniences like zap-to-bank craft mats my inventory fills up within minutes most sessions. I spend more time either calling up the Trading Post and selling in situ or flipping up to WvW and clearing my bags into my personal and guild banks than I ever spend actually fighting stuff. It’s particularly bad (or, for my own tastes, particularly good – I love it) in GW2 but it’s much the same in most MMOs nowadays.

    In the good old days of EQ you might buy your way out of downtime at three-spawn by buying a Clarity from the peripatetic enchanter as he made his way through the Karanas. (That’s a real situation which happened routinely on the server where I played a druid back in 2000 or so although buying KEI in PoK would have been a more apposite example. I think that might have been after your time, though, albeit that it was established practice more than a decade ago…). Nowadays you buy your way out of downtime with insta-summon vendors and bankers and extra inventory slots fresh from the cash shop.

    One is certainly a more…organic…solution than the other but the player’s goal is always the same – spend more time killing.

  2. Balthazar says:

    I have friends who cringe at the idea of going back to a game with some kind of downtime akin to EQ, but I mostly agree that downtime can be a good thing. After recently playing games like GW2, TERA and Neverwinter Nights (the more recent version), I found the slower pace of combat in FF14 to be a welcome break from the frantic key mashing and jumping around that seems to be standard fare now’days.

    In my occasional forays back to P1999, I have often thought there was much more depth to the combat than the UI or the occasionally ability clicking would indicate and that there are lots of things that have been lost even from EQ’s combat that current MMO developers could learn from.

    However, one of the complaints I did hear often about FF14 was that it was slower paced and had “boring” combat. I do think any game that comes out now that has significant downtime or a slower combat pace will face challenges in attracting some of the ADD folks out there who are pulling their hair out for having to wait 3 minutes for their gryphon to fly them somewhere or be willing to fork over significant gold to get a port to avoid the same 3 minute flight. Which may not be a bad thing.

  3. @Bhagpuss: Inventory management focuses more on the penalty or side effect side of downtime. Downtime is so much more than time management. Managing combat resources, grouping with the right people, using the right buffs, pulling the right mobs, etc., are all part of downtime management. Cleaning out your inventory is more akin to a chore, albeit definitely a form of downtime.

    @Balthazar: The idea of slower combat is an interesting one. I might write a post on it tomorrow. You bring up a key point about old school EverQuest’s combat being deep despite the ui and abilities. That’s really hard for people to understand since the entire industry has been focusing on combat being 100% abilities. Slower combat can absolutely be boring if there isn’t more to a fight than simply having to wait for abilities to come off cooldown, and I think that’s part of what made people think FF14’s combat had issues.

  4. Rawblin says:

    Preach it brother. Down with Arcade-MMOs!

    (Ok fine, they don’t have to leave. But at least bring back real MMOs)

  5. Morreion says:

    I miss downtime. That’s when you socialized, arranged your loot, and planned out tactics for upcoming battles, waiting while mana regenerated.

    The modern MMO, with its non-stop killing, makes me nauseous after a while. Kill kill kill come on come on! It’s like an ADHD festival.

    Socialization is the big loser in having little or no downtime.

  6. @Morreion: I didn’t even touch on the socializing aspects. You are absolutely 100% correct. Downtime brings with it many things outside of the actual mechanics. Player interaction and socializing being one of the first to go.

  7. wufiavelli says:

    They also provided room to chat and make friends, joke, and learn.

  8. Horrorshow says:

    First, great blog entry as usual.

    I often prefer the bad groups to the good groups because they and you are learning about the situation at hand and learning about whether you want to associate with each other as gamers. The alleged good pickup groups where things go quickly often reveal players who are pompous, arrogant, and offensive. People who I would never be around in the real world. The speed of how the person learns and level adeptness to a game means nothing to me if you are a douche bag.

    Games are supposed to be fun and NOT to be taken seriously. I refuse to take them seriously. It is why I can not stand the Leet guilds and people that often you see or encounter in MMOs. I do not care if they are going to help me get to the next level of getting my character ahead in the game. As long as there are great stories and funny memories on how it went wrong even if it never went right I am fine with that. It does not matter how long it takes for someone to “get it right” in a quest or a raid or a mob fight. Unless you are actually playing in an E-Sports tournament people should not treat a gaming session as a professional sports event.

    I was trying out a Dayz Mod recently for the first times. I ended up hanging associating with a group of people. I was helpful in making the base and following orders. I also had a lot of questions. Soon the leader gave me a very passive aggressive with me talking to. He told me I should reconsider playing. His rational was I never played DayZ mod when it first came out so I was still too new and should try another game since the we were using a mod that was more “advanced”. My solution was to simply not associate with them, keep playing, and hang out on the Keen and Graev forums and blog. (Yes, I do plug the site to who ever I can. Whenever I can.)

    If I am going to be serious it is with this advice: If you run into the people online who use words like Pro-Tip leave the area immediately so they can be alone with their inflated ego. Anyone who talks like that should remove themselves from the gene pool. Immediately.

  9. solarbear says:

    Games lost a lot with the removal of spellbooks and the truly situatioal use of spells.

  10. Joy-Energiser says:

    I have found that downtime that can be mitigated by how you approach a battle can be interesting and a challenge in itself.Using your combo’s at the right time in the right order(like a riposte) that helps with fighting downtime makes combat far more interesting.

    I totally agree that fighting downtime at a group level adds a whole new dimension of depth to leveling up in an efficient manner.

  11. Keen, you would be amazed to know how many people I have met in early wow (Vanilla/TBC) simple by asking me to make them some water/food or a portal with my mage. With many of them we continued the conversation, resulting in adding in friend list and play together further. Downtime not only added in smart gameplay and virtual world, but also helped building a server community in a way.

  12. Gringar says:

    I am hoping that Camelot Unchained gets this right with their daily reward update system and actually this post makes me think it could be a really good idea. If you are rewarded based on time spent exploring a dungeon rather than how fast you can chain pull mobs then downtime and just good old exploring won’t be so frowned upon. It may even be a good way to work on some non-combat skills as well in addition to actually talking to your group.

  13. I am loving your series of posts on what made old-school EQ so great. I would love it if EQN would adopt most of these design philosophies but I have a feeling it won’t.

    I will say though that my perfect MMO would tweak the downtime levels a bit. I remember my first EQ character was a barbarian warrior. I soloed from time to time until about level 20. At that level, a single fight with a deep blue or even con would leave me with about a 20 minute recovery time, after bandaging. That’s a little crazy. Maybe 4-5 min tops to regenerate health.