The kind of game that leaves you bruised, battered, bleeding and begging for more.

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.

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13 thoughts on “The kind of game that leaves you bruised, battered, bleeding and begging for more.”

  1. Well, it won’t be before a couple of my characters are level 80 :) But who knows, by the time I’m ready to give VG a real try, maybe it will be the game it was meant to be. If I do play, I’ll probably go to Jaye’s server and bug her until she lets me join Revelry and Honor.

  2. lol… good catch. And yes, the reason I didn’t buy the game is not because it was a disaster, but because it was just the same as every other game, and even just running around in beta, I was bored. Even though there was plenty of people running around, I was bored.

    But then, I was eventually bored in LotRO as well, even though I had no problem finding people with whom to do the group quests. Grouping was not a problem. It was just the sameness.

    I sure hope that by the time I decide to give Vanguard another shot, they have found a way to make it different, special. If I thought it was the game for me at the moment, I’d be playing it right now :)

  3. I am still enjoying Lotro Tipa although my standards may be lower than yours. One of the things I really like about Lotro up to about level 40 is the way quests are structured in chains with a sequence of solo-able quests leading up to a group quest. You need to complete the group quest to get good rewards but the system is very friendly to casual players and trains people into grouping. Everyone does all the solo quests so groups are easy to find for the harder group quests. Even if you have to wait for a group to form you can always knock off a solo quest or two while waiting. Sadly this system breaks down a bit when you hit Angmar around level 40. The region has lots of quests but the sequence of quest chains is more complex. Fellowship quests occur early in the chain blocking access to solo-able quests further on. Also some difficult quests are essential pre-requisites to whole streams of apparently unrelated quests. Grouping is essential to progress but groups are no longer easy to get because everyone is stuck at a different point in the quest chain. In an interesting move the most recent content update includes a lot of new soloable quests for people of this level. These solo quests have rewards as good as if not better than those achievable through grouping in Angmar. While I am happy to do the quests and pocket the loot I am somewhat disappointed because it will make it even harder to find groups now in Angmar.
    Apologies for the rambling nature of my comment but I guess my main point is that with good organisation of quest chains grouping can be a pleasure rather than a chore.

  4. Well, as I mentioned, I like grouping, prefer grouping, and generally don’t have trouble getting groups. In LoTRO, I was usually ahead of the curve, so I would be helping other people with quests I had already done, and then they’d catch up and we’d do mine. That’s how to get groups in any MMO. It’s all give some, take some.

    What got me about LotRO was going to each new zone and being asked to do the same things, again and again. I went to Trollshaws and the very first quest I got there was to kill more bears.

    Think of that for a moment. Would Tolkien have actually written a story where the hero was a bear killer, and was known for going throughout Middle Earth and slaughtering hundreds and thousands of bears, pigs, wolves, birds…? Calling *every* *single* *one* of these creatures servants of Mordor, better off dead, makes me believe Middle Earth is corrupt to the core — if evil is that prevalent.

    But no, I didn’t leave for ideological reasons or even because all the quests seemed meaningless. It was because a billing error unsubscribed me, and I didn’t love the game enough to see to fixing it, so I went back to EQ2.

    That’s LotRO’s misstep, in my opinion of course. It’s just not *different* enough from other games. It’s a little different, and is innovative in some ways and certainly has one of the best newbie experiences of any MMO out there, but it’s just not different enough. You get the same sort of gameplay experience with it at the end of the day as you do with WoW, EQ2, DAoC, etc, so if you already play one of those games, and especially if you liked the PvP aspect of those games, you might wonder why you would want to switch to LotRO.

  5. I’m anxiously watching to see what SOE does with Vanguard. My beta experience sounds very similar to your own, Tipa. As you said, with two EQ’s on their roster as it is, I’m really hoping SOE makes this game stand out from the crowd (it’s about time). That feeling of same old quests, same old game mechanics was my problem with LoTRO. I think the game itself looks beautiful, but I’d just had my fill of that type of play style.

    Honestly, I’m not that demanding a gamer. Unlike most, I’m not tired of the fantasy genre in MMORPGS. I don’t need a radical departure from what’s come before–just SOME new elements and significant differences distinguishing one game from the next–a few gentle pushes up the MMORPG evolutionary ladder to hook me in without sighing, throwing my hands in the air, and proclaiming, “Been there, done that.” I felt that Vanguard’s initial problem was equating difficulty with game mechanics that have been improved upon and streamlined since EQ. Make a game challenging and with a certain amount of “risk” but do it in a creative way that doesn’t boil down to monotonous repetition and timesinks. I am giving V:SoH another shot this winter and I have to say it’s due primarily to what I’ve glossed from their community from sites like Jaye’s and Troy’s Voyages of Vanguard podcast more than the game itself.

    On the other end of the spectrum, I’m looking forward to WAR much in the way I look forward to a console game. It looks like it will be a ton of fun, but I’m betting it will be very easy button-oriented and not provide me with that immersive, obsessive, living, breathing experience that I love to get from being hung up on an MMORPG for several years.

  6. I have been thinking about trying Vanguard again myself. I just have such a hard time summoning up the strength to play any MMO recently. I play for a few days and then don’t want to see it again for months.
    In some ways VG was my last hope for MMOs, and it most definatly did not fill it. I loved EQ and FFXI but you can’t really go back to them, there just isn’t the low level support to make it fun anymore. I have been considering L2 though.

  7. There are a bunch of people on who are giving FFXI another try, but it looks like they haven’t changed any of the underlying game mechanics since I played, so I won’t be going back. I would also love to go back to EQ1 again, but something about that game just makes me want to log out as soon as I log in. I still do log in occasionally, but I have no incentives to *do* anything.

    That brings up a larger point, really, about MMOs. What’s your goal? If you have a goal, you can work toward it, feel happy at making progress. Eventually all the goals in EQ1 seemed like pointless ones. Another 400 AAs to match my 800? Another boring raid on content I’d done for two years already? Another night of no groups as people logged on their cleric alts — or pickup groups on lower level content with idiots?

    Having been bitten with EQ1 and FFXI, I am really shy about starting another MMO. EQ2 is better than EQ1 about always having there be SOMETHING fun to do by yourself.

    Now those few hours I spent on VG beta, I was distressed by the harvesting/crafting (seemed pointlessly hard for an activity I use to relax), wrote a couple songs for my bard (nice!), ran to a place where they were showing off their ships and mounts, including flying ones, and then I logged off and never played again.

    Why didn’t it grab me?

    Well, for a brand new player, it didn’t tell me much about the game. There were some quests, but they were all go into this field next to me and kill some stuff. Yeah, the first thing they had me do was GRIND MOBS and after that, I got to DELIVER SOMETHING TO SOMEONE.

    So I decided against doing any more quests and went exploring, but everywhere looked just like EQ2 to me.

    I know pretty much every MMO starts you off the same way, and that’s just it in a nutshell. VG was supposed to be cool and in the end it was just like every MMO.

    That’s the part I hope they change.

  8. That’s my concern about the next round of Vanguard facelifts. There’s a slim chance that they’ll make it MORE like every other MMO. Like I said previously, I’d imagine this will not be the case, since SOE already has EQ and EQ2 and it could only hurt them to give us more of what we’ve seen before, but who knows? The questions of goals in MMORPGs is a tricky one, since you really have to set your own goals. Me? Honestly, the thing that keeps me coming back is grouping. I’m not talking raiding, but there’s nothing I enjoy more than dungeon crawling with a group of 5 to 10 people, being part of a team, and socializing. For any single game to have decent longevity with me, I need a solid group of at 3+ people who I enjoy interacting with and who play for the same reasons I do. I’ve joined raiding guilds with perfectly nice folks, but after several months of a work-like schedule rehashing the same dungeons for gear, I’d just burn out. There’s enough monotony in my 9-to-5 job. I don’t need that kind of repetition seeping into my entertainment time. I’d also like to note that I probably solo 80% of the time, but even when I’m on my own, I really value the interactions that take place in guild chat or in /tells to online friends.

  9. What I look for is a group experience where I get to go cool places. They don’t have to have cutting edge graphics, they just have to be conceptually cool. Also I am a sucker for clibing to the top of just about anything. But I need to have a good group game. I am not interested in soloing an MMO.

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