Lack of Information

The idea for today’s post comes from one of our long-time readers, Bhagpuss. While discussing yesterday’s topic of older MMO combat being much slower, and as a result much deeper, Bhagpuss reminded me that this can also be due to a lack of information provided to the player.

“What does that mob con?”

I love how this phrase originated, at least for me. I first started using it in EQ, and I think that might be its origin. If you’re not familiar with the terminology, a mob “con” is usually referring to its color and aggression status. Back in EQ one simply targeted a mob and pressed the ‘C’ key. In the chat a description would appear in a certain color. The description might say the mob considers you an ally, warmly, kindly, amiably, indifferently, apprehensively, dubiously, threateningly, or ready to attack.  Then the infamous color con system was incorporated to give players a general idea of where the level of the mob might be–We had to figure out what “dubiously” meant and whether or not the mob was our level.

Con’ing a mob was just one step. Sometimes that con meant very little. Certain mobs would wreck certain classes regardless of their level. Some mobs would be massive undercons meaning they could con blue but hit you like they were 10 levels above (Dorn in NRo anyone?).

As Bhagpuss bring up in his comment yesterday, a group pulling a red con might be in for a surprise. That red con might be among other reds that are just 2-3 levels above your group… but that red might be 10 levels above. There was really no way to know.

Figuring Out A Fight

Once you were satisfied that a monster might be safe to pull you still had to deal with what came next: What can this mob do to me? Pulling a new mob in EverQuest was always an adventure. Sometimes those mobs could nuke ridiculously hard compared to how hard they melee. Sometimes they charm your own party members, blind, etc. While this element of not knowing what a mob does can exist in every MMO while people are just starting out, it always felt like a constant in a game like EverQuest.

This sense of unknown created danger. Danger slowed people down; Danger brought people together.


I talked on this yesterday but it’s worth bringing up again that mob aggro wasn’t something people could really grasp because it didn’t appear to be exact. If a tank engages a mob and only stays on it for 5% of its health, and a healer casts a heal, that mob might decide the healer needs to die and nothing is going to stop it. Proximity to a mob affected how much it hated you. Healers should never heal standing near the mob.

Interpret and Predict

Players had to do a lot more interpreting and predicting to overcome the challenges presented by a lack of information. I like how Bhagpuss put it, “That fuzziness in itself made for much more thoughtful, tactical combat.” That can apply to everything about old school MMOs. Players weren’t given UI addons, mods, data, or instruction. They were thrown out into the world and told to adventure.

Sure, people charted the world and revealed the approximate level of every mob. Maps were made, guides were read. That still never seemed to remove the ‘fuzziness’ or the danger, and certainly never made anyone have to think less. Players learned to predict and learned to interpret, and as a result they became better players.

As you go about playing your MMOs today, or thinking about them at work, consider what a little less information and insight might do to make your experience a little more dynamic and enjoyable.

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Balthazar - July 23, 2014

I agree. I like the element of risk and the unknown that the “fuzzy” con system EQ had created. It meant you actually had to test the waters a bit and couldn’t just dive in on a new mob or zone that you had not experienced before.

You also had to use a bit of intuition and more strategy in most fights. I liked that eventually you figured things out like that white melee damage did not generate the same amount of aggro as if a spell did that same damage or if you were further away from the mob than the melee. There were also other ways to control aggro or help with adds that you figured out like rooting mobs or snaring them to keep them from killing the healers/casters. Combining this knowledge, if your tank is dying your druid can move in a bit, start nuking the crap out of the mob, draw aggro and keep it snared to give your cleric time to catch up, and then the tank can taunt it back.

It did sometimes make it frustrating when you were new to the game and had not learned these things through experience yet (read as: dying a lot). But, overall, I think it created much more depth and once you had that knowledge it felt great using it to help newbies and/or contribute to your group’s success.

BlarghAld - July 23, 2014

tsk. kids.

CON is the abbreviated form of CONSIDER, a command present in MUDs – and presumably single player text adventures predating muds, although I cant think of any examples – long before EQ et.al.

back on topic… for me there always has been a very definite line in the sand after which lack of information is a source of frustration. “figuring things out” however is not information. figuring things out is figuring things out

BlarghAld - July 23, 2014

arg. first sentence above should start with:

“CON or CONS is….”

Warphunter - July 23, 2014

The pace was often determined as well by the planning involved in trying, for instance, to break a spawn. The tactics would vary quite significantly by party make-up. Generally crashing into a spawn of 10 orcs around a campfire would be suicide – zerging wasnt really an option unless you were WAY over level. But those 10 orcs might be grouped in 3s with a leader at the center. Let’s see if we can pull just a single group of three, so we wait until they wander off to the side a bit, then someone shoots one. If successful, we have one group of three coming towards us. If not – Holler out “train the zone!” and get the heck out of there (and hope you dont pick up too many adds on the way).

If you manage to get just the three, you may try to slow, mezz or root to break them up, and best case deal with them ONE AT A TIME. Repeat on the other groups, and finally the leader if you are fast enough to bring down all the groups before they start to repop. If you manage this – you own the spawn and maybe move to the center of the orc campfire, and deal with each group as they pop.

This was perhaps your entire night – just camping this single orc spawn point. When you were doing it right, it didnt even feel like grinding, but rather a more “we are totally in the zone!” response…

And then it became more complicated and challenging when trying to fight your way into (and out of!) a “dungeon”. Someone may already be camping the entrance. How far can you go in? What if you get too deep, the mobs all pop behind you, and the entrance campers are gone making your escape tenuous. You could again make a whole night just breaking spawns on a couple of nearby dungeon rooms and pulling to a central location. Often getting to the “end” of a dungeon was more of a far off dream than an actual short term goal…

Warphunter - July 23, 2014

Of course that should have been “Train TO the zone” above 🙂

Kerazi - July 23, 2014

WoW has been missing this for a very long time. MoP starting bringing this back a little. Some quest mobs had special attacks you had to learn to avoid or your survival wasn’t assured (which it basically had been the last few expansions).

The Timeless isle has a wide variety of elite mobs whose level wasn’t the end of the story. Each mob had their thing. Some put stacks of a DoT, others hit with AoE or frontal attacks (with a reasonably long casting time). Most of them were quick to figure out. Some of them though took more trial and error, and required a little bit of a gear upgrade. So just running around soloing for coins and satisfaction is a thing to do once in a while.

Wildstar has some of this too. After the faceroll levels, quest mobs can kill you, especially if multiple gang up you. All of a sudden your rotation is on cooldown, your dodge is on cooldown and those telegraph worthy spells HURT! If you aren’t as much of a n00b as me, and quest mobs never create a challenge, time to tune your buildout for Prime mobs cupcake.

Current games may not be bringing back the good old days, but personally I like them bringing back some of the challenge, especially since its completely optional.

My favorite moment of MoP was when I started to get bored of Timeless Isle and I looked over at those big fire elemental with the flaming telegraph and I said “I could totally take him!”. 5 or 6 deaths later I cracked it. No achievement, barely any loot. No quest progress. Just me and his corpse.

Balthazar - July 23, 2014

@ Kerazi

I think Timeless Isle and the random elites wandering around in the open world, as well as the somewhat reduced linearity of the leveling process from Cata, were excellent steps in the right direction for WoW. I am glad to hear that they are going to try and do more of this with WoD and hoping it turns out well.

Thuun - July 24, 2014

I think the problem, or at least difference, is that people nowadays expect to know the systems and play around them; and devs know that players will do this and build the games accordingly. Even easy-mode MMOs these days would probably still be hard and the mystery and danger would be present if you went in blind. But, unless you are a genuine wide-eyed MMO newb (and we only get to be that once, and we’ve all done it already) you can’t simulate ignorance. Knowing the info is there (online) but avoiding it is very different from the info simply not being there or genuinely not knowing WTF is going on.

The ‘behind the curtain’ problem is one I’ve been having increasingly lately, where I stop enjoying a game once I’ve figured out the systems that it uses. For me, once you’ve seen all the mechanics available, you can extrapolate what is, or isn’t possible and a lot of the fun is lost. The most fun I’ve had gaming lately is when I think I know the systems and something comes from left field to surprise me.

This is quite pertinent to EQN for me for a couple of reasons: hopefully the new AI system will be complex and opaque enough that we won’t be able to learn the systems and will have to play scenarios as if they were real; and secondly, with Landmark, we are effectively being explicitly invited behind the curtain by the devs. It seems great, but is it actually going to kill all enjoyment of the ‘real’ game? For me, possibly, which is why I stopped playing it.

maljjin - July 24, 2014

Your point is related to your previous one, about the speed of combat. You can have less information, if the action is on the slow side and players have time to think and respond. Otherwise, it becomes a frustrating experience. Not knowing what’s going on because it went so fast and you didn’t have the proper amount and quality of clues if not fun. I’ll take FPS as an example. The action is fast, you can die in a mere few seconds, therefore you need the ability and the tools to react quickly. By design, a FPS needs to provide a certain amout of information and display it in a certain way for the player to able to react quickly and take decisions in fractions of seconds. Ah the other end of the spectrum, you can be obscure as you want if you have the ability to pause the game, the ultimate slow game.

There’s also other cases. I’ll take one of my favorite game, Europa Universalis IV, a grand strategy game. The amount of information available at any time is gigantic. Granted, you may not need the whole thing all the time, the sheer amout of information you might have to consider goes hand-to-hand with the ability to pause the game to scroll all this information.

Remove the telegraphs from Wildstar and leave the players with only the animations to understand what’s going on and you will have a hard time keeping your player base happy as combat will be frustrating.

Short version : the quantity and quality of information available to players in a game is not a stand-alone feature. It has to fit in with all the other features of the game.

bhagpuss - July 24, 2014

Well you already know what I think 😛

@maljjin Interestingly, buried in the multiplicity of Options in WildStar is a button that turns telegraphs off. I meant to try playing without them in beta but I never spent enough time there to get around to it. At least the developers considered the possibility that a minority might want less information (or visual clutter).

I wonder if there’s a subculture there already that plays that way?

maljjin - July 24, 2014

@bhagpuss I didn’t know the option exists ! There’s surely an experiment to do there hehe. I have in mind the first boss in Stormtalon Lair. He has a big attack covering all the room but a few spots. Without the telegraph, I don’t know how I could find the safe spots.

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