Risk Versus Reward: Resource Gathering In MMORPGs
For a moment, let’s talk about everyone’s favorite pastime: resource gathering!
Hello? Is it something I said? Anyone?
In all seriousness, resource gathering has become a bit of a forgettable, but occasionally soothing activity one can take in order to procure raw materials for profit, crafting, or both. While there is a certain base level of risk involved with it in modern, mainstream MMOs, its often casual implementation can allow the player the opportunity to just zone out, chill, and perhaps catch up on a show in their second screen monitor.
However, there was a time when things weren’t so simple - an era which required the player to be a bit more alert to the task at hand. What I’m referring to, specifically, are the early days of Final Fantasy XI, though there are certainly other examples - both retro and modern titles - that are comparable to it.
Before you accuse me of reaching for my “back in my day” card, let me be clear: I don’t necessarily mind how casual resource gathering has become in many modern MMOs… to an extent, at least. That said, I do think there is value in higher stakes play when it comes to the activity. Let me explain and perhaps you too will come around to this idea.
The Early Days
Early MMORPGs were notorious for being rather brutal and devoid of hand holding mechanisms, and the early era of Final Fantasy XI was no different. Most progression activities required a group, and very little was explained to the player in-game about, well, pretty much anything. This air of mystery also permeated through secondary systems, including resource gathering. From the outside looking in - as a newer / low-level player, specifically - gathering was a task that seemed pretty intense, for there were multiple hurdles that one had to jump through in order to make any decent ground.
Unlike many modern MMOs, gathering in the early days of Final Fantasy XI was limited in scope, meaning one would often have to travel to very specific areas in order to harvest anything rather than virtually everything being available across large swaths of land. Once there, the individual nodes were often either clustered in a very small area of a much larger zone, or lightly - and I do mean lightly - peppered throughout the entire map. Regardless, travel (and often lots of it) was required in order to even get started with the activity.
Once there, you then had to deal with two other things: enemies and other player characters. Even the lowest level gathering areas had the potential to be dangerous because of the innate aggro mechanics found in Final Fantasy XI. Enemies can aggro by any number of mechanics - level, sight, sound, scent, magic, and perhaps others - so a certain level of risk was involved with just walking from node to node because smart players will leave most (if not all) of their adventuring gear at home in order to free up precious inventory space for raw materials. Make one wrong move, and you might just die.
On the other hand, having to compete with other player characters wasn’t always a bad thing - in fact, in the aforementioned areas that had nodes spread out far and wide, the competition could be an immense boon for the player. In the early days, Final Fantasy XI was more or less designed to only have a set number of nodes up at any given time, meaning you couldn’t necessarily camp a specific cluster of nodes if you were the only one gathering at that time; you had to seek out those other nodes and free them up, evening if it meant you had to travel a long way to do so.
Before dynamic respawns and node sharing became commonplace, it was actually beneficial to make friends when gathering in those select wide open spaces, for each participant could potentially reap far higher rewards than if they were to tackle it alone. That said, some people wouldn’t want to be your friend, and would simply follow the same route as you just to attempt to steal your nodes. Regardless, this type of node design was something that, to me, felt far more rewarding than the oversaturated, dynamic respawning world we live in these days. Smart players would adapt their route based on the current competition.
Now that you’ve made it to the gathering location, and are aware of your surroundings, it is time to actually do the thing - mining, logging, harvesting; what have you! Final Fantasy XI was a bit different in that it encouraged the use of special equipment - gathering gear - that would cut down on tool (pickaxes for mining, axes for logging, etc.) breakages.
Gathering gear? Tools that can break? What kind of nonsense is this! For me, this separated the wheat from the chaff - the casual from the truly committed. While you could absolutely gather without any special gear, your profit margins could be lower due to the higher risk involved. This gathering gear was a good investment because it would serve as a base goal to reach while improving your gathering efficiency thereafter. Nice!
The Thrill of the Hunt
Now that you’ve gotten a taste of that sweet gathering gravy, it is time to move on to higher risk endeavors. In Final Fantasy XI, there were numerous high level, high-risk gathering locations that could pose danger even to high level players. The tradeoff, however, was some of the most expensive raw materials in the game. The infamous Ifrit’s Cauldron comes to mind here, as this place was literally a disaster waiting to happen, housing some of the most dangerous enemies in the game and being incredibly difficult to navigate, especially without a map.
Most people that braved this area would perform some form of "sneak mining", which was essentially a way to hide yourself from the aforementioned enemy aggro mechanics by way of abilities and/or consumables. It was an almost mandatory practice in these high-risk locations, because making a mistake and dying could set you back lots of time and money.
The art of sneak mining wasn’t always a "set and forget" affair, since its effects weren’t permanent and would wear off at irregular intervals. Places like these demanded much from the gatherer, but the potential payoff was immense. And once you had a taste of the profit associated with the rare and elusive Adaman and Orichalcum ores, you would be compelled to dive into the dangers once more.
In many ways, this kind of high stakes gathering feels like genuine treasure hunting and is essentially an entire mini-game in itself. There is obviously a lot of setup involved, but it has the potential to be far more rewarding than the simple click-to-profit schemes that many games adhere to these days.
While I'm not necessarily saying that we should go back to that design brick-for-brick, I do feel that gathering as a whole has been diluted in many mainstream titles, and could be revitalized if they were to adopt some of these fundamentals. There was something special about preparing to venture out to a genuinely dangerous location in search of its vast riches. Of course, this entire concept is completely dependent on a thriving player-to-player economy and meaningful crafting systems--without it, this style of play wouldn’t even matter.
But enough about what I think - how do you feel about it? Are you satisfied with the relatively low risk, low effort format that many MMOs use these days, or would you prefer the more challenging systems prevalent in the days of yore?