Keep gameplay consistent

A few weeks ago, when I was writing about themeparks with inaccessible end-games, Graev and I had a side conversation about consistency.  We came to the conclusion that MMOS should be hard and rewarding with a sense of achievement all the way through, or accessible and equal.  Honestly, I don’t think there’s one right way for all MMOS.

A game like EverQuest should be difficult and rewarding the entire time.  As a level 5 caster I would be terrified of the mobs that didn’t con blue, and if I wasn’t prepared to fight the blues themselves might cause me to go running for the guards.  I would hug zone walls (Kithicor anyone?), rest until I had completely full health and mana, and literally feel a wave of anxiety wash over me after being poisoned by a snake.  These exact feelings never stopped.  When I reached the max level and went into the planes (raids) I was in a position of being at the top of my game, yet I was terrified.  I remember taking the raft to Kunark the day it launched terrified of what might be there waiting for me on the other side — this being after I was already a high level.  EQ never became any less difficult, or any less rewarding.  The experience was consistent.

Dorn B'Dynn
The infamous Dorn B’Dynn

In a difficult game like EQ, everything was an accomplishment.  Almost nothing was ‘accessible’, but part of the fun was always striving and trying to take on the next challenge.  That’s why I have such vivid memories of clearing Unrest for the first time, or going to Crushbone.  Even the infamous Dorn B’Dynn of North Ro, a simple NPC who stood in a camp, was a terrifying menace to just about every player familiar with the zone.  I’ll never forget his name because of the challenge he posed.

Contrast that with WoW, a game I technically played longer than EverQuest, and my memories aren’t nearly as powerful.  My strongest memories in WoW — heck, my only memories — are of those exact moments when I killed a difficult boss we’d been trying so hard to beat.  WoW today is quite different than it was back in 2004.  Although it was definitely harder, WoW has always been more accessible.  What I have never enjoyed is the transition at the end from being a generally accessible and easy game into something completely closed off to anyone but the top few percent.  Needing 40 people, for example, is quite a jump from needing no one but myself since level 1.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a game being easy, but the change kills it for me.

In a game where every moment of every day is designed to make the player feel like they’ve earned something, there doesn’t have to be this push to reach the ‘end-game.’  Every day can be a victory with memories and achievement.  On the flip side, when a game is always easy then the player can just jump in and jump out, or have a lot more control over their own destiny.

Anyway, that’s the gist of what we discussed.  Almost two topics here, I know: (1) Difficult content, and (2) Consistency.  To summarize the whole thing, make a game hard and rewarding the entire way through or make it accessible and easy the entire time.  That way players get aren’t surprised or let down when the game changes.  Fun can be had either way, but memories for me are always when things are more difficult or at least something I had to really, really work towards earning.  Easy games can be rewarding too.  I’m done rambling.

  • Agreed wholeheartedly, but… (And there’s always a but, isn’t there?)

    What about those of us who want a challenge but don’t have the time? How do you reconcile a playerbase who all want that difficulty and challenge, but the most vocal and supportive have time to spare, yet the paying ones have very little time to give? A lot of the challenge and difficulty from those earlier games was overcome by copious amounts of time. Most of us don’t have that luxury anymore. How do you build a difficult game that isn’t trivialized by the “hardcore”?

    As I said, I agree. I have similar memories. But the way you describe it above seems to indicate that us “casuals” are forever relegated to the easy MMOs.

  • I find myself in the position you describe. I work full time, write the blog, run a gaming community, and try to have a life. I don’t have the time I used to for gaming.

    I know that I can’t progress as fast as the the people who have 10 hour a day to play. I just can’t, nor would I expect a hard game to cater to me. I’m also not expecting to only have to play easy games, though.

    Difficulty doesn’t have to = time. It can be a factor, but not the deciding one. We can still play games like EQ and have ever bit as much of the achievement and accomplishment as anyone else. We’ll just see it slower.

    My position is firm: Do not change the game to accommodate people. Make a different game for them. There’s room for both in the industry.

  • I am a pretty new reader to this site, but you do an incredible job of putting exactly how I have been feeling about MMO’s the past couple of years into words. Your EQStory post the other day brought back memories I had all but forgotten about and even motivated me to tracking down a few old EQ guildmates that I have not talked to in years – so thanks for that 🙂

  • Hi Aramon, welcome. 🙂

    You would have loved some of my stuff over the last six years. I tend to reminisce quite a bit about the glory days of The Realm, EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, and Star Wars Galaxies. I’m also a critic. I try to point out how games can improve, where games are making the same makes time after time, and spread my opinion to anyone willing to read. Graev is really into console games, and shares my passion for the older generation of MMO, so he does a fantastic job covering those bases.

    I hope you enjoy what you see!

  • That might be what I am missing. the difficulty and consistency.
    I remember when I just started out in Ultima Online that I fought a cat inside the very first town.
    He was not agressive.. I chose to engage it. AND LOST.

    My brother laughed his ass off.

    It is also what I liked about dark souls on the consoles and pc.
    A non MMO game, but the sadistic difficulty was consistent throughout the game.

    Offtopic: I read that the game you talked about earlier in your blog castle storm is getting a release on the pc at the end of next month. Nice price to currently for preorder on steam. Just 9 euros or so.

  • “We’ll just see it slower.”

    That’s really the key, isn’t it? My fear is always that no one will ever be able to recreate that original magic – the challenge of even the most massive, dangerous digital world is greatly diminished by the Internet, wikis, and min/maxxers! EQ and its contemporaries fell into an amazing sweet spot – the Internet enabled them to exist and bring people together, yet the genre hadn’t yet accrued enough success to warrant the kind of attention MMOs get these days. Now it feels like just so much business…

    “Make a different game for them. There’s room for both in the industry.”

    Again, I agree – there IS enough room in the industry. But this still falls back into segregating your playerbase. Building the *world* is the one thing that will bring all of your fans together (if they didn’t like it, they wouldn’t be there!), but building a *game* is too often shutting out some portion of those fans. Is it just not possible to have it both ways?

    This is why the only two games I’ve backed on KS are Camelot and Star Citizen – they both give me hope that the design CAN accommodate both types in a single universe. Hardcores tend to tolerate repetitive content well – PvP, etc. – while “casuals” can contribute and progress in their own, supporting role. My hope is that one or both just get it right *enough* that a casual can jump into the other end of the pool and still have fun. Not excel, not dominate…just have fun.

  • This is interesting because the FFIV game director just argued the opposite. He’s intentionally making levels 1-15 of that game easier, being able to solo everything, with the intention of ramping up the difficulty at max level. Maybe because the difficulty will gradually ramp up as the player goes up in levels it won’t be as jarring, but it definitely won’t be the same at lv 1 as it will be doing raids at lv 50.

  • Well, EQ wasn’t exactly the same difficulty at level 1 as it was at level 50, but it was still ‘hard’ relative to the level. Complexity and difficulty ramped up relative to your abilities. Graev specifically mentioned in our talk that he’s fine with ramp up, but the cliff you run into in a game like WoW when it comes to the entire game vs. the raiding is too jarring.

  • In Everquest there was one mob that was the bane of my existence. Rungupp, a level 5ish kobold in Toxullia forest. Already a difficult starting zone, he made life hell for a starting Erudite enchanter.

    For the entire seven years I played Everquest, anytime I had to go to that zone, I would swing by and kill Rungupp on my way to wherever I was going. Just for revenge.

    While WoW has many pleasant memories for me, they mostly revolve around the people I play with, not the game itself. I certainly don’t despise any NPC in wow as much as I do that little kobold.

  • Your last few posts have a melancholy feel to them a yearning for times past. We have to concede we are never going back to the way things were the best we can hope for is EQN giving a challenge

    why not just play Everquest again? they are still producing updates

  • you didnt have the same feelings with WoW than EQ because:
    a) you was older
    b) MMORPG wasnt something new when you played wow

    if you would have never played EQ and it was released now you wouldnt have the same feelings than you had when you played it

  • I think you nailed it. Raiding was still a leap in EQ, but the game wasn’t really solvable for most of us anyway so it was just a matter of finding more people.

  • Whenever an old-timer reminisces about original EQ or DAoC or whatever, people love to jump out with the ever popular “move on, you can never experience it again.” You guys are missing the point. Yes, the fact that it was for many of us the first big MMO definitely was a factor. But there were other critical factors that can be recreated, and these are the ones Keen is discussing in these last couple posts.

    Me personally I would love to play original EQ + Kunark + Velious with the following changes:
    – an updated, modern 3D engine; talking about movement, control, and camera, not graphics. I loved the original graphics.
    – slightly tweaked experience rate, I could barely level back in the day when I played 8-10 hours a day, nowadays playing 6 hours a week I would never level, so give us say 2x or heck even 3x experience gain
    – slightly tweaked death penalty: keep corpses and experience loss, but change it so you can not de-level. Death still sucks and you would avoid it, but you can’t totally destroy weeks of work if things get too far out of hand.
    – slightly increased health and mana regen out of combat. I stopped soloing with my original barbarian warrior when I was about level 18 and it was literally taking about 20 minutes to regenerate my health after a battle. I would think 2 or 3 minutes to regen without spells would be sufficient. Part of what made EQ so memorable was the shared downtime. You really got a chance to talk and joke with people during the downtime between battles and whilst waiting for a pull.
    – maybe tweak tradeskills so you don’t lose exceeding valuable components on failure, just get no success and no skillup. I still have nightmares about trying to make ruby platinum veils for friends with my jewelcrafter that had the skill but because the way tradeskills worked there was always a chance to fail and the game ate your materials. Rubies were like 120 plat a piece or something. We were pretty broke. I think I failed twice making that item for our guild’s cleric. Man that sucked.

    I have tried to play EQ again multiple times but I seriously can not get past that clunky, 14 year old 3D engine. It feels so weird and counter-intuitive to move around I can’t take it for more than about 5 minutes.

  • I recently, in the last 6 months, have played both EQ and UO on “classic servers”. Both were very enjoyable, but the feeling did not really last. UO for me was far better because the skill gain, sandbox freedom, macroing element, and pvp really related to my gameplay style. UO also happens to be my first MMO, and maybe because of this, still my all time favorite. Eventually though, the server pop died down, farming the same mobs got boring and fighting the same pvpers did too. But those first 3 months were a complete blast and I’ll def likely play once another classic server launches.

    Playing EQ was really fun at first. I started with a RL friend and enjoyed the hardcore feeling of the classic server, Project 1999. But eventually the grind got to me. I just did not have the time or patience to play 3-5 hour windows. Plus dying 3 times in a row really ticked me off, lol. Also once my friend out leveled me, it was much harder to find enjoyment. That said, if I had time to play, had more friends playing and the server had more pop, playing EQ remained a much better experience than any other themepark or currently popular MMO.

    I think this post about consistent gameplay is dead on. Know what you want to be and do it damn good. Trying to cater to everyone typically creates a bunch of crap.

  • Khoram – Did you ever level up your bandaging skill? I played a Ranger as my first character and I would use bandages constantly to keep my HP up. Well relatively, you could only bandage to 50%, so even with exploiting the way +hp items worked you could only get up to 60 or 70% of your max.