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Player Perspectives: Something Old, Something New

Columns By Isabelle Parsley on December 31, 2010

Something Old, Something New

Somehow, I gave the wrong impression. When I said easier wasn’t necessarily worse and harder wasn’t necessarily better, this was taken as a direct admission that I’d never played any of the older, so-called hardcore games, and that I was therefore automatically hating on them as a new player who has no idea what she’s talking about.

So let’s set the record straight, let’s share some memories, and let’s see if hardcore is a game attribute or whether it might not be something else.

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First off, I’ve played MMOs for over 10 years now; before that I played MUDs and MUSHes and before that I played pen’n’paper games. In one form or another I’ve been a gamer for going on 30 years and no, I didn’t start when I was three (sadly). I’ve played lots and lots of games, and I’ve stuck with half a dozen or so for over a year. Whether I know what I’m talking about is a moot point, however, since this is an opinion column: all I’m doing is presenting my view of certain aspects of these games we all love, though by the griping you wouldn’t always know it. I don’t claim insider knowledge, even though I do know a dev or two, because even they don’t usually agree about game design. Everyone has their personal preferences.

Some people will agree with what I say in these columns and lots of people won’t: that’s the basis for any kind of interesting discussion. If we all agreed about everything all the time, life would be pretty boring and nobody would bother supporting sports teams. There would be no point in preferring ham over bacon (ham!) and everyone would be a little-endian when it comes to soft-boiled eggs. So yes, these are only my opinions, but I will stand by them and I will defend them when I feel they’re justified, or when I feel that they at least deserve a hearing in a wider discussion.

With that boring philosophical intro over with, let’s talk memories – hardcore or otherwise. Back in Asheron’s Call or Ultima Online or even EverQuest, most mobs were pretty easy to kill, and boy did we kill a lot of them. That hasn’t changed much then. Back in those games, most things could be done alone but some things had to be done with a group of people and many things were more fun for being done in common. Gee, that hasn’t changed much either. Back then, if you took more risks you tended to get better rewards. Hrm, not changed much. You get my drift.

One of the things that has changed is that, as gamers, we’re smarter. We’ve done a lot of this before. We know that if we wait a few levels, we’ll probably be able to solo that mob or encounter or even that dungeon, if we really want to. We also know that if we can’t do a given quest or mob or instance at this given point, it probably doesn’t matter all that much in the greater scheme of things because we don’t hold on to items as long as we once did.

Now that is something that’s changed. The gear treadmill is now much more evident than it ever was before in games (though it was there even very early on), and in an attempt to keep ever-more jaded players playing, we get offered ever-more tempting carrots more frequently than we did before. I remember what a huge event it was for my AC character when she got her “Sword of Lost Light” which, today, would probably be considered a pretty hum-drum item. But she worked hard for it and she kept it for ages. Heck, she even hung it on the wall of her house, when she finally got a house. These days, you run a group through the encounter real quick and you’ll trash the reward in a few levels when something better comes along.

Games have been made easier; I never disputed that, I just disputed our reasons for complaining about it. Because certainly in my case, what I do when I play hasn’t actually changed that much in the last decade – what has really changed is my awareness of the underlying design of the game (which I couldn’t have cared less about when I started playing MMOs, but which fascinates me now), how clever or corner-cutting the designers may have been when they put together a given quest, zone, or dungeon, and what exactly it is they’re trying to get me to do. As players, we’re more experienced. We’re smarter. We’re more aware of the little man behind the curtain pulling all the strings.

For all I know, part of the reason those old MMOs were so much fun at the time – aside from the fact that everything was so new to us as gamers – is that the designers didn’t know as much then as they do know. It’s probably a lot easier to design your 500th quest than to design your first, but chances are that 500th quest won’t be as wacky, won’t be insanely difficult (intentionally or not), and won’t require players to do things the designer now knows many players don’t really like doing.

And that’s the conundrum of game design. Ironically, the early MMOs were fun partly because they were in many ways still flawed. They’re much slicker now and so are we, and it’s easy to yawn and say “Been there, done that…” It’s one of the many reasons I wouldn’t want to be a game designer: how on earth do you keep a voracious, extremely varied audience happy and entertained while remaining within what are still pretty narrow mechanical constraints? People want visible progression of some kind, so it’s not easy to just do away with levels; you can package them differently (SWG did at one point) and you can add twists, but they’re still levels. Gear is still gear, and its progression is still just that. But what do you do when players reach the end of your progression?

A two-week respawn timer on an insanely rare mob that drops insanely cool loot and needs half a college population to take down is not good design, because it limits the fun factor to only a few people. Sure, those elite few will have great memories, but all the folks who missed out for legitimate reasons will be peeved. The elite few tend to argue the rest of the world should just QQ elsewhere, but I’ve never been an elitist. We pay for this fun (more in our hard-earned free time than in subs fees, which remain relatively modest compared to other forms of entertainment), and to a very large extent yes, the paying population does have a right to expect about as much fun as the next player. We’re talking for equal time and effort here – don’t start ranting at me about wanting to hand out something for nothing, that’s not what this is about. But if altering game design somewhat to make more things accessible to more people is heresy, then bring out the torches and pitchforks, because I’m a populist.

The other side of the paying people-pleasing coin is that when you’re producing entertainment for a mass audience, chances are those masses won’t all like the same things. I like crafting, Joe loves killing stuff – and the harder the encounter the better. So when a patch or expansion adds one thing and not another, one of us will likely complain and the other will be ecstatic. Nature of the beast. That’s never going to change, at least not until we get the really small, really specialized niche MMOs many of us are waiting for. (The problem being those niche MMOs still need to be funded and developed, and the people slaving on them still need to pay their rent.)

As for hardcore, well, we’re all hardcore about something, but it’s not always the same things. What has always bothered me is the tendency for one group to drown out all others with shouts that their hardcore is the only kind that matters. (Ham!) The games are just what they are, with easier bits and harder bits and a whole bunch of players who love some bits and hate the rest, and think the rest of the world should entirely and unquestioningly share their world-view. Fortunately, that’s not going to happen either; it makes us fractious and argumentative, but it does make for some really interesting forum debates.

I’ll admit this wasn’t quite where I was heading when I started this column, but that’s the muses for you. And to quote a blogging friend of mine as we usher out the old year and ring in the new, hopefully with a bumper crop of awesome new games to argue about: have a great time in-game, wherever you happen to find yourself!

Isabelle Parsley / http://stylishcorpse.wordpress.com