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The Death of Hardcore

Christopher Coke Posted:
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MMOs used to be an old boys club. If you wanted in, there was a price to pay: you weren't going to be taking a part-time job, no, but you would certainly be making your MMO one. Half-day spawn camps, quest-less experience grinds, key requirements, and harsh 40+ strong raids demanded that you plunk down your day's shift. Those days are gone but not the mindset. There remains among the old guard a sense that new players need to toughen up and “learn what this genre is about.” As MMORPG's resident tourist, I'm here to break the news: the hardcore playstyle is dead.

When I first joined this genre, it was with text-based MUDs. Back then, there weren't rules or expectations for game design, so what was hardcore in one game could be soft in another. My favorite was steeped in Dungeons and Dragons, based in full-loot PvP, and extremely punishing by today's standards. In many ways, it was the quintessential DikuMUD and anyone who knows what that is probably has a good idea about classic MMO design. To be hardcore in those days meant hours and hours and hours of play. It meant knowing the game world inside and out, mentally mapping the fastest routes to any given place (and pressing direction keys to get there), memorizing boss routines, and being able to locate rare drops the moment they would spawn. It wasn't for the light of heart. Or time.

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Everquest took that model and tweaked it for the graphics audience. Ultima Online presented its isometric take. Dark Age of Camelot too. When the world first came to know MMORPGs, they were cumbersome, work-like games that forced players into routines they might have avoided if not for the worlds. These days were good. They were foundational for the industry and brought us closer to real virtual worlds than anything has come since. Today's developers should and need to relearn the lessons of that era.

Yet as more options became available and more money entered the industry, things started to change. Developers looked to World of Warcraft and saw that accessibility was driving the industry into mainstream consciousness more than EverQuest, Ultima Online, and Dark Age of Camelot combined. The original players, myself and perhaps you too, suddenly became the minority – and if you don't believe that, I challenge you to look at the subscription numbers (EQ: 450k in 2003). Every single one of us could easily fit into 1/10th of WoW's 2008 playerbase.

The malleable among us realized the direction the wind was blowing and chose to adapt or move on. Others didn't and they're bitter. They feel disserviced and ironically can often be heard complaining about the vocal minority of “WoW kiddies” on official forums. That level of denial is incredible because, by rights, it should be the WoW players calling the rest of us Grandmas. They have everything, everything on their side to show that our playstyle is dead.

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Don't believe me? Let's look at the evolutions. Raiding now requires ten people instead of 40, which is itself down 100+. Reaching the level cap is an expectation rather than a feat. Game worlds have become small, closed-in hub-attachments, and quests can be completed in less than 10 minutes. Grinding and group play are aren't just unsupported, they're discouraged. Key quests have become a laughably foreign concept. Raiding and grouping can now be done on the fly, in off-peak hours, with complete strangers, and if dungeons take more than an hour it's a surprising. Raiding too is sectioned off into chambers with handfuls of 5-minute boss fights and yawn-inducing trash. Even “hardcore” guilds often require less than four nights a week and even fewer want an application. Back in 2001 we would have called this an entirely different genre.

I've played dozens and dozens of MMOs and the above facts represent the vast majority of popular games today. They represent the state of the genre. For us to target the developer-dictated lifestyles – not playstyles but lifestyles – of yesteryear is a fool's errand. Players demanding such are the grandparents constantly reminiscing about walking both ways in the snow. To these I suggest guilding up Conservative Party of Norrath, now with chapters in Azeroth and Tyria.

But those players do have something of value: real experience with designs of depth. Games today, in the name of accessibility, have become eminently more shallow. Players working together, mysterious virtual worlds, real adventure, and the ultimate payoff of delayed gratification... those are things this genre now fails at. Turning the clock back and yelling at the whipper-snappers isn't going to solve anything but exploring the roots of the genre actually might.

Embracing the virtual life of gameplay over gameplay lacking life is the key. Games like EVE Online, Darkfall, and ArcheAge are getting there. What hardcore players know is that simple truth, the pandora's box of the next generational shift. It's too bad so many of them have become slaves to their old rose-colored memories.

Christopher Coke / Every two weeks, Chris visits a new MMO and shares his experiences with it. This week, and every fourth column, he brings that experience to bear with strong opinions and stronger conclusions. Hear him every week on the official podcast. Twitter: @GameByNight

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Christopher Coke

Chris cut his teeth on MMOs in the late 90s with text-based MUDs. He’s written about video games for many different sites but has made MMORPG his home since 2013. Today, he acts as Hardware and Technology Editor, lead tech reviewer, and continues to love and write about games every chance he gets. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight