Hardcore Mode: The Changing Landscape Of MMORPGs

Every time a new MMORPG is announced, the same comments tend to appear in varying degrees of coherency. World of Warcraft, like it or not, redefined the genre as we know it, thus it inevitably pops up whenever a new game emerges on the scene. You get the people hoping this new game will be the fabled WoW killer, followed closely by those sighing over the prospect of yet another WoW clone. And then, of course, there’s the people declaring that WoW sucks, this newly announced game will suck, and MMOs have sucked ever since [insert year or game title here].

I left that last part blank because the golden age of MMOs is largely subjective. You can point at growing and shrinking subscriber numbers all you like, but that doesn’t really matter when people are drawing from their fondest memories of a game. As for me? Ultima Online was the first big MMO I played. Having firsthand experience of how it originally was, I’m always wary of anyone who says they want games to go back to being that hardcore.

In addition to being a player versus player free-for-all, almost everything on you in vanilla UO could be looted when you died. That sweet sword you worked so hard to get? Gone along with anything else the looter could carry. Any skills you learned also atrophied with disuse, so finding people macro training was almost as common as seeing people running naked down the street to get their back-up gear from storage. Another strange fact of life was finding random body parts strewn everywhere. Simply because all corpses could be dismembered, no corpse went desecrated for long, their parts dropped on the ground for anyone to pick up and rearrange.

UO had a lot of ideas that were interesting in theory, if not so much in practice, particularly when you considered how mechanics could be abused. The ghosts of slain players, for instance, could be seen by others, but unless someone leveled the skill to talk to them (and very few did) everything they said showed up as “OOooOOooO.” Imagine all the hauntings, the heart shapes made out of human hearts lying in the street. These were things you learned to ignore.

Changes were inevitable. Macro training (the complicated act of setting a stapler on the keyboard and walking away) became a GM actionable offense, and the streets directly outside banks and inns were made safe zones (attacking spawned NPC guards to kill you on the spot). Macro training continued, only in very remote places, and the areas just outside the safe zones were usually the most violent in any given city. The criminal/innocent system was meant to curb wanton player-killing, but it only led to people goading innocents into accidentally flagging themselves as criminals. I know all this because I was also guilty of doing it.

I played UO until EverQuest drew away the majority of my guild. I didn’t have a computer that could handle a 3D MMO at the time, so I missed out on whole EQ experience. On the last day I played UO, I started a fresh character and wandered out into the game world alone. Expansions would later add things like consent-only PVP and item protection, but at the time, only starting gear was safe from theft. Expansions would also add more lands for housing, but I was walking through a cramped forest of cabins and mansions with a few trees in between. The only item I carried was a blank scroll, on which I wrote cryptic notes before walking into someone’s unlocked house with a snake biting at my heels. I died, logged out, and uninstalled the game.

If anything, I miss the ability to create a tableau like that. Today, whatever the MMO, there’s just no chance of walking into your in-game home to find a stranger’s dead body on the floor, their bags empty save for a final message that could mean anything, while the snake that killed them sits coiled nearby.

Fond memories aside, I wouldn’t go back to the way things were. I can’t. For one thing, I’ve changed both as a player and a person, not to mention MMORPGs in general are different as well. All those changes I mentioned before—the macro training ban, the criminal system—were made in an effort to improve the overall experience for the player base as a whole. At the time I thought it was bullshit because I was thinking only of myself. Granted, I also didn’t think of the person whose house I left my corpse in, but I was fourteen.

The reason I’m wary of people who loudly call for a return to the good old days, the hardcore days, is because they tend to be the very people who would do absolutely anything to get a leg up on others, with no thought of how that affects the other player’s experience. To them, the term “casual” is a grave insult, and their ideal game experience can be the only experience. We’re better off leaving that whole “fuck you, got mine” mentality behind, and any change that further discourages that attitude is a change ultimately for the better.

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