Old MMO Mechanics I Love and You Probably Hate (Part 1)

If you don’t know me as the guy who loved EverQuest just how it was then you probably haven’t been reading this blog very long.  Gordon over at We Fly Spitfires wrote a blog entry yesterday titled ‘Good Riddance To These Game Mechanics Of Yesterday’ in which he lists a few  things from older MMO’s that he does not miss (it happens that they’re all from EQ).  I would like to write a response of sorts to his entry and state why I feel the exact opposite about not only some of the things on his list, but several others as well.  In fact, I’m going to make this a multi-part blog entry and go through a few mechanics that I absolutely loved but would be willing to bet you can’t stand.

Most all of these mechanics or features were present during a time when the community in-game was much better.  It was also a time when the game worlds were actually much more dynamic and created a sense of adventure and life.  You might be one of the people who hates these mechanics because they sound inconvenient, but I hate what has come from their absence.

Item Weight

Kithicor Forest: "A tame forest in daylight; be wary when night falls.."
"A tame forest in daylight; be wary when night falls.."

Most people will complain that this is an inconvenience and will actually cite the fact that it’s realistic and logical, but still do not want it in their games.  Item weight was a mechanic of depth.  Ogres, trolls, and bigger races could carry more and the smaller races were able to carry less.  It depended upon your strength which, back in these days, was used for more than determining your melee DPS.  It also created diversity in classes because, as Gordon points out, some classes were forced to carry under a certain amount or become penalized (ie: Monks because they needed to be unburdened which makes sense).

The depth of this mechanic also kept you aware of where in the world you were at and how you would have to actually plan what you were going to do.  Going out hunting became a much more planned event since you knew you could only carry so much.  If you went over that cap it meant you were going to have to find a place to sell.  Money and items back then were a lot more important to a character than today’s “junk loot”.  It felt like every penny was important to us and carrying copper coins and other currency actually added to that weight.  Add in the fear of death and having to get back to your corpse and this mechanic gets all that more deep.

Darkness

Heaven forbid it actually be dark at night. When it’s dark you can’t see — that’s the point!   This more than anything else shows how something so simple can add so much to immersion in a game.   Entering a dark forest was really scary.  You couldn’t see very far ahead and a monster could jump out at you from anywhere.  As a newbie human with poor eyesight it was really unnerving to not be able to see much past the safely lit entrance to the city.  Players would stick together and make sure that someone always had a torch out.  If we ventured far from the town’s torches we would kill something and quickly run back to the light to rest.  The darkness created a sense of danger and unknown while creating an atmosphere of reliance upon others and now lost interaction with the world.

This mechanic was also one that lent itself to character diversity.  Humans had poor eyesight but other races, like dwarves, had forms of vision that helped them see better in the dark.  The races that lived in caves could naturally see better.  This also created a really neat economic benefit.  Will-o-wisps dropped these stones that lit up which could be carried to let off light.  They were fairly common in parts of the world where races could see better and we used to take them on the long journey to the human lands and sell them for great profit.

Falling off the Boat

"The Boat" in Ocean of Tears

This sounds funny, but it’s really serious business. ‘Falling off a boat’ represents about a dozen mechanics in one that are no longer present — mechanics that you probably hate. Boats used to arrive once ever 15 minutes or so and would carry you from one continent to the next. One boat in particular would travel from the dwarf lands to the human lands. This isn’t like the boat from Booty Bay to Ratchet though… oh no… this boat actually takes you on a journey. Once you zoned out of the dwarf continent you were taken to an intermediate zone where the boat actually sailed out in the ocean for a long time. It made a stop or two at various islands but for the most part took you great distances that were actually represented in the game world.

So what was the big deal you ask?  The zone wasn’t named “Ocean of Tears” for nothing.  If you fell off this boat it could mean one of many things. First, you may be lost at sea for hours because there was no map and the world was enormous and confusing. You may find yourself swimming (which not everyone did well since a low swim skill meant you swim slow) a long time to get back to land in order to wait for the boat. Worst case scenario was that you died and your body sunk to the bottom of the ocean… the ocean is dangerous and full of sharks, islands with goblins, sirens, cyclops and other monsters.

Did this suck? Man, this sucked so much! At the same time, the existence of such a mechanic made the journey all that more enjoyable. Knowing that the distance I traveled was actually vast and dangerous gave meaning to the trip. The world itself was a dangerous place and the game made it feel like something as simple as not being stupid enough to fall off was important. This was such an immersive mechanic that today is taken for granted in MMO’s which are becoming increasingly transparent.

Part 2 coming tomorrow!
[UPDATE] Due to the LOTRO incident, I am delaying Part 2 until Saturday.

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  • I hear you Keen!

    I’ve recently been playing on the project1999.org server. You should check it out if you haven’t. It’s very true to the pre-Kunark EQ experience. After having tried it out a bit, I was surprised to find out how many things I’ve been missing from recent “next-gen” MMOs and hadn’t quite realized. Many of them are the kinds of things you mention that add a certain level of immersion that seems to be missing from more recent games.

    Also, going beyond immersion, I was surprised that despite more recent MMOs adding more “complexity” in terms of things like cooldown abilities, talent trees, and crowd control, etc., the combat in EQ has a level of depth that is missing from games like WoW.

    Aggro management, for instance is crucial, and has much more depth and complexity in EQ than other games. Taunts don’t always work, some MOBs are even immune, direct damage spells create more aggro than melee damage, there is no aggro bar to watch, a player’s distance and whether the MOB has a movement debuff play a role as well. DPS classes have to really think about whether they want to risk grabbing that aggro and if people start taking a lot of damage the healer might actually be in trouble. When is the last time a healer pulled aggro from your tank in WoW? I think it must have been at least BC or maybe vanilla, I can’t recall. I think the EQ system is just plain more fun and makes combat more interesting. You sort of develop a “gut feeling” for it over time where you say, “I think I can get away with one more DD…” or “I better snare that MOB or it’s gonna break from the tank and two-shot that wizard…”

    Granted, there were lots of things I didn’t like about EQ too. Such as, the overabundance of unnecessarily lengthy time-sinks (although not all bad), the inability for some classes to solo (if I recall soloing was basically impossible for clerics at some point), and hell-levels. I don’t even think these things should have been done away with necessarily, as these mechanics resulted in a more immersive experience and fostered a healthy server community.

    In general though, I’d say there is still a lot today’s MMO developers should have learned and can learn from the original EQ.

  • Oh, falling off that damn boat. And the the zone between Freeport and Butcher Block was backwards, so you’d probably swim the wrong way and end up back where you started. But if you stayed put in the water in the right spot, the boat would scoop you up on the return trip.

    Heck, just waiting for the boat to arrive. The shout of “Boat!” would ring through Freeport, and it you needed to travel, you ran because it might not be back for another hour.

    Item weight. I miss that a bit too, though it does pile on as another “inventory management” factor. EQ2 has weight still, but you get so many stat boosts with equipment that it ceases to be a factor by level 20 or so unless you insist on using storage boxes for you bags. But back in the day… I recall in TorilMUD having to carry 8500 coins to a vendor to buy one of the better bags in the game… only 8500 coins was too much to carry unless you already had that bag.

    And while I hate to be inconvenienced by some random day/night cycle, I have to admit that EverQuest was a lot more spooky before I figured out I could just up the Gamma slider and effectively see in the dark.

  • Darkness is an interesting one. It depends on the speed of the game’s day/night cycles to how suitable it would be. I wouldnt want to be logging in at the same time every afternoon for an hour to play in darkness.

  • @Balthazar: About healers pulling aggro.. I remember a few times where I saved the group on my druid (DAOC) by pulling aggro… Everyone was dropping fast and the Tank was about to go down but the DPS was doing fine..

    I hit my group heal, grabbed aggro, dragged it a few seconds longer with my insta self heal and this bought the DPS guys 5 seconds to drop the mobs, I died but the bard rezzed.

    These were mechanics that were both dangerous but also useful.

  • Although item weight was an interesting mechanic it ultimately just punished the newbie because veteran players already had all of the strength or str buffs they needed or, especially the in case of monks, had weight reducing bags. It just seemed an unnecessary evil which punished the guys (especially those poor monks!) who were starting out in the game for the first time.

    Darkness was a tough one for me to include in my list because I do like day/night cycles and yes, it was cool that it made racial abilities mean something. Again though is the problem was that veteran players found ways to negate the effect completely and thus is just ended up punishing the newbie could couldn’t afford the proper light source or night vision.

    Ultimately when players find consistent ways to bypass a mechanic and when it becomes mandatory to have certain items (i.e. light source/weight reducing bag) then the design mechanic has failed to enhance the game because it becomes utterly meaningless if it affects no one. Instead all that they do is punish new players to the game who can’t afford the correct items.

    Looking forward to part 2 of your article!!

  • I actually like the Darkness and Boat mechanics. I played FFXI back in the day and they had a similar boat mechanic where you actually traveled the distance. I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. It was fun to watch land pass by, and then there were occasionally pirates or someone would fish up a sea monster or something horrible. But the journey was still far more exciting than say… WoW’s inter-continent loading screen.

    The Darkness mechanic sounds really cool. I never played EQ (I was more in to console games at the time), but that does sound a lot more realistic and exciting than other games where night just means the sky is black and starry and there are torches all about. It would certainly add something to a game.

  • The first two aren’t that bad. Weight especially is good because it forces you to go back to town to unload, so you aren’t grinding the same meaningless grind for hours straight.

    The last one though…yeah, it’s meaningful, once. When you just waited two hours to find a tank, and its a newbie who falls off the boat, it gets old real fast.

  • I don’t have a problem with item weight, though you have to figure out what you’re going to do with buffs and gear – in EQ2 (until the latest expansion revamped stats) melee characters regardless of race basically had unlimited encumbrance, while casters could be stuck at baseline levels. “Would have to craft multiple bags full of furniture to approach the limit” versus “can’t carry loot from adventuring” is bit too extreme of a split between the archetypes.

    Darkness is fine too in the context of a short day-night cycle. Where it doesn’t work is in WoW with the 24-hour time, because a player who always logs on in the evening would always be stuck with the penalties.

    The boat thing does live up to the post title, though. I spend enough of my gaming time in short sessions that a game with that mechanic would be unplayable.

    That’s 1 for 3, better luck with part 2. 🙂

  • Agteed on all 3.. unfortunately in EQ all 3 were made irrelevant. Weight reducing bags, light sources and that DE mask, teleports.

    Light/day can be such a useful mechanic, I remember playing a game were certain spells could make an area dark, which in turn made certain spells do more damage. When it turned dark from a spellcast you knew PKs were coming 🙂 Weight is interesting as well because STR debuff spells have secondary function (worked awesome in DAOC if someone carried wood). Travel has to be meaningful as well.

  • It was great though, before all those mechanic negating items were in.
    I was a wizard and hated to see the expansions giving out all sorts of fast travel to everyone. In Luclin you could wait for a teleport at certain spires that happens every 10 minutes and the sad day of PoK when you could just click a book that was just lying around anywhere to port to the hub.

    The stories in Ocean of Tears aren’t all bad though, I remember making a good amount of money just by buying people’s fine steel weapons and their thousands of gold, both of which had weight, and a thousand gold weighed alot. I paid in platinum and could usually make 10 – 20% by changing someone’s gold into platinum, which meant they could hunt longer

  • This post just shows how pussified, er, simplified MMOs have become over the years. It’s funny how the biggest invonvenience or element of surprise these days is an RNG loot system…

  • I want an EQ with no zones and updated graphics.

    Like Vanguard was supposed to be, only with an engine that works and doesn’t scare away 95% of the player base within a day. Also without a dev team that chickens out and tries to Wow-ify the game with 3 months left in the dev cycle.

    thanks

  • Yes I could see how the first two could work as interesting game mechanics, so long as the races were balanced for racial penalties and buffs.

    The last sounds like an unnecessary and time consumptive annoyance factor; I think those things should be streamlined from games. L33t players prior to playing a new game with harsh penalties often chant “uber, uber, L2P noob!” in support of these impediments, that is of course until they have fallen off the boat during a long walking trip across continents to meet up with guildies for a prescheduled raid; perhaps it might even occur secondary to a glitch while they left for a bio (I have had bugs in oldie tymie WoW where the ship was moving under me and I had to walk to keep up with it). I am all for minimizing mechanics that are primarily there to impede movement without any intrinsically interesting game play involved.

    BTW what would happen if the sharks killed you? If there wasn’t a harsh death penalty or corpse retrival, I imagine people would likely just let themselves die as a method to teleport.

    The only benefit that I could see for the ship mechanic would be if there was a knockback effect that could be used to throw other players off of the ship; at least there could be an entertaining YouTube video made utilizing the Benny Hill theme music…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-rl3RPC_Mw

  • things like the boatride (and the oceans) helped imbue the world with a sense of place and scale. all those things added up to maintain the integrity of the world as exactly that, a world. Where you were mattered to what you did. It wasn’t an inconvenience that you were halfway across the world from where you might otherwise be, it was a facet of your adventure for the day. it wasn’t always good. it added substance to the world, though. I might log in planning to go to a dungeon and never make it, having an entirely different adventure along the way. that could be better or worse than what I had planned, but it was an experience either way and that, at least for me, back then, was the entire goal anyway.

    the entire experience fostered a different mentality though, at least for some of us. it doesn’t directly translate, but everyone who felt like they were a small part of a big, cohesive world back then knows that something important didn’t make it across the generation gap.

    I’m not suggesting that it’s important for everyone, or that preferring “convenience” is wrong. but it’s not hard to see that there are an awful lot of us kickin around waiting for someone to make us live in their world, not just play on it.

  • Poorly illuminated environments impacted by player owned light sources could be a legitimately cool gameplay mechanic, if implemented properly. This would require a lot more thought than was put into EQ’s system, though; you have to balance encounters with the idea of limited visibility in mind. It would also add a great tactical element for PvP games.

    Inventory management, on the other hand, is just plain annoying with no real benefit (even WoW’s bag system is frustrating, and it’s nowhere near as penal as EQ’s bag+weight system). Being forced to go back to town, or to shuffle around items, is not fun no matter how you cut it.

    Boat rides, which I love in concept, just soak up too much time in practice. I’d like for “real space transportation” systems to exist, as they add a lot to the sense of world, but people with limited playtime can’t be bothered to burn 30 minutes on a boat or a blimp or a griffon. If you’re going to do it, make it optional, and have the vessels travel through explorable zones (so they don’t feel like ghost towns).

    The exception to this would be a PvP game, where transit has to have a meaningful time penalty. Good luck with that, though.

  • Gah! I hated that stupid boat. When I first started playing EQ my computer took so long to load the new zone that by the time I would zone in the boat would be long gone and I would be swimming. I hated that stupid boat. But totally dig it in concept.

  • If you aren’t already, it sounds like you should be playing Fallen Earth. Item weight? Check.
    Darkness? Check.
    Slow travel? Check.

  • @drew: I tried Fallen Earth but I just could not get into it. It had a lot of the little things, but it just didn’t come together for me.

  • Obviously there is no absolutely correct answer, but hopefully there are honest ones. Before one makes too much of sitting back and enjoying the immersive scenery on an extended boat ride, they should honestly answer a few questions. Do you continue to watch the opening cinematic scenes every time you start a game, or do you escape key past them after the first time? When you plan your bio breaks did you wait until the ride was over, and then made your guildies wait on you at the docks?

    If you take an average person who perhaps has a job, a significant other, and other non-gaming evening interests, maybe they can dedicate 4 hours a night 3 nights a week on average? If they use 30 minutes per session traveling in non-interactive environments then they have spent 12.5% doing nothing when they could have been gaming; factor in guild related inefficiency and waiting on other traveling players, one starts to have less of an appreciation for the immersive extended boat trip.

    One must also realize that games need to be designed for many people’s enjoyment, and not for the gaming elite who are more likely to appreciate the fine philosophical points of gaming environments. Most people would rather choose a cut screen over a 5-10 minute boat ride. Consider the effect on game sales if you were to put the boat ride experience as a bulleted sales point on the box: – Experience extended sea travel between zones utilizing immersive water effects, free of bothersome content! An old movie adage is that scenes which do not further the storyline should be edited out, which probably holds true for a mainstream MMO.

    I remember the old days of pen and paper D&D when I held onto the same immersive real time philosophy. At one point they had to take an extend trip smuggled aboard a ship to an island. I designed random type encounter with sea ghouls and pirates, but in the end everyone was pretty bored until they hit the meaningful (i.e. storyline related) content on the island. Now imagine if I had made everyone sit there with a watch, timing out the trip, and provided no content other than occasional random rolls to see if they fell off of the boat…

  • @gankatron: that’s very true. In WoW, when I played, bio breaks were for the griffin flights. While occasionally they were cool to watch, and especially cool the first time you saw them, later on it was an opportunity to get a drink, say hi to someone, go to the bathroom, etc. The meaning of the trip is lost after a certain point. The main difference between the griffin flights and FFXI boat rides was that if you left and pirates attacked, you were liable to die. And in a game with a hefty death penalty, that’s obviously undesirable.

    I do like your breakdown of wasted time to game time proportions, it puts some of those mechanics in perspective from a practical standpoint.

    +1 😀

  • I tend to disagree on the weight part, to a certain degree.
    In Ragnarok Online, to be competitive in PvP, you had to put points into STR with your caster or healer, just so could carry more potions (for those who don’t know, the whole game revolves around chain-jugging health pots and mana pots, that stack up to 100 or 200 iirc).
    Not to forget you couldn’t ever respec, so the choice of builds insanely hard to level (because you needed to get STR) was a permanent one as well.

  • How do you fall off a boat?

    I remember WoW used to have a bug where when zoning sometimes everyone would fall through and die, which was just frustrating.

    UO had boats, our own ships actually, but it was really hard to fall off them. Dieing on your boat sucked big time, though.

  • Man, I remember EQ. A young barbarian shaman braving the cold of Everfrost to pursue a business exchanging gold coins for copper and silver from ice giant farmers. Add to that getting lost in the pitch black tunnel from Halas to Everfrost… ahh, those were the days.

  • Creatures that live in caves shouldn’t be able to see in the dark. They shouldn’t be able to see at all. That would be more realistic.

  • I always wanted to try Everquest back in the day, but my PC & my AOL dial-up modem wouldn’t let me. I love games with day/night cycles.

  • Item weight and such for inventory management, works when loot that you find has more meaning then just something to cash in. Between inventory slots and weight you needed to decide what is important to you. I just don’t see that level of inventory diversity in many current MMOs.

    Darkness is a great idea if it were tied to location more than a day/night cycle. Creepy forests or dungeons should be dark and light sources may be needed. But darkness cycles get in the way unless there is an actual change to the game environment.

    Boats. Love and hate them. Travel in MMOs is a topic unto itself, but once again it can be done well if the world is designed right. IMO SWG (pre-CU) had the right mix of Fast and Slow travel.

  • Things I loved from old school mmo’s

    Rare spawns giving proper loot (named mobs), I don’t know when it started happening but all of the more modern MMO’s don’t really tend to have named mobs spawning randomly that actually drop decent loot (eq2 maybe being the exception to this).

    Bazaar, yer I loved dealing with people face to face in game rather than just looking at page after page of auctions. Bartering and haggling with people on prices every day whether selling or buying equipment. But again with the Bind on equip ‘fix’ in newer games just meant that most equipment that was old or not as good as the current gear is vendor fodder rather than useful to newer characters or alts.

    Non-instanced dungeons, some people hated it but I loved it personally. WoW these days, do a instance you probably will never see the guys you just pugged with again in months or years (especially with the new cross server stuff), there was no community to it … pick a group up and never see them again. In eq I would spend hours in a group of like minded people and actually get to know people and become friends with them. On the flip side, people would get to know the retarded players very quickly and they wouldn’t get groups so the skilled players would invariably be the ones wanting new group members.

    Pulling as an art form, what started out as a glitch ended up as something that made the game allot more forgiving. Feign death pulling (monk/sk) was an art form, and the decent monks and sk’s who knew how to play their class properly and understood the game would get groups and raids instantly as they logged on. This goes the same with decent CC’ers (enchanters) that a decent chanter who knew how to play were constantly grouped from log on to log off.

    I suppose it’s the difference of games, EQ just took allot more concentration and skill to play properly than most MMO’s these days. And with the smaller player pool that couldn’t a) change their names for a few bucks or b) just move to a different server (or realm) to get away from their bad reputation. Mean that if you were a bad repped player your chances of improving your char were minimal

  • I couldn’t agree more with your points!

    For each I can think of an interesting story that came about entirely because that mechanic was present. These little details added so much to the overall game, things were not all about number crunching as they tend to be today.

    In particular I remember my first character adventuring through a dark wood filled with higher level ghosts and baddies, trying to get through in one piece. I heard the experience on the other side was good, but getting there proved to be quite the adventure, requiring help from several others along the way.

    One time on the boat I somehow clipped through the deck and quickly became the dinner of something terrible – whatever it was it did enough damage to kill me several times over in a single strike (low level high elf clerics weren’t the most hardy). Needless to say, my corpse was unreachable at the bottom of the Ocean! A GM came and helped me fish it out… though, he did leave me on one of the islands to fend for myself.

    It’s countless little stories (adventures) such as these that made games like EQ so great! These days it seems to be all about how many levels you grind out a night, and then at the end you enter the perpetual raiding mode. Something is definitely lost.