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Uphill! In the Snow! Both Ways!

Isabelle Parsley Posted:
Columns Player Perspectives 0

There’s something I’ve been hearing a lot over the years, as MMOs that came out 5-7 years ago (WoW, EQ2, CoX, SWG, and so on) get older and get adapted.

“This is easy mode! It wasn’t like this in the old days! I had to earn my stuff!”

To which I usually bite my tongue, but my own response would be “Oh, shut up.”

In a very few cases, the Easy Mode accusation is actually accurate. In most cases it’s just a bunch of old players whining because stuff that was complicated, opaque, or stupidly coded when a game came out has now been cleaned up and made easier to deal with.

Take starter areas. WoW of course recently revamped all of its starting areas, LOTRO did it a few months back when it launched its Free to Play model, and some EQ2 areas got a facelift in the last couple of years too. Making an area, especially a starter area which is the first thing new players see, easier to handle is not a bad thing. It is a Good Thing™. I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve told me that they gave up on EQ2 after a few days because the interface was messy, quests weren’t clear, they had no idea what they were supposed to do or where they were supposed to go. This is a shame, because EQ2 has a huge amount of content to offer once you get into it. An experience like that may be gloriously difficult to some people, but in terms of an MMO’s bottom line it equates to subscriptions (or e-store sales) they could have obtained but didn’t.

People often say “easier” when what’s really been done is to make something simpler, more streamlined, less buggy – or just plain different. Quests that required a workaround to complete because they were buggy aren’t easier now, they’re cleaned up – and while technically they may have been harder to do back in the good old days, harder doesn’t necessarily equal better. And easier does not necessarily equal worse.

We tend to view past experiences through a very fuzzy lens, one that’s generally rose-tinted with nostalgia if only because we’ve done whatever it is – and because we don’t need to do it again. From our perspective as level Umpty-ump, experienced players who have done everything in a game a million times, we loftily pronounce the new experience as “easy mode” and therefore by definition worse; and we conveniently forget that people new to a game don’t know all the tips and tricks that we do and might be having a hard time just getting used to the game’s interface.

(As someone who grasps game directions and UIs and all that stuff rather easily, I also get impatient sometimes with people who don’t. On the other hand, I also have no idea how to use a graphics program to make my photos look decent – and yet my friends don’t look at me and roll their eyes when I tell them I don’t understand the finer points of layer manipulation. MMO gamers would do well to exercise a little more tolerance in their endless, casual judgement of other players and their playstyles.)

Maybe making things simpler and somewhat easier does cheapen the achievement of those who did it the old way. Someone call a waaambulance! In any case, I don’t think that’s what’s actually going on under the surface when people bitch and moan about how some activity they don’t even take part in anymore has been made “easier.”

What’s really going on is that MMO gamers as a group just plain detest change of any kind in their beloved game. This is not a new phenomenon, by the way: I remember hearing cries of woe! and alas! every time an Asheron’s Call update came out (which was monthly), and this was 10 years ago. Balancing and fixes are always stealth-nerfs, and the sky is always falling – even though two months later the most vociferous complainers are often, magically, the most ardent supporters of these very same “game-breaking” changes.

MMOs need to change to survive, even if change is always viewed with initial suspicion by a game’s community. Stop for a second and try to imagine what these older games would be like today if they hadn’t changed at all, in any way, even to just clean up code. Ugh.

What we pine for isn’t the good old days of crashing clients and buggy quests and skills – what we pine for is who we were when we were playing through those buggy quests. Well, I’ve got news for you Scrooges who whine and complain about how things were so much easier before and how it’s almost not worth playing now. Games have to change. If you don’t like it, don’t play the damn thing. And what’s changed the most, in any case, isn’t the game, it’s you. Experience makes everything seem easier, and past experience is always somehow more valuable than the one we’re going through right now. That’s just human nature.

Let’s talk about WoW, Cataclysm and the world geography-changing Shattering. I don’t have the expansion yet – it’s going to be a Christmas present, if my very broad hints have been picked up on – but I’ve still been able to experience the revamped starting areas. They’re fun! Yes, they’re easier. The NPCs gently take your new character by the hand and slowly explain exactly what it is you’re supposed to be doing. It might be amusing and even a little irksome to people who have done it all before a thousand times, but it’s a much, much better experience for people who haven’t – or for people who, like the spousal unit, haven’t played WoW in almost 5 years.

Easier does not equal bad. Harder does not equal more fun, or even more valuable as an experience. If you’ve read this column before you know my soapbox: if it isn’t fun and you’re paying for it, why the hell should you keep on paying or playing? Fun is a notoriously difficult critter to pin down in games anyway, since everyone seems to have a slightly different definition of it, and yet my gaming buddies, who all have their own way of playing and who all want different things from these games, are all saying pretty much the same thing: the WoW New Player Experience (shades of SWG!) is definitely fun.

That same scuttlebutt also says that while things may have been cleaned up and streamlined, instances definitely haven’t been made any easier – on the contrary. The healers I know keep blinking in surprise and saying that they can no longer heal an instance while half-asleep; surely this is a good thing? The tanks I know are having to pay more attention too, and the DPS classes apparently have more to do than just figure out when to pew-pew and at what.

A gaming experience that’s difficult by design yet easily playable isn’t “easy mode”, it’s smart – and it’s exactly what MMOs who want to keep their players’ attention should be aiming for.


Isabelle Parsley