Keen made a post decrying the “dumbing down” of MMOs — people head for easy mode at every opportunity, and seeing that, more, even easier, games are made. A vicious spiral that ends in “Hello Kitty Adventure Island“.
I thought I rather reasonably suggested that there were hard(er) MMOs out there — FFXI Online, EverQuest, and Lineage 2 among them — and that they weren’t exactly burning up the charts. Keen replied that the whole point of his post was that games are getting easier, not that old games were harder (and in fact, that tended to support his point).
So… okay, time to prove Keen wrong, that there is a market for hard — and yet still fun — MMOs, and that in fact they were still being made.
What makes a hard MMO, hard? Let’s look at Final Fantasy XI Online, the hardest MMO I have ever personally played.
- Groups mandatory for progression.
- Dual-class system requires leveling your character at least twice.
- Some classes can only be unlocked past a certain level, requiring you to level your character three or four times to get your desired job/subjob.
- As well as needing gear for at least two jobs…
- Combat requires teamwork and precise timing.
- Level caps require a significant quest to move beyond.
- Unchangeable choices made at character creation significantly impact your play forever.
- If the difference in levels between your highest and lowest character in a group is greater than three, the entire group’s experience is significantly reduced.
- Crafting requires camping merchants with a limited supply of materials, as well as uncommon drops and a fair amount of gil.
- Fast travel (ie, via Chocobo) requires a lengthy quest and once a chocobo is tamed, costs money proportional to the popularity of your starting point. Really.
- Death carries penalties — you can lose your level.
Okay, I guess that explains why I don’t play FFXI Online anymore. But the fact remains, it is a hard game with a dedicated playbase. Oh yeah, monsters and pirates attack you during boat rides. And it can take *days* to find a group. And farmers perma-camp NMs (Notorious Monsters — ie, nameds) for gear you would like to get for yourself. And also the gil sellers are everywhere.
Well, let’s compare that to EverQuest, another hard game I played extensively.
- Groups required for current content.
- Unchangeable choices made at the start can have a lasting effect on your gameplay.
- Death carries extreme penalties (you can lose your level), though corpse summoning NPCs and experience restore AAs soften this quite a bit.
- Groups require a tank, healer, slower and snarer, making it hard to find a group if you cannot perform one of these essential tasks. Or if a group already has someone who can do it.
- Crafting requires extensive rare and costly components to master.
I could list more — if this were five years ago, but EQ has become much easier over the years. They have taken away travel times, the need to rest, monster camping, provided an alternate path to raid-level gear through high level (and incredibly expensive but still…) crafting. So while EQ is considered a hard game, it isn’t as hard as, say, FFXI Online.
I haven’t played L2, so I can’t comment on it from experience. But relentless grinding, random roving death squads, and yet more grinding (repetitive activities for little reward) are what I hear.
What makes these hard games, hard?
High on the list is a requirement to have a group. For all the positive social or virtual rewards of being in a group, having to find and join a group doing content you would enjoy with people who play well, is hard.
That right there, is the key. If a game’s primary focus is group content, it will be considered hard.
Second, possibly uninformed decisions made at character creation time can haunt you for a long time. I wanted to be a Mithra white mage, but I was always a reluctant choice for a group because my magic points were so much lower than a comparable Tarutaru’s MP. I did all I could to boost that by choosing a compatible subjob once I turned 30 (summoner) and investing heavily in +MP gear, but it was always a losing battle.
In EQ1, I didn’t know what stats were important for a druid, so I focused on wisdom and agility, thinking it would help me avoid getting hit. That character was low on mana compared to other druids until she was geared well enough to hit the cap, sometime in her 50s. And I was distressed to find out at about level 40 that a druid no longer had the healing ability to be a group’s sole healer (this was later corrected, but was true at the time).
In WoW, the only significant choice you make about your character at creation is its class. (Racial abilities matter slightly but have been revamped since I played). Outside of instances, grouping is a tremendously BAD idea, with experience penalties and fights over collection quest drops, harvesting nodes and the random loot necessary to pay for consumables. There is essentially no death penalty, all zones are pretty safe (I once walked a level 10 rogue from Westfall to Gadgetzan with only a couple bad spots), quests lead you through the content — WoW took EQ and slid the difficulty control all the way to the left.
To prove Keen wrong, then, my mission is to find a new MMO out recently or coming soon, where grouping is recommended, there is a death penalty, travel times are a factor, soloing is possible but difficult, and decisions made at character creation have repercussions throughout your career in the game.
Haven’t I just described Vanguard, Saga of Heroes?
This game was advertised as EverQuest’s spiritual successor, designed by many of the same people. Unfortunately, a tainted launch and an unfinished product meant many of its natural audience, wouldn’t or couldn’t play it.
So anyway, I won my little bet with myself. I found a “hard” MMO. VG is undergoing massive changes to make it viable while not, hopefully, making it easy. VG could well become the game it was promised to be, and maybe its future explains why SOE bought the game when it already had a few EverQuests.
Still, will VG’s disastrous launch kill plans for other, more challenging MMOs?
EverQuest, at its peak, had 550,000 subscribers. FFXI had more, but since EQ was not widely available in Asia, it’s not a fair comparison. As near as I can estimate from Wikipedia and a Google search, FFXI Online had about 200,000 English-speaking players at its peak.
500,000 subscribers is a lot of people. Even 200,000 is pretty darn good, and is likely about what EQ2 (a game which is not hard) does today (I see estimates of 150,000 for EQ1, so it’s still going well).
So, setting Vanguard aside for a moment, which upcoming MMOs will be “hard”? We can certainly assume Warhammer will not be hard. There is no way their hype machine can support merely 200,000 players.
The number one complaint I hear about LotRO and EQ2 is that after a certain point, a group is recommended. So there’s two games that people leave when it becomes slightly harder. Age of Conan — the first twenty levels are solo. This is not a game that is going to suddenly become a group-required game at level 21.
Times aren’t looking good for hard MMOs. Keen was likely, in the end, entirely correct. Will upcoming titles like Chronicles of Spellborn reverse this trend? Is anyone interested in catering to the niche market of gamers who prefer to group?
Me, I’ll probably be giving Vanguard another look.