Designed downtime

Pantheon
Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen is going to be a terrible game, and I hope it gets made.

I’ve heard this same phrase echoed around the Massively virtual offices a lot over the past week. I’ve uttered it myself, even though I’ve also taken to calling the game’s lead Brad “Designed Downtime” McQuaid because he’s touted that exact term as a key selling point of his new MMO.

I have made no secret at all of my disdain for the EverQuest anomaly. Its popularity in its day was unmatched, no question, and yet in retrospect, its chief claim to fame is that it had little in common with the other MMOs that launched between 1997 and 2003. Most of the MMOs in that early era were sandboxes to a degree, not that we’d have used that word (we used “persistent worlds,” a term that has since been co-opted and is now meaningless). The other games focused on crafting, PvP, exploration, character development, and even housing and cities in addition to combat. EverQuest focused on providing an empty world that took forever to traverse, a world in which you waited in line for a dungeon group to level up so you could wait in line for a group some more and then strut around showing off your e-peen gear on your otherwise uncustomizable character. It was not even remotely a sandbox. I can’t even grace it with the word themepark.

I can forgive those older games for some of their awful design choices because they really didn’t know better back then. Meditating into spellbooks, camp-checks, zone-jumping, corpse-runs, running for an hour zone by zone across a boring continent to get to a dungeon — they were terrible mechanics then and now. I know a lot of old-schoolers say they loved them, but I think they are just proxy voting. They don’t love meditating into spellbooks; they love the idea of class diversity and meaningful combat. They didn’t love camp-checks; they loved grouping. They didn’t love it when a jerk uberguild plane-jumped them; they loved the idea of non-instanced dungeons. They didn’t love needing to beg a Necromancer to save their corpses; they just want death to have some meaning. And when they say they loved torturous travel, what they’re really saying is they love a huge open world because duh who wouldn’t?

The trouble is, Pantheon will not be the first or even second time Brad “Designed Downtime” McQuaid has made these antique mistakes about mechanics people will tolerate only because the intent is noble. After his stint as a lead designer for EverQuest, he set out to rescue the genre from World of Warcraft with a “hardcore” EverQuest clone called Vanguard that was touted as the “real” sequel to SOE’s flagship IP. And Vanguard went on to dominate the sales charts and cement a new era of power for MMORPGs. Oh wait, no it didn’t. It flopped so hard the entire studio was fired in a parking lot a few months later in one of the most dramatic scandals the genre had ever seen, and the game was acquired by SOE and more or less left to stagnate in maintenance mode ever since. And please understand that in 2007, MMOs did not flop left and right as they’re perceived to now. Very few had ever shut down, and very few that launched performed poorly. Vanguard’s implosion was a big deal at the time and marked the beginning of the post-WoW destruction of the industry that hobbled Age of Conan and Warhammer Online a few years later.

(This is not to say Vanguard had no redeeming qualities, mind you, just that when it launched in 2007, the genre had long since moved on. Twice. And McQuaid either wasn’t paying attention or didn’t care, to the doom of his studio and the jobs of his employees.)

Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen (actual name, folks) is Vanguard II, another round of mistakes. In fairness, I will not completely dismiss a developer for having made a mistake or two. I’d much rather see a game helmed by someone who’s been doing this for a long time, making mistakes and learning from them, than a game whose designer got lucky, got cocky, and never did figure out what the hell he’s doing. Veterans will have made mistakes, period. It’s part of why it’s worth giving Mark Jacobs, for example, another go with Camelot Unchained (the other part being that he learned from DAOC and Warhammer and deleted boring PvE from the new title’s design docs and put the focus on territorial PvP, crafting, and economy).

But Brad “Designed Downtime” McQuaid didn’t learn from his errors. Most of what’s been posted to the Kickstarter pages, said in videos, and told to media outlets is fluff. “A classic take on epic MMO adventure.” Well who wouldn’t want that? If you ignore the fluff, you see intentionally ambiguous, silver-tongued phrases pandering to old-school players who like to think of themselves as hardcore and superior to the WoW generation, whom they ignorantly write off as lazy, short-attention-span idiots incapable of holding a conversation or grouping without hand-holding. You must read between those lines.

  • “Group-focused social gameplay using a class based system to encourage teamwork” translates to forced dungeon grouping and railroaded character customization for balance purposes.
  • “In order to reach many destinations, you will have to traverse the planar scarred lands of Terminus through the use of your own two feet or on the back of your mighty steed” means the game plans to waste your time with travel thereby actively hindering gameplay with friends.
  • “An agreement that player levels should be meaningful and memorable” means a long and agonizing grind.
  • “Player involvement is required for progression. All actions (or lack thereof) should have consequences. Positive actions should be rewarded. Apathy or lack of action should not be rewarded with bonuses” means that you can’t come into this game expecting to have a good time; you’re going to have to work like a dog and play exactly as instructed by the devs, and for your own sake, never screw up or they’ll steal your levels back, scrub.
  • “Designed Downtime should be a part of the game to ensure players have time to form important social bonds” doesn’t mean creative social interaction like Star Wars Galaxies’ wounds or camping or economy systems; it means sitting around waiting for things to happen, mana to regen, boats to arrive, and mobs to pop, making small talk as if you’re incapable of deciding for yourself when and where you would like to socialize but must be forced into it on the devs’ schedule.
  • This game hates you, and far too much basic functionality (crafting, PvP, housing, rangers, bards, druids, monks, farming, sea and air content, custom servers, UI modding, and a mobile app — because nothing says old-school like a mobile app!) is hidden behind Kickstarter stretch goals. Can you imagine designing an old-school game that considers housing, PvP, and crafting so unimportant that they are turned into stretch goals instead of core mechanics around which the entire game is planned? Can you imagine an MMO designer not understanding that those mechanics drive social interaction and exploration and thoughtful gameplay far more than designed downtime and torturous travel? Whom does he think he’s fooling with his third attempt at turning D&D dungeon crawling into an “MMO”?

    At least McQuaid did learn from one mistake: He learned to put all the risk on the shoulders of Kickstarter backers instead of his own company and investors. Unfortunately for him, the old-school crowd that propped up Star Citizen and Shroud of the Avatar doesn’t seem to be biting. The prognosis for success doesn’t look good; the Kickstarter has a 0% chance of success, according to the leading prediction models. People might be sick of Kickstarter or untrusting of McQuaid because of his history or simply unhappy with the game’s direction — I don’t know. For me, it’s all three, and if he can’t raise 800k in a month, I have no idea what makes anyone think he can pull this off given that Vanguard took over 30 million and was still forced to launch early when the money ran out.

    But even though he’s making a game I wouldn’t play in a million years, I still want it to be made. There’s room for all comers in the genre, even grindfest level-track games for the nutball sado-masochists who aren’t happy until everyone is forced to group with them and no one with an actual real life can keep up. But if this Kickstarter fails — or if McQuaid does what I think he will and pulls the game from Kickstarter before that happens — we’ll never hear the end of it from the crowd that thinks all old-school games were the same and that the failure of one means that the “olds” in the genre who dare to remember the days before World of Warcraft should just shut up and die already.

    Me, I don’t want to die. I don’t have time for the ensuing two-hour corpse recovery. And even if I did, there are far more entertaining gameplay mechanics to spend that time on, far better ways to implement vast worlds, meaningful interaction, and consequential gameplay. There were before and after EverQuest and Vanguard, too. There’s plenty of room in the MMO galaxy for worlds that neither patronize nor hate you.

    4 Comments

    1. MoxNix says:

      Sounds great to me!

      Pretty much everything you say makes it bad is something I want to see in an MMO.

      Difficulty, the feeling I actually earned something as a reward for doing something difficult rather than had it given to me for forever grinding trivial ezmode crap.

    2. Brad says:

      While I never played EQ – I did and do play EQ2. They still have some irritating systems like that in EQ2 but I think some have been retired. Placeholder mobs with a chance to respawn as what you want? – EWWWWWW.

      I got into MMOs through UO. I did enjoy some of the time sink systems they had. Limited carry weight (get a pack horse if you want to carry more), retrieving your stuff off your corpse and maybe from the thing that killed you (or go buy new stuff), waiting at the moongate until the moons aligned to get to where you wanted to go (or use a runebook to get there).

      While they were inconvenient, they had a way to make them less inconvenient and I liked that. While I do enjoy walking around the land and exploring…I’m not going to love it 2 years later doing it for the 100th time when all I want to do is go help a friend. Fallen Earth was like that…Yes I want to help you but it is going to take me 20 minutes to get there and then I have to spend 20 minutes getting back to where I am now.

      I do feel things have gotten too easy to accomplish in today’s games. Then you have WoW who makes something easy to achieve, but they are going to make you get there on their terms…you are limited to 1 discovery a day or you can only do 5 dailies today for your rep grind. THAT I find irritating. Let me play how I want!!!!!

      I would love to see the Runebook system in one of the new games coming up. And treasure maps…..and SOS’s…..boats……….

      • Bree says:

        You are absolutely right about modern EQ — a lot of the bad mechanics have been fixed over the years. I read they even have vendor stalls now! Not enough to bring me back, but it’s worth pointing out that EQ moved on.

        UO fixed a bunch too, like that moongate thing — no waiting now! I always thought the weight limit was a pretty clever and not-too-annoying realism tweak that actually balanced insta-travel-by-recall/gate beautifully. I am a huge fan of distributing travel time this way. There’s still a time sink (in the planning process), but it’s not distributed into nothing but running. People really will not put up with long travel to get to friends anymore when there are dozens of games that will let them party quickly, and MMOs that ask people to do that are shooting themselves right in the foot because they are getting in the way of socializing.

        I get devs wanting people to travel because I LIKE travel and want to see it stick around, but studios have to make travel appealing in its own right, not as a frustrating means to an end. We want to think of travel and exploration as a fun and rewarding thing all by itself, not as that obnoxious mechanic wasting your time when you just want to get to the dungeon where your guild is waiting. People who are forced into it won’t enjoy it and won’t seek it out on their own anyway.

        UO makes such a fabulous example because it gave people so many options for how to get places and what to do along the way. You could port, you could let a friend gate you, you could jump in a moongate, you could walk, you could boat. Every way had advantages and disadvantages, and you could choose the one that made sense for you right then. You weren’t railroaded into the ones the devs wanted you to do.

        And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that WoW, as “easymode” as people say it is, has some of the same problems EQ and VG had when it comes to not offering choices. The faction gates and crafting caps and discoveries and dailies and cooldowns are such ham-handed ways of blockading progress… just like making you run 30 minutes to a dungeon.

    3. Alyase says:

      Some interesting points! In my opinion though, downtime mechanics *are* what a lot of those old-schoolers miss. Those mechanics allowed them to simply sit there and chat whilst still *technically* doing something useful. I know I miss them from time to time, they could be relaxing and helped break the pace. I believe it’s important to have a tiny amount of passive gameplay in persistent games- and to me all those mechanics were just that, an extra reason to stay logged on and enjoy the world without having to really play when I was tired, I suppose. Corpse-runs were either an exercise of frustration or extremely entertaining – they surely added a thrilling risk factor to the fights though. I’ve never thought of travelling as torture, to be honest – I’d always take it into account when I planned what I’d be doing a certain week and I really enjoyed having to work/organize my mmorpg life around it. Just a different point of view! ^.^

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