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Last week, I spoke with Ryan Barker, the current Lead Designer on MMOG granddaddy EverQuest, who said that the game had become more casual-friendly since its launch in March 1999, but that it wasn’t a bad thing. You know what? The man is right – not only is appealing to casual players better for EverQuest, it’s better for the MMOG genre as a whole.

Back in the day, EverQuest was as hardcore as they come. If you died, you lost experience and had to retrieve all your gear from your dead body, running through hostile territory completely naked. To make matters worse, if you had a monster’s attention and tried to run away, it would pursue you until you exited the entire zone or were dead, whichever came first.

Not only was this a punishing game, it was a fiercely dog-eat-dog one. There were no instanced dungeons as is commonplace these days; everything was out in the open world, which meant that if you wanted to kill something, you were competing for it with everybody else. Rare monsters were on week-long respawn timers, which meant that if your guild wanted the phat loot off of one of these rare monsters, everybody had to sit there for hours waiting for it to spawn just so no one else could beat them to it. There’s a reason that the term “poopsocking” exists, y’know – unfortunately it’s not figurative.

For some unfathomable reason, players gladly put up with all of this. Sure, for many there’s a fond veil of nostalgia over the whole thing, but even Barker admits that it’s usually in the context of “Oh man, remember how much that sucked?” These sorts of gameplay mechanics would never fly in a modern MMOG, and for good reason: They did suck.

The first lesson we need to learn from this was summed up neatly at last year’s PAX by Jumpgate Evolution‘s producer Hermann Peterscheck: There’s a difference between a hard game and a punishing one, no matter your skill level. Early EverQuest and games like it with severe death penalties aren’t challenging, they’re just punishing.

If I make a boss that requires twenty players to maintain maximum healing and damage-dealing while being aware of ten different situational dangers like area damage and additional enemies, that’s pretty damn challenging – but if they die and can just run in and try again without penalty, it’s not a problem. If I make a boss that requires twenty players to close their eyes and nod off as they deal with no special abilities, that’s easy – but if they mess up and die and they lose half their items, a level’s worth of experience and have their hit points halved for five hours, that’s punishing.

Obviously, the two examples above are extremes, but here’s the crux of the matter: The only thing that a hefty penalty for failure does is make it so that it takes longer for a player to get back to the action after they die. By instituting a heavy death penalty, you just add time that a player spends standing around not playing the game. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the things that most modern MMOGs have kicked to the wayside. In LotRO, when you die, you gain Dread, which lowers your abilities slightly for a period of time. In WAR and Aion, you receive a similar minor penalty, and can simply pay a sum to have it removed. In WoW, your equipment takes damage and will eventually need to be repaired. These are really just penalties in name only; none of them prevent you from playing the game – from just running back in to get back to try that challenging boss again.

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The second lesson we need to learn is that there’s absolutely no shame in letting players see the entire game that they pay for. This isn’t just endemic to MMOGs, either – John Scott Tynes discussed this last month, wondering why we so readily accept leaving games unfinished due to unreasonable difficulty. The competitive open-world aspect of the first EverQuest meant that unless you had literally hours every day to dedicate to the game, you were never going to fight the big bosses. (Again, see poopsocking.)

The advent of the instance changed this – now, if you had a chunk of time to play the game, you could go adventuring and get the exact same dungeon experience as the hardcore folk, but at your own pace. You never had to worry about getting camped or beaten to the kill. Of course, there were other obstacles to consider, now – let’s take WoW, for example: In the original World of Warcraft, if you didn’t have 39 other friends who could show up every Sunday night, you were always going to be a second-class citizen (unless you could do the arguably-more-soul-killing PvP grind, which was a chore in itself). The hardest part of those beginning raids had nothing to do with the bosses or their underlings; the hardest part was getting the 40 people together in the first place.

Of course, since then, WoW has been made considerably more casual-friendly. 40-man raids gave way to 25-mans in Burning Crusade, and were given a 10-man option in Wrath of the Lich King – with the overall difficulty and minimum requirements being drastically lowered. In Cataclysm, all of the horrendously complex stats are being simplified to make the game more streamlined and less of a spreadsheet. All of these changes have been met with cries that Blizzard is catering to casuals by “dumbing down” the game.

As damn well they should be. There are eleven million people playing this one game, and how many of them ever cleared the original Naxxramas? How many defeated Kil’Jaeden in Sunwell Plateau? If Blizzard, Turbine, BioWare, or NCSoft dump vast amounts of resources into creating this high-level content, those resources are ultimately outright wasted if only a tiny fraction of the playerbase ever gets to see them. If I’m venturing into the Mines of Moria in LotRO, I want to fight a freakin’ Balrog – and I don’t want to have that dependant on finding fifty-nine other people. These “dumbed down” changes make it so that more people can see the content that the developers bust their asses on, and make it so that more people can see complete storylines from start to finish. What’s wrong with that?

Of course, this doesn’t mean spitting in the face of the hardcore crowd, either. There do need to be challenges available to keep hardcore players interested and to make them feel rewarded – but it should just a different, harder version of the content everybody else gets to see. Give hardcore players “ultra hard” modes – the Ninja Gaiden on Very Hard to the casuals’ Bayonetta on Automatic – that reward the victors with superior loot, and special credit for their virtual dick-waving contest. If they want a challenge, give them a challenge, but in this day and age, it just doesn’t make sense to waste development resources on a tiny fraction of the playerbase, and then bar everyone else from seeing that exact same content.

And if they don’t like it, well, then they can just go play EVE Online.

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