Broken Systems Were The Funnest

Over the past week I’ve done a lot of thinking back to older games I’ve played like DAoC, SWG, EQ, etc. Raph Koster’s posts have been particularly enlightening since they discussed the hows and whys of their decisions, and even revealed what they were actually trying to create when they delivered something entirely different.

I started to think about the fun I’ve had in older games, and then realized a lot of that fun came from systems that were completely broken or so stupid they should be considered broken. Despite that fact, I still enjoyed them. In fact, I think the games might have been less fun without them!

Here are just a couple examples.


The health, action, and mind bar system of SWG was both brilliant and horribly designed at the same time. Using different abilities depleted these bars. Being hit by certain abilities wounded those bars. Let’s say my pistol used my mind bar, and someone shot my mind to wound it and thus reduce my total available mind resources. I could then use fewer mind abilities. The result was that you were killing yourself every time you used abilities.

I’m laughing right now thinking about how stupid this system was, and how much I wish it was like what Raph describes as “bouncy” where your resources regenerated and the entire thing was a rock paper scissors game of undermining your opponents weapon choice and tactics.

All that said, it worked even by not working. Yes, I enjoyed being able to see someone who clearly didn’t work on their mind pool enough. I would one shot them with my pistol.

EverQuest’s Mob Camping

I remember standing in a single spot for 15 hours just waiting on the right monster to spawn. When it finally spawned, it didn’t drop what I wanted. The wait began again. People would stand in line for these monsters to spawn. It could take weeks for it to be your turn. Yeah, it sucked.

At the same time, forming lines and relying on the honesty of others meant you were communicating and building a community of players who cooperated. If you broke the rules, stole a spawn, etc., you were ostracized; your life was over on that character and you would probably never get a group again.

Screwing Up Character Stats in DAoC (or any game)

Who didn’t screw up a character in a game at some point in time? It was a right of passage! It was also completely stupid. To be able to ruin a character and start over without some form of fixing it? I remember in DAoC back in the early days when you messed up your character’s stats or skills or whatever it meant you … screwed up. They eventually added respec stones so that you could undo a mistake and reallocate those skill points.

Screwing up a character and committing to a path that ends up being terrible is… terrible. At the same time, actually having to commit to something and put up with consequences or having to care about how your character progressed gave us substance and meat to character progression. No decision was made lightly.

Strafing in EverQuest

Mob pathing in EverQuest was terrible, and pretty much broken. Characters could strafe (run at an angle) and that meant that mobs had to make an additional path to move into your path… something like that. I won’t pretend to understand it all (it’s probably geometry or something and I don’t do math) but it meant that mobs struggled to actually hit you. Exploit? Maybe. Broken? Yep.

While broken, strafing allowed us to circle kite, and avoid enemies (who always seemed to run just a little faster then us) from killing us when we flee. It became just something you did.

Okay, now that I think about it this post was sorta stupid and broken itself. But do you get what I’m trying to say here? These dumb features/mechanics, when combined with other mechanics (which were often dumb) made that game what it was and if removed would take away a huge part of the magic that made it all work.

New games can come out that refine those broken mechanics, but I think when we fix too much we lose a little bit of the heart and soul of these MMOs. Rather than remove them, I think they can simply be modernized. Modernizing =\= removing.

  • This sort of gets back to an age old debate about how much should the developer’s intent be respected when it comes to playing their games. All of the items you list represent things where the devs clearly responded by saying this was not how they meant the game to be played. I have a post on how mob camping was an unexpected result of being unable to depend on EQ crashing a few times a day as TorilMUD used to.

    To what degree should we, as players, have the freedom to play the game as not intended? What should devs fix and what should they leave? You cannot take the position that if somebody likes something it should automatically stay, because you can find somebody who like any mechanic in a game, no matter how horribly broken or difficult or crazy.

  • @Wilhelm: That’s a great point. The toughest part about that question is planning for it. So much of what players love …. they love on accident.

  • Not an MMORPG but one of the best features of the original Starsiege:Tribes was an unintended system that allowed for “skiing.” Tribes was way ahead of its time. I’ve yet to play an FPS since that can compare in terms of gameplay. If you’re ever bored check out this great tribute video. Around the 8 minute mark you can see the section on speed which demonstrates the skiing well.

  • I enjoyed the totally bugged weapons of vanquishing in UO back in the day. There were some of these floating around and you could sometimes buy them for a hefty price. The nice part was that they did so much damage that they could killa player in one hit if it was a slow weapon or in 2-3 hits if it was a lower damage but faster hitting weapon. It was completely unfair and broken if you got killed by one of those. If you had one…you felt like a badass…but you also knew that if you take it out for a spin and run into the wrong crowd…that weapon was gone…or you lose connection and sit there vulnerable with this bad ass weapon…

    Balancing is sort of needed in MMOs but it also can suck the fun out of them…

    The most memorable moments from DAOC came about due to overpowered abilities…they gave the game so much flavor…(1 minute mezz, stungard AOE stuns, PBAOE bombs, Archers 1-2 shotting people from range, Savages tearing it up with occassional insane damage output etc.)

  • I thought the HAM system in SWG was actually pretty decent, once you got Doctor and Brandy buffs. The system though should have been designed so that it was actually possible to wear most armor types and still fight, without standing in line for half an hour to get buffs from another player.

  • Agree again but just wanted to mention if ” you could never group again” was only a big deal if a group was required.

  • So would you praise these same “broken” game mechanics if they were in a new release, or would you more likely pan the game?

  • @Gankatron: The key point I’m making is that these broken systems were game defining. In the moment, some of them sucked. Some of them were great. Them of them stupid, and others brilliant on accident. In hindsight we can look back at playing the game the way it wasn’t meant to be played, or playing with broken systems and making the best of it, and see how resourceful and imaginative players can be. Only a few of these would I have praised in the moment.

  • So if these mistakes would be called so today, what’s the takeaway?

    For example the DAoC thing; today only fools would make bad characters (one could argue only fools did it back then, but then the fool percentage would be pretty high). Everyone else would look up the current meta build and do that. Back in the day looking stuff up before you did anything wasn’t a common practice; it is today. So what lesson, other than ‘don’t do that’ is there from that?

  • @SynCaine: There are many abstract takeaways. (1) Take chances. (2)Make something new rather than copy someone else and you may be surprised what you or the players make of it. (3) We don’t need the system to be perfect — sometimes playable will do. (4) Games that require no balancing are probably boring and shallow. (4) Not everything has to be fun in the moment for players to look back minutes, days, or years later and think “that was fun!”

    This was me musing about and putting thoughts on virtual paper and less about writing something meant to be a lesson or a takeaway. My observation that broken, underdeveloped, and even plain stupid systems ended up being systems that defined a game and even made it fun — sometimes the cornerstone of all fun in that game.

  • The reason I mentioned your comment about fun, but broken, mechanics of past games is that everyone’s (old school and casual gamers alike) expectation of a quality game nowadays is drastically different from back then.

    If such a game as you describe was released today I bet the best one could hope for would be a few comic relief stories within negative reviews.

    I fondly remember my first time logging into WoW and I was amazed, not at specific combat mechanics or details of how the AH worked, but just the fact I could walk around in a virtual world and even fly in it with perspective that changed as I moved. And the graphics quality was amazingly good, …which of course by today’s standards would be considered subpar.

    Why this might be an important consideration is the recreation of positive gaming experiences of the past may now be impossible. This may be not only due to the changing demographics of players and the monetization schemes that chase after them, but for a more fundamental reason, many of the fond memories we had way back when, we would now ridicule as products of incompetent developers and not even last as a 3 monther.

    “He wanted to care, and he could not care. For he had gone away and he could never go back anymore. The gates were closed, the sun was down, and there was no beauty left but the gray beauty of steel that withstands all time. Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of youth, of illusion, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had flourished.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, All the Sad Young Men

  • In daoc I leveled to the max without spending a single skill point… because I wanted to see how many free points the game would give me. Then I ended up maximizing parry instead of weaponskill, and it actually turned out pretty amazing, nothing like smashing buffbotted zerkers simply due to the fact I got off a few lucky parries.

    I ended up being one of the more dangerous rvrers to solo for that reason. Heck my pole arm was always a 99 percent quality one from toa, simply because it looked like a hockey stick and I wanted it. It did come with a huge rare debuff proc on enemy set and vit though, so my damage ended up really high anyways.

    Ah the joys of not caring about gear progression.