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Choices Should Matter

“…Choices matter – even bad ones.”  That’s a quote from our interview with Mark Jacobs in response to whether or not players should be allowed to “gimp” themselves at character creation. I’ve thought a lot on the subject over the past week as I once again dabble into older MMOs seeking that feeling brought on by making meaningful choices. I keep going back to what types of choices there are in MMOs and how they should matter.

We make choices every day in MMOs — easily hundreds of them. What class we want to play, where we want to hunt, which items to use, what to vendor or store in our bank, who to group with, what or who to attack, etc. We used to, and sometimes rarely do make choices about which stats to increase or what factions to gain favor and disdain.

Modern MMOs would have players make these decisions in seconds or without cognition. These types of decisions scare developers. Players thinkings about these things start to look at the big picture –they become aware of the experience. A player who has to think is a player who can become unhappy or even unmanageable. But a player who has to make choices that matter can also be one who becomes invested in the experience.  That same player can grow to love the growth and richness of choice. A game capable of providing such an experience is one that keeps people playing for years. Such a game is typically more than a shallow experience but indeed a virtual world.

People need the ability to make mistakes. I do not feel a mistake that renders someone worthless is ever truly an option, but the choices should carry such weight that choosing one path radically alters the experience. Let’s use stats as an example.  If I am a Ranger I should be able to play as a melee character, a bow user, and be able to use nature magic. If I highly favor strength then my bow and magic should be hindered greatly; If I spread evenly across them all then I should be that jack of all trades. No one path should gimp me, but all paths should be unique.

The mistake to make is when other stats are thrown in like stamina or charisma. How much stamina is needed to be “good?” These types of decisions should not gimp a player if the rest of the game is designed with that same level of decision making. Perhaps I can craft gear to offset the stats. Another ranger who went into strength or dex might have to put more stamina on her gear instead. Methods to correct a mistake in stats should be available, but not readily.

I want to start thinking again in MMOs. Great rewards and/or a sense of accomplishment have always followed meaningful choices. Likewise, failure can come too. Without that opposition, no reward will ever seem sweet enough.  It’s the classic argument that you can not know light without darkness. Without failure, success means less.  Without a potential negative or unexpected outcome, a choice is just an option or a preference.

MMO Server Sizes

Over the past few years the trend for MMO servers has clearly been to increase the population size and decrease the number of servers–even down to one. The mega server idea seems awesome. One big server for everyone? Sign me up. That is, until it becomes clear that instancing is used to separate people into different instances and the population feels smaller and more divided anyway.

MMOs in the past had smaller server populations and larger worlds, but they worked better. Why? I have a few ideas.

Zones were laid out well (so was the world) and players were encourage to spread out yet group up creating the feeling that you were always with other players yet not constantly surrounded by crowds.

Players knew each other. Some of the things I’ve written about recently, like downtime and slower combat, brought people together to socialize. Reputations mattered. You might hunt in the same zone or dungeon as another player for days or weeks. When looking for a group you would often get back into groups with the same people. This fostered immense camaraderie.

I’m all in favor of individual servers without instancing remaining the standard. The number of servers needed at launch is always a point of debate, but playing it smart isn’t difficult. Don’t make too many servers. Don’t launch a world with everyone in one or two starting areas. Avoid the instancing and mega server mentality that creates a shallow world where players needn’t interact with anyone.

I’m curious to hear whether or not you guys are all into the idea of individual servers or mega server tech, and why.

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.

Aggro

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.

Slower Combat Had More Depth

MMO Combat

I love the image above from a post I wrote a year ago about combat in MMOs changing from slow and methodical to fast-pace button mashing. The summary you all can already glean here is that older combat was slower in the sense that you used less abilities, it potentially took much longer to kill something, and more thinking had to occur to overcome the opposition. New MMOs focus more on using abilities rapidly, creating something that looks visually active, and killing something fast enough that you c an move on to the next before your abilities come off cooldown.

I want to focus in on the older combat and why I think it still has more depth despite having a fraction of the abilities, UI, animations, or tech of modern day games.

Complexity of Decisions

Today there are very few decisions to be made. One simply walks up to a mob and executes abilities in any order. The real decision is which order to use the abilities to kill the monster fastest–everything is about actively attacking. There isn’t much thought to being hit yourself, or minimizing usage of abilities to preserve mana or stamina. The two real thoughts that I have are, (1) Do I need to kill this, and (2) Do I want to? The HOW has been completely lost.

There are several examples in past MMOs where the ‘HOW’ of combat was king. EQ methods come to mind: Root Rot, Kite, Reverse Kite, and Charm. UO had weapon types and spell combinations like the halberd corp por, katana to rapidly poison, or mace to stun. Then grouping added enormous complexity which mostly has to do with what I discussed yesterday with downtime.

Aggro

Tanks used to require a decent amount of time to get aggro. I really can’t remember the last time I grouped and waited before DPSing. In EQ a wizard absolutely would not nuke until the mob was below 80% — the wizard wouldn’t even stand up. Healers wouldn’t even heal because aggro would come off the tank. Tanking took time, monsters took time to taunt and build up a safe aggro, and players respected that or died.

Class Specialization

This could also be called the “characters do one thing well” category. Having certain classes in your group would actually slow down the rate at which you could kill a single mob, thus slowing combat, but might improve your abilities to survive, pull multiple mobs at once and take a tougher spawn, or recover from battle quicker and move on to the next kill. Sometimes a class would literally be invited to do nothing but pull and contribute very little to DPS. Sometimes a class would do nothing but heal or buff. These days everyone is a DPS.

Managing Resources

Managing mana consumption was often the difference between a great player and a good one. Healers who knew which heals to use and when, Wizards who knew how many times they should nuke to add the most efficient DPS to a group (the key being “efficient”), etc. Consume your resources and combat was slower. Have to worry about them at all and combat naturally becomes much, much slower.

Auto Attack

Remember our old friend “white damage?” I love auto attack. I remember the days when it comprised of a massive portion of overall damage done by melee characters.  The entire concept is all but completely done away with in favor of rotations and constant ability usage. Older MMOs had fewer abilities (most of the time).

All of these things, and more, contribute to the concept that combat in MMOs used to be a much more thought out and slower experience. That said, despite its now archaic UI and tech, no one can deny that combat in older MMOs was a much more dynamic experience and that today’s combat is trending toward the shallow side.

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.